An interesting couple of days in Serie A, where Juventus and Roma closed the gap on Napoli and Inter. Continue reading
Serie A is renowned for its strong defending and this year is no different. In a culture that values that side of the ball so highly, it is inevitable that centre-backs prosper and new youngster manage to establish every season. The best one so far has been Milan Skriniar: there was a little scepticism when Inter picked him as the lone reinforcement in that area, but he has been granitic. An all-around player with no clear flaws. The couple with Joao Miranda is among the league’s finest, if it not the best already. He is averaging 1.5 tackles, 1 interceptions, 5 clearances and 0.8 blocked shots per game, per WhoScored. He has drawn comparisons to a young Nemanja Vidic and Walter Samuel.
Mattia Caldara started the season late because of a summer injury and the U-21 European Championship, but he immediately went back to being the leader of the stout Atalanta backline. A rugged defender, he is a force in the air as his many goals testifies. He is averaging 1.7 tackles, 2.2 interceptions, 3.7 clearances and 0.8 blocked shots per game, per WhoScored. It will be his final season with the Bergamo club as Juventus already scooped him up a year ago.
His partner in the Bianconeri’s defence in the future will be Daniele Rugani. Massimiliano Allegri has been reluctant to thrust him in a bigger role, but in his limited appearances he has performed better than Andrea Barzagli and Medhi Benatia. He is more of a finesse player compared to Skriniar and Caldara, but his physical game has improved over the last two seasons. The duo with Giorgio Chiellini will eventually end up being Juventus’ go-to pairing in big games. He is averaging 0.4 tackles, 0.6 interceptions, 3.2 clearances and 1 blocked shots per game, per WhoScored.
Alessio Romagnoli has struggled at the start of the season, due to a tough summer where he had to deal with a meniscus injury and because the whole new Milan defence has not gelled yet. However, he remains squarely among the best Italian prospects in this role. There is no reason why a Mateo Musacchio-Leonardo Bonucci-Romagnoli backline should not work: the process simply takes some time. He is averaging 0.8 tackles, 1 interception, 4.2 clearances per game, per WhoScored.
One rookie quickly rose to the upper echelon of young defenders: Torino’s newcomer Lyanco. It is not easy for youngsters to win over Sinisa Mihajlovic right away, but he managed to do just that. He is only 20-years-old and he has immense potential. He has beaten out Emiliano Moretti and Kevin Bonifazi for the starting job, unfortunately he has suffered an ankle sprain that will sideline him for a while.
There are a couple names in the smaller clubs that are worth monitoring. Sampdoria worked hard this summer to get Gianmarco Ferrari from Sassuolo, but Marco Giampaolo so far has preferred Vasco Regini over him, not so subtly inviting him to practice harder. He is talented and should end up playing a lot. Francesco Vicari is in a tough situation at Spal, but he is holding his own as anchor of the defence and he is one of the few highpoints of the Ferrara team.
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Milan have won all Europa League games so far and four out of six in Serie A: some would call it an excellent start, but the two losses, against Sampdoria and Lazio, did show some worrisome signs and the coach Vincenzo Montella is under heavy fire. The two slip-ups arrived in the toughest games they have faced and on Thursday they blew a 2-0 lead against Rijeka before Patrick Cutrone put them back on top in the final minutes.
They had an impressive reinforcement campaign, but it is now up to the coach to accelerate the adaptation process and make the players jell, because Serie A waits for nobody. They tend to play down to the level of the competition: the European fixtures have been extremely easy so far, while in the domestic league they have defeated Crotone, Cagliari, Udinese and Spal. The only game where they had truly a great showing was the opener at Ezio Scida, but there they were helped by a penalty and red card against the Sharks after five minutes. They were never too convincing in the remaining games, even in wins.
With so many turnover in the summer, you can chalk most of the problems up to lack of chemistry, but there might be some deeper issues underneath. At Olimpico against Lazio, they crumbled after Biancocelesti found the first goal and the more they tried to attack, the more Ciro Immobile and teammates punished them with counters. At Marassi against Genoa, it was a no show: they let the opponent control the ball and the pace and they inevitably conceded two goals. At times, they look too disorganized from the belt up and so they are forced to improvise a lot.
