Milan and Atalanta square off in a seminal encounter that may have a major influence in shaping the true pecking order in the Champions League race.
Serie A Week 24 – Sunday 26 February 2023 – San Siro | Preview by Enrico Passarella
Considering the style that carried them to the Scudetto, Milan had to sell their soul to defensive football to claw their way out of their struggles. It’s almost as if they had to re-learn to walk before they could run. It has been very out of character, but they needed to win at all costs, and they did. They’ll now have to finish the job versus Tottenham, and it won’t be easy, but defeating Torino and Monza is no turkey shoot. The Brianzoli had yet to lose in 2023.
Now that they have re-established their self-confidence, the question is when it will be safe for the Rossoneri to go back to their usual scheme or if they’ll stick with their new one for a while. The formation doesn’t necessarily dictate the style, and the opposing team in this one is the definitive testament to that, but they have been really conservative in the last three games. It’s obviously easier to prevail when you don’t concede, but the ‘corto muso’ gambit only takes you so far. Especially so for a side that’s used to free-flowing and good-looking football.
Having fixed the defense, the next task for Stefano Pioli is to combine their rediscovered prowess in the back with an attack that produces enough to make victories more comfortable. That inevitably goes through Rafael Leao bouncing back, as he’s been extremely quiet in recent fixtures. He had some flashes versus the Spurs but has been far from his dominant and joyous self. Perhaps the extension saga is impacting his performances on the pitch too, but they can’t go anywhere if their best player doesn’t show better.
The first step of their tactical evolution, a pure 3-5-2 in the Derby, wasn’t ideal for him. But it didn’t last long, and his role doesn’t change that much in their current 3-4-2-1/3-4-3. He maintains the liberty of playing wide, and his defensive tasks are arguably less burdensome. It took Theo Hernandez more than a month to regain the right form after the World Cup, and he’s been totally unleashed in this scheme with a defender covering for him, and perhaps the matter for the Portuguese is as simple as that. In addition, they produce way more opportunities for fast breaks with this approach, and that’s an easy way to get him going.
Malick Thiaw has been the biggest revelation of the last few weeks, but, in reality, it was baffling that the coach hadn’t used him more beforehand. He had always looked stout in his cameos, he’s imposing, and they rarely had all their starters available together, but he still had to wait for his opportunity. It’ll be hard to keep him out of the XI even under normal circumstances. It wouldn’t be surprising if something similar happened in other positions too, especially in the midfield. The gaffer loves to field Rade Krunic, who’s fine but has no upside, whenever one of the two starters is out. That was the case with Matteo Gabbia in the rearguard too. However, if he was more daring, he might soon realize that they are better off deploying Tommaso Pobega, Aster Vranckx, or perhaps even Yacine Adli, even though the fit is dubious. You can’t gauge newcomers if you never trust them for a few matches in a row.
Mike Maignan is on the verge of returning, and perhaps he’ll start in this match. That’ll be a big boost, even though Ciprian Tatarusanu has been strong in recent games. Instead, it looks like Ismael Bennacer and Davide Calabria will remain unavailable. The absence of the former is always particularly damaging, as the backups aren’t on the same level, and Sandro Tonali has to overextend himself to keep the midfield together. Though, it’s easier to drop Brahim Diaz a little deeper to provide some help and have more passing now.
Since Fikayo Tomori is back and Thiaw has likely supplanted Simon Kjaer, who has never truly looked 100 percent this season following an ACL tear, the only real doubt in the lineup is between Alexis Saelemaekers and Junior Messias on the right flank. The latter is in better form, but the Belgian is more natural at the wing-back position.
Expected XI (3-4-2-1): Maignan; Kalulu, Tomori, Thiaw; Saelemaekers, Tonali, Krunic, Hernandez; Diaz, Leao; Giroud.
Doubts: Maignan/Tatarusanu, Thiaw/Kjaer, Saelemaekers/Messias.
