Four games into the Serie A season, the “New Milan” languish in 12th place. Albeit with a game in hand, this isn’t quite the start to the campaign many Rossoneri would have expected with the signings made. Forget the players, for now, the best acquisitions of the summer were by far the duo upstairs.
Paolo Maldini returns as sporting strategy and development director after years of distancing himself from previous regimes. Former manager Leonardo also returns as sporting director and has already masterminded the signings of Gonzalo Higuain and Mattia Caldara. The appointments brought some feel-good factor that the band was back together and yet, whilst being tipped for Champions League football next year, this AC Milan team haven’t quite clicked yet.
Following on from last summer’s extraordinary transfer window, this summer was one of solidifying and stabilising the squad. The likes of Samu Castillejo and Diego Laxalt brought strength and depth in key positions, having starred for Villareal and Genoa, respectively.
However, with performances not yet at the standard expected, has the combustible Gennaro Gattuso run out of ideas? Or is team selection to blame? Looking at the latter, let’s take the positions which have divided fans most, and have a look at the statistics to see who really deserves a place in the starting 11.
Good on the Sides, Raw in the Middle
Yes, AC Milan’s defence is a metaphor for a dodgy pie.
Having shipped seven goals in four Serie A games, it’s fair to say the centre-back pairing is a hot topic in the media, with the best combination still not certain.
One thing that is for sure is that Alessio Romagnoli starts. The new captain is calm, composed and dominant in the air. The great Paolo Maldini used to say “if you need to make a tackle, you’ve made a mistake already.” Romagnoli very much fits this mould, relying on his positioning and intelligence to be in the right place at the right time, often not needing to even put a tackle in.
The future of the AC Milan defence, the only question is; who should start with him?
Based on last year’s statistics, Christian Zapata was a more than a capable backup when he was called upon. He averaged 1.78 tackles per 90, by far the best in the team. He also just edged the aerially dominant Romagnoli, with 67.5% of aerial duels won compared to 64.29%. What worries the San Siro faithful is the Colombian’s composure on the ball, as he averages the highest defensive errors per 90. As he reaches 32 years old, he probably is not a long-term solution but has proven he can still get the job done for now.
Matteo Mussacchio came under criticism for his performances early last season and has started this season in average form. Last year he was deployed as a make-shift right-back on occasion, but even so, he still only managed 0.23 blocks per 90. With by far the lowest aerial duels won too, the statistics show the Argentinian to be a decent enough back-up, but not at the level needed to take AC Milan back to Serie A’s top-four.
Mattia Caldara arrived at Milan with much excitement, but Gattuso is taking his time to settle the 24-year-old in before starting him. The Italian excelled at Atalanta last season, with all-round solid statistics, He averaged more blocks and interceptions than any Milan defender (0.77 and 1.73 per 90), as well as making very few defensive errors. It is only a matter of time before he and Romagnoli form a partnership, however, for now he is still bedding in.
Verdict: Romagnoli-Zapata for now, with Romagnoli-Caldara the starting duo as the season progresses.
Too Predictable on the Wings
Full credit to Fabio Borini for some solid performances last season, but he simply isn’t in anyone’s starting 11 for Milan.
Moving on, the most frustrating part of the team last season were the two on the wings. Capable of running the show but also of being anonymous, Hakan Calhanoglu and Suso are the epitome of mercurial talents.
Calhanoglu took a while to get up to speed last year, however, in the second part of the season became a key player. Whilst he and his Spanish teammate are close in terms of the playmaking side of the game, the Turk edges the key stats. Calhanoglu created more chances (2.91 to 2.45), more successful take-ons (69.23% to 60.66%) and more key passes (2.76 to 2.27).
The problem with Suso last season is that he became predictable. His renowned left foot is deadly but time and time again he would feint on his right, cut inside on his left and shoot or cross from the same distance on the edge of the box. It was near-impossible to stop early on last season, but Serie A defences became smart to it. In the latter half of the season once he had been figured out, his performances nose-dived.
This season he has started brightly and reminded fans that although predictable, he is still easily the best right-winger at the club.
Samu Castillejo arrives with a mixed reputation according to Villareal fans. A fast, tricky and exciting winger, he brings an element of pace which Calhanoglu and Suso can’t quite match. However, his end product was a source of frustration in La Liga last year. Still, he managed an impressive 0.26 assists per 90, more than the Milan wingers. A good option from the bench definitely, however probably deserves more than being brought on when the game is practically in stoppage time, which has been the case so far.
Verdict: Calhanoglu-Suso, but one more BIG signing is needed on the wings.
Gattuso has almost figured out his strongest 11, with some fine-tuning needed in key areas. Incorporating the reliable Zapata instead of Musacchio and smarter use of Castillejo should be enough to grind out results which have slipped through AC Milan’s grasp too often already this season.