Milan’s Alexis Saelemaekers conundrum: role, responsibilities, stats and shortcomings

By Rohit Rajeev -

Milan stuttered to a draw at San Siro against Porto in the Champions League, which has effectively ended their chances of reaching the last 16.

Having been a juggernaut in Serie A collecting 31 of the 33 points available so far this season, Milan have been lacking in quality on the European front. Rather than the usual general tactical analysis, we have chosen to focus on a figure who appears to be dividing the fanbase at the moment in Alexis Saelemaekers.

Explaining his role

Even though initially Saelemaekers starts off on paper as a right winger in Stefano Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 formation, his role is quite unconventional when compared to other wingers in the league. At this point it must be noted that Saelemaekers started off as a wing-back in Anderlecht’s 3-5-2 system where he excelled in terms of work rate and defensive skills.

Some fans were underwhelmed by his signing in January 2020 as a bigger name was sought but Pioli – forced by a lack of options – chose to use Saelemaekers by bringing out his best skills.

This system makes the best use of both his right side players. Calabria has pace and can cross the ball or even get into useful positions like we saw against Bologna while Saelemaekers covers the space he leaves behind him.

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Calabria is even given the liberty to push up and fill the box with numbers when a cross is coming in from the left wing so as to not isolate the centre-forward Ibrahimovic or Giroud.

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Operating areas

Saelemaekers has a knack of finding space between the lines as we can see in the build up to the goal against Liverpool. Against teams who tend to use numerical superiority on the flanks, the Belgian would sit back as a wing-back while Calabria would act as the third centre-back. Milan used this in the second half against Roma.

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With a 40-year-old striker like Ibrahimovic or a 35-year-old like Giroud as the centre-forward, a player like Saelemaekers helps to make up for his work rate and press the opponents by pushing up the field.

The issues

Despite all of this, he does not perform the roles of a traditional winger: to be a goal threat, create chances and take his man on. Some would argue those are the priority tasks of an out-and-out winger, especially in a 4-2-3-1.

Saelemaekers only has 2 assists from 15 games in all competitions for the Rossoneri so far in the current campaign, a deeply troubling stat for Milan who made it back to the Champions League after over seven years away and knew they needed every single player to step up.

The 22-year-old has also not scored a single goal this season and is on a goalless run of over 40 games. Unlike normal wingers, Saelemaekers is not productive with the ball as always goes for the short pass option to avoid losing possession or sometimes tries a cross, which can often be misguided.

To compound the shortcomings further, Saelemaekers is not the most apt player when it comes to taking on his man with the dribble and creating more dangerous angles, which means his attacking repertoire is actually very limited.

On the ball

Please note all stats are per 90 minutes.

The numbers highlight what was mentioned above in that Saelemaekers is not the kind of winger that will give an opposing full-back sleepless nights before the game.

His expected assists (xA) is 0.14 against an average in Europe of 0.18. His shot creating actions i.e. passes or crosses that lead to shots is 3.18 against an average of 3.34 in Europe

Passes completed are at a good rate of 80.3% but one could say that this is due to him attempting short passes more and not trying risky through balls.

So what about passes that help in build the attacks ? This is measured as progressive passes. Saelemaekers has a score of 3.25 per 90 against an average of 3.42 in Europe.

As we expected his dribbling isn’t all that great and this reflects in his score of 5.28 against an average of 6.22. Dribbles completed is slightly better at 1.81 against an average of 1.77, but again this could be a reflection of the fact he prefers the lower risk options.

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Off the ball

Here it must be said that what Saelemaekers lacks in attacking threat he makes up for it with his defensive work rate.

His pressing – which is measured as pressures per 90 – is an impressive 22.06 against an average of 16.10. Tackles made are 2.04 per 90 against an average of 1.36. Interceptions or otherwise passes intercepted are 1.57 against an average of 0.87. Blocks made are 1.77 against an average of 1.22.

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Conclusion

Saelemaekers is a perfect Pioli system player as the above highlights, but in the long run, if he keeps being on the same level that he is, he will pose more questions than answers.

His defensive work rate cannot be ignored but his offensive contribution is too little for him to be considered a winger that can offer guarantees from a creative or a goal scoring point of view, especially on a team that is challenging for trophies.A

A part two will follow where we explore personnel and tactical solutions for the Saelemaekers conundrum.


READ MORE: The three main factors that have contributed to Milan’s Champions League struggles

Tags AC Milan Alexis Saelemaekers

12 Comments

  1. Vero Rossonero says:

    Saelemaekers is OK for situational appearances. What I mean is that if we’re playing with a lead, or against a club we’re expected to lose the possession battle to, his pressing and energy are very useful. In situations where we’re playing against an opponent that is difficult to break down, where we’re behind, or expected to have most of the possession a more typical offensive winger is needed. Basically the answer is that we need an alternative for RW such as Berardi, which we don’t currently have. Messias is an enigma and Florenzi is only a slightly better version of Saelemaekers. So if the club can bring in a Berardi or someone that has ball possession skills, crossing skills, and most importantly shooting skills (and maybe left footed so they can cut in and shoot), we’ll be all set and Saele would still be very useful given the above situational appearances, and not as an everyday starter.

    1. Vero Rossonero says:

      And as an addendum, I think the club is well aware of this. We know they tried to plug this hole in the summer, but given more immediate concerns and the money already spent they were not able to. I think this summer will be the summer of the RW, AMC backup/alternative for Diaz, and a young striker, and if Kessie leaves maybe another CM (but remember we have Pobega and Adli already).

  2. Marco Simone says:

    He is the weakest link in the Milan team! I do not understand why Pioli favours him so much. Who cares about work rate and effort if it produces no end result? He offers nothing to the team and only hinders our attack. The left wing we have Leao and Rebic competing for a starting spot, both attacking threats but on the right there is no one to compete with Saelemaekers, they’re all average and injury prone. Ever since Suso left are right side has been weak. It must be Maldini’s prime objective to sign a quality attacking right winger in the winter market, along with an attacking playmaker to compete with Diaz.

    1. Zsolt Bertalan says:

      The issue is that what he offers are only useful in certain games based on tactics. In others,he is not capable of delivering because he does not possess those characteristics. No threat 1v1,very limited ability to break down a compact defense,no threat for the final product which is scoring goals. Unfortunately,Pioli has to play him a ton because he does not have much to choose from.
      If Adili comes in January,things will certainly change but he will need some time to adjust to Serie A.

  3. amilanfan says:

    Great piece Mr. Rajeev. Seems like a genuine effort to do a neutral analysis on the player. Quality content!

  4. Patrik says:

    He is an excellent team player and I love him. But you are right he should be squad player only.

    Forza Sale!!!

  5. Dan Asiedu Asare says:

    I have always say Sealemekers is not the best person for the right wing , but the coach is protecting him there. A winger who those not score goals or give assist.
    Leao was the best the coach should have trained him there .
    Playing Rebic on left and Leao on the right will
    give better results than what we have been seeing or the other way around.

    1. Roses says:

      Yes, put sale-maker to full back, maybe he could be more useful as calabria heir. For now they can put leao or rebic as RW, perhaps.

      1. Godey says:

        Rebic at RW would be lovely

      2. Vero Rossonero says:

        “Calabria heir”? They’re like 2 years apart. People say the damnedest things.

  6. kaka says:

    take him out!

  7. A Nesta says:

    For 5mill euro player, whatever he currently is/ becomes (still young) we have already gotten that value from him, his market value is definitely worth much more now so it’s a win win i.e. if he improves then awesome if he doesn’t then sell for profit, plus he’s on a relatively low salary. I hope he improves but who knows.

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