Sassuolo 3-3 AC Milan: Five things we learned – attacking players salvage defensive mess

By Ivan Stoev -

After losing 1-0 to Roma on Thursday night in the Europa League to end a seven-game winning run, AC Milan’s five-game streak of victories in Serie A also came to an end in Sunday’s 3-3 draw against Sassuolo.

It was a nightmare start for Milan as the home side rocked them with two early blows. Andrea Pinamonti opened the scoring and Armand Lauriente doubled the advantage for Sassuolo, but Rafael Leao’s solo run got the Rossoneri back into it.

Lauriente restored the two-goal lead early in the second half to give Milan a big hill to climb, though goals from Luka Jovic and Noah Okafor secured a point and there were even chances to claim another dramatic away comeback win.

The result means that the gap to Juventus in third place remains six points, though Inter can clinch the Scudetto next week with a win in the derby. Ivan has picked out five key talking points from the game.

1. Making himself undroppable

Having been the marquee signing of the 2023 summer transfer window, Samuel Chukwueze has finally found some continuity and started the game against Sassuolo with Pioli opting to give Pulisic some time off.

The winger had a rather mixed game in terms of fortunes, given that he had the ball in the net twice and both times VAR intervened to call them offside, though the stills from the technology suggested there was very little in both calls.

Regardless of the offsides, Chukwueze was a constant threat down that right flank and continues to cause a selection headache for Stefano Pioli. It might be more of a bold decision if the Nigerian was to not start against Roma versus of he did.

2. All at sea

There’s very little to say about the performance at the back by Simon Kjaer and Malick Thiaw that hasn’t already been said, because the duo totally floundered in the first half.

The Dane has had limited playing time and given his injuries and age we could say that such a performance isn’t unexpected, but Thiaw really should’ve done better given that he is meant to be a pillar of the defence for the long term.

It is perhaps no surprise that we keep reading reports stating that a new centre-back will arrive in the summer, because Milan have conceded 37 goals in 32 games and 29 of them have come away from home, which is by far the most of any top half side.

3. The response of a leader

We keep mentioning the Europe League first leg against Roma, but that’s because it is a crucial tie to try and salvage the season and end up with silverware.

Rafael Leão was a player who really struggled against the Giallorossi creating pretty much nothing and suffering from the double team, but he reacted well against Sassuolo.

The Portuguese winger scored a wonderful goal out of nothing when his team needed it to get back into the game and then continued to create down the flank, providing the outside of the boot cross that resulted in Luka Jovic’s goal to make it 3-2.

It was a positive reaction by Leao and although against Roma it will be much more difficult compared to Sassuolo, the former Lille man once again showed that he remains capable of lighting a spark.

4. Midfield trio disappoint

Although the back line was rather disastrous it’s fair to put some of the blame on that midfield trio that simply had to control the game and limit the spaces that the Sassuolo players can exploit.

Unfortunately Yacine Adli and Yunus Musah weren’t really up for it and especially in the first 20 or so minutes given the huge gaps that opened up between the rearguard and the double pivot.

After that the Frenchman improved a bit and provided some good passes to salvage his performance somewhat, but it was an underwhelming performance by the duo who must improve to show they can start in bigger games.


Then there was Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who played in his more advanced role, but ultimately failed to really be efficient in either phase of the game.

The Englishman has struggled as of late after having a period where he was scoring almost every game and given his drop in form it would make sense to see Pulisic replace him in the Europa League which also opens up the right flank for Chukwueze to start.

5. Reserves impress again

Luka Jovic started the game and he wasn’t regularly involved in the first half, but he seemed a bit more determined in the second half.

Giroud’s introduction opened space and gave him someone to play off, and after scoring his goal in the 59th minute the Serbian was involved a lot more in the game, dropping deeper and carrying the ball forward also like a false nine.

Noah Okafor also had an impact off the bench with the Swiss forward continuing his trend of bagging important goals off the bench and bringing the score level to secure at least a point for his team.

