The final game of 2016 was the perfect ending to the year for Milan. A Supercoppa victory over their rivals Juventus showing the incredible work that Montella and his squad have put together in the first half of the season.
The month of January has seen the Rossoneri just win twice in all competitions – against Torino in the Coppa Italia and a late 1-0 win over Cagliari. A blip in form seemingly at the wrong time when all the sides around them have started the year in excellent form.
Following back to back defeats to Napoli and Juventus in the League and Coppa Italia Quarter-Finals, the pressure was on manager Vincenzo Montella and his side to get back to winning ways. Unfortunately, a third successive 2-1 defeat followed as Udinese came back from 1-0 down to beat the Milanese giant. However, it was not without controversy and injuries to two key players.
Giacomo Bonaventura went down with an abductor injury, which at first didn’t seem serious. In the aftermath, doctors evaluated even further and decided surgery was needed, ruling out the player for the remainder of the season.
Mattia De Sciglio was on the end of a shocking late challenge from Udinese’s Rodrigo De Paul, who later went onto score the winner for Udinese. Luckily, a fractured ankle was ruled out and the Azzurri’s diagnosis sidelines him up to four weeks.
Last week, Milan sent M’Baye Niang out on loan in a bid for the player to recover his confidence elsewhere after poor performances the last few months. The French forward had lost his place to Bonaventura on the left side of the attack and Gerard Deulofeu had been signed on loan from Everton to replace him in the squad. Bonaventura has been the club’s best player this season so far – alongside Suso in attack – with the duo racking nine goals and nine assists between them. The Spaniard’s last three assists set up Jack’s last three goals of the campaign.
Instrumental in how Montella wants his team to play in the transition from defence to attack, his work-rate alongside Juraj Kucka in the midfield enables that to happen with their box to box work up and down the pitch.
Since his great performances at last summer’s Euro for Italy under Antonio Conte, De Sciglio has taken that confidence with him this season under Montella. The trust shown in him by both managers has helped Mattia improve his game as he makes the left-back spot his own for the red and black.
Who is likely to stake a claim for a place in the starting line-up?
Luca Antonelli and Davide Calabria have often disappointed this season when called upon, albeit the latter playing in an unfamiliar position. Summer signing Leonel Vangioni has less than 30 minutes to his name since joining and looked to be on his way out last month before the injury to De Sciglio.
Gerard Deulofeu and Lucas Ocampos were signed on loan deals before Bonaventura’s injury. And, as seen already in Deulofeu’s first two games, Montella was looking to ease the player into the side through appearances off the bench. That won’t be the case going forward with both players competing for a place in Milan’s attack.
The two youngsters were highly rated and tipped for big futures whilst in the academy’s of Barcelona and River Plate. However, both players have failed to really kick on with moves to the Premier League and Ligue 1 after shining at youth level, with consistency at the highest level a concern for Montella as he looks to integrate the two into his side.
So who’s likely to start on Sunday against Sampdoria?
For me, Deulofeu gets the nod over Ocampos because he’s been at the club training a while longer than the Argentine. Not to mention he has already shown glimpses of what he can do in the games against Juventus and Udinese. Personally, I believe his chemistry with Suso is a big plus and can only get better through the game time he receives from Montella.
Although Mattia De Sciglio’s injury is a short term problem, it’s the timing of the injury that’s the biggest problem for Milan, with the lack of replacement’s to come into the side this weekend and going forward.
Both Antonelli and Calabria have been ruled out through injury against Sampdoria on Sunday so Vangioni could be summoned to make his first start of the season on Sunday. Unless of course Montella doesn’t trust the Argentine and decides to move Romagnoli to left-back, thus bringing Gustavo Gomez back into the side alongside Paletta.
Going forward, I think the Italy U-21 defender Calabria deserves another chance to stake his claim in the starting line-up should he be available to Montella after this weekend.
Could a change of systems happen?
No doubt about it, losing both De Sciglio for a month and Bonaventura for the rest of the season is a huge blow going forward. It’s up to Montella to adapt to these circusmstances. A change of tactics to help tighten the defence, give more support to Bacca with a 3-5-2 system or simply bringing the best out of the back up members of the squad, stepping up to fill in for their injured team-mates.
The 4-4-2 has been mentioned to bring Lapadula into the side, providing a little extra in attack. But, the system didn’t work at all last season or in pre-season.
It’s unlikely we will see a change of tactics. The 4-3-3 allows the majority of his squad to fit into the system as Montella prepares for the final three months of the season.
What lies ahead for Milan ?
The next five matches are crucial to their season after three defeats in a row. The likes of Lazio, Inter, Fiorentina and Atalanta have all jumped Milan recently in the league table. Montella’s side now sits in eight place after spending the majority of the first part of the season as a top three contender. With no Cup competitions to focus on going forward, Milan’s sole focus is on the League and qualifying for Europe next season. A birth in next season’s Champions League was going to be unlikely but not qualifying for Europe at all would be a disaster considering how good this young side really is – two victories over Juventus in the league and SuperCup to show for it.
At Fiorentina, Montella’s side often faltered year after year in the second half of the season. When everything seemed in place to qualify for the Champions League, they’d ultimately wind up settling yet again for a Europa League place.
This current blip the Rossoneri have had must end this Sunday when they are at their weakest with several key players missing. A game against Sampdoria – who are coming off an emphatic win over Roma – is to be followed by games against, Lazio, Fiorentina, Sassuolo and Bologna (their game in hand over their rivals).
These five games are no easy feats as we’ve seen this season on multiple occasions where Milan have had to grind out victories. It’s that time of the campaign where performances mean nothing. It’s all about getting that result to push the team up the table. In Milan’s case, it’s something that needs to happen more often if they are to achieve their target of a place back in Europe next season.