AC Milan 2020-21 Season – Player Analysis: Defenders

Central Defenders

AC Milan employed a flat back four throughout the season, using three main central defenders: Alessio Romagnoli, Mateo Musacchio and Mattia Caldara. The stand-out performer of the trio was the Club captain, Romagnoli. Whilst his pressure adjusted (PAdj) tackles/90 and key tackles/90 were very low (12th and 16th percentile respectively), he was won 91% of these tackles and made a pressure adjusted 3.15 interceptions per 90. This demonstrates that he was able to read the game well and pick off the opposition attacks before dangerous situations arose. In the top 10% in the air, he was a goal threat from set-pieces (scoring four goals) and able to defend from the back from long-balls and when defending set-pieces.

Argentine, Musacchio, was the best passing defender over the course of the season for I Rossoneri. The ball-playing defender completed 35.30 passes/90, and was the League-leading passer for a defender, which helped the team to build up from the back. His tackling was effective, with 2.89 PAdj/Tackles/90 and he won 91% of all attempted tackles. However, his ability to read play through interceptions and lack of height to win headers meant that he was a significant weakness for AC when defending aerial balls. His heading percentages were the lowest across the League for all central defenders and a full 15% below Serie A average.

Caldara played 34.27 90s, and was also a solid passer, much like Musacchio. A further similarity to Musacchio was that whilst Caldara did win 4.32 headers/90, his heading was actually poor, winning only 71% of his aerial challenges. His ability to read the game was also something of a concern, making only 2.49 PAdj interceptions/90. Whilst AC had 56% possession, adjusting for this, he was still below average.

The first looks at the defending abilities of the Leagues defenders – assessing their ability to win aerial duels and win tackles, using percentages to measure their capabilities. As can be seen, all three of the AC Milan defenders were well above average for the percentage of tackles won, so were clearly strong in ground duels. Musacchio’s stand-out aerial (in)abilities, for all the wrong reasons, are stark when represented in the below graphical format. He is vastly below the average and well below the next worse aerial performances. This is something that will need to be addressed going into the 2021-22 season. Given that Musacchio is not about to see a growth spurt, it looks like Musacchio will need to be shown the door if the risk of conceding through aerial attacks and long balls is to be overcome. Yes, the team may have only conceded 17 goals all season, but marginal gains could be necessary with improvements being made by their Serie A rivals. Neither Acerbi (33), nor Manolas (having recently joined Napoli from Roma) are viable transfer targets, but scouts have been sent out to do eye tests on Fiorentina’s 23-year old, Nikola Milenkovic and also 21-year old, Gabriele Corbo, of Bologna.

As a side note, what is striking from these figures is how relatively ‘poor’ Juventus’s defenders were at ground duels. Chiellini is the definition of average and Rugani and de Ligt were well below 85% tackle success rates.

Where Musacchio claws back some of his reputation was through his ability to tackle on the ground. Winning well above League average tackle percentages, he won more (non-PAdj here) tackles per 90. Romagnoi and Caldara were remarkably similar – perhaps an indication that they played in a similar way. Veseli’s stand out tackling abilities are let down by his below League average heading abilities, so he was not put forward to the scouting teams. Manolas, again, looks a stand-out prospect, proof that Napoli recruited an outstanding defender when buying him from Roma – it’s looking possible to draw a link to his defensive abilities and their Champions League qualification, conceding 29 goals, nine fewer than Juventus and third best in the League.

Perhaps another way to look at defending capabilities is to assess the number of tackles and interceptions players make over the course of ninety minutes. Again, these numbers are not PAdj numbers, which could help to explain the outliers of Veseli, Müldür and Maksimovic. PAdj numbers would require the identification of all games each player played in and the possession of their respective team for those individual matches for the minutes they were on the field – this has not been collected, so these are ‘raw’ figures. Here, Romagnoli comes across as a more than reasonable reader of the game, but his two colleagues pulled up well short of ‘average’. Credit now looks like it is shifting towards young AC Milan youth team graduate, Gianluigi Donnarumma, for the number of clean sheets and League-low number of goals conceded.