Matteo Gabbia – to whom the ‘reserve’ tag perhaps no longer applies – brought a bit of composure at the back, stabilising the defence and cementing his place for Thursday and the derby in a week. He also had a hand in Okafor’s goal, bringing the ball down.

Tags AC Milan Sassuolo-Milan


  1. In fairness to Kjaer and Thiaw there is that massive hole in front of the defence, the same hole that’s been there all season, so even the best CBs in the world would concede goals.

    1. First Sassuolo goal, cross comes from Theo’s side, Milan has 6 players plus Sportiello in the penalty area vs 4 of Sassuolo. 3 Sassuolo players touch the ball, no Milan player near them and 1:0.
      Just like in the home draw vs Bologna. The action that led to the penalty. Again cross comes from Theo’s side, and he gets absolutely destroyed off the dribble by Orsolini, 7 Milan players plus Maignan vs 4 of Bologna in the box. Ball passes everyone and leads to Terracciano’s foul, penalty. Kid got blamed even though all 7 of his teammates messed up, especially Theo.
      Second Sassuolo goal.
      Both Kjaer & Florenzi are pressing high,( Pioli’s style of defense) Thorstvedt, Kjaers man, releases Lauirente, who easily smokes Florenzi, 2:0.
      Third Sassuolo goal. Thorstvedt absolutely abuses Kjaer, Thiaw somehow clears the ball to Adli, who is easily dispossessed, 5 Milan players in the box plus the GK vs 4 of Sassuolo, Lauirente unmarked because Kjaer isn’t marking anyone, 3:0 Sassuolo.
      Milan has numerical advantage in all situations but the problem is lack of DM.
      Few minutes later, misplaced pass by Milan in the midfield, Sassuolo counter, 4 Sassuolo players vs only 2 of Milan( Gabbia & Thiaw), Florenzi and Theo no where in the picture, luckily Sassuolo messed up the opportunity.
      You can go and analyze all goals milan has given up, in majority of them lack of DM is not an issue.
      Some fans like parrots can continue to repeat that Milan’s problem defensively is a lack of a DM but Milan has a tactical and coaching problem.
      None of those goals were because of lack of a DM. There is Zero solidity in defense. Inter plays zone defense, genius Pioli man defense.
      Kjaer was horrendous and has no business playing for Milan anymore.
      Pioli asking the defenders to play high and to play man vs man is the reason why Milan gives up so many goals. Teams have figured that out and are exposing Milan. Pioli has no ability to adjust.
      You can put Kessie there, you can put prime Casemiro, Kante, whoever you want, it won’t change a thing.
      The problem is structural not personnel.
      But of course, you would disagree because it could never be Pioli’s fault because Pioli is a great scudetto winning coach, who we should keep until he decides he doesn’t want to coach anymore.
      Milan needs a coach that will have the players play as a unit offensively and defensively. Pioli has them play 1v1 all over the pitch in both phases. That’s a wave yard, playground style of football where there is no coach but everyone does whatever they want. That is Milan under grande Pioli.

      1. It’s always the negative with you….

        If Pioli’s tactics were really this bad the last 4 years wouldn’t have happened.

        The last 4 years pretty much disprove everything you say unless your counterfactual is some imagined reality where we have won an extra three Scudetti and champions league. And unfortunately too many people give greater importance to their imagined realities.

        A crucial part of Pioli’s success has been the 1 v 1 set up. That is what has allowed the likes of Theo to excel.

        In fact that’s modern football. But to do the 1 v 1 thing you do need a DM who can then provide cover.

        Take the goals you’ve listed above, we know Theo is defensively weak which is why a) Calabria is so important; and b) we need a DM to sweep up behind him or to allow the LCB to do so.

        That DM also needs to marshal the defensive phase.

