Serie A Week 7 – Sunday 18 September 2022 – Stadio San Siro | Preview by Enrico Passarella
serie A closes its first chapter before the international with a highly-anticipated clash between two of the best teams in the League, but unfortunately their main stars, Rafael Leao and Victor Osimhen, are unavailable.
No side has been perfect until this point, but it’s no coincidence that these two are tied for first place, along with Atalanta, going into this game. No matter the result, their status as title contenders and frontrunners for a Champions League berth will not be severely dented.
Considering the issues elsewhere, starting with four wins and two draws is highly satisfactory. The Rossoneri have indeed been more uneven than in the past on the road. Atalanta are a handful, and they laid an egg versus Sassuolo, while their championship-level resiliency showed up against Sampdoria. They had no business winning that one, with Leao getting a silly red card. But they did, and they further gained momentum in Champions League. It has been smooth sailing for them at San Siro, including the Derby with Inter, even though they pulled the plug too early and risked wasting a masterclass.
Despite absences that didn’t allow them to rotate as much as they would have liked and Charles De Ketelaere pretty up-and-down, they have looked like a super mature team with plenty of certainties to lean on and a straightforward game plan that works most of the times.
On the other hand, one of their pillars, arguably the most essential one, is out. There’s no hiding the fact that the Portuguese ace constructs at least half of their offense on his own. In addition, his two natural replacements, in terms of role, not style or impact, Ante Rebic and Divock Origi, are on the mend, leaving coach Stefano Pioli in a pickle.
The easiest option would be to just chuck Alexis Saelemaekers, who has been in a groove as of late, on the other flank, perhaps alternating with Junior Messias from time to time. However, in terms of weight, they are more Robins than Batmans, if not even Alfreds. The creative void would be massive, but every alternative has its drawbacks.
Brahim Diaz is highly inconsistent and has minimal experience in the role, actually perhaps none, but he would be more similar to Leao in the sense that he’s an okay playmaker and passer and can create dangerous situations by cutting back. The same would be true for Yacine Adli, but they have fielded him very little so far. In terms of pull, the only real option would be Theo Hernandez, who would be capable of serving as a hub.
However, then the problem would be how to replace him in the back. Alessandro Florenzi is hurt, and Sergino Dest has yet to be ushered in properly. It’s a stretch that he could get the start in such a pivotal game. They haven’t trusted Fode Ballo-Touré much either. They could technically shuffle the defense around and go with Simon Kjaer. However, the XI would be very defensive-minded, and they would be adjusting the position of three players, as Pierre Kalulu would be the right-back and Davide Calabria the left-back in this scenario, just to solve one issue in a manner that isn’t a lock to work. Advancing fullbacks to the frontline is always alluring, especially when they are superb in the final third, but it rarely works out.
There have been whispers about deploying Rade Krunic there in a tactical fashion, but that would almost be like conceding the position. In addition, Napoli have a solid right-back but not exactly a force to be reckoned with. While any alternative is imperfect, this would be the least interesting one. A tactical change has been rumored too, and going with a three-man defense, enlarging the role of Hernandez and possibly with Saelemaekers on the right to have more punch, does make more sense than some other experiments. Instead, a more crowded midfield and two supporting attackers wouldn’t be overly appealing either.
In general, Milan will have to find different channels to do harm rather than feeding their star and the others playing off of him. It’s a situation where they could really use De Ketelaere being up to the task and super involved, something that has happened just once or twice so far. He has often struggled to find the right position or settle into contests altogether. They will be starving for passing, and he can sling the ball around, but he has to shake free with more frequency and conviction. And the two central midfielders will have a massive role on offense, but it won’t be easy for them to prevail in their personal duels, considering they will be outnumbered in the passive phase and will have to bust their tail to keep the adversaries in check.
The resourcefulness of the reigning champions will surely be tested. After all, Olivier Giroud needs just one or two good balls in the box to hit the net. They will need to be airtight in the back, as they can’t afford to go into a shot-out since it would be impossible to go mano-a-mano with a more explosive attack.
Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Maignan; Calabria, Kalulu, Tomori, Hernandez; Bennacer, Tonali; Messias, De Ketelaere, Saelemaekers; Giroud.
Considering how much they changed during the summer and their European showings, Napoli have been the most convincing side in Serie A thus far. As everybody, they dropped some points along the way, but they are still undefeated and have had remarkable consistency, depth, and firepower.
Despite missing a pair of penalty kicks and Victor Osimhen being hurt, they have bagged 20 goals in 8 matches, which is the best clip in Europe. The early success of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia is a prominent factor, but they are a true ‘Cooperativa del gol,’ as Italians like to call teams where everybody contributes offensively. Eleven players have already hit the net.
More than anything, it’s their serenity and self-confidence that is striking. The massive changes they underwent during the summer window were supposed to lead to a transitional phase while new leaders emerged. Instead, it took no time, and they basically have the same reference points, in terms of roles, as in the past. Kim Min-Jae is just missing the aura of Kalidou Koulibaly, but he has been similar in every other facet, such as incredible physicality, lack of blunders, intimidation, and even presence in the opposing box on set pieces.
The return to 4-3-3 expanded the roles of Frank Anguissa and Zielinski, and they have both responded tremendously. The former is attacking much more than in the past, proving that he’s not just a muscular guy. The Pole has reprised the trajectory he’d been on for a while and risked being stunted by the switch to 4-2-3-1 and Dries Mertens playing over him late last season. But he didn’t pout and has been fantastic in his true role. He’s always been classy, but he’s a little peculiar tactically since he tends to disappear if he’s not in his preferred position. He’s taken the increased responsibilities in strides, as he’s one of their longest-tenured players now.
Luciano Spalletti made the call early to stick with his original plan despite Giacomo Raspadori’s price tag, which would suggest he should be a regular starter in the other scheme, as he had perfected being a no.10 at Sassuolo last season. Osimhen going down has helped the boss find minutes for him and Giovanni Simeone, postponing the logjam to a later time. All in all, the five subs and the busy schedule should keep everybody happy and engaged.
While they have lacked the exuberance and sheer power of their star up front, they haven’t been severely hurt by his absence because the attack is actually centered around Kvaratskhelia. His constant pursuit of the right spot to fire off, on top of creating chances for himself that he has often exploited with his crystalline shooting technique, also lures defenders, opening up lanes for his opponents. He’s not been overly selfish, but if his passes were as brilliant as his finishes, he would already be at another level. It’s a mental leap Leao completed last season, realizing that an assist often wrong-foots opponents more than just another attempt. The Georgian star has just landed in Serie A, so it’s a minor blemish. His impact has been scary, and it’s frightening to think that he has a lot of room for improvement.
The coach, who gets the credit for steering the ship in the right direction during a challenging summer and for their great cohesion and atmosphere, will have to pick between Raspadori and Simeone to spearhead the frontline. The ex-Verona man is more similar to Osimhen since he’s a pure no.9 that likes to attack the space behind the defense, but the Italian starlet has often proven to have that ‘it’ factor that makes him a big-game player, taking the chestnuts from the fire with stunning plays or finishes out of the blue, even in cases when got lost in the shuffle for most of the 90 minutes.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Meret; Di Lorenzo, Rrahmani, Kim, Rui; Anguissa, Lobotka, Zielinski; Politano, Raspadori, Kvaratskhelia.
Milan: Ibrahimovic (ACL tear), Origi (thigh tendon soreness), Rebic (herniated disc), Florenzi (thigh tendon tear).
Napoli: Osimhen (thigh strain), Demme (foot infraction).