Milan’s last professional match of the 2015/16 campaign came to a disappointing conclusion on Saturday. An extra-time defeat to Juventus in the final of the Coppa Italia sealed the fate of the Rossoneri, who are now not only trophy-less for a fifth consecutive season, but also without European competition for three years in a row.
Pre-match spirits were once again unusually high as supporters either settled in front of their television screens or flocked into the gates of Roma’s Stadio Olimpico, the ground of the club which pulverised Milan’s hopes of sixth place in Serie A just a week prior. Though nothing went to plan against the Giallorossi, supporters felt that Juventus would underestimate Milan, and the clear underdogs would be able to snatch a victory. Fans thought that Carlos Bacca, who was comfortably shut down by Bianconeri defenders in both of the club’s’ Serie A meetings, would strike the killing blow. Some even speculated that the result would be a comfortable victory for Milan.
The victory never came. The killing blow failed to arrive, the blowout fizzled out, and Milan once more have to pick themselves up from a major defeat. The last Good, Bad, and Ugly piece of the season ends on a mixed note, as though many positives can be taken from the match, certain negatives make hope for the future a tough pill to swallow.
Despite the undesirable outcome, plenty of cause for optimism can be taken from the ashes of Milan’s defeat. A persistent source of hopefulness, Gianluigi Donnarumma once more failed to disappoint. His first major cup final, jitters from the 17-year-old shot stopper were expected. Though fans felt that the composure Donnarumma kept throughout the season was enough to see him through the ensuing clash with Juventus, small sects, particularly on Twitter, vocalised their well-intentioned but misguided doubts in the shot-stoppers mental toughness.
“Gigio” proved his few remained doubters wrong, contributing the latest in his seemingly unending sequence of phenomenal performances. Making three key saves but powerless to stop Morata’s match-winning goal, Donnarumma commanded his area admirably, even under the ever-increasing pressure of the Bianconeri attacks. With the rising stock of the Italian and near-universal knowledge of his incredible feats, upper management thought it to be prudent to lock their prized asset down for the the foreseeable future. With a reported contract of €1 million per year until Donnarumma turns 18, with a further 5-year deal after that point, Milan are sending a strong message to potential suitors: if you want him now, be prepared to empty out your bank accounts.
Somewhat unusually, fullback Mattia De Sciglio also performed above expectations. After an amazing breakout 2012/13 season, three consecutive campaigns of ever-increasing mediocrity had left all but the most loyal fans of the youngster cold towards him. Against Juventus, the leftback provided a flash of the brilliance which led many analysts to place him on the path to greatness. A tireless presence on Milan’s left flank, De Sciglio was dropped in the unenviable position of having to deal with the physical strength of Stefan Lichtsteiner, Paulo Dybala’s dynamic footwork, and in the later stages of the match, Juan Cuadrado’s lethal dynamic play style.
Though ultimately unable to prevent Cuadrado from providing the assist for Morata’s solitary strike, the Italian international otherwise neutralised almost everything Juventus threw down his flank. Offensively, De Sciglio looked very competent, moving forward to swap passes with Bonaventura and even letting loose several shots, two of which had to be dealt with by goalkeeper Norberto Neto.
Though the match was more of an outlier performance than business as usual for De Sciglio, it has inspired Milan fans to once again find hope for their out-of-favor fullback. It now rests squarely on the 23-year-old’s shoulders to either live up to the hype placed on him in his big breakout season, or go down as a rare failed Italian defensive product.
Riccardo Montolivo, condemned throughout the season for ducking during freekicks, failing to coordinate attacks, and not living up to the captain’s armband placed upon him, also showed that he still knows how to have a great match. A wizard in structuring Milan’s play and the club’s main distribution center, nearly every Rossoneri attack went through the midfielder at one point or another. He completed 82 passes, more than any other player on the pitch over the course of the 120 minutes. Montolivo also create two chances for his teammates, both of which unsatisfyingly led to nothing.
Montolivo, like De Sciglio, has shown that he can be a game-changer on his day. After all, he was not given the captaincy for nothing. However, much like his teammate, the midfielder has done little to show he deserves a starting spot, much less the armband, in recent months. A three-year contract extension will keep the Italian with Milan for the next few years, and he now has to prove to both management and supporters that his extended contract was not a mistake.
