Before the new transfer window opened, AC Milan owner, Paul Singer announced his retirement, triggering a sale of the Club. This news was somewhat of a surprise in terms of his retirement but it was not a total shock as takeover rumours had been doing the rounds for some time. Indeed if you have read the preamble on this series, a takeover was very much expected early on in this save, as it was anticipated that Singer would likely want to divest AC Milan from his investment portfolio.
Two rival consortia vied for ownership of the Milanese Club, with an Italian-led group winning out backed by the existing chairman, Paolo Scaroni. Upon news of ownership switching to Scaroni being released, he vowed to invest into the Club, putting forward an additional £42m into funds and investing into the youth training facilities. Disconcertingly, in taking over control the Club, Scaroni also stripped out all of the directors who were AC Milan through and through, including Zvonomir Boban and Franco Baresi, leaving only Paolo Maldini behind as Technical Director. This is particularly curious given Scaroni has been the chairman of the Club since 2018.
Additional to the successful takeover, bids were also made for Declan Rice and Dayot Upamecano. These were done without any involvement of the AC Milan manager or the transfer committee that had previously signed off on deals, with the new board seemingly keen to please I Rossoneri’stifosi with some headline signatures.
The announcement of these transfer bids and subsequent negotiations were met with a degree of incredulity by AC Milan’s manager. Declan Rice was not a player he felt the side needed, with Sandro Tonali the go-to-guy for the central pivot in midfield and throughout the last season. Additionally, AC Milan had not played with a player in the defensive midfield strata, the only area where Rice is a natural. As such, this signing could risk squad imbalance and upset squad harmony as Rice could very well not play the amount of minutes he might expect according to what is promised in his contract negotiations. Combine this with a British/Irish player coming into a league where he does not speak the language nor understand the culture, this could represent a very poor investment, particularly given the size of the fees involved.
His metrics, set against players aged 27 or younger, with 1,000+ minutes across the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1, are relatively underwhelming, bar his pressure adjusted tackles and interceptions – his raw figures (pre-possession adjusted) are actually very impressive, but West Ham’s 46% average possession impacted them heavily. This perhaps goes some way to explaining his passing and key passes numbers, which were well below Tonali’s, although Rice’s chances created were vastly higher. So if AC Milan are to look for someone to break play up, perhaps against stronger opposition, he could be the pick, albeit a reluctant one.
To an extent, there was more understanding toward the bid for Upamecano. The metric analysis of the squad’s performance had highlighted a potential for improvement within the central defensive partnership, with Romagnoli having to do the bulk of the work. However, at £54.75m for the overall transfer, plus signing on fee and wages, there was some doubt as to whether this is a signing that represents good value for money. When comparing Upamecano’s defensive metrics against other central defenders in the top five leagues who played more than 1,000 minutes, he comes out well in his ball playing abilities and in winning the ball in the air, at least in terms of aerial duals as a percentage. Yet his heading data also highlights that he was somewhat below average for central defenders in frequency of aerial duals. After further inspection, to rule out styles of play in the Bundesliga, Upamecano’s aerial challenges are sitting at edge of the bottom 20% – evidence he could look to compete more in the air, utilising his not insignificant strength. Nonetheless, he does look something of an upgrade on both Caldara and Mussachio.
Both deals were confirmed by the new board without any oversight from the transfer team, complete with a 5% transfer fee sell on clause to each player. Only time will tell if these new signings can mesh into the AC Milan system or whether tactical adaptations will need to be made to fit them into the starting eleven.
No high potential youth prospects had come through the AC Milan Academy over the last three years, with no youth recruits deemed anything like good enough for first team minutes, as indicated by the below graphic of player ages and minutes played across the 2021-22 season. As a consequence, the transfer committee recognised the need to focus on young players with room for growth when bringing in players to provide depth to the squad. This will help support those players who are in their peak years, giving them a rest, whilst developing new talent for the future.
Further strengthening of the central midfield was identified as a priority to provide greater squad depth in the box-to-box role, behind Bruno Guimarães. Sassuolo’s Ivorian international, Hamed Junior Traoré was the main focus. The 22-year old played 36.98 90s for relegated for I Neroverdi, and showed some reasonable promise. His total potential transfer fee of £54.75m was probably too much, especially given Sassuolo’s relegation, but for such a well-rounded young player with potential to develop his game yet further. This could be a good deal for the Club if his game was to kick on when surrounded by better quality players in a more aggressive side/system than Sassuolo – a team which managed only 29 goals (2nd lowest) from 474 shots (by comparison, AC Milan managed 69 goals from 811) and conceded 55.
The next transfer business was to sell both Rodrigo De Paul and Mateo Mussachio. With Upamecano coming in, Mussachio was now surplus to requirements, especially with twelve months left on his contract. He went to Valencia for £7.5m. Rodrigo De Paul had proved over the last two seasons that he was out of his depth at AC Milan, with a poor statistical performance. He was moved onto Napoli for £15.5m.
With just one year left on his contract, and staunchly unwilling to sign fresh deal whilst wanted by PSG, Suso, AC Milan’s Player of the Year in 2021-22, would either have to be sold to raise funds for reinvestment into the squad or leave on a free at the end of the season. Given his transfer value, it was decided it was best to cash in on his value, despite his importance to the squad. A deal was struck with PSG which netted the Club £55m upfront with a further £15m in possible bonuses.
In order to replace Suso, rather than opt for an out-and-out replacement, it was decided that Chiesa should be given the chance to switch flanks and play as a winger out on the right. As such, another left-sided player should be brought into play back-up to last year’s emerging break through talent, Adam Hložek. After some extensive scouting, with impressive reports, and with a free non-EU player slot at start of the new season, Gabriel Veron was signed on a four-year deal for his release fee of £18.5m. The 19-year old had been impressing in the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A for Pamerias, with 0.5 non-penalty goals per game in the 23.59 90s played so far in the 2022 season. These metrics stack up well against all players in the same position from the aforementioned top five leagues and also the Brazilian Série A. With an outstanding 0.29 assists per 90, it is hoped that he can push Hložek for his place and make the step up to a tougher European league. If he can quickly adapt to the Italian style of living like so many Brazilian’s before him – with many having played for AC Milan including Cafu, Kaká, Ronaldinho, Dida, Robinho and the Ronaldo – he could be a star there for the next decade. Fellow countrymen, Paquetá and Guimarães should help him to adjust to life playing at the San Siro.