        There’s so many examples of how a well targeted signing in midfield has revolutionised teams: Roy Keane to Man Utd, Carrick to Man Utd, Makélélé to Chelsea, Pirlo to Juve (different but had a similar impact), van Bommel to Milan, Vieira to Arsenal, Juve and Inter.

        These are difference makers. They’ve turned teams from contenders to winners.

        1. As per usual you bring nothing to back up your defense for Pioli, or any of your claims.
          You said that missing a DM is the reason for Milan’s poor defensive record this year.
          Let’s look at facts, things foreign to you during discussions.
          Milan defensive record under Pioli last 5 years thru week 32:

          2019/20 , 41 goals given up.
          2020/21, 38 goals given up.
          2021/22, 29 goals given up.
          2022/23, 38 goals given up.
          2023/24, 37 goals given up.
          You see, Milan being poor under Pioli defensively is the rule, the one season where they were good was an exception, a fluke , a stroke of luck, an outlier.
          What happened the last 4 years? One lucky trophy? Everything before and after proves that it was a lucky season.
          Was there no DMs in the other seasons or Milan is poor defensively only this season because of no DM.
          You talk about targeted signings, did you forget that Pioli was very much involved in the players that were signed last summer?
          Pushed management to sign players that will play 433, just so couple months into the season to revert to 4231.

          1. What do I need to ‘bring up’?

            He’s won the Scudetto, and it now looks like he’ll have achieved a 2nd, 1st, 4th and 2nd in his four full seasons at Milan.

            The table speaks for itself.

            You can put it down to ‘luck’ or ‘fluke’ but the table doesn’t lie.

            This season we have more points than the Scudetto winning season which itself occurred in the middle of a 2 year run where we had title winning form.

            Pioli may have a played a role in last summer’s signings but his job is to coach. Ultimately the whole reason we have the distinction between coach and [an ever increasing number of] directors of football, is so the former focuses on coaching and latter focuses on transfers and strategy.

          2. @Maldini’s Heir:
            tactics can become outdated you know ?
            Many coaches did their homework and studied how we play, Pioli stuck with what worked and refused to change.
            Yes he won a scudetto but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Di Matteo won an UCL with Chelsea having taken them mid-season and won it against the likes of Barcelona and Bayern. Where is he now ? Ranieri won an EPL with Leicester, a much more impressive feat than the 2021/22 scudetto and did it with a big underdog, again where is now ?
            A coach needs at some point to prove that he can won many titles and win titles over many seasons, that is not the case right now.
            If you’re happy with Milan being Inter’s younger brother and just being somewhere between 2nd and 4th every single season and never winning neither coppa Italia nor an European title good for you. I admit that he is the best coach we got since Allegri, that he brought some stability and that the current Milan is much better than during the last decade, but at some point you have to ask ourselves, are we happy with the current status quo ? Or do we want more ?
            I don’t care much about Sassuolo’s game, but Milan still has the Roma’s game and the remaining games against Inter and Juve. And since Liverpool is most likely eliminated, I think winning the EL is a reasonable target and anything south of that would be a dissapointement.

        2. @ Giga94

          If the tactics are outdated how come he’s secured more points than ever before?

          Just accept facts and support the coach.

          Is that too much to ask?

          1. Lazio, Napoli,…. are much weaker now, so getting more points is actually easier. Real and Barcelona got sometimes 100 points and didn’t look better in the UCL and sometimes were great with 90 points.
            Comparing points from different seasons is meaningless, period. What matters is the ranking and how much separates you from other teams and we’re 14 points away from first place.
            Also, if you give yourself the right to criticize players and management, I don’t see why we can’t criticize the man managing them, Pioli is not above criticism.

          2. @ Giga94

            Points are the only thing that matter!

            Stop downplaying your own team’s success to justify your lack of loyalty.

