Another weekend has come and gone, and Milan have now found themselves winless in five matches. Sitting seven points behind the last Europa League place, European qualification, which once seemed all but guaranteed, is now unthinkable. The confidence that propelled the Rossoneri to a 11-match unbeaten streak stretching from the beginning of January to the end of February appears to have left on the same bus Sassuolo players took back home after snapping the run in early March.
From injuries to on-field embarrassment, nothing is going right for the club, and with Sinisa Mihajlovic rumoured to have lost the training room, the Serbian coach’s time at Milan is likely best measured in hours, rather than weeks. Little cause for celebration arose from the 2-1 defeat to Juventus on Saturday, and though a (albeit unlikely) goal was indeed scored, the net performance left plenty to be desired once more. Very few fans remain supportive of all the club is doing, and for good reason. Though there are those that continue to defend unsatisfactory players or maintain that management is doing all it can, their numbers are quickly shrinking.
This article series aims to educate those still in denial and provides fuel for those who already know the club is in trouble, but also highlights Milan’s positive aspects.
Where to start. Such a large assortment of things went wrong against Juventus, from the inability to keep the lead to the inability of certain players to perform above a Lega Pro-calibre level. One such underperforming players was Japanese international Keisuke Honda.
Though he had his moments throughout the season, even converting the author from a staunch naysayer to one who accepted the player, this past fixture proved dire for him. He was next to anonymous for all of his 76 minutes on the field, save for a tame effort on goal, comfortably saved by Buffon. Facing off against the speed and skill of Kwadwo Asamoah and Alex Sandro on the flank and the defensive might of Daniele Rugani near Juve’s box, Honda could do little to forward Milan’s attacks.
Completing a staggeringly low nine of a possible 13 passes, his distribution and first touch, both qualities the midfielder-turned-winger has been needing to improve this season, showed no signs of getting better. Defensively he looked slightly better, but still only won three of a possible eight duels. The match was one of Honda’s worst this season, and while one can hope that he will bounce back stronger next match day, judging by the level of confidence Milan is playing with right now, it is for the best that fans do not hold their breath while waiting for a Japanese masterclass.
Another player who performed far below expectations was Carlos Bacca. While fans by now are surely used to the highly inconsistent Colombian, against the Bianconeri Bacca was, as insane as it may sound, more of a help defensively than on the attack. Getting in just one lackluster shot in, his partner in crime Balotelli looked a far better striker, a (true) sentence few Milan fans would expect to be reading right now. Taken out of the match by a competent and organised Juventus back three, the striker illustrated once again the dangers of fielding a “wooden” goalscorer with nobody competent to provide for him. The fault’s not all on Bacca, as when given teammates to play off of he performs at a high standard, but when creative teammates are abstent, he represents a liability, a statement thoroughly backed up by his performances in recent weeks.
A third under-performing player was the far too praised Luca Antonelli. Though the author has on many occasions expressed his dislike for the Italian fullback, the accusations have always been backed up with evidence, and this matchday is no different. On the offensive, he was remarkably underwhelming, seeing as how his forward movement is so praised by Milan supporters. Completing barely half of his passes in Juventus’s half, including a 5/5 failure rate with attempts into the box, the “attacking superiority” that Antonelli supposedly excels at showing was tellingly absent. Defensively, he was equally feeble, unable to contain Stephan Lichtsteiner and making regular blunders leading to Bianconeri attacks down his wing. One can only wonder how much longer his stock will remain high, as nothing he has done with Milan this season has indicated he is anything but average.
Moving past the match’s dreadful performers, there were several Milan players that stood out above the rest in the quality of their performance. One such player, remarkably, was out-of-favor striker Mario Balotelli. The 25-year-old moved around with a rarely seen sense of urgency, resulting in an invigorating boost for Milan. Contributing two shots on target, including a laser-accurate free kick barely saved by Buffon, Balotelli also provided a pair of created chances, one of which resulted in Alex’s opening goal on the 17’ mark. This attention to not only his own goalscoring but the team as a whole is not something often seen from Balotelli, and perhaps marks a change in the striker’s attitude regarding his place in the team.
The aforementioned Alex, who scored the lone Milan goal against Juventus, also put in a quality performance. Aside from the goal, headed in from a Mario Balotelli corner, Milan’s Brazilian defender was a defensive rock for most of the match. Completing five interceptions, three key clearances, and boasting a 100% tackle success rate, He was a major contributor to keeping Juventus at bay. Though Mandzukic’s equalizing goal resulted from a miscommunication between Alex and his defensive partner Romagnoli, the defender, aside from this one mistake, was by far the best performing player on the pitch. With rumours circulating that Alex will refuse a contract extension in favor of returning to Brazil, the thought presents the club with a major issue to address in the coming transfer window.
Despite this pair of solid outing, for everything that went right, several other things went wrong. For each player that performed at a high level, three others were mediocre. But the most glaring issue of all, the one that has plagued Milan the whole season with no sign of letting up, is the team’s complete lack of tactical awareness. This obliviousness manifests itself not only in attack, but in defense, contributing to an acute inability to take down teams with even a smidgen of solid tactical framework.
This disregard for well-thought-out strategy has cost Milan many points this season, revealing itself in earnest over the last several match days. Against Sassuolo, Milan could not understand how to defend counterattacks (due in part to the hyper attacking nature of the club’s full backs), against Chievo how to break down a competent defense, and against Juventus how to beat a team that can both attack and defend like no other.
It sometimes seems as if Sinisa Mihajlovic does no research on his opponents week in and week out, as no matter what kind of team the Rossoneri are facing, be it an aggressive attacking, defensive, or speed-driven side, the team and type of play remains exactly the same. This lack of adaptability means that not only do opposition coaches know exactly how Milan is going to play, but they mold their sides to perfectly exploit the same weaknesses seen in all the matches before them.
In the case of Sassuolo, manager Di Francesco knew that Milan’s left wing was a poorly defended spot, and near all the Neroverdi attacks went through it. Edoardo Reja knew Milan run out of steam if their start strong, and after going a goal down in the opening five minutes, his Atalanta ran out convincing 2-1 victors. Juventus’s Massimiliano Allegri had similar ideas, knowing that not only are the Rossoneri incapable of keeping a lead, but after losing it, the team falls apart at the seams. His knowledge of this meant he could outplay Milan using their own tactical faults, as after Mandzukic equalized less than 10 minutes after Alex opened scoring, Milan first looked angered, then desperate, and finally defeated.
This defeated portion of Milan’s game was possibly the most disgusting fault of all. After Juventus took the lead midway through the second half, Milan shut down all remaining inklings of attacking ideas. In the final 25 minutes Milan made 88 out of a possible 108 passes, with a measly and unacceptable 18 of them in attacking third. Instead of trying to go forward and look for an equalizer, Milan sat back, passing the ball around in their own half. On their other hand, Juventus, who knew they already clinched victory and were effectively sitting back wasting time, managed nearly twice that amount in their attacking third.
The situation at Milan is dire. The club’s best defender is likely leaving, the best striker misfiring, and tactical acuteness tellingly absent. Sinisa Mihajlovic has done a lot with this side, bringing it from a team in shambles to one with some sort of cohesion. However, he has proven that he has his limitations, and cannot inject his philosophy from Sampdoria into the team with the same success he enjoyed in Genoa. With seven points to make up and six matches remaining, Milan would need a miracle to grab fifth place; a miracle that, by all accounts, the club does not deserve.