With a dearth of potential back-up left back options available which would allow Wöber to slot in behind Romagnoli as back up left-sided centre back, it was thought best to bring in a young central defender who could develop at the Club under the guidance and mentorship of club captain, Romagnoli. 22-year old Gabriele Corbo had long been impressing the Club scouts and analysts with his performances in the Serie A, despite his relatively young age for a centre back. His ability to read the game is reflected in the PAdj interceptions and dominance in the air is shown by his headers won per 90. His key tackle metric was similarly impressive, leading the Serie A table for this statistic, and will likely have gone some way to Bologna keeping twelve clean sheets over the previous season. If he can improve his ball retention and look to be more comfortable on the ball, there’s no reason why the Italian youth international cannot be a long-term success at the Club. He joined for a £33.5m transfer fee on a five-year deal and concluded the transfer dealings.
This final transfer tipped AC Milan’s spending, including the deals done by the directors, to £196m – the second most in Europe’s top five leagues, behind only PSG. With Serie A spending totalling £630m, AC Milan’s was 31.11% of all spending – the new directors were putting their money on the line. Time will only tell to see if these new signings deliver after the team has lost its main creative talisman in Suso.
The next blog post will reflect upon the 2022-23 season. Will AC Milan achieve a third scudetto in a row? And will a deeper squad enable the team to go further in the Champions League? More on that soon…
This post sets out to look at the tactical set-up of the double scudetto winners, AC Milan. Below you’ll see the players from the squad with hyperlinks to their metric radars – click on those to open a new window if you are interested in seeing them.
Goalkeeper – Sweeper Keeper (Support)
AC Milan academy graduate, Gianluigi Donnarumma, was the first-choice goalkeeper. Over the course of the season, he kept twenty two clean sheets out of a total of thirty three Serie A appearances – 0.67 CS/90. An 88% save percentage indicates his fantastic abilities protecting the goal, using his large frame and agility to prevent the opposing side from scoring. Of the shots he faced in Serie A, he held onto 63.28%, thus securing the ball for his side. 14.85% of his saves were tipped around/over the post/bar and 22.77% were parried (including rounding).
When it came to distribution, the sweeper keeper on support had the team instruction to play out to his back four to relatively safely establish possession of the ball, in part helping explain his 92% pass completion. However, using his passing abilities and the manager instruction to his players to be more expressive, he was willing to override this instruction so that he could be the instigator of a swift and direct counter attack by spraying the ball out to the wide attackers. When this happened, it helped overcome issues faced with deep lying defensive set-ups, not uncommon in Serie A, catching a team out when they have overcommitted players to their attack, leaving space for the wide forwards to exploit. An example of such a counter is shown below.
Right full backs, Conti, Palencia and Calabria all played in the attacking full-back role to provide width, with the added playing instruction to stay wide to stretch the defence of the opposition. With a narrow central fulcrum in midfield and an inverted winger in front who will look to cut into the box, the full back was a key asset within the tactical set-up.
The player often found himself overlapping his teammate, running towards the byline to put in a cross, as seen by the passes received by Calabria in the match analysis above against Perugia. In offering the forward option, they typically were afforded space whilst the left-sided defender was drawn in to cover off the infield run of the inverted winger. This gave them time to deliver a cross to the centre forward or the in drifting left-sided forward and provided goal scoring chances. Players playing in this role ranged between 1.24 to 1.75 completed crosses/90 over the course of the season.
With Donnarumma instructed to pick out any of the four defenders in front of him, if he opted for the right-sided full back this occasionally led to swift attacks, when they were in space to drive forward with the ball against narrow formations. This meant that counter attacks could be somewhat swift, if not necessarily direct to the attacking trident. Should the opposition have regrouped and adopted a narrow defensive formation, this then led to the full back having room in front of them to dribble down the right flank. Both Palencia and Calabria were above League average from successfully completed dribbles per 90. In part this signifies their attacking contribution to their side, by their willingness to take on defenders and commit their man.
When the opportunity for the cross wasn’t on, either because of a blocked crossing lane or a lack of credible options in the box, then the player needed to be proficient with the ball at their feet, so their passing abilities were also important to ensure that possession wasn’t squandered with the player being potentially out of position deep in the opponents half. Whilst the counter press was set for this AC Milan side, opposition sides could evade the press by going long down their left flank with the space vacated in this area, with the full back well forwards. AC Milan’s full backs in this role had a pass completion percentage upward of 85% – above the 82% League average for fullbacks. Equally, these players needed to be prepared to commit tactical fouls in order to stop the fast flow of opposition counters and allow the team to re-structure into their defensive arrangement. If the ball was lost away from their flank, they need to be prepared to run back and cover their position, so it’s no surprise that all three right backs averaged more than 12.7km/90 and Conti and Palencia committed above League average fouls/90 at 2.05 and 2.23 fouls/90, respectively.
On the left-hand side, the preferred role was the wingback on support – a role that Cucurella and Wöber fulfilled. This provided a little more defensive stability, only looking to go forward when the opportunity presented itself, otherwise hanging back if the attacking full back down the right had gone forward. Again, the provision of width to the team is a key fundamental principle of this role. The player must be available to deliver crosses into the box and help give defenders dilemmas about closing down their attackers. With the mezzala and inside forward on his flank, he can also often be afforded time to deliver his cross because of the overload created ahead of him.
Evidence of the overload in the left half-space and the importance of both full backs to provide width is seen in the below graphic. When in possession, this tactic can turn into a 2-3-3-2 or a 2-3-2-3 depending upon the speed of the transition and development of the play.
Yet whilst their attacking contributions were important, both full backs still had to be more than capable in their defensive skill sets. Whilst AC Milan have succeeded in winning the last two scudetti, there are still five other big clubs in the League and Champions League football to contend with. Only Wöber had fewer than 4 PAdj tackles/90, though he was in the top 10% for PAdj interceptions/90, so perhaps he preferred a more front foot approach to winning the ball back, using his anticipation to read the play. It’s also worth noting that only Palencia had a higher than League average 5.11 tackles/90 for full backs but is worst in the league for PAdj interceptions/90 – perhaps his style of defending was more reactive due to his poor positional play?
Club captain, Alessio Romagnoli, played on the left-hand side of the AC Milan defence, utilising his left footedness. Mattia Caldara and Mateo Mussachio rotated in the other centre back slot. Due to his inferior passing, vision and technique, Caldara played the less technical role of centre back whereas Mussachio and Romagnoli are both suited to playing the ball-playing defender role. Yet this did not seem to mean that Caldara’s passing network/distribution was any less risky than that of his central defensive peers, as demonstrated in the above passing network graphic against Fiorentina. Caldara played penetrative passes into the wide right-sided attacker, seemingly more so than Romagnoli did.
