It all came down to this. The final matchday of the season, and a chance for Milan to secure European competition for the first time since 2013.
A victory at home to Roma would propel the club at minimum one point above challengers Sassuolo, guaranteeing 6th place and a Europa League qualifying spot regardless of the result in the Coppa Italia final.
Fans were ready to get the taste of victory back onto their tongues, and confidence was high prior to the start of the match. Even some of the more skeptical supporters, those who went into the season predicting a mid-table finish, were in uncharacteristically high spirits. In the words of journalist Tancredi Palmeri, “everything seemed to be set”.
As the whistle blew for the final time to seal the match, all the happiness and confidence with which fans approached the tie was obliterated. Roma stood on the smoldering ruins of Milan as conquerors, much like the Roman Empire did nearly 2300 years ago.
Though the result was a hefty 3-1 defeat, it did little to accurately portray the extent to which the Giallorossi walked all over the Rossoneri. Had it not been for a few choice saves from Gianluigi Donnarumma coupled with several scuffed chances on Roma’s side, the final score could easily have been inflated by three or four goals for the visitors.
The match had next to no redeeming qualities on the home side, a feat for even the oft-despicable Milan of the last three years. The team showed no confidence, no drive, and no desire to fight for the club’s rightful place in continental competition.
It says a lot about a club if after investing €90 million over the summer its best player has not even completed their secondary education. Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma has been a freak of nature ever since being handed the #1 position by Sinisa Mihajlovic, and against Roma he showcased one of his best performances. Making six saves, including an acrobatic arm’s reach deflection on a rare Roma indirect free kick, he was a huge factor in limiting the damage Giallorossi attackers were able to cause. The youngster’s large frame and quick reflexes denied Miralem Pjanic and Mohamed Salah on several occasions, a solitary figure standing up to Roma forwards as Milan’s defense crumpled attack after attack.
Juraj Kucka also put in a solid, if not great, 90 minutes. He was a defensive might, completing all seven of his attempted tackles as well as intercepting four Roma passes. A thorn in his opponent’s side, Kucka may have been unwieldy when on the ball, but off of it he made life as difficult as he could for the visiting forwards. Kucka’s tenacity shut down lightning-quick Giallorossi multiple times throughout the 90 minutes, and the Slovakian often ended up covering for his incapable midfield partners.
Much like Nigel De Jong before him, Kucka was stuck doing the defensive work of three players, and as a result of being stretched thin made occasional errors. Though mistakes of any kind are not easily forgiven considering the overall outcome of the match and the importance it held, blame on Kucka has certainly been less than that on Locatelli or Alex.
In a match such as this, the line between bad and ugly is stretched thin. Elements from either category could be placed in either one and still been valid, which makes distinguishing what merits what quite tough. The sections could have been welded together, creating a horrible alloy of disappointment and anguish. However, in the spirit of preserving the soul of the article, the three categories remain. In this particular sector, the inexcusable player performances will be dissected, while the ‘Ugly’ will discuss the team as a whole.
The worst performer on the pitch was unquestionably Manuel Locatelli. The 18-year-old was handed his very first Rossoneri start for this match, a decision that is certainly regretted by manager Cristian Brocchi. Looking shaky in his opening debut minutes, it all culminated in a terribly placed pass that was quickly intercepted by a Roma player. Several passes later, and Roma had themselves their first goal of the match, a beautiful lifted ball from Pjanic which found an onrushing Salah, who easily slotted it past Donnarumma.
Locatelli’s shakes continued, and being near-solely responsible for Roma’s opening goal ruined any chances for the youngster to make a positive impact on the match. A zero-factor on the defensive side and somehow less effective on the rare Milan offensive play, Locatelli remaining on the pitch for the entire 90 minutes was beyond inexplicable. Giving away the ball several times and picking up a needless yellow card, it seems in Milan’s best interests to not let the youngster near the first team for the foreseeable future.
Keisuke Honda, who many fans thought was having a renaissance earlier in the campaign, contributed yet another shameful hour and a half in red and black. As Milan’s #10, it was expected that he would provide for Balotelli and Bacca, while going forward himself and trying for the occasional accurately placed long shot. Against Roma, he did nothing remotely resembling his assigned duties.
Blasting all his chances either out of the stadium or straight into the hands of Szczesny, including one in the second half for which he had all the space in the world to place correctly, the Japanese international played like a man who did not care which way the outcome went. He was unenthusiastic, lazy, and a drag on the entire team. The fact that the player primarily responsible for ball distribution completed less than 30 passes over the course of the game outlines just how unfit Honda is for the starting 11, and the absurdity of him getting first team minutes week after week.
Uncharacteristically, Alessio Romagnoli also contributed a poor performance. Normally fielded at center back alongside a senior defender, against Roma he was moved to the left back position. Clearly out of his element, the youngster’s rawness and rigidity on the left flank very clearly left its mark. Outpaced by Mohamed Salah and drifting towards the center more often than not, the Italian was partly at fault for Salah’s goal in the opening 20 minutes. Romagnoli was neither able to properly mark his Egyptian counterpart, nor chase him down after the forward received Pjanic’s lobbed pass.
Alex, normally a defensive rock, looked unusually dire against Roma. Heralded as one of Milan’s best defenders this season, he was thoroughly taken apart by Roma’s wiley attackers, and was eventually subbed off for Davide Calabria with 25 minutes left in the match. His positioning was all over the place, and he did little to pressure El Shaarawy the rest of the dynamic Giallorossi players near the box. As a result of this, Roma players were able to play multiple passes to each other even in Milan’s box, leading to chance after chance for the visitors.
