AC Milan’s midfield was in need of a rebuild after the injury to Ismael Bennacer and the sale of Sandro Tonali, but the early signs are very much positive.
On matchday one against Bologna, Tijjani Reijnders was the player who ran the most in the entirety of Serie A for that matchday with 12.8km covered. In the World Athletics Championships, that’s more than 30 laps of the track.
If on the one hand that number has relative importance – it matters how you run, not how much you run – on the other hand it is the signal of a trend. Milan have changed a lot in the midfield, and Reijnders is a leader.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek also deserves a mention, as he got his first goal contribution with an assist for Christian Pulisic on Saturday. Against Torino, he and Reijnders were almost perfect and Milan took advantage of their new-found energy.
The two signings for (approximately) €20m each brought running, physical impact and other characteristics that Milan did not have. Tijjani does everything with great simplicity but does everything well, making plays that are not trivial seem simple.
His head is often high, and the desire to play forward is visible. In the first two rounds he only missed four passes, which says a lot about his efficiency too.
Loftus-Cheek is a different player, perhaps less glamorous, but just as important. Pioli specifically asked for him and after all, Pioli has always been Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s biggest fan.
The Serbian has an imposing physicality like Loftus-Cheek and the ability to play as a complete midfielder, useful on two ends of the pitch. Loftus-Cheek is not just a big presence, as his assist showed.
The comparison with the midfield in spring 2023 is intriguing because everything has changed: positions, build-up and choices in the non-possession phase. Physically, however, the comparison is simple.
Pioli has lost Sandro Tonali and for now also Ismael Bennacer, who will only return in 2024, two strong but different players. With Loftus-Cheek they gained size and height, losing aggression but not technique.
RLC is 191cm and 88kg, and the Milan fans can’t wait to see him on September 16 against Inter, who in 2023 commanded the derbies (also) due to their utter dominance in the central areas.
Milan are playing differently. Partly because Pioli has two mezzali – Loftus-Cheek and Reijnders – capable of staying both in front of the defence and 20 metres ahead, and partly because of the fluidity of the department.
Milan formally use a deeper-lying midfielder – Rade Krunic – and two box-to-box players. In reality, as soon as the game starts from Maignan, at least one between Calabria and Theo Hernandez cuts into the middle of the field.
The idea is clear: to bring the full-backs into the central area to increase the density and quality of ball circulation, making the ball reach Christian Pulisic and Rafa Leao faster.
So far it works, and Milan are even more vertical, more direct. Now what is important is that these positive impressions are confirmed against Roma and Inter.