You read this after the 2022-23 Champions League Final. AC Milan have just lost to Manchester City at Wembley after a 119th minute extra time goal by Bernardo Silva secured the trophy for the Citizens, after Piątek had missed a penalty in normal time. Within two days AC’s double scudetto-winning manager was fired. Why, you ask? Let’s find out.
Numerous slips saw their Serie A points tally fall from 90 to 76, costing them the scudetto, which returned to the trophy cabinet at Juve’s Allianz Arena. A sixth place finish was not enough for a place in the Champions League, with the Club having to settle for the Europa League in the 2023-24 season.
Before the opener against Perugia, Mattia Caldara damaged his cruciate ligament. Caldara had been a stalwart for the team over previous seasons but was going into the final year of his contract, with AC officials said to be considering negotiating a new deal for the 29-year-old Italian international. News from the medical department that he was expected to miss between seven to nine months, and, as it turned out, he missed the entire season. This left the club with no option but to effectively write off the final year of his deal and look to quickly moved on in the transfer market, following the sale of Mussachio just days prior. This led directly to the acquisition of Corbo from Bologna in the Summer transfer windown.
Consequently, the Club were left with captain Romagnoli, plus new boys Upamecano and Corbo as the main central defenders, with Wöber able to deputise at left centre back should he be required.
In analysing at least one of the contributing factors of what went wrong, focus can immediately be placed here – la difensore centrale – the central defence.
Their apparent inability to engage in tackles, saw the trio of main centre backs complete an average of just 1.09 tackles/90 across their minutes played – Upamecano – 0.84, Corbo – 1.10 and a Romagnoli – 1.33 (see below for the images or click on the hyper-linked player names above for click-able graphics). With the level of interceptions per 90 just as unimpressive, opponents were able to build attacks and run at them, seemingly secure against being dispossessed by either of the centre back pairing no matter who played. Whilst their ball playing capabilities were almost without parallel across the top five leagues, their defensive metrics ranked close to, if not at, the very bottom.
Whilst Technical Director, Paolo Maldini would argue that to make a tackle is to already have made a mistake, it’s hard to accept that this is the case here. This cataclysmic failure to defend against attacks by making a tackle, or intercept the ball by skilful anticipation, reading the game playing out in front of/around them, saw AC Milan’s goals conceded tally rise by nine compared to the previous campaign.
Widening the focus out to the rest of the back line, the frequency of mistakes makes for some shocking reading. Fullbacks Cucarella, Calabria and Conti averaged an alarming 2.39 mistakes per 90, or 37.93 minutes per mistake. When a team can’t rely upon the flanks of the defence not to make a mistake during a half of football, then the team is liable to be at risk of seeing their play break down. As a consequence, the opposition are presented with an opportunity to act upon those failures, in this case in wide areas, and look to strike. The turnover of possession and the inability to complete an interception or win a tackle/header saw teams play against I Rossoneri without the accustomed fear that had been there over previous seasons.
As a team, AC Milan completed merely twenty five fewer tackles compared to the previous season, but crucially, their tackle win percentage also dropped off by 2%. Donnarumma conceded 0.63 goals per 90, compared to 0.36 the season prior, whilst his minutes on pitch per goal conceded went from 248 minutes/goal to 143 minutes/goal. Shots faced/90 was roughly comparable to the 2021/22 campaign, but his save rate/90 fell, as did the number of shots he held, indicative of his drop-off in handling as his shots parried/90 rose. This means opposition attackers may have had opportunities to score from easy tap ins with the goalkeeper out of position to respond to the shot.
This, at least partially, was behind the nine additional goals conceded. It culminated in eight losses, six more than the previous year. Below is a graphical representation of the season, indicating the minute goals were scored by AC Milan players and against them. Whilst AC did record twenty-two clean sheets, six out of the eight defeats were by a single goal. Three of the eight were also from a winning position, perhaps signifying an over-confidence amongst the squad and the inability to close out a game.
With games having to be scheduled around the Winter World Cup of 2022, domestic and European fixtures were crammed into the early season and January to allow for the fact that no club football would be played in November and only one game in December after Christmas. With a number of players away on international duty at the World Cup and lacking fitness on return, there is perhaps the two points collected out of nine following the return of Serie A should be looked back upon as the downfall of AC’s campaign.