Caldara’s defensive output, using PAdj tackles and interceptions looks poor, and it possibly is but that is a harsh criticism for a player that played 1,915 minutes (21.3 90s) and was a part of a team that only conceded 15 goals in Serie A. Nonetheless, there may be room for an upgrade given Mussachio’s weaknesses too. It is interesting to note that Romagnoli led the League for headers won per 90 but neither Caldara nor Mussachio are anywhere near league average – Mussachio being at the very bottom of the League for heading percentage and in the bottom 2% for headers won/90. Perhaps Romagnoli took it upon himself to cover for his partners weaknesses – nonetheless this looks to be an area to address in the transfer market going forward. As to why none of these players stand out with regards to pressure adjusted (PAdj) tackles per 90 its hard to say, expect perhaps players further forward implementing a press as soon as the ball is lost meant they had fewer tackles to make and found themselves intercepting more long clearances.
When they were forced onto the back foot, I Rossoneri opted for a relatively standard defensive width. By not sitting to narrow to allow crosses to pepper their box, nor too wide to provide space for playmakers to enjoy putting their centre forward(s) through clean into goal, this helped to restrict the number of shots Donnarumma had to face. Additionally, given Mussachio’s seemingly perpetual aerial weakness, this seems to have been a sensible ploy – try to minimise the frequency of crosses arriving in the box without being carved open centrally.
In the central midfield triumvirate, the heartbeat of the team was the single pivot – the deep-lying playmaker, set to defend. This is the solid and reliable base of the trio, sitting back and dictating terms and the play. Offering himself to his team mates when the ball was won back either in defensive or attacking positions to find a pass. Italian playmaker, Tonali, was the primary pick for this position, playing just over 2,000 minutes. Completing 48.71 passes/90 with an 89% pass completion demonstrates his abilities with the ball. His key passes/90 statistic underline this further – the deep-lying playmaker is there to play the defence cutting pass if it’s on, otherwise, they’ll look to recycle possession.
This is very evident in the below passing map from AC Milan’s 4-1 victory over Cagliari. Here, Tonali offered himself in a central position to his team mates, either advancing the ball to his central midfield team mates, or, more frequently spraying the ball out to the left as indicated in the graphic. This ability to recycle the ball, maintain possession and look to pass the ball into space for his team mates to run onto allowed attacks to continue and placed pressure upon the opposing team. Here you can also see the long progressive passes that he made to quickly advance the ball forward, cutting out the Cagliari defenders.
The other squad member who performed this duty was Nicolás Domínguez. Whilst his passing percentage is lower, his key passing, and PAdj interceptions show that this role needs to be prepared to put in a defensive effort to shield the back four. Neither player registered significant goals/90 or assists/90, but this simply isn’t their role – they’re often too deep to provide direct goal scoring opportunities from their passes and similarly too far away from goal to have high percentage goal scoring chances. This is indicated by the fact that they registered less than one shot on goal/90 (Tonali had 0.55 S/90 and 0.96 S/90 for Domínguez) over the course of the season.
On the left, the mezzala on support offered a more attacking role to hit the half space and overload this area in combination with the left-sided attacker. Throughout the season, Calvin Stengs, Lucas Paquetá and Dani Olmo were the rotational choices for this position, using their superior dribbling and creative abilities and their eye for goal. Given that the attacking play can bypass them through the direct playing style with swift counter attacks, their goal involvements are not to be overlooked. Stengs’s first season in the Serie A was impressive, with 0.33 goal involvements per 90 (four goals and six assists) and 0.60 chances created per 90.
The right-hand side of the midfield trio saw a box-to-box role adopted. This runner, often fulfilled by Bruno Guimarães, Olmo and Nicolás Domínguez, provided support during both the offensive and defensive play, covering substantial distance. As Guimarães’s metrics show, this role requires a real all-rounder – someone who is capable of being creative but is also prepared to role his sleeves up and put in the hard yards, putting his efforts towards defending, breaking down the oppositions attacking phases. Guimarães is truly an exemplified box-to-box midfielder – his 0.36 chances created/90, 2.04 key passes/90, 12.4km covered/90, 3.67 PAdj tackles/90 and 1.80 PAdj interceptions/90 are stand-out, though his passing accuracy could be improved.
The speed of play that AC Milan exhibit meant that the central midfielders often looked to advance the ball quickly, either dribbling to put pressure on the defenders, or often opting for vertical forward passes. Further evidence of this is indicated in their passes completed over the season – AC Milan ranked only 12th in terms of the number of passes completed, despite having 52% possession (4th best). This is further backed up by the two graphics below – the central midfielders were expected to make high risk passes and as such, their metrics were lower than average for pass success. Perhaps this is further evidence too of their inability to pick holes in a defence once it has become entrenched.
Transition – defence to attack
The below set of graphics help to explain the link between the defence and the midfield, as well as help to show how their roles work within the tactical framework as the team transitions from defence to attack.
In the first instance, the AC Milan side have just won back the ball and Cucarella looks to advance down his flank. Here you see how advanced the right full back (Calabria) was, transitioning into an attacking forward position close to Suso. It’s also notable that Tonali dropped back into the gap between the two centre backs, acting as the single pivot, despite nominally playing in the central midfield strata. Roma elected to engage in a very light, almost meagre, press as most players looked retreat into their defensive set-up.
Cucarella choose to play a relatively safe pass inside to the supporting Paquetá who then dribbled beyond the half way line. As Milan’s defensive line moved up, it is evident how wide the two full backs were, providing the width as the two wide forwards were already positioned vertically along the edge of the 18-yard box. The central midfielders were also very narrow, but crucially there was verticality between them. As such, they had options to pass across the plains between themselves and also beyond them to the forwards.
As it is, Paquetá passed inside to his right to the box-to-box, Domínguez, as his dribble was cut shot due to the narrow, compact defence that Roma established. Since Domínguez was in space, he had the time to use his vision identifying that he could pick out Suso with a first time pass. Here you can really see the verticality of the tactic – within seconds the ball has quickly advanced from the defensive phase into the Roma penalty area.
Suso’s dribble was cut short due to a tackle from the Roma left back, but notice how far advanced the full back for I Rossonerri was, as the box-to-box player, Domínguez, holds himself back and Tonali has maintained his withdrawn position too. Should Roma win the ball back, as they did, AC Milan team had four central players covering the middle area of the pitch as the press began from the advanced players. This would allow others to potentially retreat, or catch the Roma players out as they look to advance believing they have a chance to counter if AC Milan are able to win the ball back.
As it turned out, Calabria’s advanced position actually saw him win the loose ball back. The two wide forwards maintained their advanced positions, but notice how the left-sided inside forward retreated a little to create spacing between himself and Roma’s right back. This allowed him time and separation to attack this full back at speed to out jump him should Calabria have looked to deliver an immediate cross.
However, instead, Calabria played a quick one-two with Domínguez, putting him into space where the left-sided full back for Roma had to re-engage. The cross was blocked and the play resulted in a corner for AC Milan but this gives you an idea of the transition and positional play that is typical within this tactical set-up for AC. The left-sided inside forward still had the critical separation to run at the opposing defender and note too that Piątek had not opted to be on the deepest defensive line so that he had space and just enough time to choose his area to attack the ball should it have come into the area.
