A league season is like a Shakespearian play in many ways, divided up into different acts with plots and sub-plots that lead to an ending often undiscoverable until the final moments.
In many ways, Milan’s 3-3 draw against Roma very much followed that narrative, but deep down it would be fair to assume that most Rossoneri supporters will be looking back at Monday night’s result with a touch of bitterness.
It was a strange game in truth, one that never at any point felt like it was going to follow convention, from Milan’s opener coming after 109 seconds to the bizarre error for the equaliser and the flurry of goals in the second half.
It was a match of missed chances too. Stefano Pioli’s side had enough opportunities to put Roma to bed twice, including headers from corners and counter-attacks that were very poorly executed, with both sides sloppy on the defensive end.
The referee Piero Giacomelli was far from good and the officiating crew have rightly been hounded for their performance in the media, with decisions that were both wrong and disrupted the natural flow of the game.
For Milan the result was perhaps best typified by the number of Jekyll and Hyde performances. For every potentially decisive display from players such as Rafael Leao and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there were a couple of poor ones like Theo Hernandez and even Hakan Calhanoglu – who it must be said didn’t look fully fit.
Nonetheless, this was dubbed by many to be a litmus test of where Milan are at and if this team could really challenge for the title, and the bottom line is they didn’t pass it. That may seem like a bold statement, but it is as simple as this: if you take the lead three times, you have to win.
The Diavolo didn’t look organised enough at the back both in transition and at set pieces, conceding twice from corners where a man was allowed to ghost in at the far post (granted, the first was an error from Tatarusanu), and although they had enough chances to score five or six they didn’t.
The glass half full view is that Roma aren’t an awful side – in fact they are one that finished above Milan last season – and that a point is a point to keep the unbeaten run going.
However, the narrative that Milan would have accepted that result a year ago is not true. No football fan ever accepts a result where their team takes the lead three times – the third time with 11 minutes to go – and doesn’t win.
The bar has been raised to the extent that it means a draw at home against a direct European rival is no longer accepted in quite the same way. Nonetheless, the manner of that draw wouldn’t have gone down well a year ago or even five years ago either.
Pioli liked what he saw from his team’s performance as he indicated after the game and picked out set piece situations as the difference between the two sides (or rather, what got Roma a draw), but perhaps some glances should be thrown in his direction for some questionable game management.
The coach chose to make just two substitutions out of the five he had available, despite the fact his team looked tired having played last Thursday in Scotland and will games on the horizon this Thursday and Sunday.
Conti, Dalot, Duarte, Kalulu, Díaz, Tonali, Colombo and Daniel Maldini were all at Pioli’s disposal, but only Castillejo and Krunic came on.
The substitutions themselves were also a bit of a head scratcher. Changing the two wingers for less threatening options just after Roma had levelled the game at 2-2 seemed a strange one. Opting for a midfield three appeared a safe bet when Milan had retaken the lead with just 11 minutes to go, but that never happened and Tonali remained on the bench.
The management of certain players was also a bit bizarre. Brahim Diaz was not given a single minute despite impressing against Celtic, with Hakan Calhanoglu forced to play 90 minutes after he was touch-and-go to even play at all due to a sprained ankle.
Whether you choose to view game management as a collective or as a series of individual decisions is entirely up to you, but Pioli is receiving an awful lot of praise so it is right that he is scrutinised for certain things too. After all, it is all part of the growth process.
Ultimately, the result against Roma changes nothing about the ‘process’. If anything it shows that the standard is now higher, and that a dramatic 3-3 draw against a fellow top four contender is no longer deemed to be enough.
It is also encouraging in the sense that this time still has room to grow. There has to have been a worry among the management regarding artificial inflation – i.e. the notion that the team are actually performing and picking up results well beyond the sum of their parts and that expectations may be shifting in line with that, so that there will be a big overreaction when that first defeat does arrive.
This is a young squad – the youngest in Europe’s ‘top five’ leagues in fact – and games like the one against the Giallorossi help the maturation process. If Milan get another late lead against a top side, manage the game better and take all three points, then it will have stood them in good stead.