AC Milan’s time in Dubai will certainly not be memorable for the results that they managed to obtain against Arsenal and Liverpool as they lost the second friendly 4-1 against the latter today.
It was always likely that Milan would struggle against two teams who are not only very strong but are ahead in their preparations in view of the resumption of the season, and it proved to be the case today as Jurgen Klopp’s side near enough ran riot.
Mo Salah’s opener gave the Reds the lead but Alexis Saelemaekers equalised for the Rossoneri with a precise strike inside the far post. Thiago restored the lead for the Premier League side before the break and Darwin Nunez’s brace took the game well beyond Milan’s capabilities.
With the two friendlies now resigned very firmly to the back pages of the history book, what did we learn?
1. Lack of cohesion shows
Back in November we published a feature about how Milan’s defensive record has suffered this season due to a number of factors, one of which was the numerous centre-back and full-back pairings used which hurt the continuity and chemistry that was a strength last season.
In the first friendly against Arsenal, a back four of Pierre Kalulu, Matteo Gabbia, Fikayo Tomori and Tommaso Pobega – playing in an unfamiliar role – sat in front of Ciprian Tatarusanu. For the Liverpool game, Malick Thiaw came in for Tomori and Antonio Mirante was in goal.
Defensive errors plagued both games after a cheap free-kick and a Tatarusanu giveaway put Arsenal 2-0 up in the first fixture, while a lack of organisation and struggles for Gabbia, Pobega at left-back and even Thiaw were easy for Salah and Nunez to exploit today.
There are of course plenty of factors conditioning the selection which we will come on to, but sadly the theme of defensive woes continued and we did not really see anything suggesting the work done since back in training had helped re-establish that familiarity. Pioli is still searching for guarantees and the right formula.
2. Front loaded positives
Pretty much all of the plus signs from the Liverpool game were in the attacking where a number of players perhaps didn’t seize the opportunity given to them with both hands but they certainly had a fair crack and left an impression.
Starting with the line-up, Saelemaekers was the stand-out as his run into the box and smart cut back on to his left foot fooled Andrew Robertson, one of the better full-backs in the world. He also looked creative, confident and most importantly in good shape after two months out.
Yacine Adli got the nod as the playmaker and again demonstrated a certain vision and dynamism that has often been lacking from that position in competitive play. He should have had an assist after bursting past two defenders, running 30 yards through the lines and setting Marko Lazetic away, but he couldn’t finish.
Speaking of the Serb, he was thrust into the line-up given Divock Origi’s injury and considering both his age and lack of senior playing time, he didn’t look too out of place. His hold-up play in particular was more than adequate and he got into the position to hurt Liverpool, with perhaps just some ruthlessness missing.
Pioli also chose to give Primavera star Youns El Hilali 40 minutes off the bench and he was so close to a very memorable moment as he received a pass from Bennacer, cut onto his right foot and curled a shot from 20 yards onto the crossbar. The teenager had another chance inside the box but hesitated a bit and saw his shot blocked, with Adli providing a weak follow-up effort.
3. What was the point?
This is more of a broader observation, but after over 180 minutes of action against Arsenal and Liverpool – the team leading the Premier League and a recent European champions – we are left scratching our heads as to what concrete conclusions can actually be draw.
The Dubai Super Cup was a pretty lucrative ‘tournament’ to be invited to and it is at a time that fit well for Milan, yet it does feel like the last two friendly games were rather wasted and for large parts of both games it seemed like going through the motions and throwing kids into the fray rather than obvious steps towards 100% preparation.
Today’s squad was without 15 players in total starting with Ibrahimovic and Florenzi who are long-term injuries, Origi who has a flexor issue, Maignan and Calabria whose injuries are being managed, Kjaer who just rejoined the team, then Tomori, Brahim Diaz, Messias and De Ketelaere who are having their workloads managed.
Dest and Ballo-Touré won’t join up with the squad until they return to Milanello, while Theo Hernandez and Giroud have made it to the World Cup and Rafael Leao is on a post-World Cup vacation.
Knowing that the squad would be virtually half available because of the various commitments, it certainly seems like it was a far more useful camp for Arsenal, Liverpool and Lyon who resume their season before Christmas and are therefore further ahead in preparation by some distance.
Milan on the other hand were content with being the whipping boys of the ‘group’ just to get some match minutes in glorified training sessions.
Might it have been better to organise some games against sides at a similar stage in preparation? Or perhaps to hold the training camp as planned and schedule friendlies for a couple of weeks later on (like the PSV game)? We think there is a good case for that too.