The two right-sided inverted wingers are also two of the set-piece takers for I Rossonerri. As such, Buendía and Suso have somewhat inflated metrics for assists (Suso – 12, Buendía – 9), with eight goals coming from corners for AC Milan. Despite this, both players have outstanding metrics – with Suso totalling 0.48 non-penalty goals per 90 from 3.29 shots per game. Buendía saw something of a come down from his 2020-21 metrics, but perhaps he reverted more towards his mean metric output rather than dipped below it. His NPG/90 dropped by 0.21, despite his shots on target actually rising, and his passing accuracy worsened – in fact he was the worst in the lead amongst his peers. This is slightly concerning, but only slightly. He is in a position to make risky passes, as such it is expected that some of these will be cut out by the opposition, and clearly with 0.48 assists/90, behind only Suso’s 0.52 A/90 in the League, this is indicative of the creativity that came from the attacking right flank for AC. They must be prepared to take on defenders, dribbling at them at pace, and either lay on passes/crosses for the striker or the left-sided forward to score or create chances for themselves to score.
Here you can see how frequently the respective attacking wide forwards find the space to shoot, and also Suso’s out-performance with regards to his NPG/90. This clearly demonstrates the importance of the wide forwards in terms of their shot frequency – Hložek’s metric here is also stand-out but more on this below.
The same can be said of the left-sided inside forward too, yet these players, Federico Chiesa, Rodrigo De Paul and Adam Hložek did not reach the echelon that Suso and Buendía established. Originally brought in as a youth prospect, Hložek’s rapid development saw him rack up far more first-team minutes than originally intended. And his output shows promise – with more shots per 90 than both Suso and Buendía, demonstrating that he found the space to attempt a shot on goal, but perhaps needs to be more clinical/selective given his 8.5% conversion rate – far inferior to Suso’s 15%.
As demonstrated above, Chiesa’s first season has been somewhat disappointing, as it was hoped that he would be the player that readdressed the imbalance between the two outer prongs of the AC Milan trident. Perhaps, after more time at the San Siro, his talents will shine through and the Italian attacking midfielder will show the curva why the AC Milan manager sanctioned his purchase following his transfer listing at the end of last season. He will certainly need to be more creative, with only 0.11 assists per ninety and only 1.33 shots on target per 90.
Rodridgo De Paul’s poor form continued throughout the 2021-22 season, following on from his below par performance in the 2020-21 season after his transfer from relegated Udinese. As a result, of both this and Hložek’s faster than expected development, he will be moved on during the off season.
The centre forward, playing in the complete forward on attack role, led the line and looked to link up play where possible. Krzysztof Piątek is a somewhat selfish striker, not engaging with the build up play as much as desired, but his movement off the ball and finishing ability saw him once more land the capocannoniere. His numbers were marginally below the fantastic metrics of 2020-21, but he still found himself in position to register 4.23 shots/90, with only a 1% drop in his goal conversion. André Silva played Piątek’s deputy when the Pole was in need of a rest, and played some games in the Coppa Italia. The graphic below (including goals scored in all competitions) illustrates Piątek’s importance to the overall tactical set-up for AC Milan with his finishing skills. He may not have many touches on the ball in open play, but when he does find space in and around the area, he is deadly.
Piątek’s off the ball movement and the verticality of the play from the tactic can be seen in the clip below. If you watch his movement from the moment he comes into view, he makes a run across to the right-sided centre back dragging the left-sided centre back with him, presumably because he is instructed to man mark him. Piątek then catches him out of position by creating separation initially and then he ghosts in behind him. Suso lays on the perfect weighted slide rule pass for Piątek to run onto and the Polish striker does the rest, slotting it past the on-rushing keeper for the only goal of the game.
Hopefully this deep dive into the tactic enables you to have an idea as to the tactical set-up AC Milan utilised throughout their scudetto winning season. Any questions, please use the comments section or contact me on Twitter @afmoldtimer.
The next post will focus on the player sales and recruitment that took place over the off season in preparation for 2022-23 season.
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.
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!
The player analysis initially started out as just one blog post but it soon became evident that it would have to be a series of blogs with one central hub. Each image below is just a sneak preview of the content within each of the three posts and all images are click-able to take you through to those posts. Enjoy your reading.
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.
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.
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.
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The central midfield trio play different roles within the tactical set-up, with a single pivot as a deep-lying playmaker, and the other two as a box-to-box midfielder and a mezzala. As such, the player radars look very different to one another.
Sandro Tonali stepped up to the starting eleven at AC Milan when Bennacer was sold to Liverpool in the January window. The 21-year old demonstrated his playmaking intelligence, completing 89% of all passes attempted, with 2.30 key passes/90. Despite his deeper role, he still created above average chances amongst his peers and was prepared to do more of the dirty side of the pivot role by making 4.02 PAdj tackles per game. His PAdj interceptions per 90 were a concern, but perhaps the high pressing tactic of the players ahead of him meant that the ball was won higher up the pitch rather than Tonali picking up loose balls in the space between the midfield and defensive lines.
Giacomo Bonaventura is a chance-creating machine. His 2.85 key passes/90 and his 0.46 chances created per 90 stood him out from the crowd. His chance creation, attempting those risky through balls, did not negatively impact upon his pass completion statistics. This highlights that the chances he was creating ought to have been good quality chances since the opposition must not have been in position to regularly intercept these defence splitting passes. Where Bonaventura fell down was his defensive contributions – bottom five percentiles for PAdj tackles/90 and averse to a foul, highlights that he is not willing to engage in the necessary foiling of opposition attacks.
Domínguez was another new signing in January, picked up from Bologna. Not possessing the relevant attributes to play the box-to-box role, when he played, he became a deep-lying playmaker in the central midfield strata. This may explain in part his below average pass completion statistics and his key passes/90. Where he will need to improve is his PAdj Tackles/90 (2.40) and PAdj Interceptions/90 (1.18), but at the age of 22, he will be given the chance to work on these areas.
Guimarães was one of the first signings of the January transfer window. His versatility meant that he was able to play across all three of the midfield roles, highlighted by his generally above average metrics. It was this versatility that perhaps held back his first team action, only playing 13.52 90s after his arrival. Not necessarily extraordinary in any of these fields, the fact that he is able to play key passes, dribble the ball and create chances for team mates without giving away the ball, means that his contribution was valuable.
Initially, Paquetá found himself out of favour in the balance of the midfield three, with Kessié, Bennacer and Bonaventura the preferred three. Yet as the season progressed, Paquetá found himself receiving more minutes as his ability to contribute an attacking threat in the mezzala role. His four goals and three assists gave him 0.21 goal contributions per 90. Once more, the lack of defensive contribution from Paquetá was a concern, much like other AC Milan players, but this is not necessarily the role that is expected of him in this side.
