It is something they have done before: AC Milan could lose to Atalanta but beat Barcelona. They’re up for the big teams, but not necessarily the rest. Against Atletico Madrid in February, Milan played their best game of the season, and they should have scored at least once, but they drifted and let Diego Costa get the winner. The same happened at home against Juventus, a team which did little to deserve the opening goal but got it nonetheless.
In both of those matches, Milan failed to score, and in both games they hit the woodwork. That is a fact rendered not purely by luck. It is their fault they couldn’t keep up with either team, and it is their undoing that they could not play a full game.
But the score is almost irrelevant. The rest of this season is a trial, whereby the performance means more than the result. So far behind are Milan that Juventus could halve their total number of wins in Serie A and still have more than the Rossoneri. It is no surprise that Juve won.
These are opportunities to show themselves—and perhaps nobody else—that they can compete with the best. Coach Clarence Seedorf sees the improvement, and it will not stop here. “The Coach has asked us to help each other, to trust in ourselves and to give everything on the field, as if we were always playing a final,” Urby Emanuelson told sportal.it (h/t Football Italia) on Monday.
Seedorf has Milan playing without shackles, and they are trying to press at all times and maintain the ball. The further they can keep it away from their own half, the better. Milan just don’t have the stamina to manage the same high tempo for 90 minutes. But they go for the goal and they are trying to establish their own brand.
Pazzini works as the main striker
If Mario Balotelli is the primary target on the field—he is, on average, fouled third-most among players in Europe, according to WhoScored.com—perhaps Giampaolo Pazzini is the man to offer some relief. He is capable of holding up the play, and he does a lot of groundwork outside the box for a player built to score headers and goals inside the box.
Against Juventus, Pazzini often exchanged the ball with Kaka. With his back to goal, the Italian nudged it with his head into the path of the Brazilian, but the shot went wide. It is the openings Pazzini provides that make him such a great outlet, and perhaps better than Balotelli. “Pazzini has more experience than Balotelli,” Seedorf told reporters, per Goal, “and where Balotelli has space to grow, Pazzini provides more of a guarantee.”
Milan needs to find a way to play both Pazzini and Balotelli— David Amoyal (@DavidAmoyal) March 2, 2014
Several times on Sunday Pazzini made the runs but simply did not connect. Sprinting into the box, Ignazio Abate sent a ball toward the near-post of Gianluigi Buffon, and Pazzini was just too late to tip or redirect it anyway. But the idea was there.
Pazzini also beat Leonardo Bonucci in a foot race after Urby Emanuelson launched the ball half the distance of the field, and the striker dashed inside the penalty area and out and kept probing. He later dished the pass.
Pazzini is the type of player to maneuver in dangerous areas of the pitch. He likes to buy time, passing the ball out wide if a player is rushing to help. He is a bit more of a threat than Balotelli, who tends to do more in the middle of the pitch. Where Balotelli starts plays, Pazzini finishes them. And they are effective together.
Balotelli + Pazzini have never started a game together, but have played together for a total of 271 minutes - scoring 8 goals between them— Paolo Bandini (@Paolo_Bandini) February 19, 2014
Chances come and go
Little stood in front of him, but Andrea Poli still missed the net. Twice it wasn’t even close: from short range, not a few yards, he blasted it over the bar and into the stands. And it’s not the first time he has squandered a real chance from such close quarters.
It was symptomatic of a greater problem for Milan. They simply don’t score enough. Kaka registered the most shots (5) in the game, according to WhoScored.com, and there was a particular opportunity that was demoralizing. He had two attempts at the ball. The first was saved by Buffon; the next a goal-line clearance.
The power behind both shots was weak. Kaka opted to finesse the ball, and he wasn’t quick enough. Sometimes he lacks the confidence to smack the ball into the net. It’s that split-second of hesitation that kills the opportunity. He has not scored in nine matches, the longest drought of the season, and it is not a coincidence that he is taking more shots and scoring less.
There are technical problems, too, and these are most basic. Emanuelson is hard to catch on the run, and he is dynamic when he has the ball. He is 5’7" and he has the body to negotiate a way out of tricky situations. But the crossing is dire.
He completed just two of 14 crosses, most of them sailing over the players and out of bounds. It is not necessarily his fault: He is indeed, naturally, a left-back, but his former manager, Massimiliano Allegri, played him as everything but the goalkeeper. There is a consistency to his game that he lacks, and he has demonstrated that he can create opportunities. It is just a shame that he hasn’t managed to control his own power.
His team won’t help. Very often do Milan enjoy a larger share of the ball during the game than their opponents, and they did against Juventus. Nothing shows for it. They tackle more and shoot more and generally do more. But they have only scored five goals in their past six matches in all competitions. Without goals, the rest is trimming.
|Shots||On Target||Off Target||Corners||Tackles||Fouls||Possession|
All stats compiled by WhoScored.com
Milan most vulnerable without the ball
Seedorf has his team playing on the attack, and that’s when they thrive. But that’s only half of the game, and as Milan push up, they leave themselves open at the back. Throughout the season, some combination of any of the seven defenders available to them have played for Milan in the centre of defence.
Most recently Adil Rami and Daniele Bonera have teamed up. Chemistry is not instantaneous, unless it combusts, and even though Rami is a positive modern defender who pushes forward, much like Thiago Silva before him, and scores the odd goal, he is not the strongest marker.
It makes sense that Milan conceded the first goal to Juventus so close to the end of the half. They couldn’t close it out, a few seconds of concentration lost. Bonucci delivered a long pass from his own end, and Rami did not clear the ball. Juventus swarmed, Claudio Marchisio jumping on the ball, and Stephan Lichtsteiner joined him. Several passes connected in the box, and Fernando Llorente scored with the easiest of kicks.
It all happened within 10 seconds. Almost 45 minutes of hard work undone in seconds. Riccardo Montolivo put his hands on his head, because he knew it. Seedorf looked blank. Arturo Vidal was laughing in the stands. That’s just the problem with Milan: They can’t stay focussed.
The second goal was not as unstoppable as it looked. The shot itself from Carlos Tevez was ferocious, but again Milan stopped playing for just a moment. Nigel de Jong left Tevez a few yards of space, and he was slow to react.
Best @olicostamagna quote on Tevez. 'amazing strike but he had time to read the newspaper and then take aim and shoot, how?'— Mina Rzouki (@Minarzouki) March 2, 2014
By then Juventus had already changed their game and controlled more of the ball, and Milan started to whither. They can’t last. But they can compete. These are no reactive tactics: Seedorf wants his team to take the initiative. If it was up to him, he would play with four or five attacking players. Finally, Milan are starting to play to win the game.