Using a ten-game rolling average of goals scored and conceded highlights the rough patch that Il Diablo went through just before and after the World Cup. The rolling average goals scored drops off, falling to just over a goal a game midway through the season, with only a marginal difference to the rolling average goals conceded. It is this stage that the damage was done, as shown by the league position. By March, AC were 7th and adrift of the Champions League qualification places and had lost any hope of retaining their title.
So what else went wrong? Why were they more open? Misfortune or poor tactics?
Stile di gioco
As hinted at in the last blog post, following the new board’s recruitment of Declan Rice, the coaching team felt compelled to play the England international in his preferred position in the defensive midfield strata. As a result, the team moved away from the nominally flat midfield three by shifting the central deep lying playmaker back into the pivot. The issue with doing this was that this subsequently allowed the opponents more time when in transition to stabilise possession to launch attacks as they had more space within the central midfield zone, providing them with more opportunities to make defence splitting passes, either through or over the top of the back line.
Rice’s arrival meant fewer minutes for Tonali, who over previous seasons had been the regista of the team, if not in actual player role then certainly in reality. The problem with Rice is that he was neither a regista nor a mediano, in the style of say former AC Milan player and manager, Gennaro Gattuso. He lacked the guile and vision to be a top level playmaker and the ‘palle’ to be an aggressive stopper.
Looking at the below graphic, the lack of creativity from midfield becomes apparent. The paucity of chances created by the central midfielders underlines the lack of playmaking by these players. The low frequency of passes per ninety amongst the more attacking/advanced central midfield players could be indicative of the fast verticality of AC Milan’s play, but equally it could be a sign that when the play slowed down in attacking phases that these players weren’t able to find space to be involved in play. Bruno Guimarães’s metrics in this area are notable – to have averaged 44.39 passes/90 but to have only created 0.18 chances/90 and made five assists speaks volumes for someone who is meant to be offering himself in central positions when in the attacking phase.
This is where the move towards the single pivot with Rice could have been a critical flaw with AC’s tactical set-up – allowing the two more forward central midfielders to sit narrower and increasing the gaps between their wide forwards, resulting in opposition midfielders have more chance to place themselves in the passing lanes so that play was broken up. Consequently, this would help to contribute to the 25% fall in chances created from the season prior. This theory looks to be supported by Dani Olmo, Lucas Paquetá, Hamed Junior Traorè and Calvin Stengs (metrics are available for each by clicking on their names, bar Stengs’s whose is below).
Stengs was the sole central player who created above 0.4 chances/90, and this was only enough to find him in the bottom 40% of all central midfield players across the Big Five leagues. With Stengs completing a meagre 25.03 passes/90, his assists/90 metric is somewhat remarkable but you have to wonder if he could have been supplied the ball more by his teammates to unlock his creativity. Yet his passing completion statistic of 80% again indicates that the creative players in AC Milan often do lose the ball when trying to deliver key passes.
Indeed average possession and passing accuracy fell compared to previous seasons as players were more wasteful with the ball, seeing loose passes being cut out by the opposition, with Piątek once more choosing to isolate himself despite clear instruction to be more engaged in the build up beyond just throw-ins and shooting on goal. This is visible in his pass completion per 90 metric, completing only 14.56 passes per 90. His NPG/90 was lower than in last campaign, seeing his average drop below 0.50 NPG/90. His goal conversion (goals to shots ratio) fell too to 12.99%.
It’s obviously impossible to know the road not travelled, but it’s hard not to think about what might have been had Suso not been sold to PSG. Have the team missed his creativity and set piece delivery?
Perhaps Buendiá wasn’t given sufficient minutes given his apparent output, but it was Chiesa that impressed more in the advanced winger role down the right wing. Chiesa looks to have been a shinning light in what was otherwise a dour Serie A. His goal conversion of 16.83% placed him just outside the top 10% across the top five leagues, with seventeen goals and his seven assists, giving him a scoring contribution of 0.86 NPG&A/90. Not quite Suso levels of the past season, but still exceptional, so it’s hard to blame the Italian international for his part in proceedings.
