Mina Rzouki investigates what’s going wrong at Milan.Embed from Getty Images
Two red cards, four goals conceded. Milan capitulated. In the Stadio San Paolo, Milan visited Napoli on Saturday evening in hopes they would achieve their first win in that stadium since 2010. Equipped with a new manager, who in his short time with the club has already established an identity, the Rossoneri were full of hope.
Maurizio Sarri’s Partenopei were still wounded by Gonzalo Higuain’s departure and had only managed a 2-2 draw against newly Promoted Pescara last week. Pitted against Vincenzo Montella’s Milan was a challenge they hoped they wouldn’t face so early into the season yet within 33 minutes, Napoli were not only 2-0 up but they had a new goal scorer to applaud with conviction. Arkadiusz Milik tore up the Rossoneri defence and provided the home side with the perfect first half performance.
Bruised and wounded, Milan took to the pitch for the second half and played with pride, striking twice within 15 minutes of the restart. In possession, Montella’s men can be sublime to watch. Fluid and quick, six quick touches and Milan transition from defence to offence. Fast vertical football boasting accuracy and efficiency.
Off the ball, they are wretched. Incapable of defending as a team, Ignazio Abate was repeatedly left for dead by a determined Dries Mertens. Offered no support by his teammates or Suso ahead of him, the Rossoneri backline may have erred consistently but they were offered no help by a midfield that lacks genuine quality.
Riccardo Montolivo no longer seems to have the energy or creativity to offer the midfield the quality it needs. Seemingly mentally and physically exhausted, he’s at least that bit more intelligent than Juraj Kucka, a player who succumbs to frustration at the first sign of trouble. Both cumbersome and unable to cope with the duality of the role they hold, the backline is left isolated and forced to fend for itself. Had it not been for a sublime performance by the 17-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma, Napoli would have managed more goals in the first half.
Montella must address two problems his side have. The first is that his all-out attacking style of play will always leave the defence vulnerable and under pressure should possession be lost. Considering the lack of talent, his players will lose the ball, frequently. The second is that his squad struggle to play as a collective unit. Individualistic on too many occasions, players must learn how to sacrifice and the formation or indeed style of play must be tweaked to achieve balance. As Gazzetta dello Sport astutely pointed out, Milan’s former coach, Sinisa Mihajlovic relied on a 4-4-2 formation to rediscover balance in a side that was defensively fragile in the absence of great defensive talents such as Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta.
Sacrificing for the sake of the unit is the reason why teams such as Juventus excelled. Carlos Bacca is a monster when allowed to attack balls in the box but he must learn how to contribute to the overall game, helping out his teammates who can be overwhelmed with the extent of their duties. While Abate and Mattia De Sciglio erred on several occasions, the pressure applied by the opponent and the lack of help offered by their teammates rendered them incompetent.
Yet despite all their defensive weaknesses, Milan looked capable of the win early in the second half. However, once their mental fortitude was put to the test, the players collapsed. Succumbing to madness at the first sign of trouble has become a trait of the new Milan. Mentally fragile and lacking the composure required to win the difficult games, Montella has so much work to do, both on and off the pitch.
Three red cards in the first two games of the season demonstrates a weak mentality. Players have to learn how to suffer together, how to grit their teeth and overcome the obstacles in much the same way Cagliari managed against Roma over the weekend.
Attacking football has and always will be the way forward for Milan and Montella is the right man to implement such tactical ideals. In time he will find the right balance but until then, it’s time to teach his players guile and the beauty of unity.