          3. @Maldini’s Heir: Titles are the only thing that matter, wether it’s with 100 points or 80 points is irrelevant. Period !
            Also, stop acting like you’re some sort of guru ! Each individual is different and each person supports the team in a way we think it’s best and we all want to see Milan winning scudettos and UCLs, so don’t try to act like you’re “more loyal” than me or anybody else because we dared to suggest that we can “somehow” improve.
            Get down from your high horse and start respecting other people’s opinions, ok ?

      2. great summary.
        I do think a good DM would help considering Pioli’s strategy. However it would be just papering over some large cracks in the defence.

        Kjaer is just too slow for Pioli’s game plan. We would be far better off playing Simic or someone else from the youth structure than Kjaer at this point in his career. Thiaw in current form also looks too slow.

      3. “None of those goals were because of lack of a DM.”
        Nah bro look at the third goal. Look at where both Adli and Musah are…..nowhere near the play. Both left the defense exposed. The Support Striker, RLC is the only one covering. And he’s only arrived there and out of position. A DM solves the pass across the 18 yard box.
        I’ll give you the first goal was just bad overall defending esp by Thiaw.
        Even the second goal has a midfield element to it as no midfielder was in sight (mind you we are playing with “2 DMs”) to cover Flo who went upfield. Both of them were in attack. But the error is due on Kjaer.
        I don’t know if you have a recording but check out around the 57-58 minute mark, just before we scored our second goal, THAT is exactly our issue with not having DM cover with both Adli and Deers upfield again with Adli jogging back on the 4v2 counter. Zero defensive midfield cover, why are both DMs upfield? Sassuolo should have put the game away there if they were more clinical.
        Btw your stat on goals conceded is meaningless unless you characterize wrt the season in question. We could concede 38 but if everyone else is conceding more then we are then that’s not a bad amount to concede. Case in point, the Scudetto season conceding 29 is bad relative to this current season but relative to that season it’s great (tied best defence that year). It was the year our DM Kessie was in prime form btw.

  2. So, we are benching Pulisic for Chukwueze because he has had a couple decent games? Not sure how that is the right move or makes any sense given that Pulisic has 20+ goal involvements, many of which are game winners or game changers. BTW – Pulisic scored in both legs of the Chelsea tie with Madrid in the CL semifinal…

  3. I actually agree with most of this. The only reason I’m not fully in the Pioli Out camp is:

    – he’s been screwed by multiple refereeing decisions (see last two games as prime examples)

    – inter have been the opposite of screwed by refereeing decisions (eg they’ve got the most pens in serie a and plenty of dubious ones)

    – our season was ruined by injuries (how much of this is his fault I’m unsure)

    – many players have been blowing hot and cold: leao, Theo, Giroud, RLC etc

    – he’s had to integrate 10 new signings

    – lack of better cost effective alternatives

    So overall I think he’s done well under the circumstances but yeh I get your point – ideally we’d have a better coach.

    1. Agreed.

      Part of my issue with last summer’s transfers was that they set unrealistic expectations which would ultimately cost Pioli his job and trigger a further period of chaos.

      I imagined a scenario where the team struggled to gel and Pioli was fired before Christmas to be replaced by Conte and the associated chaos.

      I am ecstatic to be proven wrong/that the massive gamble we took last summer mostly paid off.

      But the point still stands, people don’t appreciate just how good a job Pioli has done in the circumstances.

      I would not be against replacing him with an IMPROVEMENT but we also need to work out our baseline. He’s se the base quite high.

      If we finish second the new manager has to win the Scudetto to justify the change.

      That’s a big ask….

    2. Not to mention we are firmly in second and qualified for CL for next season. Pioli has done well.

      BUT, the time has run its course and we need an upgrade on him. If not next season, then the season after.

      The defensive fragility is a fair point against Pioli though, as only with Kessie and Tonali together, our defense was better.