Tonali’s and Bonaventura’s playmaking abilities are highlighted by the below graphic. They make excellent chances for their team mates without recklessly giving away the ball. Compare this to someone like Luis Alberto who has 78% pass completion yet created nearly 2.40 chances per 90 – clearly high risk, the same as Tonali, but Tonali had a pass completion some 11% better.
Further investigation into chance creation within the midfield strata demonstrates just how many chances Luis Alberto was creating for his Lazio team mates. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic also looks like a monster when it comes to goal-scoring opportunities that he was also laying on for I Biancocelesti. Little wonder that Lazio scored the third highest number of goals in Serie A (66).
The below graphic sorts the playmakers from the water carriers. Strangely, Paquetá rears his head in the poor creativity and low passing frequency, which shouldn’t really be the case with his attributes. Perhaps the play being focussed down the right when he played down the left counted against him, along with having a playmaker in behind him demanding the ball from team mates, but this was still disappointing and surprising for a team that dominated possession. Equally, the play-making abilities of Modric, Rabiot and Pjanic for Juventus stick out.
The below graphic highlights something similar – with Rabiot, Modric and Pjanic out on their own with Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto. Fellow Juventus player, Emre Can, is also an outlier, creating an assist to nearly ever chance created (13 assists from 16 chances created). This metric analysis graphic also demonstrates the quality of Bonaventura’s chances that he was creating for those around him, being well above the trend-line. Domínguez appears to have been unlucky not to have made an assist given his 0.3 chances created/90.
To look at the other side of the midfield part of the game, raw data on tackles/90 and interceptions/90 were compared to identify players that were good at breaking up play. This is where Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s importance to Lazio’s side becomes crystal clear. He breaks play up with regularity and then lays on chances for the likes of Immobile ahead of him. He’s a managers dream – no wonder that he is wanted by some of Europe’s elite sides with a hefty price tag attached to him. Once highly thought of, Alfred Duncan, looks to have had a season to forget, coming out average with tackles/90 but minimal interceptions/90 and poor passing creativity and low risk passing.
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The attacking wide men in the AC Milan side play in the inverted winger and inside forward roles, depending upon who is playing in the various positions. The players drive at the half space in between central defenders and full backs before looking for a cross/shooting opportunity in the inverted winger role, or look to cut across further in the inside forward roles before seeking to shoot or pass to an on-rushing teammate.
Attacking Midfield Right-Hand Side
New boy Emi Buendía had an excellent first season. One brief look at his player radar and percentiles tells you as much. He was league-leading in both non-penalty goals and assists – putting him out on his own for goal contribution amongst attacking wide players. With a total of 32 goal involvements out of all goals scored by AC, this was a whopping 45.71%. His 14% goal conversion is also incredible given that he was responsible for taking direct free kicks when on the field of play. His desire to drive at his opponents, using his trickery to go beyond players and lay on chances for his teammates or find himself in goal-scoring situations. His 76% passing success highlights that he was willing to attempt risky passes if it was for the benefit of the team, and given his 0.37 assists per ninety, these look to have been highly effective when they did make it through to a teammate.
Fellow right-sided attacker, Suso, would by any normal standards have had an excellent season, were it not for his teammate above. He was second in the league behind Buendía for both key passes and assists per ninety. His eleven assists and nine non-penalty goals in 30.42 90s gave him a goal contribution of 0.66 per game, or 28.57% of all goals that AC Milan scored across the season. He too sought out the riskier passes for the benefit of the team, explaining his poor pass completion statistics, but again, when these risky passes are leading to goals, they should not be discouraged.
Attacking Midfielder Left-Hand Side
Rebić’s performance highlights a potential weakness within the AC Milan set up – either with the recruitment team or the tactical system. His two year loan spell has been average at best – literally, if you look at his percentiles for 2020-21. Whilst he was something of a goal threat (registering seven non-penalty goals) he was not a key contributor of assists (just two to his name), his goal contribution saw him fall at the 60th percentile – nothing much special for a side that outscored the rest of the league relatively comfortably. He could and perhaps should have scored more given his high number of shots on target over the season – poor finishing or just bad luck in front of goal cannot be assessed with the current available data. Overall, looking into these available metrics, his loan will not be made permanent, nor will AC be seeking to extend the loan.
The question of recruitment or tactical set-up is further compounded when analysing Rodrigo De Paul’s performance. He too had a mediocre season to put it mildly. His recruitment from Udinese at the start of the season looked promising, given his relatively cheap price and the performances he had put in for over the season that saw the Udine-based club relegated. Whilst it was anticipated that he would be a back-up player to Rebić, his quality of performance when he was on the field was not at a level that is expected of AC Milan, despite his eight assists. A goal conversion rate of 4%, and only 0.86 shots on target per ninety meant that when De Paul was in a position to shoot, he was either taking poor quality shots, or wasting good chances. Recruitment will need to focus on this area, not just because Rebić’s loan is at an end, but primarily to add quality and redress the issue of an imbalance across I Rossoneri’s attack. With both players coming in at around half of Suso’s goal involvement, and well below that of Buendía, scouts have been charged with finding a player ready for first team football at the San Siro.
Emi Buendía’s performance in front of goal becomes apparent when you compare it directly to the other AMR/AMLs. He destroys most other players in the same sections of the field, with only Lorenzo Insigne coming close to matching his goal output to shots. With Suso and Rebić somewhere around average, Rodrigo De Paul’s poor season looks even more drastic with this comparison.
Ronaldo’s ridiculous number of shots on target/90 can go partly towards explaining his goal output, but he was far less efficient than either Buendía or Insigne. Using this metric to analyse potential replacements for Rebić’s loan expiring, no-one appears to be an abundantly obvious prospect.
Buendía also looks to be way out from the rest, but alongside Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne, when it comes to the number of non-penalty goals and goal conversion. This metric is more useful to demonstrate that Ronaldo is profligate in front of goal, shooting with incredible frequency within ninety minutes. Roberto Insigne is a big outlier in this metric, but only played 16.47 90s (1,482 minutes) and scored only two goals from just twelve shots taken. As such, his metrics should be ignored due to a small sample size.
Measuring creative abilities against finishing output of these attacking players gives further evidence as to how successful the two AMRs were for AC Milan.
