AC Milan 2021-22 Season Review

The 2021-22 Serie A season saw AC Milan defend their title, with a six point gap to second placed Napoli. I Rossoneri improved upon their points total, picking up an additional two, and maintained their frequency of clean sheets when compared to the 2020-21 season. With 69 goals scored (one fewer) and 15 goals conceded (two fewer), AC Milan’s dominance over their Serie A rivals looks to have become rooted once more.

Last season’s runners-up, Atalanta didn’t even make the Europa League places, finishing 27 points worse off compared to the previous campaign, despite creating more chances and having more possession compared to 2020-21. 18 fewer goals was their biggest issue, with forwards Gabriel Barbosa (6), Duván Zapata (12), Musa Barrow (5) and Josip Ilicic (2) scoring just 25 goals between them. In 2020-21, Zapata (16) and Gabrigol (19) managed 35 between them – a remarkable drop-off from Gabrigol.

Napoli improved their points total by seven, which was enough to see them rise up the table by two positions, thereby solidifying their Champions League status. Lazio and Juventus joined them both ending up on 80 points.

At the bottom of the table, two of the promoted sides, Udinese and Lecce, returned back to Serie B. Whilst Sassuolo’s defence was around average for the bottom half of the table, their inability to put the ball into the back of the net led to their relegation – their failings catching up with them from last season, with just 29 goals per season. The other promoted team, Frosinone, faired much better, finishing 13th and a full twelve points above the relegation zone.

The haves and have-nots

Taking into account expenditure upon salaries and looking at the number of points gained, Juventus once again are out on their own with their salary spending, but this was not still enough to land them the Serie A title. I Bianconeri actually reduced their salary expenditure by £20.71m compared to last year and yet gained 3 extra points. Comparatively, to pick up the extra two points that AC Milan earned, they spent an extra £13.63m on wages – the second largest salary hike behind city rivals Inter Milan (£14.53m) in their forlorn efforts to attain Champions League qualification.

Lecce’s salary outlay (£22.10m) was somewhat reflected in their overall points total and relegation, but credit should go once more to Perugia (£16.42m) and in particular Frosinone (11.75m) given their lower middle-table finishes on such small salary budgets. Their backroom staff clearly overachieved given the financial resources available to them, eking out more from their respective squads than could otherwise be expected.

It’s worth pointing out that the correlation between salary expenditure and total points has actually strengthened between 2020-21 and 2021-22, with the R2 figure rising from 0.4368 to 0.6123, suggesting that wage expenditure has become increasingly important to be successful – broadly in line with Szymanski’s findings.

Success – with or without the ball?

The 2020-21 season demonstrated a reasonably strong correlation between possession and PPG with an R2 of 0.427. Yet the season just past saw that relationship entirely disappear, with the amount of possession having essentially no relationship to the PPG that teams picked up. Given Serie A’s relatively low average goals per game (AGPG) of 2.45 compared to those of the EPL (2.76 AGPG), Bundesliga (2.65 AGPG), Ligue 1 (2.63 AGPG) or La Liga (2.58 AGPG), it’s clear most managers favoured a defence first approach, and had their teams adopt a low-block to form a solid defensive system in response to much larger, more financially powerful teams and also perhaps down to the physical, mental and technical capabilities that their players possess.

Lazio and Inter Milan appear to be the main exponents of playing successful football without the ball, with Lazio having an average of 47% possession over the season, yet picking up 2.11 PPG. This is an impressive metric, clearly proving their defensive solidity – underpinned by their 13 clean sheets, 7th best in the League. Both teams eschewed the ball, with Inter (11,834 completed passes or 311.42 per 90) ranking 16th in terms of passes completed and Lazio lower still at 18th – behind only Benevento and relegated Udinese – with 10,990 completed passes (289.21 per 90). For context, Napoli (ranked 1st) completed 16,984 passes (446.95 per 90).

Inter Milan averaged marginally more possession, at 48%, and enjoyed 2.08 PPG. Their defensive capabilities were far superior to that of I Biancocelesti – registering just 22 goals conceded and 21 clean sheets. However, I Nerazzurri were not as strong in front of the opponents goal – scoring 19 fewer goals than the sky blue team from the capital.

Given the respective managers in charge of the two teams, this approach to their teams’ football makes sense. Both Simone Inzaghi (Lazio old-boy) and Diego Simeone (former Inter Milan great) favour counter-attacking football, and from the metrics, their very styles have yielded very similar results. Inzaghi’s preference for vertical tiki-taka and a 5-1-2-2 DM WB formation may mean that possession is turned over more frequently than is typical average for the League, but it created goal scoring opportunities of far higher quality – with their players scoring from more than 10% of their overall shots. In contrast, Simeone’s tactical rigidity actually yielded more shots per ninety, yet the same number on target per ninety as Lazio. With only 7.23 goals/100 shots, their strikers Lautaro Martínez and Andrea Belotti appear on the face of it to have been somewhat wasteful. Yet Martínez scored 0.49 goals per 90s, with 22 goals in total, and a not awful shot conversion rate of 12.2% on the back of a 47% shot accuracy. This might go some way to alleviate any pressure upon him and put it back more onto Belotti (4 goals at 0.18 NPG/90, shot conversion rate 5.8% and 42% shot accuracy) and/or Simeone’s chosen tactical system.

