AC Milan sit third in Serie A, occupying the position with unwavering determination. Stefano Pioli’s men have fortified the spot since early November, barely threatening Juventus and Inter seated higher on the table or being perturbed by the chaotic mediocrity below.
Over the last three months, the team has exited two competitions and entered one by design. Not much has changed otherwise. Not even the management’s inexplicable ignorance towards a ‘6’ sized hole in the squad.
Sandro Tonali, Milan’s midfield prodigy, was a uniquely versatile player. He seamlessly shifted between being a ‘6’ and a ‘8’ as and when required.
His steely partnership with Ismael Bennacer established a defensive screen that aided the defence and the team’s run to the semifinals of the Champions League last season.
Milan sold Tonali to Newcastle for a record fee in the summer, replacing him with Tjjani Reijnders, a ball-playing central midfielder who can also carry the ball proficiently.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Yunus Musah were added to the ranks as well, deepening the squad and providing Pioli with multiple options. Unfortunately, Pioli’s new options largely resemble one another.
This season, Loftus-Cheek and Reijnders have demonstrated similar strengths and weaknesses. Taking the last 365 days into account, Loftus-Cheek is in the 99th percentile of midfielders in Europe for progressive carries, while Tijjani Reijnders is in the 90th percentile.
The former Chelsea player also ranks high on successful take-ons (94th percentile), and the Dutchman is slightly behind (in the 83rd percentile).
Formidable moving up the pitch, both these players have proven to be equally ineffective in the defensive phases of the game. The towering Englishman is in the 10th percentile for tackles and 5th percentile for interceptions.
Meanwhile, Reijnders is in the 18th percentile for tackles and 12th percentile for interceptions – a woeful record for a player Pioli insists on positioning deeper, at the base of midfield.
To make matters worse, Musah’s lack of availability has severely hampered his minutes. When available for selection, Pioli deploys him as the ‘joker’ in the pack. In the 1344 minutes that Musah has played so far this season, he has covered six positions on the pitch.
While on national duty, Musah excels at the base of midfield. But, his inconsistent performances in the red and black of Milan have perhaps chipped away at Pioli’s confidence, who refuses to give him a run of games in that position and opts to utilise him as a tireless engine down the right flank.
With Tonali swapping his favourite colours for the black and white of Newcastle United and Brahim Diaz returning to the Santiago Bernabeu at the start of the season, Pioli switched to a 4-3-3.
He insisted on not wanting a ‘destructive’ midfielder, cramming the much-maligned utility man Rade Krunic into the ‘6’ role, resulting in abysmal performances by the Bosnian.
Regularly among the first names on the team sheet, Krunic could not be dislodged or challenged, seemingly wrapped in a bubble of invisible invincibility. Before being damned to the bench in December, Krunic had played 686 minutes of football for Milan.
Beyond the usual suspects, deemed a misfit last season, Yacine Adli patiently waited in the shadows before pouncing on a rare opportunity, leading to Krunic’s permanent expulsion from the starting line-up in early January 2024.
Adli – traditionally an 8/10 hybrid, was remodelled by Pioli into a ‘6’ in the summer. The Frenchman has repaid the gaffer’s trust and risen to the occasion, topping the number of tackles (3.25 per 90 vs Reijnders’ 1.52 per 90) and interceptions (1.54 per 90 vs Krunic’s 1.4 per 90) compared to the other midfielders in the squad.
The unmistakable caveat is that Adli has faced one top-five team domestically in his 621 minutes of football. He remains to be tested against high-quality opposition to know beyond doubt if he can make the ‘6’ his own.
Milan’s deep-lying playmaker, Bennacer, has returned to the pitch after 204 days, clocking under 200 minutes since. He is far from reclaiming a starting spot, evidenced by his injury woes at AFCON this month.
Conditioned by player availability or results, Pioli has reverted to the familiar 4-2-3-1 since late December, further accentuating the necessity for a traditional ‘6’.
The likes of Nicolas Dominguez left the sub-continent for greener pastures, costing Nottingham Forest a meagre €10m. The legendary Fernando Carlos Redondo’s son is available for roughly the same amount.
Despite this, the management is actively searching for a centre-back and Milan’s heir to Giroud. Those are pressing priorities. But, so is finding Milan’s missing ‘6’.