Serie A Week 4 – Tuesday 30 August 2022 – Mapei Stadium | Preview by Enrico Passarella
In the opening game of the first midweek round, Milan will return to the stadium that used to spell trouble for them in the past, but also where they sealed last season’s Scudetto.
The first few Sassuolo fixtures have been highly influenced by the transfer market, but their vision is starting to emerge. They lost a lot in a window, Giacomo Raspadori and Gianluca Scamacca, but Domenico Berardi, by far their biggest star, is still in town. Andrea Pinamonti, further newcomers, and a tactical switch should allow them to remain competitive, although with a lot less luster than in the past.
With Hamed Traoré fracturing his foot and Raspadori clearly on his way out, Alessio Dionisi turned last season’s 4-2-3-1 into 4-3-3. They are trying to onboard another forward, so the other scheme could resurface down the line, but they wouldn’t have the horses right now. And they are even adapting a fullback to winger because the coach didn’t want to burn Emil Ceide, who was signed last January to replace Jeremie Boga but has been basically red-shirted.
The result is a less technical and more muscular squad. They conceded too many goals in 2021/2022, and they made it a priority to fix that. The new scheme is naturally more defensive-minded, but the early returns aren’t too promising, as they gave up three to Juventus and two to Spezia. The latter isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut. They blanked Lecce, which is nice but not a superb accomplishment.
While the tactical evolution makes sense, although they could have avoided it with different moves, they have a few question marks. For instance, it’s not quite clear which role Matheus Henrique is best at or his caliber in general. They can’t try him as a deep-lying since they have an ace in Maxime Lopez in such position. He is getting lost in the shuffle a lot. While they are no slouches in the defensive phase, the combination of the two puts them at a size disadvantage, and Davide Frattesi makes his bread in the final third. The configuration gives him more freedom, and he’s coming off a typical goal on a sneaky cut in Liguria. But there’s still some overall imbalance. The gaffer has taken it slow also with Kristian Thorstvedt, who’s bigger but is touted to be rather offensive-minded as well. A savvy veteran wouldn’t have hurt. It’s uncertain how much Pedro Obiang can contribute after a year on the mend.
Instead, with Berardi staying, their offense is intact, as the large majority of the actions go through him. Pinamonti bagged an opportunistic goal against Spezia, and their chemistry is a work in progress. All in all, there’s not much difference with Scamacca, perhaps more agility and less pizzazz.
While they wait for Ceide or a newcomer, Georgios Kyriakopoulos has been rounding the trident, with Rogerio behind him. While he’s obviously not as creative as an attacker, he’s a quality crosser and brings a lot of hustle to the table, and the chain has been working. Unfortunately for them, it’s on the wrong flank for this one.
At the back, Jeremy Toljan is filling in for Mert Muldur, who picked up a major injury too, while Martin Erlic seems to have already gained the upper hand on Kaan Ayhan, and that’s an upgrade. Another fullback would help since the starter will be out for multiple months, and his replacement isn’t the picture of health either.
They are slowly moving away from the Roberto De Zerbi era with a less technical and grittier squad. It’s unfortunate but inevitable. While they played hardball, they must be commended for not holding onto their starlets for too long. They have gone with quality over quantity to replenish their roster, as Thorstvedt and Pinamonti weren’t cheap. Time will tell whether they handled that correctly or if they should have spread the dough around, pulling off multiple purchases and taking more gambles.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Consigli; Toljan, Erlic, Ferrari, Rogerio; Thorstvedt, Maxime Lopez, Frattesi; Berardi, Pinamonti, Kyriakopoulos.
Milan have looked in top shape only in small stretches of the first three matches, but while other teams have stumbled and dropped points, they cruised past Udinese and Bologna and salvaged things up in Bergamo when they were in real trouble. They would have probably lost if they hadn’t that championship-level resiliency and mentality. This season figures to be odd and grueling, and there will be time to be aesthetically pleasing. In the meantime, it’s paramount to keep up with those having fast starts and, if possible, gain a cushion over the rivals.
While the first two fixtures were wacky, they returned to their proven formula in the most recent game, where Rafael Leao ran the show, and the others played off of him since he attracts so much attention. The major caveat was Charles De Ketelaere serving as the classy initiator of many threatening actions.
His transition to Serie A has been smooth, and he should have no trouble being as good as advertised. He could use a couple of pounds of muscle given his frame. However, handling defenders’ superior physicality hasn’t been an issue. He can hold his own, but, more importantly, he has been very capable in getting out of the traffic that generally populates the central portion of the pitch.
He technically plays as no.10, but, more often than not, he’ll wander to the flank to find room, and that’s an innate trait that will come in handy because several teams will try to jam him up. But if he can already see the passing lanes so clearly after a cup of coffee in the League, the opponents really have to watch out. It’s also something that Brahim Diaz famously struggled to accomplish, getting bottled all too often.
His movement is particularly apropos in a team that has so many players who like to cut through the middle. Not just Leao, who naturally searches to set up his deadly curled shot, to the point that he has goalkeepers bamboozled when he finishes in other ways. Theo Hernandez has made a living out of our bursting runs, Junior Messias, as a lefty, is naturally prone to do that, and also occasionally the two central midfielders. He had great success in the box in Belgium, but he might be used more as a conductor than a slasher in Italy.
Olivier Giroud also roared back after a challenging start from the physical standpoint, and he is one of the few old-fashioned center-forwards left. He can spend the entire game working the defenders and doing the dirty work and needs just one good ball to hit the net in various ways.
While the attack has been fine, Milan have had some more issues in the back, where they haven’t been perfect versus Udinese and Atalanta. Fikayo Tomori and Mike Maignan haven’t been their absolute best so far. But, perhaps, this is where they are missing Franck Kessié. Sandro Tonali and Ismael Bennacer are hard workers and great passers, but they aren’t true powerhouses like the Barcelona newcomer. They aren’t trying to win with that, but they will never be physically imposing this season unless they find something similar on the transfer market. But it appears that it’ll be at most a prospect that won’t come in with starter status.
Milan are set to rotate in this one, although it is uncertain how far they will go. It’s easier in some roles, for instance on the right wing, while more challenging in the other one or in the midfield. Ante Rebic and Divock Origi were in the running to start but came down with late minor injuries.
Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Maignan; Florenzi, Kjaer, Tomori, Hernandez; Pobega, Bennacer; Saelemaekers, Diaz, Leao; Giroud.
Sassuolo: Traoré (foot fracture), Muldur (ankle fracture), Romagna (ACL tear).
Milan: Krunic (thigh strain), Rebic (back pain), Origi.