While the attack has always produced, but never too explosively in Serie A, the defence is holding them down. The switch to a three-man backline has not had the expected results: Leonardo Bonucci has not been able to recapture his Juventus form and Alessio Romagnoli has made some silly mistakes. Mateo Musacchio has been their best centre-back so far, but he was inexplicably benched for Cristian Zapata in the Sampdoria game and he literally gifted two goals to Blucerchiati’s Duvan Zapata.
If something does not work, it is up to the coach to figure out the next move, because the 3-5-2 has damaging effects in other areas: Suso has not been the same in a more central position. Furthermore, it is not an easy task, but Montella needs to find a way to have all his best players on the pitch at the same time, at least in the key games. He has alternated Giacomo Bonaventura and Hakan Calhanoglu, who needs to play as consistently as possible after being sidelined for half a season, and the three strikers Nikola Kalinic, André Silva and Patrick Cutrone. It could be helpful to establish a hierarchy upfront.
In a weird move, the coach has let go his long-time assistant Emanuele Marra because they were not on the same page regarding the physical preparation of the team. After the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti, who is always in play when it comes to the Milan bench, the sporting director Massimiliano Mirabelli reassured Montella about the stability of his job. Two tough games await Rossoneri: Roma on Sunday and the Derby after the international break. Since they have been struggling against the better squads, they need to redeem themselves in the upcoming massive tilts. Or some changes could be forthcoming.
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A big news rocked Milan on Friday: Andrea Conti suffered an ACL tear in the left knee during a practice. He will undergo surgery and he is set to be out for at least five months, meaning that will return in March at the earliest, in April more realistically. Milan signed Conti this summer from Atalanta for €25M after a lengthy negotiation.
Against Austria Wien, Vincenzo Montella changed his formation from a 4-3-3, which had some depth issues, to a 3-5-2, that was briefly experimented in the pre-season as well. In the pre-game presser, the coached stated that it was a natural tactical evolution considering the arrival of Leonardo Bonucci, a three-man defence master, and that he was simply waiting for the return from injury of Alessio Romagnoli to use it consistently. The poor showing against Lazio, where the team looked extremely vulnerable, evidently speeded things up. Rossoneri easily defeated the Europa League opponent, with Hakan Calhanoglu shining in the midfield and André Silva scoring a hat-trick.
Conti was set to be a big weapon in this formation as he is tailor-made to be a wing-back. Playing in this position helped him ascend to the top echelon of Serie A fullbacks last season. Conti has a knack for scoring: he excels in making those sneaky cuts past the last defender and is a good finisher, both with his feet and his head. He tallied eight goals and provided four assists last season at Atalanta.
Milan are numerically equipped to replace Conti: they have two more right back at their disposal in Ignazio Abate and Davide Calabria. However, there is a gulf quality-wise and there were good reasons why revamping the fullback corps was a point of emphasis in the transfer market window. Abate can run but he is poor crosser and his finishing skills are non-existent, Calabria is a youngster who has yet to flourish and has struggled at times.
There is a solid chance that the one wing will look clipped, therefore making the formation unbalanced and predictable: Ricardo Rodriguez and Calhanoglu or Giacomo Bonaventura all gravitate on the left side and, without a threat like Conti on the other flank, focusing on that area will be an easy adjustment for the opponents. In this formation, Suso features as no.10/second-striker. He thrived last season when he was permanently moved to the winger position, but at this point he should have enough confidence to play more centrally. Anyway, this development could push Montella to tinker with the standard scheme, advancing Calhanoglu or Bonaventura a little and having Suso slightly moved to the right, making it a 3-4-2-1 that could soften the blow of Conti’s loss from the tactical standpoint.
It would be a stretch, but if Abate or Calabria did not produce enough, they could think about adapting someone there. Suso would be the first option, even though you would burden an exquisite offensive player with heavy defensive tasks. Bonaventura has always been very versatile and hard-working: he has played a little bit as left wing-back in the past, but he is right-footed and that would smooth the transition. Considering the splendid early returns on Calhanoglu as a midfielder, Bonaventura would find himself on the bench most often than not with this new lineup and that would be a waste. The final option is Fabio Borini, who has become an utility player after starting his career as a striker: the learning curve would be steep, but he might be able to pull it off.
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