It would be fair to say that we all knew the unbeaten run was going to end eventually, we just didn’t think it would end like that.
Milan were well and truly humbled by an impressive Lille side at San Siro on Thursday night, with Yusuf Yazici scoring a memorable hat-trick to fire his side to a 3-0 win to jump above the Rossoneri in the Europa League group stages and end their unbeaten run in all competitions at 24 games.
It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can say in truth there were probably a few signs that pointed towards Milan running out of steam a bit in the current hectic schedule, such as the lack of concentration against Roma and the lacklustre showing in Udinese despite winning, but several factors seemed to turn on Stefano Pioli’s side all at once on Thursday.
To get the elephant in the room out of the way early, it must be said that there appeared to be an element of complacency. Not overall complacency, because that would be a hell of an accusation to make regarding a team that had not lost in over 240 days, but a questionable approach to that particular game.
Looking at the group stage as a whole, it is obvious to see that the games against Lille would be the hardest, so if at all possible the workloads should be managed to ensure that key players are available for those two fixtures. The rest should take care of itself as Celtic are in crisis and Sparta Praha – although in fantastic form – shouldn’t be able to beat our reserve side.
There were rightly some question marks therefore regarding the decision to completely rotate the attacking trident. Samu Castillejo is out of form, while the decision to play Rade Krunic as an attacking midfielder meant Brahim Diaz ended up on the wing in place of Rafael Leao, Ante Rebic or Jens Petter Hauge.
In addition, the decision to keep persisting with starting Zlatan Ibrahimovic in every single game no matter what the competition is dangerous, but against a Lille side who were well geared up to deal with the Swede, it might have been better to try a more mobile forward like Leao or Rebic.
The decision to change five players from the starting line-up that won against Udinese against the strongest opponent in our group seems, in hindsight, to have been perhaps a bit of an underestimation of Lille.
On that point, the second factor that worked against Milan was tiredness. There may be nothing that rotation in terms of starting XI selection can do to really cure a team that continues to play three games every eight days, but you could see on Thursday night that the levels just weren’t quite there in terms of intensity in the press, nor was the concentration from certain players and from the whole team in transition situations.
Maybe, just maybe it is also an indication that Milan’s depth is not quite as strong as some assumed. Diogo Dalot had a poor game after impressing against Sparta, Brahim Diaz was ineffectual as were Krunic and Castillejo, Sandro Tonali was bullied by Renato Sanches, and none of that helps.
The third hurdle was the fact that Milan ran into a very good opponent that deserve a lot of credit. Lille are not only well organised and well drilled under Christophe Galtier, but they have firepower through the middle and out wide that has caused big teams problems, and they have an exciting counter-based way of playing just like Milan.
Essentially, Lille gave the Rossoneri a lesson in their own game. They sat nice and compact and sprung into action when Milan surrendered the ball, which they were able to do after being essentially handed the chance to take the lead with a penalty.
Les Dogues are an impressive side that have earned all their plaudits, and the return fixture after the international break could become yet another huge litmus test. Against a team with pace and power, Milan came unstuck.
A number of poor individual performances also downed Pioli’s men, front to back. Donnarumma made an error for the second goal misjudging a shot from Yazici, Romagnoli committed a foul for the penalty and looked shaky throughout, Kjaer was not as dominant in duels and Dalot was way off the pace.
Even Kessie looked leggy and overrun at times, with he and Tonali struggling to cope with Renato Sanches. Everyone in front of those two – with the exception of Brahim Diaz and substitutes Leao and Rebic – was awful.
The defeat could be a very valuable lesson to this Milan side that regardless of what has happened in the previous 20+ games, every match is a fresh slate and another opportunity to show the good progress, but also another chance for a lack of concentration or focus to be punished.
Now, we wait and see what the response is against Hellas Verona on Sunday.