Despite AC Milan getting back to winning ways against Sampdoria on Sunday, after their losses in the derby and Real Betis this past week, Gennaro Gattuso’s team still has a lot to work on defensively, as ror the first time since 1946 the Rossoneri have been unable to keep a clean sheet in 15 consecutive Serie A matches, a stretch that began in mid-April.
The Rossoneri are the only team in Serie A who have conceded at least one goal in every match this season, and, despite having a game in hand, have the third worst defensive record in Serie A’s top 12 – behind Genoa and Sassuolo.
In stark contrast to their defensive struggles is their substantial productivity on the attacking end. Gattuso abandoned his beloved 4-3-3 and went for a 4-4-2 formation for Samp’s visit to the San Siro, finally giving space to the partnership of Gonzalo Higuain and Patrick Cutrone. Milan were able to score three against a Sampdoria side that had only conceded four goals in the opening nine matches of the season, which was a club-record for the Blucerchiati.
Milan’s match plan was to get a ton of service into the box for the strikers to attack, which is exactly what led to their opening goal. Suso struggled to get quality balls into the area at the very beginning of the match, but finally found Cutrone midway through the first half, when the young Italian pulled away from Bartosz Bereszynski and headed into the back of the net.
If that wasn’t enough of a visual representation of Gattuso’s new formation paying off, their second goal certainly was. Higuain and Cutrone combined cleverly before the Argentine slotted it away to tie the game up at 2-2. Despite being fairly similar in style, the two strikers didn’t seem to get in each other’s way. In fact, they seemed to thrive whenever they were able to play off of each other.
Before the match, the Higuain-Cutrone partnership had never started together, but when on the pitch had scored an average of one goal for every 35 minutes played. That average stays fairly consistent after this match, with Cutrone subbed off at the 76th minute – with a standing ovation from the crowd – after the duo had each bagged a goal.
Putting Cutrone into the line-up adds another attacking presence in the penalty area for Milan, but also significantly increases the workload for the midfield, as Lucas Biglia and Franck Kessie were forced to do the work that was once shared among three players.
In the first half, Sampdoria were constantly able to find the ball behind the Milan midfield, which ultimately led to the two Blucerchiati goals. When Milan play with a 4-3-3 formation, Biglia often tucks in with the backline, serving as a bridge between midfield and defence.
With this new set up, Biglia struggled to cover the ground, which left an immense gap between the defensive and the midfield lines, something that Riccardo Saponara and Fabio Quagliarella were consistently able to take advantage of in the first 45 minutes. The match wasn’t as open in the second half, which allowed Milan to keep the distances shorter between their units.
While both Sampdoria goals were created by some fantastic pieces of skill by Quagliarella and Saponara, they could have both been prevented with some more diligent defending. On Saponara’s goal, Davide Calabria completely loses the one-v-one battle against the ex-Milan man, and while Gianluigi Donnarumma, not exactly at fault for the goal, though most elite goalkeepers would be upset to see the ball go past them from such a tight angle.
Sampdoria’s second goal was facilitated by some fairly shambolic defending all round from Milan. Saponara was able to find the ball in acres of space behind Milan’s midfield, but only has Quagliarella in the box to aim for, against Mateo Musacchio and Calabria. Somehow Quagliarella is able to pull away from Calabria with absolutely no opposition from the defender, leading to an easy assist by Saponara resulting in a 2-1 lead for Sampdoria. When the cameras showed Gattuso’s reaction he was visibly livid that two of his players defended Quagliarella so passively.
Most of the defensive inadequacies came from the right side of Milan’s backline, with Calabria and Musacchio particularly culpable. Both Alessio Romagnoli and Ricardo Rodriguez, who make up the left side of the defence, had solid performances on the night. Unfortunately, those hoping to see a Mattia Caldara-Romagnoli centre back partnership will be disappointed to hear that Caldara’s calf problem will keep him out another two months.
Milan fans can be fairly happy with their team’s performance on the night. While in the end they were, once again, reliant on some of Suso’s magic to get the result they wanted, the overall performance was a big step forward compared to their previous two, where Milan were quite simply outplayed.
The result is also huge for Gattuso, as many believed his job to be at risk if he didn’t get the win against Sampdoria. His tension showed at the final whistle, when he verbally attacked the fourth official because the referee added 30 seconds to the injury time.
Milan were 13th in the Serie A table before the match, and now find themselves in fifth place with a game in hand. A win against Genoa on Wednesday could potentially put them in the top four. The difference 90 minutes can make is huge.