System, structure and the stats to back it up: Why Milan will welcome back their ‘Salamander’ on the wing

By Gianmario Busia -

Alexis Saelemaekers often seems to be brushed under the carpet when speaking about important players for the Rossoneri. Having originally arrived on loan from Anderlecht last winter, many questioned the arrival of the young Belgian, having never heard of him before and unclear as to which position he would play.

It was obvious that the scouting team believed in him and did their homework because after 92 minutes of football for Milan they made the move permanent signing him for a total of €7million (including loan fee), and the team have not looked back since.

A versatile player who can play any position on right-hand, Saelemaekers side has been instrumental to Pioli’s team and fits the system perfectly. The 21-year-old has made the right wing spot his own and has become an integral part to the way the team play.

His energy allows Milan to press high up the pitch and win the ball back something we have seen so often this past year and has also earned him the nickname of ‘The Salamander’. Although the stats may suggest he does not contribute to goals as much as winger should, this is rather deceiving as his movements and link up play have been important to many of the goals Pioli’s side have scored this season.

The partnership he has formed with Milan right-back Calabria has allowed the defender to really progress and improve at Milan it has brought out his best qualities and helped develop his defensive side of the game.

In a similar way to Theo Hernandez and Rebic on the opposite flank, when the full-backs attack the two wide men sit in slightly allowing the team to keep some sort of shape and not leaving the team exposed to the counter.

The Belgian has also found a great understanding with Milan’s No.10 Hakan Calhanoglu, where the former does a lot of the so-called dirty work which allows the latter to be more creative and pick up the loose balls from the press. His first touch and reading of the game is arguably one of his other biggest assets which was displayed in the Derby della Madonnina earlier on in the season, where he turned his man with a sublime touch released Hakan who played it to Leao and eventually Ibrahimovic finished.

Some may call it a coincidence that he has never lost a game for Milan in which he has featured, but him not playing recently has exposed some old weaknesses in the side.

The numbers do show how vital he is to team, with the former Anderlecht man having played 14 games this season and the team winning 36 points in that stretch. Not only that, but the five most recent losses the Rossoneri have suffered have been without him, including the 4-2 defeat against Inter last season, the 2-1 loss to Genoa, the 3-0 battering from Lille in the Europa League, the 3-1 loss to Juventus two weeks ago and Saturday’s schooling from Atalanta.

The future looks bright for the Belgian international with plenty of room for improvement at such a young age. Aspects of his game need working on like his decision making and staying focused for the full 90 minutes, but these are small hurdles that get overcome with more game time and experience.

Tags AC Milan Alexis Saelemaekers
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