Devil’s Advocate: Consecutive draws highlight Milan’s shortfalls but also teach some valuable lessons

By Oliver Fisher -

Although the last two results in Serie A serve very little when looking at the here and now, in the grand scheme of things they may have their purpose.

The Rossoneri went into the games against Parma and Genoa at San Siro and the Stadio Luigi Ferraris respectively having racked up eight wins from their opening 10 league games and the only dropped points coming against Roma and Hellas Verona.

If the cracks had begun to show during those two previous draws at San Siro, now the illusion is that the foundations at Milan are shaking as their five-point lead atop the Serie A table has now been cut to one, with city rivals Inter breathing down the neck of the Diavolo like a serpent.

It has been well documented that Milan are battling an injury crisis. Zlatan Ibrahimovic – the leader by example – has missed the last five games because of a thigh problem, while Simon Kjaer has been out since the Europa League win against Celtic earlier in the month.

More recently, Ismael Bennacer and Matteo Gabbia have entered the treatment room with hamstring and knee problems, while Alexis Saelemaekers and Theo Hernandez have missed a game each in the last two due to their own problems.

Without any continuity in the starting line-up it is hard to draw absolute concrete conclusions from two draws against lesser sides, but it is also important to take the games at face value and show them in the light of the grander scheme of things.

Dropped points against the so-called ‘lesser sides’ has been Milan’s undoing in the last few seasons. The difference in those though is that they tended to come early in the campaign and it didn’t just rule out a Scudetto challenge, but a top four push too.

This time things are a bit different. The unbeaten run has been stretched over 20 games and the feeling is that no matter how bad the team plays they will find a way to not lose at the very least, though how long they can keep riding their luck remains to be seen.

So here’s what we know after the last two games. The first is that the team are being hampered by two big holes at either end of the field, namely the centre-forward and centre-back departments.

Starting up front, Ante Rebic works tirelessly and tries to adapt himself well to play as a more creative No.9, but the fact is he doesn’t have a goal this season and when it comes to putting the ball away – but also at times his link-up play – he looks nowhere near as sharp as last season.

Rafael Leao has come back from a muscle issue that kept him out longer than anticipated and he seems to be playing at 75%, though we are yet to see him used up front for any great length. Lorenzo Colombo clearly isn’t deemed ready, and perhaps correctly so at 18 years of age. If anything, it would be damaging if the management incorrectly assumed he were.

An over-reliance on Ibrahimovic is not something Milan should be berated for, to be completely clear. He will be paid €7m net for this season which is the salary of a match-winner, so to have expectations is completely normal.

If Paolo Maldini and Ricky Massara can honestly say they have looked at and exhausted every option and they believe a new striker is not needed in January, then Milan need another way of playing without the Swede for the second half of the season when he inevitably has further physical problems given his 39-year-old body.

The importance of Simon Kjaer is being realised now too, and as the stats show Milan since lockdown average almost a whole goal per 90 more conceded with the Dane not on the pitch versus when he is. That’s no coincidence – he has been the best defender on the team since his arrival back in January.

What is perhaps also being pointed out is that a fourth holding midfielder would serve Milan well too. Relying on the trio of Franck Kessie, Ismael Bennacer and Sandro Tonali – with Rade Krunic as an emergency option – would be acceptable in most seasons, but on Sunday Pioli’s men will line up against a Sassuolo side full of firepower with a double pivot of Tonali-Krunic.

Away from potential market business, the last two games have perhaps taught Milan that this is going to be a very strange season. For all the bemoaning that has been done regarding dropped points, it must be remembered that Inter also drew 2-2 against Parma at San Siro, while Juventus have drawn with Benevento, Roma, Hellas Verona and three other teams.

No team goes through any season winning every game. In the 1991-92 season under Fabio Capello, Milan drew three of their first five games – including one against Genoa – before going on to win the league unbeaten. That’s not to say the current crop are anywhere near that level, but even the record-breaking teams in this club’s illustrious history have had their off days and faults.

We have learnt that the team has fantastic mental resolve, too. The game against Genoa could very well end up being one of the Diavolo’s worst performances of the season at both ends of the pitch, and they trailed twice, but still found a way to get a draw and make up for their shortcomings.

Stefano Pioli deserves his credit also for making game-changing substitutions, as he brought on Jens Petter Hauge and Alexis Saelemaekers just after the first equaliser to inject some creativity and flair, and Brahim Diaz came on in a deeper role with 13 minutes to go just to force the issue a bit more.

So perhaps the media are having a lot of fun pointing out the holes in what was thought to be an infallible Milan machine, and let them do so because not only does it provide motivation for the players but it simultaneously releases the pressure valve.

One thing is for sure: we will learn what this team is made of in the two games before a much-needed Christmas break. If they can somehow, someway get six points from six against Sassuolo and Lazio then order will have been restored, and we could be in for a very fun 2021.

Tags AC Milan