AC Milan are now about a week away from taking on their first challenging opponent this season.
The Rossoneri take on Lazio on September 10, in round three of Serie A and their seventh competitive game. Lazio, of course, finished seven points ahead of Milan last year, good for fifth place in Serie A, and started the season on a high note with a Supercoppa victory over Juventus.
Milan’s performances so far, despite the fact that none of the squads have been on the level of Lazio or other teams that will come up on Milan’s schedule later, have been up and down.
Milan crushed KF Shkendija 6-0 in the Europa League Playoff first leg at San Siro, and beat Crotone 3-0 away three days later. On the flip side, Milan had a hard time against Cagliari, scraping away with a 2-1 win thanks to some free-kick heroics from Suso, and got just a 1-0 victory against KF Shkendija in the return leg.
While it is true the season has just started, and that Milan have several players in key positions who still need to get used to playing together, you would expect Milan to handle a team like Cagliari better than they did.
One could say Milan are fortunate that in the first six weeks of their schedule, the toughest teams are Sampdoria and Lazio. It is not until October that Milan runs into Roma, so Milan still has some time to gel together and figure things out.
That being said, what has been going on for the Rossoneri? What has not clicked? Many would expect instant results from the amount of money spent and players brought in, but seeing the team struggle with Cagliari definitely raised some eyebrows.
Milan have looked disorganized at times, while firing on all cylinders at others. Sometimes the play flows and works crisply, and sometimes they resort to back-passes and long balls, which puts Milan back where they started.
The defense does not need a lot to be done to improve. The team finally has depth at center-back after years of scraping by. With Leonardo Bonucci, Alessio Romagnoli, Mateo Musacchio, Gustavo Gomez, and Cristian Zapata, Milan could play with three at the back or stick with their current system of a back four.
Their wing-back situation is also settled, with Ricardo Rodriguez and Andrea Conti holding down the sides of the pitch and moving forward. What Milan needs in the defense more than anything is for Romagnoli to get healthy and stay healthy. But defense is not what Milan should primarily be concerned about now.
The attack is a slightly different animal. With Giacomo Bonaventura injured, Milan have resorted to Fabio Borini starting, which I do not see as the long-term solution.
Bonaventura is key to the offense of Milan, and when he is out it is noticeable. Besides getting Bonaventura, with his vision, skill, and movement back on the pitch, Milan just need to decide what shape they want to take and how minutes will be managed. Patrick Cutrone has been a revelation so far, but Milan also have Andre Silva and Nikola Kalinic. Suso has cemented his spot in the lineup, and Bonaventura will reclaim his when he returns from injury after Milan did not add a winger at the end of the transfer window.
The midfield is where Milan are in need of improvement, and it is going to show in a big way in the coming matches. While Franck Kessie has already shown himself to be valuable to the team and an asset on the pitch, he is still adjusting to the squad and is young.
In the left spot, Hakan Calhanoglu looks to be the man for the job, with other options being Jose Mauri and Niccolo Zanellato. These two new arrivals have made themselves mainstays in the squad, but it is the center of the pitch that needs attention from Milan.
The central midfield spot in Vincenzo Montella’s 4-3-3 has been the talk of many throughout the summer. Manuel Locatelli looks great at times, but makes mistakes and is clearly still growing, however promising he may be.
Riccardo Montolivo has been holding that spot down for years, and while many supporters may not be his biggest fans, he continues to be entrusted with that central role by Montella. Lucas Biglia picked up an injury and has not started for Milan yet.
There has been a surprising lack of consistency in that area, considering Milan have a youth talent, an experienced player, and a new signing who was captain of his old squad in a regista role. Not only do Milan need consistency, but they need organization.
Montolivo has shown time and time again he is not the leader on the pitch to go out and will the team to victory. He looks disinterested at times and makes poor decisions, sometimes creating chances for the other team. His back-passes and long ball attempts are momentum-killers, and he does not contribute much to the squad. Locatelli, meanwhile, can make rash decisions, pick up fouls more easily, and can disappear from the game. Biglia has not had much of a chance to see time for the Rossoneri because of an injury, but will see more time after the international break. When he has seen the pitch, Milan seem more organized and directed in the right way.
This is not to say that starting Biglia or benching Montolivo are the only solutions and will solve all of Milan’s issues, but they need consistency in that central midfield spot.
They need a rock, an anchor, in the center of the pitch who gets back on defense, pushes forward on offense, creates space and takes advantage of it, keeps his head on a swivel looking for passes, gets the ball downfield, distributes to men who are making cuts on offense, and does not take momentum out of the game. That is what the man in the middle is supposed to do, and Milan have so far played two players who have shown mixed performances. Montolivo scored a brace in Milan’s 6-0 win. Locatelli makes better passes and is more of an asset offensively. Biglia has been bright whenever he has been in.
Once Milan have the starter locked down in that spot, and secure some consistency on the pitch in terms of ball movement, space, and on-ball work, they will take a massive step forward in not only playing better, but gelling as a team.
In addition, when Milan have that consistency, they can develop a rotation that benefits the team and the growth of their players between their three competitions. It is also notable that Milan did not add another midfielder, a position which many said they could use another of for depth and rotation purposes, at the end of the transfer window, so for now they must use what they have. For the center of the midfield, that is Locatelli, Biglia, Montolivo, and Sosa.
Milan have shown flashes of brilliance so far this season, but they have mainly been individual brilliant moments. When Milan locks down the center of the midfield, the rest of the squad will fall into organization, and that will only benefit the team for the rest of the season, as they look for a return on their investment and a return to the top of Italy.