Late-winner aids AC Milan’s quest to return to prominence

AC Milan's Italian defender Davide Calabria (R) celebrates with AC Milan's Italian midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura after scoring during the Italian Serie A football match Napoli vs AC Milan on August 25, 2018 at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP) (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)
AC Milan's Italian defender Davide Calabria (R) celebrates with AC Milan's Italian midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura after scoring during the Italian Serie A football match Napoli vs AC Milan on August 25, 2018 at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP) (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images) /

A late winner from Patrick Cutrone defeated Roma and gave AC Milan their first victory of the Serie A campaign at the San Siro this past Friday.

The San Siro is a gargantuan, imposing structure. Its capacity is over 80,000, making it the largest soccer stadium in Italy. Four towers, one in each of corner of the stadium, rise to greet the northern Italy sky; a sky that is often dumping enough rain and flashing enough lightning to be imposing in its own right.

Imposing? How about how the rows in the upper section of the San Siro rise? In Britain, there’s a law that stating that a stand’s gradients can’t exceed 17.5 percent. The gradients in the San Siro’s upper section are right around a vertigo-inducing 30 percent.

Even if you knew nothing about soccer, you’d assume that the tenants of the San Siro were of great importance just by looking at it. And for a large percentage of the stadium’s history you’d be right. Lately, however, that hasn’t exactly been the case.

Sharing the stadium with the also-not-as-relevant-as-they-once-were Inter Milan, AC Milan haven’t played Champions League soccer since the 2013-14 season and haven’t been anywhere near the Scudetto since they placed second in Serie A in the 2011-12 season. In recent campaigns, Rossoneri supporters have had to watch former punching bags Roma and Napoli surpass their club and become more significant players in the Italian soccer landscape.

Poor ownership has been a prominent factor in Milan’s decline. In July, it was announced that Elliot Management would take over Milan after controversial former owner, Li Yonghong, missed a deadline to repay a portion of the more than €300 million debt owed to the U.S.-based hedge fund. Elliot Management co-CEO, Paul Singer, has vowed to return Milan “to the pantheon of top European football clubs where it rightly belongs.”

Milan didn’t look like a club poised to return to any kind of pantheon in their first match of the Serie A season. Facing one of those ex-punching bags, Napoli, Milan conspired to blow a 2-0-halftime lead and lose the match 3-2. Next up this past Friday at an unsurprisingly rainy San Siro was the other ex-punching bag, Roma.

The capital side, perhaps weary from the three goals they conceded in their draw last time out against Atalanta, elected to ditch the 4-3-3 system they have primarily been featuring this season and play with three center-backs in a 3-4-1-2 setup. Roma’s new signing from PSG, Javier Pastore, who had been especially crucial in the team’s build up play (per Understat, heading into the Milan match, he had the highest xG Chain on the team), looked unsure of his positioning in the new formation.

Ostensibly, Pastore was to play behind and provide service for a front two of Edin Dzeko and Patrik Schick. Frequently, however, Pastore would drift high and wide to the left making it difficult for any link to exist between Roma’s forwards and their two defensively inclined midfielders, Daniele De Rossi and Steven N’Zonzi. With Roma struggling to progress the ball forward in any meaningful way, Milan were able to attack aggressively in the first half.

With even just a quick glance at the touchline demeanor of Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso, one would get the sense that “aggressive” is exactly how he wants his teams to play. His thumping heart is permanently festooned to his sleeve. Appropriately enough for the atypically energetic Gattuso, Milan usually play in a 4-3-3 formation that could itself be described as atypically energetic.

Milan’s two wide midfielders (against Roma those were Franck Kessie and Giacomo Bonaventura) often look to fly forward past the wingers, leaving just one true holding midfielder behind them. It’s easy to see how this tactic could lead to defensive vulnerability, but with Roma utterly hapless in attack this didn’t matter. In the first half, Milan saw 63 percent of the ball had seven attempts at goal to Roma’s one. As the first half was winding down, one of those seven Milan attempts fell to Kessie, who was perfectly positioned to slam home a Ricardo Rodriguez cross and give Milan a 1-0 halftime lead.

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Roma were so ineffective in attack in the first half, it would have been of little surprise to anyone watching when manger Eusebio Di Francesco made a substitution and brought on Stephan El Shaarawy to start the second half. El Shaarawy’s introduction changed the dynamic of the match. Taking up residency on Roma’s left flank, El Shaarawy had 42 touches in just one half of play, per WhoScored. With El Shaarawy functioning as a lively outlet, Roma were able to move the ball with greater ease into the final third. For a significant portion of the second half, the match was quite stretched with the two teams trading counterattacks.

For Milan, this meant Gonzalo Higuain dropping deep to receive the ball and play his role in the team’s transitions from defense to attack. If Higuain is someone that spends a lot of time consuming soccer media, he likely spent much of this past offseason angry. It was suggested by more than a few people that the Juventus loanee is starting to show signs of decline. Against Roma though, he looked sharp. He was just fractionally offside in the 61st minute when VAR disallowed a would have been a counter-attack goal from him (everyone’s favorite new addition to soccer also overturned a Roma goal in the second half).

Roma did equalize in the 59th minute through a strike from center-back Federico Fazio, but it was Higuain who was integral to the match’s decisive moment. Again dropping away from the position customarily occupied by a number 9, the Argentine received the ball after Roma were dispossessed and he played a defense-shredding pass to substitute Patrick Cutrone, who slotted home the winner just moments before referee Marco Guida would blow the final whistle.

Despite an increased presence in the final third in the second half, Roma largely lacked a cutting edge with the ball (they finished the match with just .31 xG, per Understat). Milan’s victory was well-deserved. The road back to the “pantheon of top European football clubs” will be a long and challenging one for the Rossoneri. And a late-August win over Roma (no matter how dramatic) is just a baby step along that road. But if you had tried telling that to a fervid and rain-speckled Gattuso after Cutrone’s goal, well, you probably possess a pretty imposing stature yourself.