When assessing the input of players playing in these positions towards creating chances with key passes to the number of passes completed, remarkably, given his frequency of assists, Buendía isn’t far away from the crowd. Fiorentina’s Marius Wolf is another example of a player who appears to have been exceptional in terms of his desire to be involved in play. Yet, when the numbers are analysed, he only played 15.14 90s (1,363 minutes). Therefore, his 1.78 key passes across 65.44 passes per ninety need to be taken with a pinch of salt, it’s plausible that these numbers could have come down across more minutes. Hestad also only played 16.86 90s (1,517 minutes), so there’s cause for caution there too. However, Federico Chiesa’s figures came across 39.64 90s (3,568 minutes), so are far more reliable. His key pass frequency is actually better than that of Buendía, even if they are across considerably more passes per ninety. Federico Chiesa is already known to be a considerable talent and fits the requirements of the AC Milan board of signing young players for the first team. Scouts will be sent out to watch his games and assess his availability from Fiorentina.
Krzysztof Piątek top scored in Serie A over the 2020-21 season, with 31 non-penalty goals. His marksmanship saw him score 14% of all shots taken, putting him in the top ten percent of all strikers in Serie A. Overall, his involvement was not as strong though. His instinct in front of goal did not appear to be on the same level as his contributions to the rest of the team, in terms of trying to press and win the ball back from the front and make passes to bring in others. A goal involvement of 58.57% is exceptional, but 50% of that came from his goals (including penalties).
His performance in front of goal has him out all on his own when it comes to looking at the number of non-penalty goals against minutes per non-penalty goals. His ability in front of goal has him at the pinnacle of Serie A’s strikers, averaging less than 200 minutes per goal.
Given the above evidence, you could be inclined to believe that Piątek’s season couldn’t have gone much better. Yet when you break down his goal conversion against the number of non-penalty goals that were scored by Serie A strikers, he actually performed below the trend line, this indicating that there was perhaps more to squeeze out of him.
In terms of the rest of the League, Gabriel Barbosa (Gabrigol) looks to have had a remarkable season, scoring at an incredible conversion rate. It has to be questioned as to whether or not this is sustainable going forwards for the Atalanta forward. Cristiano Ronaldo’s shot frequency and quality is also plain for all to see here. Yes he scored the third most goals over the season, but just 8% of all his shots went in. Higuaín practically ashamed him in this regard being far more clinical with the chances provided to him from the playmaking powerhouse in behind him in the form of Modrić, Can, Pjanić and Rabiot.
Serie A strikers appear to be a selfish cohort and Piątek doesn’t seem to be any different from the rest of the crowd. Coming in at just over 0.10 assists per ninety, his goal involvement stemmed from him predominately putting the ball in the back of the net himself rather than laying on opportunities for his fellow teammates. Given his output in front of goal, this should not necessarily be discouraged, assuming he can continue to hit the target on a regular basis.
Romelu Lukaku on the other hand is out there on his own in terms of his goal involvement. A ratio of nearly 0.3A/90 & 0.45G/90 sees the Target Man a fantastic foil for those around him. It’s a wonder that Lautaro Martinez did not finish higher on the goal scoring charts with this level of service from his fellow striker. Martinez actually endured a relatively torrid season by his high ceiling, as did Džeko, though perhaps time and a poor AS Roma showing contributed to this.
Indeed, despite playing as a Complete Forward on Attack, Piątek did not look to heavily involve himself in play. Perhaps a combination of being assigned the Attacking duty, pushing him further away from his teammates and being the sole striker, thus being easier to mark, are explanations for this lack of involvement in the build up play. Yet when he was integrated into the play, he was not profligate with the ball, regularly finding his teammates, to give him an excellent pass completion statistic for a lone front man. Given the preference to play two wide men cutting in to support the attack, hitting in between opposition centre backs and full backs and also to play three central midfielders, the system will not be adjusted just to increase the involvement of a striker, and nor should it if he is able to demonstrate his effectiveness in front of goal with the lowest minutes per goal in Serie A.
With Piątek’s performance taken into consideration and Andre Silva returning on loan from Frankfurt, there is no need to go into the transfer market to add more depth. If anything, Silva’s return frees up Leão to go out on loan himself to gain valuable first-team experience.
If you wish to go back to the hub for the rest of the player analysis, click here.
Having lost just two games before the Winter break, AC Milan were sitting atop Serie A. The squad had gone through something of a transformation, as clubs with a higher reputation, such as Liverpool, Manchester City and Real Madrid, picked off some of their best talents. Five players left, three of which were first teams starters, resulting in the AC Milan recruitment team swinging into action to replace those that had left.
Some savvy recruitment ensued, with the Club picking up players using either a data analysis approach (Wöber) or identifying those that were under-valued (e.g. Guimarães) and under-utilised players (Cucarella). These were replacements who, it was hoped, would not drop the quality in the squad, nor jeopardise the harmony among the players, which was very strong given their position as current front-runners for the Serie A title. This approach to the two transfer windows (including the previous Summer window) yielded a net transfer spend of £47m for the year according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, helping the Club return to the black. The established war chest could be useful in the Summer transfer window, after a detailed squad analysis to address any weaknesses or lack of depth. This will be the focus of the next blog post in the series.
There was a strong sense of optimism but not necessarily overwhelming expectations amongst the Milanese hierarchy for the title and trophy to arrive back at the San Siro. Club legends, Messrs Maldini, Baresi and Boban, recognised that the push for the Club’s first Scudetto in 11 years could be realised at the first attempt under their new manager.
In truth, there was little to worry about for the Board. Milan’s second half of season mirrored that of the first in terms of defeats, with just two more losses against their name. The changes to the tactics and the personnel at the Club, amongst both playing and non-playing staff, saw a significant increase in the number of chances created and goals scored. The goal difference soared to +53 as a result, leaving an impressive Atalanta behind in second place, with a ten point gap to IRossoneri. The title was confirmed at the San Siro following a routine 2-0 victory over Parma in front of the home fans.
Goals came from across the team but Piatek was the Capocannoniere for 2020-21, with a credible 24 goals from 36 games, beating off Immobile and Ronaldo. Leading the front line in a far more creative side than the ’19-20 cohort, and for a team taking considerably more shots, Piatek was able to benefit from the service provided to him and use his impressive finishing ability to put chances away, scoring 20 non-penalty goals. Again, more on this in the next blog post.
The Club’s desire to win Serie A was achieved two years ahead of schedule, which even they conceded was beyond their expectations given Juventus’s domination of the League in recent years. This was seen as something of a fillip for the owners of the Club as they had been touting the Club to potential buyers. This news of success on the field only increased the value of the Club off it, with Singer and partners able to cite higher anticipated future revenue streams from Champions League TV money, as AC would be going straight into the Group Stage as number one seeds. When matched with new sponsorship deals, the financial future of the Club looked to be on a stronger footing than it was at the start of the 2020-21 season.
The Club also had reasonable success in the Europa League, if not actual silverware. The squad made it to the semi-finals, only to be knocked out by RB Leipzig over the two legs.
This journey also significantly boosted the Club’s reputation, though it was still a long way short of the overall target – to return the Club back to its 1990/2000s heydays.
