M’Baye Niang is one among many refreshing young players who point towards an exciting future for AC Milan. The 21-year-old is a regular in the starting lineup, and his talent is obvious for all to see. However, he is also dogged by a persistent issue in the final third.
As a forward, scoring and creating goals is generally considered to be a necessity. But the Frenchman has not made a habit of doing either.
In 12 Serie A outings this season, he has scored just three times, assisting twice for team-mates. Along the way, he has skewed shots wide and missed opportunities, only furthering the notion that he is ultimately inefficient when it comes to making and taking chances.
Niang is gifted, but falling short in front of goal will not aid his cause as Milan progress domestically with the intention of returning to the UEFA Champions League in the near future.
Here, Bleacher Report considers how much of a problem his lack of end product genuinely is.
One way to gauge the attacker’s efficacy in and around opposition penalty areas is to compare his statistical performance to that of the team-mates who often line up alongside him in the forward line—Carlos Bacca and Suso.
In doing so, it becomes clear that Niang is a relatively poor finisher.
In terms of attempts on goal, he lies between Suso and Bacca with 2.56 shots per 90 minutes. However, while his colleagues achieve admirable accuracy percentages of 70 and 71, respectively, he hits the target with a mere 35 per cent of his efforts.
Consequently, it is no surprise to learn that his goals rate is also lower—he finds the back of the net 0.32 times per 90 minutes, compared to Suso’s 0.39 and Bacca’s 0.58. Additionally, while he does create more chances than the latter, he is still bested by the former in this category.
Essentially, he simply isn’t as productive in the final third; Bacca is a more clinical finisher, while Suso is a more consistent creator. As such, it's fair to say Niang’s end product could be improved.
In this respect, he couldn’t ask for a better guiding hand than head coach Vincenzo Montella. The Milan boss made his name as a striker with a nose for goal, something he evidenced during particularly prolific spells with Sampdoria and AS Roma in Serie A throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
If Niang is to sharpen up on his finishing, Montella will know a few tricks to help him do so. Indeed, the player has already spoken of his coach’s influence.
“Montella introduced himself to us and declared: ‘I will make a group of this squad.’ He was right,” Niang told Tuttosport (h/t Football Italia). “When we’re struggling during a match, it is the group dynamic that pushes each individual to give more.”
While the statistics point to the need for Niang to work on his end product, it’s also worth considering that his wide left-sided starting position is a different one to that of Bacca, who shoots most often from inside the 18-yard box, while Suso has relished a slightly more central role this season as a sort of false winger.
Last term, the 21-year-old established himself as a key player up front alongside his Colombian striking team-mate as part of a duo within the 4-3-1-2 and 4-4-2 systems often favoured by previous coach Sinisa Mihajlovic. However, his role has changed a great deal since Montella came in.
This season, Milan have often been set up in a rough 4-3-3 shape, with Niang on the left wing. The new setup plays to his strengths, while minimising his lack of a composed finishing touch.
Unlike Suso on the right, he tends to maintain a wide position close to the left touchline, while left-back Mattia De Sciglio often tucks inside as opposed to overlapping in the manner of right-back Ignazio Abate. This structure has several tactical benefits.
One of them is that the wide position allows Niang greater space with which to receive and control the ball—while his first touch is good, he relishes having the extra room to manoeuvre, where his physical and athletic attributes can be used to their full extent. Another is that it often isolates him against his marker, enabling him to utilise his dribbling skill and pace to good effect in a one-on-one situation.
Cutting in from the left on to his preferred right foot, his combination of speed, trickery, audacity and sheer strength is unrivalled across Milan’s attacking options. While Bacca is an excellent finisher, he lacks physicality. Suso is technically superb but doesn't have the raw explosiveness to always go beyond the last man. Others such as Luiz Adriano, who has blistering pace without a refined touch, and Gianluca Lapadula, who is vice versa, are also limited.
In this sense, Niang is unique. His diverse array of characteristics, including a voracious work ethic, positional versatility and a good all-round game, make him a valuable part of the team regardless of his ability to find the net on a consistent basis.
Niang arrived at Milan as a highly rated prospect, but he struggled to assert himself within Serie A for a prolonged period. He failed to score a single goal in 20 appearances during his maiden campaign and continued to fire blanks throughout the following two seasons.
Incredibly, having joined the Rossoneri in August 2012, it took him over three years to record his first league goal for the club.
On November 28, 2015, he opened his Serie A account for Milan with an effort from the penalty spot against Sampdoria on 38 minutes. And, four minutes into the second half, he had doubled his tally, finding the net after a defensive mix-up. The relief on his face was plain for all to see.
Amid the long barren spell, a key turning point for Niang came during a six-month loan spell with Genoa in the latter portion of the 2014-15 campaign, in which he found the net five times in 14 league appearances. Prior to that period, his issues in the final third were brutally evident; he was a raw talent with great potential but no end product.
This is no longer the case.
While his efficiency could be improved, Niang has made some progress in recent years. He is scoring and setting up goals at a much higher rate than he was in 2012-13. Worryingly, his shot accuracy is down by 12 per cent from last term, but this could also be temporary—a dip in form—or simply the by-product of a major positional shift.
He may not be the player his team-mates, or Milanisti, want to see getting on the end of chances, but, as the tactics employed by Montella hint at, he is no penalty-box specialist.
The idea that he may one day take over from Bacca and lead the line remains more romantic than realistic at this moment, though for the time being he offers more than enough in other areas of the pitch to justify his selection.
Niang’s poor end product should not be glossed over. Fortunately, at 21 years of age, he has plenty of time to work on this element of his game. In the meantime, Milan should maximise the abundance of other qualities that he brings to the attack.
All statistics provided by Squawka.com unless otherwise stated.