This entire season has been marked with Massimiliano Allegri’s struggle’s to balance the attack. With the Derby della Madonnina against Internazionale fast approaching, the Rossoneri attack seems to still be stuttering. Last weekend’s game against Palermo was testament of that as Milan not only lost, but failed to score as well. Now of course it is not an issue that Milan failed to create chances, but more so the case that Milan failed to take them.
Milan’s problems are somewhat surprising when we really think about it. In fact the biggest issue that came to mind when one assessed Milan title credentials was the frailty of their defense. Indeed Milan were very weak at the fullback positions and the center of the defense was also questionable. Now of course it is not the quality of the partnership between Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva that was questioned here, but the issues when either of them was out of the lineup. It is well documented that Milan’s defense really struggles when either Nesta or Thiago Silva is absent. In fact it only further highlights and exacerbates the weakness of the fullbacks. As such, Milan must consider themselves lucky to have not suffered the double blow of not only losing the game but losing Nesta as well, as the Italian stopper was a yellow card away of missing the derby against Inter through suspension.
The draw at Bari a couple of weeks ago has seen Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended for three games, and thus the Swede will miss the derby against Inter. Many believed that the absence of the Swedish striker would prove to be a blessing in disguise, in that it would allow the team to find itself. Obviously, since the arrival of Ibrahimovic and his early form for the Rossoneri, there has been much talk about Milan suffering from Ibra-Dependenzia. The term simply refers to the team’s over-reliance on the Swedish talisman, a reliance on both his goals and ability to conjure up moments of magic. We’ve seen this throughout the season when Ibrahimovic’s goals have often proven crucial in either obtaining a draw or a victory for Milan. The Swede’s 30-yard strike against Lecce is one such pieces of individual brilliance that comes to mind and which the Rossoneri have come to rely on when their approach play has failed to really convince. Indeed Milan’s build-up play has often been criticized for being somewhat ponderous and leaden-footed, attempting to play the ball as quickly towards Ibrahimovic as possible without adequately supporting the giant Swede. Whether it is a tactic of Allegri’s to play Ibrahimovic in vertical spaces in that particular manner is up for debate, but it certainly would certainly behoove one to expect much more variety and ingenuity from the Rossoneri.
In the game against Palermo, Allegri paired up Antonio Cassano and Alexander Pato in attack, with Clarence Seedorf withdrawn behind the two strikers as the trequartista (playmaker). It sounds an effective enough lineup against a Palermo side that had lost all five of its previous games and conceded 15 goals (with seven of them coming at the hands of Udinese). It was a strange lineup however as Allegri had seemed to have had already decided – after some early tryouts in the beginning of the season – that Seedorf was inadequate in the trequartista position. Of course the choice was not all that unreasonable however. Seedorf was deemed unsuited to play as the trequartista because of his lack of pace. His passing range, ability to keep possession, and to play the killer pass undoubtedly all comprise the necessary attributes for a trequartista. Following the 7-0 home loss to Udinese that saw the sacking of Delio Rossi and subsequent hiring of Serse Cosmi, Palermo have been playing much more defensively then they had since the start of the season, with almost a five man defense when not in possession. The fact however is that in a situation with such a packed defense, Seedorf would have been better used in the regista (deep-lying playmaker) role. Especially given the strikers in front him, diagonal passes over the defense would have been ideal for Pato and Cassano to make the diagonal runs to latch on to them.
The strikers for Milan are indeed the issue here. In the absence of Ibrahimovic, Milan’s attack really seems to be lacking. Ibrahimovic is the best prima punta (target forward) at the club and all the others adapt to him, roaming around him and picking up the spaces the Swede frees up for them. This therefore becomes a very big problem when Ibrahimovic is missing, as the Rossoneri does not possess any striker with the same physicality, ability to hold up the ball, and penetrating power that the Swede possesses. Pato has the explosive pace and finishing ability, while Cassano possesses the vision and passing to unlock defenses, and Robinho boasts of the dribbling ability to beat his man and get around defenders. However, in the absence of Ibrahimovic, it is the rest of the team that must adjust to their play.
As we’ve said however, Milan did manage to create a number of chances against Palermo but simply failed to capitalize on them. In fairness to Milan, Salvatore Sirigu pulled a number of key saves during the match to keep his team afloat and ensure the victory. What such matches have shown is the importance of Kevin Prince Boateng, whose explosive and dynamic play gives the Milanese attack the so needed physicality and penetration they lack in the absence of Ibrahimovic. Milan’s recent plea, to have the Ghanaian withdrawn from international duty in order to recover from a knock ahead of the derby, would hint at this. Another player Milan have been missing, is Andrea Pirlo. As natural regista at the club, his creativity in midfield has been a glaring miss in Milan’s play. Allegri’s midfield, often comprised of hard-working ball-winners, shortens the team’s passing movement (as these players opt for more high-probability and safer short passes) and thus makes attacks far more predictable and easier for defenses to get behind the ball (due to the lack of quick passing movement).
Of course injuries and suspensions are part of the challenges a coach must overcome in preserving momentum and results. Despite all the talks of Ibrahimovic’s absence however, one of the real missing links of Milan has unquestionably been Filippo Inzaghi. The veteran striker is exactly the prima punta that could come in to solve Milan’s problem. Indeed chance creation has not been a major issue for the Rossoneri as mentioned before, but it is putting away those chances that has proven to be a problem. Well Inzaghi is exactly the man to do this, able to smell a goal out of very little, the Italian striker can make the difference out of a half-chance. Unlike Pato, Inzaghi gambles, making intelligent runs in and around the penalty area in order to position himself into scoring positions. Indeed Pato’s tendency to keep his head down and over-reliance on his pace have proven to be the major shortcomings of his overall game. Inzaghi’s goalscoring statistics and exploits speak for themselves. The Italian striker belongs to a dying breed of strikers (the poacher or fox-in-the-box) who cunningly moves around the penalty area, peels off his markers or beats the offside trap to positions himself to score the simple tap-ins. Inzaghi’s intelligence is his greatest asset [next to his finishing], knowing how to time his run, how to hold up the ball, when to pass, and when to shoot. Some might malign the Rossoneri for relying on a 35-year-old striker, but might be thinking that Allegri could certainly do with the Italian poacher right about now.