This is backed up by the below graphic looking at the metrics for the number of chances created per ninety against shot efficiency (goals/shots) that were created for them – more than three chances per ninety – joint fourth in the League. This graphic also seems to underpin the failure of Atalanta’s forwards – the chances were there for them to put away, they simply seem to have failed to take advantage of them.

Equally, there appears to be no significant correlation between the amount of time that teams have the ball and the number of goals that they concede. Frosinone are a good example of this – joint fourth in the possession metrics, but the fourth worst defensive record, albeit a minnow in a sharks tank.

Clean Sheets = Points

The importance of keeping clean sheets to picking up points is clearly highlight in the below graphic. A correlation of 0.86 between keeping clean sheets and the number of points a side were able to collect illustrates this further still.

It’s notable that only Roma out of the ‘Big 6’ failed to keep a significant number clean sheets and pick up more than 1.6 PPG. A sign that they have perhaps still failed to redress the loss of Alisson to Liverpool in 2018. Clearly investing into a top level defence and goalkeeper yields results and helps sides to compete for the European places.

Looking at Roma’s number of goals scored, it could be argued that I Giallorossi recruitment team have other areas to address first. Their number of goals scored to frequency of shots highlights that they could do with an upgrade on Odsonne Edouard and Patrik Schick, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang likely to see even fewer minutes given his age. Both of their younger forwards had a goal conversion rate of less than 10% – 8.3% and 6.8%, respectively. Comparatively, rival Lazio forwards Ciro Immobile (24 goals) and Carlos Vinicius (17 goals) had 15.8% and 12.9% accordingly.

Ciro Immobile was crowned the 2021-22 Capocannoniere – his 24 goals outranking the 22 scored by both Piątek and Lautaro Martínez. Whether or not the 32-year old Lazio forward can continue to out-compete his rival strikers to achieve this feat will remain to be seen in 2022-23. Given his previous proficiency in front of goal and Serie A’s history of more senior strikers having great longevity, there’s every possibility.

The new blog post will take a look at AC Milan’s tactical set up to analyse their continued success.

AC Milan 2021-22 Summer Transfer Window Update

At start of the Summer of 2021, the squad performance was evaluated both holistically and individually. Personnel within the squad were identified as requiring an upgrade in the positional sense, most notably in the left-sided attacking midfield slot. Following a relatively poor showing for both Rebić, whose loan period ended, and for De Paul, whose signing in the last summer window could be placed in the “could have gone better” box, scouts were tasked with finding recruitment targets who could provide improvement and for the criteria desired by the Board. This is namely sign under-23 players for the first-team with a view to developing them and selling them on.

Other areas that were identified as areas for possible strengthening were at centre back to replace Mussachio given his aerial failings and at centre midfield to provide more depth. Beyond that, the squad looked initially well-balanced, bar any incoming bids for our players. Given the reputation bump the Club received for winning Serie A and regaining Champions League football again, bids would be easier to reject with less pressure from the players to demand any offers were accepted and the market value of players had risen considerably following our success.

With these targets areas picked out, time was invested into looking at the players already scouted by the recruitment team led by Chief Scout Geoffrey Moncada.

The start of the transfer window saw Czech youngster, Adam Hložek, join the Club after he had agreed terms during the 2020-21 season but outside of the transfer window. The hot prospect was signed for his minimum release fee of £12.75m to develop in the B-team initially with his performances monitored both on the pitch and on the training ground before evaluating when/if the step up to the Senior side is the right one for him or if he needed to be loaned out to gain more first-team experience first. The right-sided, right footed winger will be trained to develop his positional and tactical understanding of the AML inside forward role to better fit the current tactics employed.

With Hložek signed, this meant that Samu Castillejo could be moved on after being surplus to requirements over the previous season. He was only on the field for 534 minutes, making just six starts and nine appearances off the bench. He was sold to Lazio for £14.5m.

The first Senior team target put forward to bring to the Club was Fiorentina defender, Nikola Milenković. The Serb could provide depth at both centre and right back and would cost the Club £31m in transfer fee. A bid was put forward to La Viola by Director of Football, Fredric Massara, which was accepted by their board. Negotiations with Milenković were well under way when an alert came through that fellow Florentine, Federico Chiesa had put in a transfer request. Given the available transfer funds, it quickly became clear that only one of these two deals could go ahead. Personal terms with Milenković and his representatives had been agreed whilst the two boards came to an agreement over the Chiesa price, so this first deal had to be placed on hold given the greater priority for the Club to recruit a top quality player for the attacking left midfield slot. The Chiesa transfer also gave the Club a chance to recruit an Italian home-based player who could be at the Club for a long time given his relative youth at 23 years of age. The added benefits of signing a player familiar to the League and obviously already being fluent in Italian should help his transition into life at AC, whilst also weakening a domestic rival.

