Serie A Week 1 – Saturday 13 August 2022 – San Siro | Preview by Enrico Passarella
In a jam-packed San Siro, the Scudetto winners will look to ride the momentum to kick off the season on the right foot against the revamped but always pesky Udinese, who held them to a tie three times in a row.
The summer of the Rossoneri has been both exhilarating and frustrating. It’s clearly hard to complain about how their management operates, following a glorious and somewhat improbable Scudetto. Still, a few sagas dragged on for too long, and some long-standing plans went pear-shaped. That was the case for Sven Botman and Renato Sanches, lured away by the deep pockets of Newcastle and PSG, while Milan got their guy at no.10 in Charles De Ketelaere in arguably the most intriguing purchase of the summer.
Given Brahim Diaz’s struggles, such a role should have been the top priority for directors Paolo Maldini and Frederic Massara, and indeed it was, as a large chunk of the budget, if not its entirety, was used to acquire him. Time will tell if, or more realistically to what extent, he will pan out. He will be a clear upgrade even in the worst-case scenario, but surely the Rossoneri faithful will be hoping for a Kaka-like type of arch, and the premises are sound.
Missing out on Sanches is more hurtful than not signing Botman. When given the opportunity, Pierre Kalulu proved to be not only a starting-calibre centre-back but also potentially a high-profile one, and he perfectly complements Fikayo Tomori. With Simon Kjaer back in the picture after his ACL tear, there’s no need to splurge in the back. While another option, preferably a lefty, is needed, they can wait for the late bargains.
The former Lille star would have been a great get, especially for his relatively low price tag. Though, in the end, PSG paid a petty penny, plus sizeable wages, to sign him. But he’s no Franck Kessié, and De Ketelaere joining softens the blow because the Portuguese ace, due to his more offensive-oriented skill-set, would have probably featured more frequently as a trequartista than as a pivot, like the Barcelona newcomer did, with brilliant results, in the key stretches of last season.
That hole has been filled, so the management can focus on finding a true defensive powerhouse to alternate with Sandro Tonali and Ismael Bennacer while Tommaso Pobega and Yacine Adli adjust and develop. Numerically speaking, they could roll the dice as is, considering that Tiemoué Bakayoko is still in town and that Rade Krunic is a steady hand. But that would be a grave mistake because a muscular guy could really make the difference in certain matches. Still, it’s not known how much they can really spend, so they will have to be patient and surgical once again. Luckily for them, that’s the forte of their front office.
Lots of transfer market talk because, other than the curiosity to see De Ketelaere in action, the Rossoneri are pretty much the same as last season. In the final few months, they proved to be a well-oiled machine that boasts one of the most good-looking styles in the Peninsula when everything is humming, and Rafael Leao and Theo Hernandez run amok on the left flank. The design will not change, but if the Belgian prodigy hits big, they will have another point of reference and potentially a prolific scorer in the XI, putting that much stress on opposing defences.
Since the tongue ever turns to the aching tooth, Tonali is out for the opener with a minor thigh injury, and Krunic is the frontrunner to replace him over the younger teammates. Giroud isn’t fully fit either, so Ante Rebic could spearhead the frontline in this one. De Ketelaere will most likely begin on the bench, with Diaz or Adli as no.10.
Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Maignan; Calabria, Kalulu, Tomori, Hernandez; Bennacer, Krunic; Messias, Brahim Diaz, Leao; Rebic.
Udinese not-so-willingly changed their coach, as they would have been happy to keep Gabriele Cioffi, but Hellas Verona stole them from under their nose. They bounced back with former club legend and up-and-coming gaffer Andrea Sottil, who cut his teeth in the lower leagues and reached the Serie B playoff with the underdogs Ascoli. He’s well deserving of the opportunity, and the familiarity with the team surely helps.
All things considered, it has been a positive summer for the Bianconeri, who have taken just one major blow on the transfer market but might be in the clear in other cases. Nahuel Molina left for greener pastures, which was inevitable considering how brilliant he was last year. But Gerard Deulofeu is still here despite the insistent links to Napoli, and it appears that Destiny Udogie will be signed by Tottenham but stay on loan. Plus, they brought back Nehuen Perez, who was impressive in the second half of last season.
Sottil has some familiarity with 4-3-1-2, and they have the pieces to potentially pull it off, but he understandably will not come in with a blowtorch and tear down something that has been built over multiple years, and so they will keep relying on their rock-solid 3-5-2. The tactical switch may happen down the line or in situations when they need to score.
Their reinforcement campaign wasn’t very sexy, and it just feels wrong that they haven’t purchased any unknown South American prospect that will eventually turn into a household name. Other than Festy Ebosele, who, alongside the peppy Brandon Soppy, will have to fill Molina’s large boots, they have gone for youngsters with an already healthy dose of experience under their belts like Jaka Bijol, Enzo Ebosse and Sandi Lovric. Probably just the first one projects to be a regular right away, and he has been drawing rave reviews in the pre-season. They were extra thin in the past, and the additions will address that.
The biggest question mark looming over their first few weeks is how fit Norberto Neto is. He’s one to keep an eye on because, after a promising maiden campaign in Serie A, he might emerge as one of the top scorers in 2022/2023. However, a late thigh injury ruined his summer and didn’t allow him to participate in friendlies. A slow start could be in order. They have other decent options, but Isaac Success is more of a second-striker than a marksman.
The potential flaw might hurt them in ensuing matches, but it may not be that big of a deal in this one, where they will predictably sit back and counter, and Deulofeu and Success are great there. It will be interesting to see how quickly the geometry of their scheme will shift to the left, as Udogie is now the top dog on the flanks while they leaned on Molina in the past. Jean-Victor Makengo is another guy that might make the leap this season after breaking out in 2021/2022. He has dynamism for days, but he’s also decently technical. If he can become a threat in the final third too, it won’t be long before big sides come asking for him. In general, their squad revolves around Deulofeu and his brilliant playmaking and the robustness of their defence.
There are a few question marks all over the XI for Udinese. Tolgay Arslan and Mato Jajalo are absent, but they are usually backups. Walace has had some issues and isn’t 100 sure to start, so they might have to adapt Lovric there. Udogie should be okay despite missing the recent Coppa Italia bout and being close to Tottenham; otherwise the next man up is Ebosse. Nehuen Perez, Bram Nuytinck, Bijol and Adam Masina are vying for a spot in the back.
Expected XI (3-5-2): Silvestri; Becao, Nuytink, Nehuen Perez; Soppy, Pereyra, Walace, Makengo, Udogie; Success, Deulofeu.
Milan: Tonali (thigh pull), Ibrahimovic (ACL tear).
Udinese: Arslan (ankle sprain), Buta (fibula fracture), Jajalo.