Czech youngster, Hložek, had a good session too given his relatively young age. At just 20, his dribbling and tackles and interceptions combined demonstrated his high level of workers for the team both in the attacking and defensive phases of the game. His NPG&A/90 was in the top 20% of all players in attacking wide positions across the Big 5 leagues in Europe at 0.57 non-penalty goal involvements per ninety. If he was to be criticised, his chances created for his team mates could have improved, especially given his attacking intent from his dribbling exploits. By being selfish and shooting himself, he missed providing opportunities for his team mates who were in potentially better spaces to score. His understudy, fellow youngster, Gabriel Veron, played fewer than 1,000 minutes so is not analysed here as a result of the small sample size.
The curious thing is that AC Milan actually scored the most amount of goals in Serie A during the 2022-23 campaign then across the rest of the three year tenure – 78 – despite creating the fewest chances – 89, or 2.34/90. Shot efficiency also peaked at 10.36%. Therefore, it looks to be the case that the jump in number of shots not being held and defensive errors played a bigger part in AC Milan’s failings.
Reclutamento e fidelizzazione – nessun professionista senior, nessuna prospettiva per giovani
Something worth highlight is the lack of AC Milan youth coming through from the academy but also how unsuccessful the scouting set up appeared to be. With regards to the scouting, Chief Scout Geoffrey Moncada had been tasked with being in charge of organising the scouting team on the search for potential targets. Yet any recruitments that were brought in were identified by the manager spending time looking for players. The lack of appropriate targets being suggested by Moncada, with the same names put forward time and time again frustrated the coaching set-up. Whilst the scouting team were sent out to assess the managers targets, they weren’t producing their own suggestions who were likely to be signed by I Rossoneri.
The problems with recruitment and retention could have been another contributing factor towards the sacking. Whilst AC Milan are stacked with players in their prime years, this is also perhaps a weakness. An imbalance across age ranges meant that the squad lacked the guidance, guile and leadership from older, wiser heads who are experienced in seeing games out and dealing with pressure situations. With Andrea Conti being the oldest player in the squad at 29 speaks volumes. Whilst the Club board had instilled a vision of not signing players over 30, this should not have prohibited the manager from retaining older players who were in the inherited squad. Bonnaventura was jettisoned immediately, despite being the one of the most creative players and his replacement, Sandro Tonali, played fewer than 50% of the minutes over the course of the season. Whilst the manager’s hand was forced by the Board’s signing of Declan Rice, it’s clear an oversight not to have retained older players to act as mentors, ensure that the mentality of winning games ‘ugly’ when the opposition are breaking down the play or sitting in a low block.
Equally, the Club’s academy produced no players of potential that were ever close to being in with a chance of being first-team ready. Milan Academy’s initial hope, Daniel Maldini, lacked the progression in attributes to ever make the squad, never mind the first eleven. Not since Gianluigi Donnarumma’s emergence some six years previous, have the Academy created any great prospect. Whilst recruitment was targeted towards remedying this issue, with the likes of Hložek, Tonali, Corbo, Gabriel Veron and Junior Traorè being brought in to add youth to the squad, to not have had any home grown players to supplement these additions must have been a source of great disappointment to those in and around the Club’s hierarchy.
In truth, given the expectations of new board – having spent £196m in the previous Summer transfer window, which yielded no trophies nor a Champions League place for the 2023-24 season – it’s can easily be argued that the sack was warranted.
Ultimately, the Club Directors decision to fire their manager left him looking for a new job. It would be a year before he found a position he thought worthwhile taking, and whilst he dabbled with the idea of another rejuvenation project, trying to help Sampdoria return to Serie A. Instead, it was Juventus that came calling for his services, recognising a serial winner of Serie A when they see one. The road between Milano and Turin is one that has been travelled before by managers as they look to further their career at I Bianconeri, with the likes of Trapattoni, Allegri, and Capello (via Roma) having previously made the relatively short trip across the North of Italy. Tasked with restoring Juve’s status as the top team in Europe, this was a grand job and provided the opportunity to demonstrate to the AC Milan board that they had been too swift in their dismissal.
This marks the end of the Football Manager 2020 blog series, I hope you enjoyed reading it.