Tactical Battles That Will Shape Napoli's Clash with AC Milan

Anthony LopopoloFeatured ColumnistFebruary 6, 2014

MILAN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 01:  Keisuke Honda of AC Milan during the Serie A match between AC Milan and Torino FC at San Siro Stadium on February 1, 2014 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Hardly is a full game played by AC Milan. They went ahead in several matches, only to sit back and eventually lose 17 points from winning positions in Italy. Then they scored goals late, too, and stole points from losing positions.

A chronic deficiency of theirs is a lack of urgency and intensity but for a few shots of adrenaline that seem to propel the spirit, desperate for a goal. It happened on 26 January at Cagliari, where Milan waited until the final few minutes of play to score the equalizer and the winner off a free kick and a corner. Twenty-three of their 35 goals came in the second half this season.

Sometimes the goal would not come. They would waste chances, shooting many times but missing the net even more. They could not beat Genoa with a man advantage and 39 shots attempted, and they failed to get a goal against Inter after threatening to score time and again.

Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

The rest of this season is essentially a trial for Clarence Seedorf, who’s unbeaten in his first three games in Serie A as coach of Milan, and he has set up a new system. Seedorf opts for the 4-2-3-1 formation but it requires pace and stamina and discipline, and that is a tough task for the same slow team.

Maybe Adel Taarabt could add speed on the wings, or maybe Michael Essien is the anchor. The role of Nigel de Jong, the distributor, is even greater. A source of chaos, and frustration, is always Robinho. Even he has five assists.

You could see the players slowing down as games progressed. Urby Emanuelson was unable to do anything but trot back, chasing the play, and Kaka has struggled to make any kind of impact since he scored his 101st goal for Milan. The team tends to rely on the same play, most notably spraying the ball to Mattia De Sciglio at right-back with the hope that he would deliver a good ball in the box. The call often went unanswered.

For all the early success of this 21-year-old, it is his crossing that lacks the control and power to keep the ball within play and lift it past the first defender. The wingbacks have to do more to keep the integrity of the formation intact—lots more running and lots more space to cover. There is Keisuke Honda, too, and he has lacked the fitness to play a full game. Seedorf is only beginning to implement his philosophy. It will take time.

But there is hope. Players itching to be the heroes are starting to show more patience. It is midfielder Sulley Muntari who often scores the weirdest goals at the best of times, but it is also he who is trigger-happy. In a 2-2 draw with Torino last weekend, he was in position to boot the ball into the stands yet again; instead, he laid it off to Adil Rami, making a forceful run into the zone and whacking the ball goalwards.

Defending is not their strongest quality, but Milan could have a player who understands the role of the modern defender. Rami likes to step into action and push forward like Thiago Silva. It is encouraging to see, even if briefly.

In midfield and attack, the quality is not much better. Milan do have 59.9 percent of the ball in possession, according to whoscored.com, and that’s the fifth-highest average in Europe and the best in Serie A.

Lots of those passes in the final third end up out of bounds or into the feet of the wrong player. Mario Balotelli, who has scored nine goals in the league this season, averages 6.2 shots per game, according to whoscored.com, and that’s only second behind Ronaldo.

Milan's next game is against Napoli, who are six points behind Roma in third, and they themselves have not followed the programme. They are winless in their last three games in the league, coming off a 3-0 loss to Atalanta, and they have conceded six goals in their past two games in all competitions.

The defence is shy to say the least. They are comfortable ceding huge parts of the field, backing off or waiting for the onrushing attacker. Against Roma in the Coppa Italia, they lost track of Gervinho and he ran behind them to score twice. There is always an invitation for the opponent to attack, and Milan should look to accept it.

Sometimes they mess up under pressure and spit up the ball; other times they leave gaping holes in the park. It’s lazy work by Raul Albiol, Federico Fernandez, Christian Maggio and Anthony Reveillere, panicky and flat-footed. The bleeding has to stop.

Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

But there are positives. Gonzalo Higuain has 15 goals in 25 starts, and he is always looming. There is dynamite in the boots of Dries Mertens. He has a lethal shot, and he dips and weaves and skips past defenders as if they’re not worth the time. Jose Callejon is a fantastic winger, among the best in Serie A.

Their newest signing, Jorginho, is looking like the deal of the January window. He cost €5 million to get on a co-ownership deal with Hellas Verona. He can lift the ball past a line of defenders and into the path of his striker with a feathery touch.

Along with Gokhan Inler to bludgeon the ball and orchestrate from the deeper recesses of the field, the two could form one of the best midfield tandems in Italy.

Of course these are new players, and manager Rafa Benitez told Rai Sport (h/t to Football Italia) that what they have achieved thus far is “impressive.” It’s up to him to decide what he wants to see from his team.

Benitez opened the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final with Higuain, Lorenzo Insigne and Marek Hamsik after benching them last weekend in Serie A. They will host Roma at the San Paolo on Wednesday down 3-2 on aggregate. Who Benitez chooses to play on Saturday evening will reflect his priorities.