The potential transfer target identified above, Corbo, did not pull up any trees in his reading of the game but perhaps given his young age, he could have time to develop this area under the right tutelage and coaching. Milenkovic looks more developed, which at 23-years of age is perhaps to be expected. It will be interesting to see what the scout reports bring, should the AC Milan transfer team decide to strengthen the central defensive area.

Full Backs

Right Backs

Italian right back duo, Davide Calabria (24) and Andrea Conti (27), completed the most passes per 90 amongst all right backs in Serie A (right backs were simultaneously compared with left backs in this data). Not only did Conti complete the second most passes/90, behind only Calabria, he was in the 98th percentile (100th amongst right backs) by passing percentages. Given their respective role, to create width in a relatively narrow 4-3-3, the number of passes that these two players have contributed to the side indicate that they are a key cog in the tactical set-up. Both are functional defenders, operating at around average tackle percentages, and at or around average PAdj tackles/90. Yet it is their dribbles per game that highlight the space out wide that they are afforded by the way that the inside forward drifts inside and the box-to-box midfield operates vertically. Yet their crossing statistics are not anything much to write home about. This is likely because rather than opting to float or whip the ball into the box, the players are instead instructed to work the ball into the box to look for an opening. This correlates with the high frequency of passes, rather than crossing when an opportunity is presented to them, they instead opt to pass the ball back to a midfielder or into the half-space where the inside forward occupies.

Left Backs

Given that the left-full back berth was gutted by incoming transfer bids which were accepted in the January transfer window, new boys Cucurella and Wöber had little time to settle into life in Milan.

Cucurella was the man chosen to be first-choice left back, playing 14.90 90s, from January through to May. Much like his opposing right backs, he too was a successful passer, but ranked lowest in the League for both headers won and interceptions per 90. Given his lack of playing time at Barcelona when picked up by AC Milan, he will be awarded another season to adjust to the AC Milan playing style and improve upon his defensive capabilities. His attacking output, completing a creditable 22% of all his crosses for the right-side inside forward and Piatek to attack, was what distinguished him from others.

Nominally a centre back by trade before his arrival at AC Milan, Wöber spent time learning his new role as a left wing-back. This, along with the jump in quality from the Austrian Bundesliga, helps explain his dramatic drop off in PAdj interceptions/90 and tackles/90 compared to his statistics at Red Bull Salzburg which highlighted his abilities to the recruitment team. Nonetheless, his adaptation has not been without some success, given he contributed 1.13 key passes/90. His crossing ability does though give cause for concern and this will need to improve if he is to be an effective wing back.

Cucurella’s defensive frailties are highlighted by the raw figures and his tackle percentage. Conti and Calabria fair much better, around average, but Sassuolo’s left wing-back Rogério looks to have remarkable statistics across his 33.96 90s. Scouts have been sent out to assess his abilities and see if his season was simply freakish or an indication of his capacity.

Rogério’s crossing metrics highlight that perhaps his time was spent defending rather than being more of an all-rounder. De Sciglio looks to be more of a prospect, but it is unlikely that he would leave Juventus to come back to AC Milan.

The below graphic is designed to highlight the roles that players were playing for their team, along with their importance of the width that they were able to add. Players towards the bottom left of the graph were likely playing highly restricted, defensive roles, not giving away possession by crossing the ball nor dribbling with the ball at risk of losing possession. The players towards the top right of the graph must have been crucial towards the attacking output of their respective sides. Pol Lirola’s crosses/90 are let down by his percentage of successful crosses, the same with Alessandro Florenzi. Given that Cristiano Piccini is at Inter Milan, and Federico Dimarco was on loan at Cagliari from Inter, any upgrades from within Serie A look to be short on availability for full backs should AC Milan decide to enter the market for one.

If you want jump to the midfield analysis, click here or on the below graphic.

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