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Milan’s tight loss to Napoli in the weekend confirmed an enigmatic trend, which has seen the rossoneri’s style of play improve considerably, proportionally, however, to their increasingly poor results. In fact, in their past five games (namely against Roma, Atalanta, Cagliari, Torino and Napoli), Milan have totalled a mere 5 points. Despite this, the team has also objectively undergone some palpable structural improvements – so what are the possible reasons behind Milan’s inconclusiveness?

The first possible answer to this enigma is a simple one: Milan has ultimately faced some of the toughest teams in the Serie A. Cagliari aside, an opponent which the rossoneri did in fact defeat, Vincenzo Montella’s side has played against four direct competitors for a European spot. Roma and Napoli are amongst the best-playing teams in Italy (this applies particularly to the partenopei’s at times Barcelonesque style of play). Atalanta is this year’s revelation, with their successful concoction of promising youngsters and experienced leaders. Finally, Torino has only lost once this year on their home turf, where Milan drew 2-2. Under this lens, Milan’s efforts can be judged more leniently – one must avoid the lure of numbers, which, alone, fail to provide a valid snapshot of the situation.

A problem that numbers do highlight, however, is Milan’s offensive drought: only four goals, one of which was a penalty, scored in these past five games. Surely, Milan’s lack of conclusiveness (and luck) in front of goal has been determining: against Roma, Niang’s penalty would’ve been a game changer. Against Atalanta, both Bacca and Lapadula saw shots cleared right on the goal line. Against Napoli, Mario Pasalic hit the crossbar with a thundering header that could’ve put Milan level. Other than misfortune, one reason for Milan’s recent inability to score has surely been the strikers’ lack of involvement and opportunism. Be it Bacca or Lapadula, the numerous chances created every weekend by Milan’s wingers (Suso, Abate and Bonaventura providing these more than anyone else) have not been capitalised to the maximum. In general, whilst the rossoneri have considerably improved the pace and quality of their ball distribution, in particular due to their growing ability to resist to the opposition’s pressing, they have also failed to finalise this ball possession (an impressive 60% against Napoli).

Vincenzo Montella reacts during the Serie A match between AC Milan and SSC Napoli (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)

Another blatant problem is that relating to Milan’s vulnerability at the beginning of each match, especially during the last three games, against Torino, both in the Coppa Italia and in the league, and against Napoli. Against the granata, in both occasions, the rossoneri conceded goals within the first 20 minutes. In the Coppa they managed to turn the result around, but in the league they were only able to snatch a lucky draw. Once again, Milan’s first 25 minutes against Napoli effectively compromised the rest of the game, during which Montella’s side surely performed well, but was incapable of coming back from the two-goal deficit accumulated at the beginning. Be it a tactical or attitudinal issue, it is surely something that Montella will have to address.

All the same, the fans are generally, and rightfully, satisfied with what they are presented with – after years characterised mostly by confusion and tactical ineptness, Montella is gradually creating a team that is able to impose itself on its opponents and to dominate the game. According to the stats provided this morning by La Gazzetta dello Sport, Milan’s last five games have seen improvements with regards to shots on target (12,6 per game to 16,8), average ball possession (51% to 56%) and successful passes (410 per game to 527). Even without the aid of stats, Montella’s positive impact on the team is visible: the passing of the ball is swift, elaborate and progressively quicker.

Il Diavolo’s next five games will be against Udinese (A), Sampdoria (H), Lazio (A), Fiorentina (H) and Sassuolo (A). On paper, at least three of these games should be easier contests for the rossoneri. Thus, they will provide a decisive evaluation of what exactly the issue behind Milan’s paradox is – objectively tough opponents and a touch of misfortune, or perhaps deeper organisational and attitudinal limits? Only time will tell.





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