Though there were an unusually high amount of positives that were taken out of the match, the nature of defeat means that certain variables did not go quite right. One of these elements was the extremely odd choice to replace Andrea Poli with M’Baye Niang late into the second half. Poli himself did not have the best of outings, and a substitution, especially with the match seemingly inevitably heading to extra time, was a prudent decision. Swapping him with Niang, however, was far from the most optimal move.
Niang brought with him fresh attacking output, at the cost of midfield integrity. It left a gap on the left side of the midfield, and ultimately resulted in Juan Cuadrado getting the space he needed to send Alvaro Morata through on goal late in extra time. Poli, for all his faults, was a defensive nuisance for Juventus, and he and Mattia De Sciglio were enough to keep the left flank in check, much like Juraj Kucka and Davide Calabria did on the right. Removing the midfielder provided an extra offensive piston, but critically weakened the already flimsy structural integrity of Milan’s defensive set up.
Carlos Bacca, Milan’s prized superstar, found himself ineffective against Juventus once again. Only getting 23 touches on the ball and unable to direct a single shot on goal in the two hours he shambled around on the pitch, the justification for keeping him in the starting 11 continues to lose more and more weight. His misleading goal return may have fooled the majority of supporters, but matches like this serve to show that unless every minute detail is in the perfect place, Bacca won’t be able to function.
Closed down by either Barzagli or Chiellini and kept from making inroads into Juventus’s box, the aforementioned De Sciglio, a fullback, was more productive in front of goal than Milan’s Colombian striker. Bacca may have had a solid season on paper, but reality tells a different story. With most teams having figured out the forward, he will have to make a drastic change to his game in order to not be left behind.
As with all Milan matches, tactical mishaps ultimately presented themselves as the least positive aspects of the match. Milan may have played in an uncharacteristically attacking and dynamic fashion against Juventus, but this newfound aggressive system did not come without its fatal flaws. The match finished with 17 shots for the Rossoneri, a season high. Juventus, on the other hand, pulled off just eight, less than half of their opponent’s haul. The total itself was a great achievement for Milan, but the accuracy of their shots was what ultimately doomed the club.
Out of the 17 attempts, a measly three found their way to the target, an embarrassing accuracy rate of 18%. Juventus, on the other hand, boasted a on-target percentage of 50%. Milan also held 56% possession, compared to 44% for the victors. With such a disparity in attacking output, at first glance it appears nonsensical that the Rossoneri were unable to net at the bare minimum one strike.
While the numbers placed Milan as the attacking superiors, the match played out differently. The club undeniably had more offensive plays, but their quality left much to be desired. These sequences were not well-developed, and did not have enough buildup to be successful. Milan looked for any and every opportunity to smash the ball in Neto’s general direction, opting for 10 poor chances instead of one polished opportunity. In the first half the club made 10 attempts to open the scoring, but only one ultimately found its way to Neto.
This trigger happiness was not shared by Juventus, who carefully bided their time instead of aimlessly charging forward. This changed slightly in the second half when the Bianconeri began venturing forward in search of a winning goal, but even with the aggressive plays in the second 45 minutes, the club still finished regulation time with two on target shots from five attempts, compared to three from 11 for Milan.
A more defined example of the attacking disparity between the clubs came during extra time. Milan desperately threw everything at their rivals over the course of the thirty minutes, and made a further six attempts to score. None of them hit the target. They were once again poorly developed, with the addition of Niang to the offensive fold only serving to weaken the club instead of boosting its luck in front of goal. In the same time span, Juventus made just two attempts. Both hit the target, and one, Morata’s brought the Old Lady the Coppa Italia.
The efforts Milan made to attack from the first minute were admirable, and a breath of fresh air after the disastrous sluggish start seen week after week throughout the course of the club’s ill-fated Serie A campaign. However the switch from one extreme to another, while invigorating, did little to improve the club’s fortunes. A balance must now be struck between sitting back and pushing forward. Milan showed they can do adequately do one at a time, now the Rossoneri must demonstrate that they can adapt to find the middle ground between their two match plans.
If harmony arrives, good things will be close behind. If it does not, mediocrity will pursue for years to come, with supporters crying out about what once was, and perhaps never will be again.