Chiesa quickly agreed terms with the AC Milan board and signed a five-year deal, stating he was pleased to be joining a club in the Champions League.

Chiesa may not have created the same level of NPGs as Milan pair Buendi and Suso, but his passing and creativity for his team mates means that he could be a creative force when deployed down the left-side of the attacking trident for AC Milan. With 1.64 KP/90 and a percentage of pass completion of 85%, ranking him in the top 7%, this indicates that he is a high quality creator of chances for those around him. His 0.25 assists per ninety could well improve with a top-level striker such as Piątek on the end of his passes. Accordingly, the Milenković deal was cancelled due to a lack of immediate cash with the existing structure of the transfer.

Yet there were still some available funds left in the coffers and further deals were sought to strengthen the central midfield unit. With metrics beast Sergej Milinković-Savić well out of the Club’s price range, the Club identified other targets within its means. Dani Olmo had had a solid season at Dinamo Zagreb, scoring nine goals and created seven assists, yet his minimum fee release clause of £18.25m had not as yet been triggered. His combined goals and assists/90 saw him in the top 11% of any other central midfielder aged 23 or less. His attacking runs from a wide central midfield berth in the mezzala role could add more attacking threat to the side. Whilst Olmo was more accustomed to playing in the advanced attacking centre midfield slot, a position left vacant in the preferred tactical set-up at I Rossoneri, it was felt by the recruitment team that he could build upon his existing tactical understanding and adapt further to a deeper position to influence the game. A deal for his release clause was struck and a 5-year contract signed. The layout on Olmo’s wages was something of an initial concern, especially given his agents insistence upon a clause pushing his wage up to £200k/week, which activated after five international cap. Yet, there was a reminder that expenditure towards player wages strongly correlated with success on the field.

When Freiburg came in for Bonaventura, the Club were at first reticent to allow the most creative midfield playmaker go following his output over the previous two seasons. However, the playmaker only had one more year left on his contract and at the age of 30(??) he wanted a significant pay rise, given this would be the last chance he would have to cash in on his not inconsiderable talents. Everyone understood that he was most likely at his peak and they could reasonably expect to see a dramatic drop off of his playmaking abilities so it was better to cash in now rather than look over the edge of a cliff that could arrive at any time. He was sold for £15.75m.

With one in and one out in the midfield area and more depth still the order of the window, the recruitment team met once more to put forward another bold suggestion for the centre midfield berth, that of Calvin Stengs. The 22-year old had had a somewhat unremarkable season at AZ Alkmaar playing in the right-hand side of their midfield in the AMR slot, predominately as an inside forward. Yet the scouting team were confident that with his technical, mental and physical skills sets, alongside his player traits, he was equally well-suited to playing on the left-hand side of the central three midfielders given his stronger left foot. There was only a hint from his key passes (top 12%) that he could adapt, but in a stronger side, it was generally felt that he could thrive. A deal for £39.5m was struck with AZ Alkmaar and terms swiftly agreed with Stengs and his representatives, making him the third signing of the window.

This gave AC Milan six quality players across the three midfield roles: Tonali, Domínguez, Paquetá, and Guimarães alongside new boys Olmo and Stengs.

It was hoped that deals were to be rapped up as the season began but in the first few games Conti had a serious calf strain and would miss the first month of the season. Leaving just Calabria as the only right back in the squad and with no hot young prospect to promote, another option was required. Scouts were quickly assigned to a number of initial targets on a relatively small budget. With Milenković now well out of the Club’s price range after the deals already done, Fiorentina were demanding north of £32m for their Serbian asset, Sergi Palencia was selected as the best option by value and relative attributes. The La Masia graduate joined fellow Barcelona youth players Olmo and Cucarella in the AC Milan squad. Palencia did not meet the criteria of signing players under 23, but there were deemed to be no outstanding options with the given confines of both player age and transfer budget. The Spaniard became the Club’s fifth and final signing of the window for £10.75m, happy to be a rotation option, and one that it was felt could contribute when required as much in an offensive sense as well as defensive. His pass completion and dribbles per ninety highlighted that he was a good technical player and well-versed in attacking down the right flank to provide width as the inside forward cuts in towards the 18 yard box.

That concluded the deals done during the transfer window, with a net spend of around £80m. The deals done largely added to the quality of the squad and brought in youthful players who should only progress, both in their own attributes, but also in value. With the majority of the key areas addressed which were outlined at the start of the window, the Club could now set about defending its League title and look to impress in the Champions League once more.

Join us next time when we review the 2021-22 season!