League Financial Spending 2020-21
The on-field success and work of the marketing team to drive sponsorship deals saw AC Milan have a healthy 31% of their revenue being spent on player and staff wages. With the third highest revenue stream in the League, AC look to be well set when it comes to adding to their squad in the Summer. Spare a thought for the directors of Napoli who have an eye-watering 67% wage/revenue expenditure. Add this to the fact that their stadium is rented and in desperate need of renovation/replacing and it might be a while before the Neopolitan’s see a new stadium being built through internal finance. Little wonder Napoli fans are staying away in their droves – their capacity utilisation was less than 50% over the season.
In terms of competing financially with Juventus, great strides have been made with matchday and ticket revenue following a successful season on the field. Attractive attacking football saw the crowds return to San Siro to cheer on their side, with an average attendance of 59,908, some 14.59% up on last year. Together, Juventus and AC account for just over one third of the overall income generated from ticket sales and match day revenues, leaving the other big four in their wake.
League Statistical Analysis
The opening blog of this series looked at the causal relationship between salary expenditure and success, measure in points per game. Analysing the data over the season, AC Milan performed above average on their salary expenditure compared against the rest of the other clubs, with the exception of Atalanta. With Juventus spending well over the norm for the rest of Serie A, their 4th place finish saw them drastically under perform. Atalanta deserve notable commendation for their display in the League with only the eighth largest salary expenditure – the La Dea clearly know what they’re doing when it comes to their financial outlay on recruitment, as well as their training/player development and style of play.
In assessing the League’s use of the ball in possession in terms of points per game, AC Milan again came out favourably. Averaging 56% possession but scoring 70 goals in the 38 game season, only Juventus scored more and with less average possession. This looks to be proof that the tactical style is not just possession for possessions sake but that the ball is being progressed into areas which are yielding goal scoring opportunities. When this data is analysed, Brescia are well below the curve and clearly badly under-performed, not creating enough when in possession of the ball, resulting in their relegation. Inter and Lazio both appear to be capable counter-attacking sides, scoring points but with less than 50% of the ball, finishing 5th and 6th respectively.
Yet, when Il Diablo’s shot efficiency is analysed, the team do not appearing to be scoring significantly above the average number of goals per shot taken. Perhaps more could be done to improve this going forward but it is not an immediate concern. Fiorentina on the other hand, took a considerable number of shots and ones that were presumably of poor quality. La Viola’s possession/PPG is also below the trend line too. Perhaps their build up play is too considered/slow, enabling opposition defences time to organise themselves, in turn forcing Fiorentina to pass the ball around before frustratingly shooting from distance? This data also further underpins Lazio’s abilities on the counter-attack, taking the fourth largest quantity of shots and scoring the third highest number of goals despite their possession statistics. The generation of shots by Juventus is also stand out given their possession statistics. To have taken that many more shots than the rest of the other teams by comparison highlights their trigger happy nature as a team. Although when one builds in the C7 factor, then maybe the water becomes a little clearer? Nonetheless, it’s hard to blame the attack of The Old Lady for not defending their Serie A title with this output.
The adage of “your opponents can’t score if they don’t have the ball” also looks to be true to an extent for AC Milan as they conceded a League low of just 17 goals over the season. Only city rivals, Inter kept more clean sheets, with 25, one more than I Rossoneri. Inter appear to be considerable outliers in this regard – their level of possession conceded to goals conceded demonstrates just how tight their defence was over the season. Fiorentina raise their head above the parapet once more with their defence giving up a considerable number of goals given their League-high levels of average possession. Not only were they wasteful when they had the ball, when the lost it, it cost them goals with a high frequency.
For AC Milan, if youth team graduate, Donnarumma, can maintain this class going forward in his blossoming career, AC could be well-placed to dominate into the future. When combined with the mean defence, their domination of possession in games is the result of their recruitment of highly technical players who resist initial pressures and can play through or around deeper defences when the opposition choose to drop off and regroup. Their tactical build-up and their high work rate to press the opposition when the ball is loss then helps to recycle the ball and transition before the opposition are able to capitalise on any weaknesses.
Looking into this in more statistical depth across Serie A, the Pearson correlation co-efficient for goals scored and total points is 0.89 – a very strong statistical correlation. 1,048 points were obtained with a total of 887 goals scored. Yet, not conceding, i.e. keeping a clean sheet had a Pearson correlation co-efficient of -0.87 (negative as the fewer goals conceded leads to more points being gained). The total number of clean sheets across the League was 276. This is correlation is almost as strong to that of points and scoring goals – highlighting the importance of having a strong attack AND defence in the 2020-21 season.
As teased above, the next blog post will focus on the player performances, using data analysis to monitor compare and contrast the squad’s output against their League counterparts. Keep an eye out for when that drops.
The January transfer window found AC Milan top of Serie A, well above the target set by the board for the 2020-21 season. Having only lost just the last two games prior to the New Year, the Club had also qualified out of their Europa League group with SK Brann, Zenit St. Petersburg and GNK Dinamo. Two draws against an indomitable SK Brann, an away draw and home win against GNK Dinamo and two victories against Zenit were enough to see the team progress after having already beaten Icelandic side Knattspyrnufélagið Valur, Dimamo Brest of Belarus and Glasgow Rangers in the qualifiers.
There were no immediate plans to act in order to improve the first team, with the squad playing well in a wide 4-1-2-2-1/4-3-3. Nevertheless, the scouting team had been busy identifying potential targets for the Summer window and looking to find players for the Primavera side to boost the quality of the U19s on a more immediate time frame.
Signings in the off-season transfer window have been receiving minutes, with new-boy Sandro Tonali alternating with the excellent Bennacer as a single pivot in the deep-lying play-maker role. Rodrigo de Paul was rotating in and out of the team with Ante Rebic in the IF – A role on the left of the front three, with Piatek (CF – A) and one of Suso or Buendia, the last of the new signings, playing down the right-hand side (IW – S).
When reading below what transpired during the January transfer window, it’s worth remembering that AC Milan’s standing within Europe is well below what the club should be aspiring to – ranked the 80th club in European coefficients. This, combined with the Serie A success of this season, led to a number of players being wanted by bigger clubs in Europe. The level of change that has taken place has clearly been significant over the last fifteen or so years, a negative change from the viewpoint of the Rossonerri fans. All the first team players that were traded on were looking to move on to their new clubs rather than stay and play at the San Siro. It is hoped that, over time, AC Milan can raise its standing again such that players value playing for this Club and do not see it as a stepping stone onto the next stage of their careers.
