Issues at both ends and the use of youth: Five things we learned from Milan’s preseason

By Oliver Fisher -

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.

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.

Tags AC Milan


    1. He is one of the issues, another one would be Tomori. Tomori hasn’t been good in almost a year, and Krunic was never anything special. Another reason for our bad preseason could be the form of Theo and Leao.

        1. I guess not every person here is bright enough to understand anything I try to say without writing full paragraphs. Well, so for your 20 IQ ass, I will say this again. If you are not living under a rock, you will know Theo and Leao are the best players in our squad, with both being one of the best in their positions currently. So, if our best players won’t perform, you can’t expect us to win against the other top clubs like Real and Barça. It also has been the case under Pioli that we win matches due to individual performances. I can’t do a thing if you are losing brain cells and can’t understand simple things.

  1. Anytime the defense is put on the chopping block I just laugh, if this team is properly organised by Pioli and the front three and midfielders do thier bits we should be good. On defending all hands has to be on deck, we can’t have Leao loose the ball and not chase back or fail to press players when we are not in possession. No top team has any player walking around anymore and as long as players up front fail to press or fall back to defend we’d think we need 5 Tiago Silver’s to make the defense work.

  2. The team is a reflection of the coach, if anything is wrong with Milan till this point all fingers should be pointed to Pioli and no one else…. He is the one that trains them on a daily basis, he is the one that sees what is lacking to function effectively! He is the one that instruct and decides… he is the one that strategizes how to outwit opponents! He must be the one to be blamed not anyone

    1. We won scudetto with Pioli. It just opponent is getting used to our gegenpress. and lack of Ibra in goalscoring 2 seasons ago.
      Management sees that too, so if the results goes bad with these massive reinforcement, next season Pioli will be sacked. Even Pioli knows this

  3. Have you ever seen a club successful without the coach /manager been credited for the success? Manutd success with Ferguson wasn’t it solely credited to him, Milan success from 2001-2007) wasn’t it credited to Ancelloti alone while Mourinho treble at inter wasn’t it credit to him alone despite the underground work of galliani, Ausillio, moratti and Berlusconi! …. It’s just like a movie the actors critique is a reflection of the director instructions which gives the direction..

  4. A big issue for me is not reinforcing key positions. Milan needed to sign four starters; a striker, right winger, attacking midfielder, and a defensive midfielder. Obviously, with Tonali’s sale and Bennacer’s injury, we needed a few more. Okafor and Chukwueze for striker and right wing are great but we have no attacking midfielder and no defensive midfielder yet. I know we’re changing formation to a 4-3-3 and the new offense will take pressure off them, but I still don’t feel Reijnders, Loftus Cheek, and Krunic is a huge improvement over last year and in case of injuries/rotation, who steps in? Musah, Adli, Pobega? Too much uncertainty there for me. Letting CDK go was a mistake in my opinion. I think he’ll do well at Atalanta.
    Signing a high quality defensive midfielder with CDK, Musah, and Krunic on the bench would have been better in my opinion that what we have now. There’s still time in the window or we could try to survive until January.

    1. No one doubt CDK potential, man. But he needs a change. We might lose money CDK, but its better than CDK become a bad player in the future

    2. Pioli expressly refused Kamada because he said he is opting for formation change and Kamada doesn’t fit the system. Okafor was brought in as a striker but Pioli said he is more of a Leao replacement. Reijnders is an upgrade in that midfield if we Pioli can properly deploy him. One thing I’m sure of is if first 10 matches show any sort of shortfall Pioli is gone for good.

  5. Cdk will do nothing mate he is not ready for Italian league yet let’s see how he copes with Atalanta but currently he is not

  6. Krunic should go, but not now. maybe during winter or next season.
    Milan should get a good no.9. thats the most important reinforcement. and LB, if balo tore goes.
    if we can score goals, then we can sub in the youngsters to rotate. our problem last season we cant score goals, so our main 11 have to play 80 minutes+ to make sure we win games. tahts 10-12 km run per game, every 3-4days.also it fits the philosophy to raise value of young players

  7. Krunic should go, but not now. maybe during winter or next season.
    Milan should get a good no.9. thats the most important reinforcement. and LB, if balo tore goes.
    if we can score goals, then we can sub in the youngsters to rotate. our problem last season we cant score goals, so our main 11 have to play 80 minutes+ to make sure we win games. tahts 10-12 km run per game, every 3-4days.also it fits the philosophy to raise value of young players

  8. For mid, when Bennacer back to play, we will complete.
    For forwards, we only need fluidity & cohesion there because 4-3-3 is pretty new and the squad used 4-2-3-1 for a long time. I think Leao should be a Trequartista at LW, like prime Messi as Trequartista at Barcelona’s RW. Let Leao become the main passing option, roam anywhere, attract opponents to close him down, so the others can found new spaces that left because opponents attracted to Leao. But if opponents let Leao free with only 1 marker, Leao can beat them.
    Because Leao already our star player, and opponents will always make him as attention. We should build around Leao.

    For defenders, Florenzi can be Theo’s deputy & Saelemaekers as Calabria’s deputy. Kjaer & Kalulu as Thiaw & Tomori deputy. Jan-carlo Simic as least option at CB if Kjaer isn’t fit. Pretty good, i think for the new season.
    The defenders only need regain their best : Tomori need more bold like usual, Saelemaekers get used to be RB because he was a prime RB at Anderlecht. And Theo also look unmotivated at friendly, Calabria need more time for his injury. The defenders have their own problems, not external factor.

  9. I was most impressed with two players. One is obvious – Reijnders, but the other who was given only few chances and in my opinion deserves to be mentioned – Luka Romero.

    The grit and energy that kid has shown is enormous. He was getting stuck in and took his opposition on without any fear. He resembles so much of Diaz but with more strength and power. Consistency is still under question since he played only like two or three matches. I’d love for him to stay and find his spot.

    Also, Okafor was quite lively playing up front and made our attacking trident more unpredictable.

    i’d love to see Leao – Okafor – Chuk trident up front with Puli – Giroud – Romero as their alternative.

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