        1. Anything is an upgrade over pioli and his masterpiece. The SOS.

          You keep mentioning second place and i bet you enjoyed af the sas match, didn’t you? You wanna watch that every game. And the Roma game. It’s what you like to see

      1. @ACM1899 @Maldinis Heir – it’s a miracle we’re second with all the sh*t he’s had to put up with if you ask me. Plus, imagine the pressure – not just of winning as a coach in general but of coaching Milan. There aren’t many who are up to it and that was the difference between Pioli and say Giampaolo. People forget the hole we were in before and how he got us out of it (albeit with a lot of help from a certain Swede).

        Where would be now if we’d hired someone else? Would we have rebuilt as well as we have? Who knows? I’d don’t get why we can’t just be grateful that we’re on the right track and even won a scudetto and got to CL semi in the process.

        1. Grateful for what was done..sure. he was at the right place at the right time. But looking forward is it wrong to want something better? Should we be content with what we got and how we look on the pitch?

          We are stable and on the top of the table, more or less. But we can do even better. And why shouldn’t we strive to be even better? We’re ac milan

          1. What’s better?

            1st is the only thing that’s better than 2nd so the new coach has to win the scudetto next season to justify the change.

            Not in a few seasons as part of another ‘rebuild’.

            The people calling for a change seem to be mostly people with the attention spans of gold fish and the loyalty of a serial Tinder user – the YouTube/FIFA generation.

          2. @ Giga94

            Or replacing Allegri with Seedorf/Inzaghi/Mihajlović (RIP)/Brocchi/Montella/Gattuso/Giampaolo

            (Whilst Allegri was winning Scudetti with Juve)

            That worked out well, didn’t it?

            And Allegri probably deserved to be sacked!

            You just lack focus and loyalty and need constant change to achieve some imagined success that has little bearing with reality.

          3. nah he needs to win more in the same time as pioli to justify the change. tho i dont belive it needs to be justfied like at all. change is needed. we play like cr*p

          4. @Maldini’s Heir:
            As I’ve written above:
            Get down from your high horse and stop acting like you’re better than everyone and talking in a condescending way.
            You’re not “better” or “more loyal” because the others dare to even suggest that we might improve if we don’t stuck with the same methods that are no longer working.
            Learn to respect other people’s opinions and don’t resort to personal comments.

  4. Since we are in an era of statistics and algorithms, Pioli’s work should be judged the way it is: with data. The issues raised about Milan having numerical advantage and being porous is plain for all to see, no denying that. If in previous years, management was blamed for useless signings, and reports now state that Pioli was more involved in the signings, then he should be responsible! Simple as ABC. We may be done in by referees but we have the responsibility to ensure that we create chances – and convert them. If anyone remembers the gung ho approach of Leonardo, where we were scoring but leaking goals? This reminds me of that period, but here we also struggle to score!
    He chose the players, accepted to their signing, if the players don’t perform, he should be bold enough to drop them from the team. Doing the same thing that has not yielded results and believe something will click later is pure madness. I remember match where Mourinho made a substitution within 20 minutes in match. Pioli does not have a guts to do that. Loyalty to some players is killing the morale of others, and he is fond of useless experiments rookie coaches do not even make. Who rotates 8 players who have not played together and expects team chemistry? Pioli!! If a player is not in form, it’s the players fault. However, if he stays on the pitch to the detriment of the team: the coach is at fault. Every manager knows you’re only as good as your last result.
    We should not be afraid of sacking Pioli, as he didn’t not build on the ideas of any previous coach or instill a pattern of play (apart from us passing to leao), so let another coach do his own job too. Allegri also won a scudetto with us and our quality fell afterwards – he was sacked. So why not sack Pioli too? All this talk about no better coaches is crap. Pioli was no better than giampaolo at the time he was employed. He was given a supporting cast. Same support should be given to whoever is hired after him.

  5. Dunno about you but I think the lack of South American talent is one of the reasons why Milan has not yet got success in the Champions League.

    Take a look at the 90s and early 2000s and the likes of Cafu Leonardo and Kaka had been instrumental in Milan’s Champions League success.

    And just cos they had great success as players didn’t mean they’ll be great coaches too and vice versa

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