Less than a week after AC Milan’s three points escaped their grasp v Internazionale in the 165th Derby della Madonnina, manager Vincenzo Montella and his Rossoneri traveled to the Stadio Carlo Castellani for Matchday 14. In hopes of returning to winning ways against Empoli, Montella tinkered with his lineup quite a bit to experiment but also to get a better idea of who should factor into his rotation with more regularity.
Typically, Montella’s 4-3-3 has looked like: Donnarumma; Abate, Paletta, Romagnoli, De Sciglio; Kucka, Locatelli, Bonaventura; Suso, Bacca, Niang. However, Saturday night in Tuscany saw the former Fiorentina boss make five adjustments to his starting XI. 1. Gustavo Gomez instead of Gabriel Paletta, 2. Mario Pasalic over the bullish midfield prowess of Juraj Kucka, 3. Mati Fernandez in the mezz’ala role often occupied by Giacomo Bonaventura, 4. M’Baye Niang swapped for Bonaventura on the left-wing, and 5. Gianluca Lapadula in for the struggling Carlos Bacca as the spearheading number nine.
Early in the tie, AC Milan and Empoli were involved in a see-saw affair, with both clubs a bit sloppy in possession. Montella’s midfield selections raised some eyebrows prior to kick-off. Over the course of the first forty-five minutes of action, we saw exactly why.
Croatian Mario Pasalic, Manuel Locatelli and Mati Fernandez — before he was subbed off due to injury — were cheaply giving away possession. Luckily for Milan, Empoli’s attacking trident of Riccardo Saponara, Massimo Maccarone and Guido Marilungo laid waste to a plethora of chances which could have saw this one 2 (0r 3)-1 in favour of the home side.
Gianluca Lapadula (who we will get into) opened the scoring at the Castellani before AC Milan surrendered the equalizer to Riccardo Saponara who deposited the ball into an unoccupied net after a lapse in goal by Gianlugi Donnarumma.
After play resumed in the second half with both sides level at 1-1, it was the away side who made the adjustments necessary to obtain the desired result. The red-hot Suso, with a brilliant build-up initiated from the back, found the go-ahead goal before two more nails were hammered in the coffin (Andrea Costa own-goal, Lapadula’s second) on their way to a 4-1 victory.
The first-half was certainly not pretty for Milan who looked to be in line for one of those days. With the Azzurri spoiling their buffet of chances early on, and Milan lacking that quality in the midfield, a tie was not out of the question. However, the overall play up and down the park by Gianluca Lapadula made the difference.
Lapadula’s activity opens up array of opportunities
Gianluca Lapadula and Carlos Bacca — in case you haven’t noticed — are two contrasting forwards with very different qualities. The former got the starting nod against Empoli over the Colombian who has not scored since the thrilling come from behind victory over Sassuolo back in early-October.
Notice how Skorupski plays the ball out wide to Manuel Pasqual who looks to move the ball up the pitch. Suso is the closest to the ball carrier and is not someone the opposition wishes to see on the ball in his current form.
After Mario Pasalic forces Daniele Croce into pressure, Juraj Kucka wins the ball from Assane Diousse before moving play into the final third. Kucka picks out the overlapping Suso who identifies his two options unmarked in the box. With space available, the Spaniard and Lapadula link up. All it takes from here is a calm hit from the former Pescara star, which he does with confidence. 1-0.
One of the many useful qualities Lapadula brings to the side is his relentless work rate in the final third. Many times last year in the Serie B, this was on display. A tremendous understanding of where to be in the penalty area.
The combination play between Lapadula and Abate in creating Suso’s go-ahead goal
Suso’s 61′ goal to put Milan ahead of their opponent was first initiated (here) by the ball-playing central defender Alessio Romagnoli, who was sorely missed last week for plays like this. Suso was the receiver of the pass from Romagnoli, but quickly dished off to Locatelli before making a run forward. Notice on the right Lapadula making a run in behind Andrea Costa.
Lapadula is the eventual recipient from Locatelli who needed to execute his pass perfectly. Tailing the Milan forward is Suso who is a man you do not want to leave unattended around the box. Whether or not Lapadula knew Suso was behind him is irrelevant here. Guarded by two defenders, he plays the better, more conservative ball to Ignazio Abate out wide before taking his position.
Giacomo Bonaventura and Lapadula are in position to latch onto a cross from the Italian full-back, but once again Empoli leave behind them too much green. Suso halts his movement and Abate lays it off.
Empoli failed in their assignment to contain Suso. In his current form, Giovanni Martusciello knew this wouldn’t end well. Skorupski, slightly blinded by his own man, cannot keep the former Liverpool academy youngster from finding the back post for goal. 2-1.
Lapadula holding his run leads to his first Serie A double
At this point, AC Milan were in control of the match. However, Montella has been punished for releasing the foot from the gas on several occasions this year. (v Torino, Inter to name a few.) Learning from their past, Milan continued to apply the pressure and ensured Empoli weren’t to spoil their visit.
After the individual effort to blow by Daniel Croce in their own half, Suso is off to the races. While he has space in front of him, a few options can be played. One, he could slow the counter, let his men come forward and see this one out by maintaining possession. Or, with five Empoli players retreating to the penalty area, and Lapadula making a bending run, he could try his luck. He chose the latter.
Lapadula does well to hold his run, stay onside and make himself available for Suso who leads him on goal. It’s also worth noting that at 3-1, two goals had come from plays out on the right side. An area Milan wore out over the course of 90′.
Eyeing up his first Serie A brace, Lapadula has just Costa and Skorupski to beat. With the far-post begging to be punished, “Lapagol” strikes low to notch his “doppietta.”
While Carlos Bacca was in attendance at the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán to support his former club Sevilla v Valencia, Gianluca Lapadula was putting on a show in Tuscany. The long-traveled striker, who had played for eleven clubs prior to his summer move from the Abruzzo club, has spent the majority of his first season in Serie A from the bench. However, Montella has shown confidence of late in his journeyman number nine and in return, has been richly rewarded for it.
Displays v Palermo where Lapadula scored the match-winner with a nifty back-heel at the Renzo Barbera, and his most recent on Matchday 14 against Empoli has now put Montella in a difficult position heading into December. Bacca’s performance in the Milan Derby last week was a telling sign that a breakthrough may be further out.
What Lapadula provides to this attack goes much further than goals. His movement, ability to exploit channels in the attack and most importantly the never under-appreciated link-up play makes him an ideal fit for this current Milan side. Also worth pointing out is that Lapadula is doing more damage with a similar amount of touches.
Bacca had 16 harmless touches v Inter (via Who Scored), while Lapadula’s 27 Saturday night saw him grab a brace and combine with others in the build-up.
AC Milan knew what they were getting when they purchased Carlos Bacca from Sevilla two summers ago for €30m; a clinical finisher who seldom wastes a chance around goal. Last year, he made wine from water, scoring 18 goals with a small amount of opportunities. However, maybe Lapadula’s qualities are better suited for what the club is looking to achieve.
As Milan refuse to back down from competing for a Champions League spot, you’d assume that Vincenzo Montella will run with the hot hand as 2016’s end creeps closer, and right now that seems to be Lapagol.
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