Serie A Week 2 – Sunday 21 August 2022 – San Siro | Preview by Enrico Passarella
It’s just the second matchday, but this one already figures to be an important turning point for both teams’ aspirations, especially the home side, who ended last season on a sour note.
Atalanta have had a pretty weird summer, and Gian Piero Gasperini was seemingly correct when he recently said that their transfer market was just getting started. After that, they said goodbye to a stalwart like Remo Freuler and signed Brandon Soppy, which might signal that Hans Hateboer is also on his way out. They had previously purchased Ademola Lookman, who had a scintillating debut, and Ederson from Salernitana, who, however, got hurt right away.
It’s unclear whether the gaffer was ready to step down following the partial American takeover, and he was reeled in with the promise of fulfilling his vision. Or if ownership had prepared an internal coup, appointing Igor Tudor after hiring former Verona director Tony D’Amico, but didn’t have the guts to see it through. In the end, Gasperini is still here, and the roster is being renovated as he wishes, so it’s a pretty good outcome, although they were a little slow with their deals.
The coach might have suggested more changes than the brass was willing to concede, probably thinking that the old guard had run its course, but the wheels are indeed in motion in that direction. Ruslan Malinovskyi is very available, and the rumors about Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel have been there all summer, but missing out on Andrea Pinamonti likely means that at least one will stay.
It wouldn’t be shocking to see Mario Pasalic go too, while the troubles in the back will probably keep the backline intact. José Luis Palomino is facing a lengthy suspension for doping, while Merih Demiral has been battling some knee issues. Luckily for them, the massive Caleb Okoli looked the part after two solid seasons on loan to Serie B, and the more finesse-oriented Giorgio Scalvini already broke through in 2021/2022.
Ederson was a no-brainer acquisition as he adapted very quickly to Serie A. He was simply an animal at Salernitana and possesses their typical grit and intensity. He has everything to succeed both as a pivot or as tactical but uber-aggressive No.10. Plus, they signed Teun Koopmeiners last year, who’s ready to be a full-fledged starter. Therefore, Freuler, who was a key but not overly exciting cog, was expendable and the fee was solid for a 30-year-old. They think Scalvini will turn into a midfielder down the line, but we’ll see about that.
The addition of Lookman, and Jeremie Boga joining last January, on top of some statements by the coach, hints at a more direct attacking approach. It remains to be seen whether they are plotting for a total switch to 3-4-3, as they have two wingers now, to 4-2-3-1, which they sprinkled in the past, or simply fit one pacey player next to a center-forward, and still with a trequartista supporting them to balance things out. We’ll probably see all three solutions at some point, and the results will determine which way to go.
La Dea looked like a work in progress versus Sampdoria, but they got the W, and that’s all that matters in this surreal portion of the schedule. They are famous for their grueling pre-season preparation, so they won’t be in tip-top shape in the first few matches. The pace wasn’t there in the last game, but they have a ton of playmakers and mechanisms built over the years to lean on even when they aren’t at their peak.
It’s mighty hard to contain them when Zapata and Muriel are both on the pitch and pretty active, and the flank game has it going. Hateboer showed pretty well in the opener, while Joakim Maehle might be a lost cause overall but doesn’t lack volition and stamina. Davide Zappacosta is back from a rather significant thigh injury, and he will boost them on the flanks once he’s fully ready, but it might take a while. Koopmeiners adds a different element because he can sling the ball around and launch his teammates into space.
The usual downside of their approach is that they leave a ton of room in the back and are vulnerable to counters when they turn the ball over. It’s hard for them to stop opposing speedsters in normal circumstances, and even more so when the conditioning isn’t perfect and if adversaries have elite specialists in that respect, which will be the case in this match-up.
Demiral is available now, but Okoli could get another start in what would be a true baptism by fire. Gasperini publicly moved on from Malinovskyi, while Ederson will sit out another one, so the main challengers for Pasalic’s starting job will be Lookman and Boga, but the Croat remains the frontrunner.
Expected XI (3-4-1-2): Musso; Toloi, Okoli, Djimsiti; Hateboer, De Roon, Koopmeiners, Maehle; Pasalic; Muriel, Zapata.
Milan showed tremendous poise in the opener versus Udinese, where they went down in the score very early and conceded a cheap goal at the end of the first half as well. Those two blows would have rocked more insecure teams, but not them. As a matter of fact, it took them mere minutes to respond, and the victory could have been much larger. Such reactions to adversities signal a level of self-confidence that very few teams, maybe none, have reached in Serie A. They weren’t supposed to drop points against a minnow in a jampacked San Siro in the first home game after winning the title. And, in fact, they didn’t, even though the opponents tried to upset their apple cart.
The scary part for the fellow title contenders is that they did it while fielding something that wasn’t even remotely close to what their best XI, and with Rafael Leao and Theo Hernandez turning in decent but unremarkable shifts. Ante Rebic occasionally has brilliant stretches, and his frantic movement as a false-nine puts a lot of pressure on the opponents. The same goes for the slippery Brahim Diaz, who tends to waste valuable time and touches trying to glide past everybody, but, with his agility, he can be a weapon when he streamlines his game and doesn’t try to do too much.
The Spaniard had a blistering start last season as well, so it may very well turn out to be a flash in the pan again. After all, given his size, he naturally gets into shape much faster than colossuses. Still, if he managed to have consistently convincing performances, that could be a meaningful turn of events for the Rossoneri. Charles De Ketelaere is versatile and, even in a short cameo last week, he showed a natural proclivity for the right wing. Junior Messias and Alexis Saelemaekers are fine, but they aren’t difference makers, so they could be easily pushed out of the go-to XI if others fare better. Diaz taking this extra step is a big and fat if, though.
Overall, it’s a nice problem to have. Stefano Pioli downplayed such proposition in the pre-game presser, probably to take the pressure off the newcomers, but he must surely be thinking about it. Their scheme is naturally narrow there, since their fullbacks and not the wingers provide width, so there isn’t a large difference between the two roles.
While the frontline produced in spades, their defensive phase looked unusually out of sorts at times. The problems stemmed from a combination of Sandro Tonali being unavailable and Fikayo Tomori not being in impeccable shape, which is understandable given his massive frame. Udinese weren’t forgiving, but that didn’t end up costing them. Atalanta will be fiercer, and it will be more arduous to go toe-to-toe with them in a shoot-out, even though Gasperini sometimes gets overzealous and tries to achieve just that. The Milan rearguard had performed much better in the key stretches last season, so better showings are to be expected.
There will be a swap of midfielders in the Milan infirmary, as Tonali is back, while Rade Krunic is out. Rebic and Diaz have an edge over the competition after showing up last week, although Olivier Giroud and De Ketelaere will probably get more minutes than in the opener. As always, Junior Messias and Alexis Saelemeakers are neck-and-neck to start, and the latter makes sense for this one.
Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Maignan; Calabria, Kalulu, Tomori, Hernandez; Bennacer, Tonali; Messias, Diaz, Leao; Rebic.
Atalanta: Ederson (thigh strain).
Milan: Ibrahimovic (ACL tear), Krunic.