AC Milan’s 2023 summer preseason friendly campaign is officially over, leaving us to try and assess what concrete conclusions came from the eight games.
Stefano Pioli’s side played against Lumezzane at Milanello and won 7-0 before jetting off to the United States for the Soccer Champions Tour where they played Real Madrid (lost 3-2), Juventus (2-2, lost on penalties) and Barcelona (lost 1-0).
Then, they returned home to play Monza at the U-Power Stadium in the Silvio Berlusconi Trophy, winning on penalties after a 1-1 draw. A 1-0 defeat to Trento at Milanello followed, before 4-0 and 4-2 wins against ES Sahel and Novara respectively.
The final slate reads as follows: eight games, three wins, two draws, three defeats, 20 goals scored and 10 goals conceded. But what did we learn beyond the results?
1. Formations are an on-paper concept
A lot was written in the build-up to even the first Lumezzane friendly about how Pioli had made the decision to concretely switch to a 4-3-3 system from his previously established 4-2-3-1 that won the Scudetto.
While there were times when an attacking trident was obvious to see and while there were occasions where the midfield did operate with two clear mezzala profiles and a deeper-lying player, Milan were far from rigid in their formation.
In fact, what we saw – particularly in the games against higher-level opponents – were times when Ruben Loftus-Cheek would push up to join the forward line, when the wingers would function as inside forwards, when Rade Krunic would drop deeper and the full-backs would invert.
Pioli has spoken in the past about how he does not recognise the concept of having a fixed formation and how it is more of a media narrative. Instead, he wants his players to use smart movements to exploit spaces and to react within games.
Of course each player will have instructions and duties to carry out, but given the amount of dribblers in the team and the emphasis on transition play through pressing, the notion of a static 4-3-3 – even in long periods of possession – seems far too simplistic.
2. Goals are a problem
Although Milan scored 20 goals across their friendlies, it must be mentioned that 11 of those came against Serie C sides and four came against the Tunisian champions.
Only one goal from open play (Romero’s against Real Madrid) in the friendlies that counted suggests that the Diavolo have a problem when it comes to finding the back of the net, something which was not expected to be the case.
The likes of Samuel Chukwueze and Noah Okafor arrived later and thus did not play against the likes of Real and Barcelona. When they are at 100%, contribution will be fundamental in the final third.
However, what we have seen is the group of forwards that were used struggling to put away chances and in some cases struggling to even create them due to a of bad decisions.
✅ 3 wins
➖ 2 draws
❌ 3 defeats
⚽️ 20 goals scored
🥅 10 goals conceded
— SempreMilan (@SempreMilanCom) August 14, 2023
Some worries have been expressed about Olivier Giroud too, and given he will blow out 37 candles in September there may be the need for some help from the transfer market.
Last year Giroud worked overtime and had long spells where he didn’t score before a late flurry got him up to a respectable total for the season. Okafor can play as a No.9, but a pure centre-forward is probably missing given that the Swiss international is more of a false nine.
Then, the whole attacking mechanism needs to work more smoothly and sharply. Cohesion comes with time and familiarity will grow, especially with the new signings, but it is imperative things do actually click.
3. Far from bulletproof
More is expected from the defensive department, because we saw too many obvious mistakes on an individual level. That end to the Scudetto-winning season with two goals conceded in the final 11 games seems like a lifetime ago.
Fikayo Tomori has a big season ahead of him having dropped his consistency level in 2022-23, and the signs in preseason were not exactly positive, especially in the games in the USA. Malick Thiaw appeared as he is: a talented but very raw 22-year-old.
Theo Hernandez only showed glimpses, Davide Calabria got injured which ruined his preparation, Simon Kjaer and Alessandro Florenzi looked past it and Pierre Kalulu joined the squad late. There is still no back-up left-back either.
It is clear that if we talk about the defensive phase, the contribution of the midfield is also fundamental and here the first problem seems to emerge in the construction of the squad: there is no natural defensive midfielder.
Krunic is playing in a role that is not his preferred one and the very mediocre performances showed it, so Pioli’s ‘fixation’ on the Bosnian forces some reflections.
There is no Sandro Tonali any more, Ismael Bennacer is out until potentially 2024 and the mercato has brought mostly box-to-box players.
What Pioli’s vision is for the midfield remains to be seen but if it consists of pressing high as a unit, the defence will be exposed just as much as last season which could cause issues given how the back four cope when faced with one-on-one battles.
4. Providing a pathway
There was a chance for Pioli to take a look at how some of the Primavera players deemed most ready would fare against senior opponents, and most impressed.
It starts with Jan-Carlo Simic who was thrown into the deep end with a start against Real Madrid that he only found out about a few hours before, given Matteo Gabbia’s imminent exit. He looked mature beyond his years and showed why he is deemed by many to be the main centre-back prospect.
Staying with the defence, Davide Bartesaghi got a few games – mostly with the ‘second string’ that was used – and played largely at centre-back. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that the centre is not his preferred position as he is a left-back by trade, and now there are stories surrounding a potential stay in the first team.
Lorenzo Colombo did his bit to give the management a headache too. At the moment he is the natural deputy to Olivier Giroud and he scored a well-taken brace against Lumezzane plus a lovely volley against Novara to bookend his preseason well. Now we will see if he goes out on loan.
Kevin Zeroli and Chaka Traore got some minutes too and could well remain with the first team squad given they stood out so much in the Primavera, so the signs are good regarding there being a genuine pathway to the senior setup.
5. Multiple elements of mystery
The comment about Colombo leads into the last point in a way. While preseason genuinely serves as a period of conditioning it also offers a chance for a head coach to determine who will be useful to his cause and who will not make the cut.
Yet, there are a number of players with a question mark still hanging over their heads as we enter the final three weeks of the transfer window, such as Colombo who wants to go out on loan but hasn’t got the green light yet.
It applies to Yacine Adli too, who in theory has a ‘formation’ (while reminding readers of point one) that suits his natural box-to-box, ball carrying, end product-driven tendencies, yet he had most of his minutes in front of the defence as a sort of quasi-regista.
Divock Origi and Fode Ballo-Toure are interesting cases because Milan clearly felt confident of their ability to offload them as they did not take them on the USA tour nor have they involved them in any friendlies, and yet both are still here.
Junior Messias and Ante Rebic left, but there is some perplexion about what will happen with Alexis Saelemaekers, who barely played in the friendlies and when he did he was mostly at right-back.
Luka Romero was one of the best performers in truth, yet a season as the third-choice right winger awaits at a crucial age (18) for his development, unless he were to be a wild card of sorts.
How much can Kjaer realistically contribute at the highest level? The same must be asked of Florenzi given his fitness issues. There is still some mystery about this squad, both in the gaps to be filled and the players with roles yet to be assigned.