The first significant sale, not counting that of Pepe Reina going to Leganés, was that of Ismaël Bennacer. Wanted by a number of clubs after an impressive start to the season, it was the Premier League’s Liverpool which entered into negotiations with the power brokers at Casa Milan. An initial offer was negotiated up to £50m, with two instalments as part of the deal. From the point of view of the Club directors, having signed the player from Empoli for only £14.25m, this represented a good deal, despite the fact that he was one of, if not the, most promising prospects in the AC side. Yet, his desire to play Champions League football, which he so clearly deserved, could not be denied and so it was agreed to let him leave, with Liverpool almost doubling his wages.
It was not considered necessary to replace Bennacer, with Tonali able to stand up to first team football on a more regularly to aid his development and Kessié able to fill into the defensive midfielder slot if required. More minutes could also be given to Bonnaventura, if necessary, as the elder statesman in the Milan creativity department had been seeing less action after the arrival of the young pretender, Tonali.
Ricardo Rodriguez had been playing second fiddle to Theo Hernández in the first half of the 2021-22 season. Understandably, he was therefore keen to move to China’s DL Yifang and receive an incredible 197% increase in gross salary. A fee of £28m, with potential for it to rise to £33.5m, for a back-up 28 year-old left back was seen as a good deal, even if it did leave the side temporarily light in the left wing back position.
Joining Rodriguez on the plane to Dalian was Rade Krunic. Krunic had only managed five starts with six appearances off the bench. Despite his four goals and two assists, he was not able to break past Kessié in the box-to-box role. Considered back-up, the club were happy to receive £10.75m for a player who was also taking up a non-EU player slot. Krunic was also delighted to receive a near doubling of his wages.
After the sale of Krunic and, more importantly, Bennacer, the scouts put forward the idea of signing Bruno Guimarães from Brazilian club, Athletico Paranaense. The player was reportedly unsettled and wanting to leave to join a bigger club. Well-liked by the scouting department, Director Franco Baresi was sent to Curitiba to negotiate a deal for the central midfielder who had provided twelve assists and four goals in the Brasileirão. A £17m deal was seen as an incredible bargain for such a well-rounded player, who is able to play across all three of the roles within the central midfield positions in the Rossoneri side. Paquetá was tasked with welcoming his compatriot to the Club and helping settle into life at Milan, with the two looking forward to playing together.
In trying to find a replacement for Rodriguez to act as back up to Theo Hernández, the scouts hit upon Marc Cucurella from Barcelona. The left wing back found himself out of favour at the Nou Camp behind Jordi Alba and Lenglet, and so was available for an incredibly low initial price of £2.6m, rising to £3.4m. With Baresi on the flight back from Brazil with Guimarães, Frederic Massara, the Club’s Director of Football had been tasked to negotiate and structure the deal with both club and the player’s agent. Whilst no data was available on the player due to his lack of playing time, it is hoped that La Masia graduate would join the list of Olmo, Onana and Icardi (among others) to go onto prosperous careers beyond their brief time at the Spanish giants having never made a senior team appearance. Suso was happy to welcome his fellow countryman to the Club and would be training directly up against him in full squad games.
Having already completed more deals than anticipated in the January window, the Club’s directors had hoped not to have any more incoming bids to avoid unsettling the team any further. Unfortunately, bids were still coming in for their players, despite their public protestations. The Real Madrid had identified Franck Kessié’s seven goals in sixteen appearances and a further three goals in eleven starts in the Europa League as a good way to reduce the age of their midfield, whilst not forgoing quality. With Modric having already moved onto Milan’s Serie A rivals, Juventus, Kessié could offer an alternative to Kroos, Ceballos and Valverde. Kessié had only joined the club at the start of the prior season for £16.25m, but was extremely keen to join La Liga giants and Champions League regulars – the deal was therefore negotiate upwards to £70m, which Real Madrid had no hesitation in agreeing to – perhaps this deal was priced too low by AC?
With time running short in the transfer window, a replacement had to be found quickly. The scouting team had already identified Nicolás Domínguez sitting in Bologna’s team unable to be registered for I Rossoblù, having just returned from a loan at Velez. With Bologna having already utilised all their non-EU player slots, the player was set for six months of no football without a further loan. AC Milan had no intention to loan the player and, fortunately for I Rossoneri, the Serie A player rules are somewhat perverse. AC Milan were able to pick up the Argentine central midfielder with no registration difficulties as non-EU players transferring within Serie A do not count towards the limit. A £33m deal was struck – quite the mark-up for a player that never played for Bologna, but there was little doubt of the quality of player that had been brought in, if his attributes were to be believed. The deep-lying play-maker offered the perfect rotation option to Tonali, with his strong first touch, vision, passing and player trait of plays killer balls often. The board had some concern that this gave the squad an imbalance towards central midfield, but for the manager there was little concern about the spread of minutes. With Tonali, Domínguez, Guimarães, Paquetá and the experienced Bonaventura, these five players were able to rotate across the Serie A and Europa League fixtures without too much issue over player fatigue and danger of upsetting squad harmony.
On deadline day itself, the Club received a further bid from Man City for the first-choice left back, Theo Hernández. Hernández was understandably keen to move to the Premier League and a considerably higher ranked club, and whilst his fee of £30m looks cheap, the club felt there was little they could do but accept a locked in offer as Hernández was threatening to upset squad morale if he was not given the chance to negotiate his side of the deal. Having made fifteen starts and contributed three assists, his input would be hard to match, especially given that he fit the profile of player that new-look AC Milan were looking to build around being a high quality player aged 23 years.
In response, the Club had to act quickly to find a replacement. The scouting network had once again already identified Maximilian Wöber playing at RB Salzburg in the Champions League and Austria tipico-Bundesliga as a transfer target for the Club.
With a high recommended rating from the scouts, the player fits the Club vision of signing under-23 year old players for the first team. Cucurella will be thrust into becoming first choice left back, with Wöber given time to adjust to the requirements of the AC Milan system and the prospect of playing at left wing back rather than as a left-sided centre back. It is considered unlikely that Romagnoli will be vacating this latter role in the side soon, given his captaincy of the team.
Further deals were completed in the January transfer window for youth prospects, Bulgarian Stanislav Shopov (£3.4m) and Leonidas Stergiou (£5.75m). Both will be kept in the U23 team to learn Italian and adjust to the AC Milan playing style, acting as back up for the first team, with a view to loaning both players out to gain first team experience to aid their player development next season. The Club are particularly excited about the potential of wonderkid prospect, Stergiou as he appears to have the solid foundations and higher ceiling of the two. At 18, he already appears to be adept in the basic fundamentals of defending and is comfortable with the ball at his feet.
In what was a far busier transfer window than expected, and indeed hoped for, the AC Milan hierarchy hope that the new players can bed themselves in quickly to their new environment and the rigour of Europa League and Serie A football to continue their good form in both. An update on the full 2020-21 season will be the focus of the next post.