Last Saturday Milan started off their campaign with a 2-3 away loss against last year’s Serie A runners-up Napoli. Gennaro Gattuso’s men could have left Southern Italy with more, after being 2-0 up in the 49th minute of the match.
However, the Partenopei‘s second half spectacle was too much to handle for the team. So why exactly should Milan fans be positive, rather than negative, about the rest of the season?
To begin with, it is necessary to underline a couple of crucial statistics, to give a better view of where both teams stand. In the last 6 Serie A seasons, Napoli have finished above the Rossoneri. The gap has been increasing throughout years, with a record 27 point difference between the teams coming last season.
Moreover, the team currently lead by Carlo Ancelotti, scored 77 goals last season and conceded 29. In Contrast, Milan netted 56 goals and conceded 42. The difference in goal difference between the two was an astonishing 34 goals.
Lethal Ancelotti – Sarri mixture
That said, one can say it is just a couple of numbers on a sheet of paper. But Napoli have indeed been a very dangerous side on the pitch under Maurizio Sarri’s reign. The team pressed incredibly well and the the dynamism of the game play is unprecedented in Italy.
Some, including myself, were skeptical towards the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti, but both their opener against Lazio and especially the match against Milan showed that the Sarri automatism is still there among the players.
Above all, with the former Milan manager on the bench, the team also possesses greater personality and winning mentality. This was perfectly showcased in both matches, considering they had to come from behind on both occasions.
About the game itself
Milan started the game extremely well. You could see the players knew exactly what to do. The team played a a dynamic and linear-passing game, despite missing an extremely influential player in Hakan Calhanoglu.
Defensively, it was also a very solid presentation in the first half, considering the fact that Napoli did not create a single goal-scoring opportunity. And on the other side of the pitch, with ease and elegance, Milan clinically opened the scoring with their first real chance of the game. The whole build-up to the goal showed exactly what this team is capable of, starting from Lucas Biglia and with Giacomo Bonaventura finishing it off.
The second goal also resulted from a brilliant combination, with Biglia once again being at the beginning of it and Suso playing a key role with the assist to Davide Calabria. At this point, every Milan fan was in wonderland.
But then, the whole team blacked out. Instead of trying to take advantage of the hole’s in Napoli’s defense, the team resigned from the attacking phase of the game and sat back. The key to the comeback was probably Napoli’s very quick first goal, which came from an misunderstanding and error on Musacchio’s and Biglia’s part. From there, it all went from bad to worse and eventually led to a 2-3 defeat.
Many have harshly criticized Gattuso for choosing to sit back while being 2-0 up at the beginning of the second half. This is fair criticism, definitely the approach should have been better after the goal. The mentality shown was very poor and the coach himself admitted this and took absolute blame for the blackout and approach in the second half.
Claims that we are overall too defensive and have no real game plan are absurd. Both goals, as well as many other build-ups, were clear examples that the team knows very well what the coach wants from them and that there is a game plan that can be successful. Every player has a clear role and it if one closely analyses the aspects of the game, it is evident.
Regarding the more defensive approach in the game in the first half, it is somewhat exaggerated but the tactics were definitely justifiable and brought the desired fruit. Milan had the quality, looked very solid at the back and effectively took advantage of their big chances.
It is necessary to understand that the coach has to adapt the playing style to the opponent and if someone expected a great result with an overly offensive side at the Stadio San Paolo, he must have been crazy.
As already mentioned, the second half disaster was not a matter of quality. The quality was there, in all departments of the team. The issue was the mentality, the approach and psychological preparedness of the team, which started to crumble immediately after the first goal. These are things that can be improved in the short-term, while if you are missing quality and a game plan, it is indeed difficult to respond.
Not the key for TOP 4
And now back to the quality of our opponent. Napoli have been undeniably the better team than Milan for several years now in terms of quality. They are a great force at home, which is clear by the fact that last season they only lost two matches at the San Paolo – against Juventus and Roma. The Rossoneri themselves have not beaten Napoli away in eight years.
The point I want to stress in this part of the article is that Napoli are not the team we are to challenge this season. In terms of quality, they are clearly second only to Juventus. In terms of game play they are the most dangerous team in Serie A and the away fixture against them might as well be the most difficult one in the league.
Gattuso’s fight and the team’s fight the season is for the TOP 4. Starting the season with a win at the San Paolo would have been amazing, but it is not tragedy that it did not end up positively.
The league positions from 3rd to 4th and Champions League qualification will not be decided in Napoli or in Turin (against Juventus), but in Rome and Milano against Roma, Lazio and Inter. But especially they will be decided against the smaller teams, against which Milan lost many unnecessary points especially in the first half of last season.
The importance of Higuain and Biglia
In the matches against the smaller teams, which could ultimately make a big difference in the standings, the importance of Lucas Biglia and especially Gonzalo Higuain will be shown. The two players who are expected to be the experienced leaders of this young Milan side.
Against Napoli, it was clear that the tactics were not exactly suited to the Argentinian striker. Nevertheless, Higuain showed some very promising things and made it clear to Milan fans that he is a giant leap forward compared to Nikola Kalinic and Andre Silva.
In matches where the team will expect to dominate, either at home or against smaller sides, the player will show how important he really is and will hopefully make the absolute most from two creative players in Suso and Hakan Calhanoglu on the wings.
Meanwhile Biglia was clearly struggling against Napoli’s high pressing game, but despite this stood at the birth of both Milan goals. As mentioned before, no team presses in such a manner as Napoli, which means it will only get easier for Biglia and the whole team from now on and he will relish in matches where the team will have creative initiative.
Fresh additions, pace and unpredictability
And last but not least, Milan fans should also be more optimistic about the season because the team now has very much improved its depth. There are more bench options for coach Gattuso in Diego Laxalt, Samu Castillejo and Tiémoué Bakayoko, who was granted a very tough debut match on Saturday.
All the above mentioned players can add something new to the team. Laxalt is a much more pacy fullback compared to Rodriguez, Castillejo is a very quick and flashy player offering alternatives to the current wingers, while Bakayoko adds physicality to the midfield as well as some tactical variability.
One should not forget Mattia Caldara, the young defender who arrived from Juventus this summer. When the Italian adapts to Gennaro Gattuso’s training methods and game plan, he can form a defensive force to fear along with captain Alessio Romagnoli.
Moreover, as mentioned previously, Hakan Calhanoglu missed the Napoli match due to suspension. The Turkish midfielder-winger was an absolutely key part of Gattuso’s Milan last season and will look to prove himself further.
The team is also awaiting the return of Andrea Conti, who is big question mark considering his physical condition. But if he manages to recover successfully and return to the top of his game, he may form an impressive right flank along with Franck Kessie and Suso, with Calabria being a more than worthy alternative to the former Atalanta man.
All in all, I found the negativity surrounding the team after the loss against Napoli somewhat misleading, reactionary and extremely harsh. Above I have mentioned my reasoning for why I cannot jump on this negativity and #GattusoOut wave and this is also why I firmly believe in the coach and think we will have a successful season.