Big lapses are rare for the Brazilian, but when they happen, you rather have a teenager on the pitch than the veteran center back. And with Alex reportedly on the way out this summer, this performance has lowered his stock as a player that must be retained at all costs.
The criticism, however, cannot be placed exclusively on the hands of the players. For all poor results, the manager is responsible for bearing a portion of the blame. Cristian Brocchi made some questionable inclusions for the match, including the incomprehensible decision to start Locatelli as the central of three midfielders. While Milan’s midfield options are far from envious ones, players like Montolivo, Mauri, or even Poli were better choices to start. Fielding a player with no professional experience in the most important match of a club’s campaign is asking for trouble, and Brocchi got exactly what the most likely outcome of his selection would bring.
Substituting Balotelli off after the first half was another nonsensical move from the fledgeling manager. The oncoming Luiz Adriano effectively reduced Milan to ten men, such was his lack of contribution towards anything remotely productive. Balotelli, while certainly not the best player of the opening 45 minutes, at minimum put in effort to drop deep and receive passes for him and Bacca to work with. Adriano, in contrast, seemed to be more preoccupied with making sure he wouldn’t get out of breath than shifting the score to his side’s favor.
A recurring member of this section reared its head once again during the Roma match, in a splendor that eclipsed even the meltdown against Sassuolo in March. Milan, for the umpteenth time, were amateur in their tactical play. Sitting back in defense from the very start of the match, the Rossoneri played like a small team aiming for an unlikely draw against a European giant that would send them to the final of the Champions League. The players didn’t show the fight that Sassuolo did in their 3-1 dismantling of Inter going on at the same time, and as a result, Roma had all the space and time in the world to eventually break down the home side’s back line.
The defensive pressing and pressure was nearly nonexistent, and defenders seemed hostile to the idea of tightly marking their opponents. For instance, on Roma’s second goal, Milan defenders were tasked with shutting down two Giallorossi attackers running down the right flank, preventing Miralem Pjanic from making a killer pass.
Instead of keeping up with the onrushing players, the Milan defenders closest to them first slowed down, and then for reasons unknown, rather than attempt to catch up, started moving towards the center of the pitch. While Alessio Romagnoli made an attempt to chance down Salah a few seconds later, the damage was done, and the Egyptian scored what was certainly one of his easiest goals of the season.
Another example of defensive incompetence arrived with Miralem Pjanic’s first attempt on target.
After making a bombing run down his right flank, he gave a quick through pass to Mohamed Salah despite being closed off by four defenders. Salah then gave the ball back to the Bosnian, who for some reason was wide open at the top of the Milan box just moments after having over a third of the Milan outfield on his tail.
Seconds apart, these two situations very clearly show the failings of Milan’s tactics. Going from four defenders marking a major Roma player to just one (who is slowing down, not thinking Pjanic is a threat) is unacceptable, especially given Pjanic’s abilities and the dangerous open space he is moving into after giving Salah the ball.
Here, the inattention to proper marking is made almost impossibly clear. Salah, a danger man, has no Milan players within five yards of him, and neither does the Roma player who sends the ball up to the Egyptian. Milan put no effort into shutting down the danger man here, shamefully allowing him to do as he liked.
Possibly the most embarrassing piece of Rossoneri defensive work came alongside Stephan El Shaarawy’s goal in the second half. Roma midfielders by this stage in the match had free reign to do as they pleased, with their opponents more preoccupied with hugging the 18 yard line than closing them down.
At the top of the box El Shaarawy, unimpeded, calmly walked up to a space between two Milan defenders. Then, as those same defenders watched, he burst into the box. Not a single Rossoneri player lifted a finger to stop the sequence from happening. The previously mentioned defenders, who were in perfect position to chase him down and prevent the goal, watched slackjawed as the Roma man easily placed his shot past Donnarumma.
These are just a small selection of scenarios where Milan found themselves tactically akin to a Sunday league youth team. But beyond these failings, another, possibly more important one, took place. It did not take place on the pitch, but instead in the minds of the management.
Christian Abbiati, a loyal servant of the club for nearly twenty years, was retiring at the end of this season, and the Roma match was to be his last home Serie A match ever. It was unrealistic to expect that he would start the match, as Donnarumma gave no reason to doubt his abilities. However, as the referee blew the final whistle, Abbiati found himself not on the pitch, but on the bench. Not even given the courtesy of a late substitute appearance in order to seal out his final match on the pitch, Brocchi instead decided that making unnecessary substitutions was the best way to honor the club’s loyal servant.
Although, in a way it made sense. The Milan of the last few years has not been the type to honor its dedicated players, first sending Pirlo off to Juventus with nothing more than a pen and a kick in the backside, then cutting ties with players like Gattuso, Inzaghi, Nesta, and Seedorf in its 2012 summer exodus, and finally in 2013 getting rid of Ambrosini, one of Milan’s best players of the 2012/13 season, without giving him the respect of retiring with his beloved club.
While this is not new territory for the Rossoneri, it is by no means acceptable, and highlights just how broken the club and its spirit, its identity, truly is. It will take a miracle for Milan to return to the same heights, and an even bigger one to return there with some semblance of its identity intact.
Milan fans are now faced with a difficult question: If future success will cost the club everything it stands for, will it be worth it?