For a club like Milan, 11 years is a long wait.
Not to mention the huge hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan during this period, with turbulent changes in ownership and coaching that have impacted various transformations of approach both on and off the pitch. , these 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift. .
The Rossoneri’s last Serie A title in 2010-11 stands in stark contrast to this year’s title charge which ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 victory at Sassuolo.
In 2010-11 the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – when Massimiliano Allegri was hired as coach, Alexandre Pato came into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva consolidated their respective world-class statuses. footballers in their positions, in the middle of the end of the careers of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.
This Milan side inherently reflected their era, relying on Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic’s additional contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But going into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to score more than 10 goals.
Reflecting the full role that midfielders at the pinnacle of European football must come to characterize, Milan effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third to fall back on. Less diplomatically, the first third of Milan was a collection of mismatched toys mixed in as the purse strings tightened.
Despite dropping after Christmas, that’s what made last season’s run so distinct, as it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this run. After the injuries of Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of the exploits of Franck Kessie and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at the back left. Their 3-2 win over Lazio at Christmas was a particularly distinct example.
How did this Milan side secure that Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something lasting out of it, given that the Scudetto for this project is arguably ahead of schedule, despite the loss of Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, as well as back-to-back injuries to Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?
Unlike last season, Milan have come home safely, unbeaten since losing in mid-January to Spezia. After the Africa Cup of Nations as well as a string of debilitating injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the questionable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.
With the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the little Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking him away from the opposition, both in an attacking and defensive sense. The latter is a critical aspect for Stefano Pioli, with Milan pressing high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team in combined tackles and interceptions (4, 08) for 90.
What’s particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close the middle for the opposition by where he wins the ball, not just how much he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step in on the opposition’s initial pass into Milan’s defensive half and go out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to transition through or maintain territorial superiority.
His spatial awareness also transfers to the attacking side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact that he shows the ball at his feet in areas that his midfield teammates do not.
This frees up his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to get out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) eclipses Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more ball through the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 compared to 65.51 for Tonali and 66.63 for Kessie.
Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated into a corresponding gap in the chances created by open play.
Kessie – who scored against Sassuolo – leads the three with 1.05 for 90 this season, compared to 0.84 for Tonali and 0.98 for Bennacer. Kessie’s upcoming move to Barcelona could actually unlock Milan’s best tandem in Pioli’s 4-2-3-1.
With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His xG p90 open game of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from p90 open play are simply stunning from left-back – especially compared to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre’s respective 0.55 and 0.34 Kalulu in the latter category.
Ultimately, in the middle of Ibrahimovic at 40, members of the Milan attack have largely singular skills and, in sum, are still largely inflexible.
Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available – are all needed to some degree on top of what they provide in defensive pressure on the pitch, but with the ball , Milan is a much less flexible team. absent that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend’s victory over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.
The need to maximize the balance of midfield versus attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic throughout Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus’ waning power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies in the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break the 90 points, none reflect this dynamic better than the Rossoneri.
The narrative accompanying Milan’s Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being unquote “back”.
Their ability to maintain that level domestically over the coming seasons – as well as challenges on the continent, with soft Champions League group stage exits like this season only being tolerable for so long among a base of ambitious fans – will ultimately depend on how well this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.