Through the efforts of Alessio Romagnoli and Suso last night, Montella and his Milan showed progress heading into the international break with a confidence-boosting victory over Sassuolo.
On Sunday, Milan visited the Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia with intentions of not only earning a much needed victory in the win column, but also performing in a manner that would foster confidence and a bit of positive form heading into the international break.
In the opening half hour, it appeared to be the same old tactics yielding the same old lacklustre results for hot-seat Rossoneri boss Vincenzo Montella; a few good looks at Andrea Consigli’s goal, but nothing to show for it. Striker Nikola Kalinic, who has been forced to stomach his share of criticism from the supporters for his recent struggles up front, seemed isolated at times and starved of any real service, while also proving wasteful. Hakan Calhanoglu, also feeling some pressure of his own to settle in after moving over from Bayer Leverkusen this past summer, often opted for the low-percentage pass into tighter channels over the the safer – and smarter – ball that would ensure Milan retained the bulk of possession. Yet, as the first half progressed, the entire squad looked a bit more assertive in their approach to attack the home side and ultimately, take control of the tie.
Minutes before the break, Calhanoglu swung in a cross from a short corner and picked out Alessio Romagnoli who headed passed Consigli to score his first goal since April and, more importantly, ensure Milan entered the tunnel with the advantage.
The second half belonged to Milan who, despite not looking all that convincing, showed hunger and desire to tack onto their lead and seal the victory on the road – doing so through yet another moment of sheer confidence, skill and brilliance from star Spaniard Suso.
In the 67th minute, after receiving a lovely ball over the top down the right channel from Fabio Borini, the former Liverpool attacker weaved his way around his marker, cut in onto his lethal left foot and buried his take far post in now trademark fashion. With 81 touches in this one (a match best), it’s clear Suso demands the ball and is willing to shoulder the bulk of attacking and creative duties. And right now, with the likes of Kalinic and Calhanoglu struggling to hit the ground running, Milan are needing every bit of his flair on the right and clearly cast him as the team’s most important player going forward.
Moving into the midfield, Franck Kessie and Riccardo Montolivo started side by side. While it’s not the optimal tandem for Montella and the supporters, the two did share some bright spots in the middle of the park. The Ivorian’s marauding runs into the final third we’d been privy to all of last season while at Atalanta – and earlier this year – were on display, providing a boost in the attack. Montolivo, one of the most targeted players on the roster for years now, looked respectable in place of Biglia, executing 86% of his passes (via WhoScored) and even busting up play on a few occasions. Sure, the wayward passes and proneness to easily giving away possession is headache-inducing, but there is no doubt any decent form he can play into is for the greater good when competing on three fronts.
Defensively, Milan’s entire backline has been nothing short of unsteady this season – in particular, captain Leonardo Bonucci. However, since serving his suspension, the Italian’s psyche looks to be gradually returning to previous form. He’s looked better positioned, well-timed engaging in challenges, vocal and circulating the ball with more belief. With 81% passing accuracy, three long balls, two aerials won and two calculated tackles on Sunday, it appears as though the suspension worked in his favour.
As the leader of the defence, Bonucci still has ways to go before hitting the elite levels of old from his Juventus days. Most would agree they’d like to see Bonucci limit his long-balls and play more on the ground, but his showing on Sunday indicates progress is being made – and that hasn’t gone unnoticed amongst those critical of him in the fanbase. Whether it has something to do with the absence of Biglia remains to be seen. Regardless, witnessing Romagnoli and Zapata grow with Bonucci, build mutual understanding and trust in one another to perform are encouraging signs if you are in the Milan camp.
Sunday’s victory over Sassuolo wasn’t commanding by any means, nor will it persuade Montella biggest critics to ease up on him. But it’s three points Milan will take with them into the international break, and look to draw momentum from when they travel to the San Paolo on the 18th to clash with Napoli.