Atalanta’s momentum came to a screeching halt just as they were on the verge of taking control of the new Champions League fray. They did outface Lazio two weeks ago, but the two losses versus Sassuolo and Lecce considerably dented their aspirations. While the one against the Neroverdi was partly fluky and understandable, as they had an early red card, the one with the Salentini was baffling and inexplicable, even more so because they had come a cropper against them in the same fashion in November.
Even in her heyday, La Dea has occasionally had troubles against the minnows, especially at home. Maybe it’s a matter of underestimating them or simply lacking focus, but they need to bring it every time; otherwise, they risk getting exposed when they face teams that match their intensity and aren’t intimidated. The impressive victory over the Biancocelesti keep some concerns at bay, and the situation is not as serious as their previous multi-game skid. Still, they need more consistency because the four contenders for the two spots can all stake a legitimate claim. They shouldn’t settle with qualifying for Europa League, even though it would be a step forward compared to last season.
Rasmus Hojlund has fully flourished lately and turned the corner scoring-wise. He has pretty much become what they’d expect when they invested a decent buck to get him last summer. The pressure he puts on backlines with his speed and physique is tremendous and clears space for everybody. He has been more pragmatic and determined in finishing, plus he has an exquisite touch. It’s shaping up to be another lost season for Duvan Zapata due to repeated injuries, so the emergence of the Dane comes at a very opportune time. They shouldn’t look back, even though Gian Piero Gasperini still voices his attachment to the Colombian duo whenever he gets the chance. Luis Muriel can still potentially be a great super sub given his characteristics, but he seems to be one of those players that fare well only when he’s a regular and perceives the full trust of the coach.
One of the hidden secrets behind Ademola Lookman’s prolific campaign is that, despite what his numbers may suggest, he has never truly been the focal point of the offense. The Bergamaschi always lean heavily on their center-forward, no matter who he is, and the Nigerian attacker is free to roam and pick his spots. While opposing defenders have keyed in on him more in 2023, Hojlund breaking out and his slightly atypical style benefit him too. The two complement each other very well, and they terrorize rearguards on counters.
While their boss has fully embraced Hojlund, that hasn’t happened with Jeremie Boga, even though he went on a heater in early January. He frequently snipes at him, and, more meaningfully, he hasn’t made him a full-time starter just yet. It’s borderline shocking given the amount of success they have had with a pure 3-4-3. The gaffer likes to have one man pressuring the opposing deep-lying playmaker in each game. Such tactical work isn’t ideal for the Ivorian winger, and that’s perhaps why he hasn’t earned an unquestioned role because the offensive benefits of using him are manifest. With Mario Pasalic banged up, the only options are either him in the hole or moving up Teun Koopmeiners and really alternative with Ederson in such position. The choice will be telling about their internal hierarchy.
They recently lost Hans Hateboer to an ACL tear, and while he’s the least sexy among their wing-backs, he’s the most consistent in both phases. Davide Zappacosta is potentially the best one, and he showed up big time at the Olimpico, but they have to handle him with care following multiple thigh injuries, and his performances are still uneven game-to-game. The serendipitous aspect of the situation is that Brandon Soppy resurfaced last week, and it was about time since he was cast aside for way too long considering how well he had performed right after joining. Matteo Ruggeri is showing well too.
They must answer a few questions following the dud versus Lecce, and beating a direct rival would be the right way to respond. Milan have been content with leaving possession to their adversaries as of late, and they should seize the opportunity and come out with overwhelming fierceness. However, the risk of them going in the other direction and playing with too much caution in a crunch game is always present and severely hurt them last season too. They had never been scared of being full-send without worrying about the consequences in the past.
Expected XI (3-4-1-2): Musso; Toloi, Palomino, Scalvini; Zappacosta, De Roon, Ederson, Maehle; Koopmeiners; Lookman, Hojlund.
Doubts: Palomino/Djimsiti; Zappacosta/Soppy; Ederson/Boga.
Milan: Maignan (calf strain) – probable; Bennacer (thigh injury) – doubtful; Calabria (hip strain) – doubtful.
Atalanta: Demiral (suspension); Pasalic (ankle sprain) – doubtful; Zapata (thigh strain), Hateboer (ACL tear) – OUT.
Draw – Under 2.5 Goals