The return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the Stadio San Siro in December 2019 came with a sense of trepidation for many AC Milan fans and his opening four months at the club offered little in the way excitement.
However, since the beginning of the 2020/21 campaign the 39-year-old has shown that he is still one of the world’s best strikers as he has led the Rossoneri to the top of Serie A with ten goals in six games.
Ibrahimovic’s impact on Stefano Pioli’s team has never been more evident than on Thursday evening as the Rossoneri stumbled their way to a 1-1 draw with Lille in the Europa League. With the former Sweden international missing through injury Milan looked almost toothless in attack as they managed only a solitary shot on target over the course of 90 minutes.
There was a distinct lack of presence in the Rossoneri’s front line and they couldn’t find the cutting edge to break open the robust Dogues defence on a regular basis, with Samu Castillejo’s goal less than a minute into the second half providing their only notable attacking moment.
In stark contrast Milan’s defence continued to show the new found self assured ease that has seen them lose only one game since the beginning of the season. Even when under heavy pressure in the final quarter of the contest they looked unwavering and if it wasn’t for a heavy deflection helping Jonathan Bamba’s effort past Gianluigi Donnarumma they may have left the Stade Pierre Mauroy with all three points.
However, with Ibrahimovic expected to be sidelined for the Rossoneri’s next two games Pioli will need to find a way to balance his team’s defensive dominance with a different style of attack if they’re to further their lead at the top of the Serie A table.
Ante Rebic was the man chosen to replace Ibrahimovic in Lille and he did little to fill his boots as he struggled to make an impact on the contest. The Croatia international, who has only made five league appearances so far this season due to an elbow injury, has been unable to find the form that saw him score eleven goals in a 15 game span at the tail end of the 2019/20 campaign and he looked rusty on Thursday evening.
He offered little in the way of a physical presence for the Rossoneri and he was unable to play himself into the game against the hard nosed Dogues defence, Pioli eventually replaced him with Lorenzo Colombo on the hour mark.
POSSESSION DOESN’T MEAN PRIZES
Despite the score line Milan controlled the contest for over an hour as they had the lion’s share of possession and looked comfortable on the ball. However, you don’t get points for possession and their inability to create opportunities cost them on the evening as the Dogues compact defensive line easily dealt with any threats.
Ibrahimiovic was once again the missing link, his ability to hold the ball up and bring those around him into the game is second to none and the Rossoneri looked lost without him.
SOLID AT THE BACK
The Rossoneri’s defence has been rock solid so far this season and they provided another fine display on Thursday evening as they held firm when called upon. They could have been forgiven for being nervous after being on the end of a shock 3-0 defeat, Milan’s only loss of the season so far, at the hands of the Dogues only 21 days earlier, but they looked calm and controlled throughout the contest.
Having only conceded eight goals in Serie A so far this season, with only Juventus and Hellas Verona having conceded less, Pioli’s team have become a force to be reckoned with.
PIOLI’S ATTACKING OPTIONS
With Ibrahimovic and his usual replacement Rafael Leao both missing for the immediate future Pioli is left with a difficult decision when it comes to filling the attacking void. Although Rebic offered little to the team against Lille it would be expected that he continues to lead the line for the time being, but with Daniel Maldini and Colombo both offering a combination of youthful exuberance and pace the coach still has plenty in his attacking arsenal should he need it.