By Daud Khan.
The last few weeks for Milan have been a turnaround in form, after previously scoring scored 16 times in 18 rounds of Serie A and even ending the decade with a 5-0 battering by Atalanta. The Rossoneri, after some nifty January market work and tactical pragmatism, have five consecutive victories in the span of about two weeks, but more notably scoring 13 goals in 5 games.
After a gloomy first half of the season for Milanisti, we have reason to be optimistic. In this article, I’ll highlight just few noteworthy things that have contributed in the recent turnaround.
Left Side. Strong Side.
Milan’s strength when in possession are the attacks they can generate on the left side. The reason for this is not surprisingly because of the summer addition Theo Hernández. The French left-back is a bonafide star in Serie A and can make a strong case for being the best player in that position in the league. Hernández, physically, is reminiscent of a young 09/10 era Gareth Bale with his combination of height and blistering speed. He gives opposing outside backs nightmares by bombing forward and making runs behind them with pace that normally is possessed by diminutive 5’5-5’7 players. The Frenchman has ostensibly given Milan a presence on the left side that we haven’t seen in ages.
In the Cagliari game, Milan’s only goal from open play was from Theo’s cross on the ground to Ibrahimović. This was followed up with a Theo interception that led to a thunderous hammer strike from outside the box in the next game. The subsequent games saw a world class volley from 20+ yards from the Frenchman and a 40-yard carry which ended in a shot off the crossbar. The amount of pressure the 22-year-old can apply to opposing back lines is remarkable, yet at times the left side of our attack is not at its peak capacity. The Udinese game illustrated this perfectly when Çalhanoğlu was not providing any sort of dangerous element for the Udinese defense; Pioli replaced him with Rebić whose presence entirely changed the game. Rebić not only scored two goals for the win, but he also added a completely different dynamic to the attack. He was a player who could go inside or outside and also provided a link up presence down the left side with Leão and Theo. A similar occurrence happened when Leão was brought on for Bonaventura in the Torino game where the game started to totally open up and goals started to simply pour in for a 4-2 extra time win.
Theo Hernández ideally needs a winger (identified by “7”) who is able to take up an inside position in between the center back (5) and the outside back (3), allowing for the Frenchman to give width and burst down the line. A right-footed version of Suso would have had a complimentary play style to Theo’s with that inside/outside threat they could pose. Rebić so far has done an excellent job in recent weeks in opening up the left flank and has acted as essentially a new signing. He brings pace, 1v1 ability, and creativity that has been desperately needed.
The Piątek Dilemma
The striker department for Milan over the last couple of seasons has had impressive names, not limited to former Capocannoniere winners. However, for Milan, it has also lacked in the production department. However, last season Piątek’s arrival was welcomed as Milan rode the coattails of his meteoric rise and the precious goals he supplied were enough to inch Gattuso’s side just over many battles in their hunt for the champions league spots.
This season has been a different story for the Pole, only netting 5 times so far the whole season. Now with his recent move to Hertha Berlin, Milan fans can say goodbye but need not be sad about it. One thing to keep in mind about Piątek, aside from his goal scoring record last season and lack thereof this season, is what type of striker he is. Piątek is the quintessential poacher in which his goals are going to come from scrap battles like headers, tap-ins, mistakes, and half chances in the box. Within that spectrum, he is a top striker but ask him to do something outside of that and his deficiencies as a player come to light. Ask him to hold up the ball, turn with the ball, take a player on, etc and he suddenly becomes a lot less effective if at all. The issue for Milan manifests itself in that our lack of dynamism in the middle and final thirds leaves Piątek isolated. The downside of playing a lone striker up top is that if the service is not adequate, then the target man becomes isolated and a non-factor. Therefore, if our winger play is not in top form, Piątek won’t have much to work with. If the service isn’t enough pressure out wide, backlines are afforded the luxury of pinching in and giving Piątek less to work with.
With the recent acquisition of the talismanic Zlatan Ibrahimović, Piątek’s role in the squad was up in the air, however as recent as the Cagliari game; some of the concerns have been put to rest. As far as Milan’s roster is configured at the moment, Ibrahimović is simply the better option for the team and can give more. This is because even though Ibrahimović’s best years are well behind him, he can still do certain things at a high level that Piątek can’t, which elevate the players around him. For example, in possession, Milan is not the most dangerous or most sophisticated team in the middle and final thirds simply due to lack of personnel. Therefore, Ibrahimović’s eagerness to drop and receive the ball adds another playmaking element to our attack and will open things up for other players to capitalize on. Another noteworthy element Ibrahimović brings to the table is his superior play as a target. This may be due to his superior height to Piątek’s (6’5 vs 6’0) or maybe due to him being a generational talent, regardless of age; a testament to the fact that class is permanent. But Ibrahimović is much more dangerous when balls are played up to him, not looking to run onto them but instead able to head them down to nearby teammates and cause very quick transitions into attack.
Bennacer: Diamond in the Rough
Algerian midfielder Bennacer arrived from the relegation-stricken Empoli in the summer for a bargain at €16 million. From the first match I watched him play in, Milan-Brescia, I knew the kid had something our poor midfield had lacked for years. Bennacer is still very young at only 22 years of age but you don’t lead your country to win the African Cup of Nations, winning the ‘Best Player’ award in the process, without being able to play some ball.
Bennacer may be our most important midfielder already and I say this knowing he has some deficiencies. He tends to be erratic and irresponsible with the ball at times. A misplaced touch or even misplaced balls up to the final third are ways in which the Algerian will allow the opposition to recover the ball without much difficulty. Defensively an astute and hard tackler yet can be caught out of position whether it is when he is screening his center backs as a regista or even losing track of attackers behind him when playing as a mezz’ala. With all that in mind, what makes Bennacer special is the dynamism he brings to the midfield. A proficient and agile dribbler who can carry the ball and break through lines of the opposing team makes it difficult for opposing team to sit back and watch us pass the ball from sideline to sideline. Probably my favorite attribute from the midfield ace is his tendency to push the ball up the field with purpose, regardless of his giveaways. Bennacer’s forward passing, while being more likely to be incomplete, when completed put players in stronger positions up the field and the opposing defenses on their heels. If Bennacer continues his upward trajectory, Milan fans will one day be able to rejoice in having one of the best midfielders in all of Serie A playing for them.
The current state of Milan is somewhere between a rock and a hard place because of the poor start to the season. Some of the moves management made this summer took us two steps backward instead of one step closer to our historic pedigree. However, the recent improvement in play by the Rossoneri has given fans a glimmer of hope at possibly reaching one of the tantalizing top 4 spots. I’ll be interested to see how Technical Directors Paolo Maldini and Zvonimir Boban steer the ship moving forward.
I would also like to disclaim that this is simply just my opinion on Milan’s current situation and if anyone disagrees, reach out to me on twitter or Instagram (_Daudinho).