We have now reached the first break in the 2022-23 season as club action ends for just shy of a fortnight to make way for international fixtures.
The opening nine games of the new campaign – with seven being in Serie A and two in the Champions League – give us just enough to go on in terms of taking stock on how Milan are shaping up in their title defense and quest to go further in Europe.
Here are some things we have learned from the first few weeks of the new season…
1. Resolute spirit
It is never something that a coach would like to have to demonstrate, but Stefano Pioli must be pleased about his side’s ability to respond when going behind in games.
Milan have so far trailed in their first game of the season against Udinese (won 4-2), the first away match versus Atalanta (drew 1-1), the derby against Inter (won 3-2), the Champions League trip to Red Bull Salzburg (drew 1-1) and the recent home game against Napoli (lost 2-1).
Therefore, in each of the five games where the Rossoneri trailed they responded in some way to claim either a draw or the win, with the exception of the game against Napoli where they were still the better team. That kind of fighting spirit is a positive, but there is obvious work to do on ensuring Milan score first.
2. Bennacer stepping up
Franck Kessie’s summer farewell seemed to have left a chasm in Milan’s midfield and there was not a player who arrived that obviously filled the gap in qualities that the Ivorian brought, at least while Tommaso Pobega continues to be introduced with care and Aster Vranckx has only had a cameo so far.
In this first phase of the season up to the international break it is fair to say Bennacer has been a shining star in the Rossoneri’s midfield, and he is increasingly becoming a leader of Pioli’s team after the Scudetto win.
The Algerian has taken on a few more tasks in the defensive phase and continues to contribute in build-up play as well, so it is no surprise to hear talks are ongoing between the club and the player’s entourage to extend his current contract expiring in 2024.
3. New signings need time to freeze
With the exception of a few elite players, it is very rare that new signings arrive and instantly hit the ground running, yet there is some concern among the fan base about the lack of impact made by some of the summer recruits.
Charles De Ketelaere was the big summer signing with an investment of over €30m made, and though he has just one assist and is yet to score, he is still contributing. MilanNews reported that the Belgian first in Serie A for key passes for 90 minutes (with just under 3) and for xA (expected assists, or the probability that a pass becomes an assist) per 90 minutes with 0.4.
However, we have only seen flashes from the likes of Yacine Adli and Aster Vranckx, while Malick Thiaw is yet to make his debut for the club and Sergino Dest has been used but to varying degrees of effectiveness.
Pioli is a demanding coach because of the complex system and mechanisms that he wishes to impose on the squad, but he also recognizes talent and will seek to put the new recruits in the right situations to succeed.
4.Still the one
Olivier Giroud has five goals in nine games for Milan so far this season and he has continued his trend of being the man to score big goals, netting in the derby against Inter (again), in the Champions League against Dinamo Zagreb and also equalizing against Naples.
His goal scoring resurgence has earned him a recall to the France squad, and he is very close to achieving what would be a remarkable milestone given he is two away from Thierry Henry’s record as their all-time top scorer, with the objective of getting a spot on the plane for the Qatar World Cup.
At the age of 35 years and 349 days, Olivier Giroud is the second oldest French player to score a Champions League goal, after Laurent Blanc with Manchester United in 2002 (36 years and 338 days).
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) September 14, 2022
The Frenchman is seen as one of the certainties of Pioli’s attack and an example for the young players given his status as a leader within the dressing room. His physical reliability has also been nearly faultless so far in 2022-23 as he is now on seven games started in a row, so it is not a shock to hear that talks are on to extend his deal beyond the June 2023 deadline.
5. Kjaer back and still a leader
Simon Kjaer suffered a serious knee injury back in December last year in the away win over Genoa and he needed eight months to get back onto the grass, but he has already started two games this season and looks to be back to being a defensive leader.
Admittedly Milan’s defensive record this season has not been something to boast about (which we will touch upon), but given that an established centre-back did not happen it was important that Kjaer got back to full fitness and was able to contribute.
In the games that Kjaer did start, Milan kept a clean sheet against Sassuolo where they gave very little away and then won 2-1 against Sampdoria where they played with 10 men for 45 minutes and held their hosts to one goal.
Having the Dane back is big for the changing room too because of the wealth of knowledge and experience he is able to impart onto the young squad.
6. A positive surprise
Milan were linked with many targets over the summer for the role of right winger including the likes of Domenico Berardi, Marco Asensio, Hakim Ziyech and even Riyad Mahrez, but Paolo Maldini and Ricky Massara decided to back Alexis Saelemaekers and Junior Messias.
They have so far been rotated depending on condition and the opponent faced, but Saelemaekers has appeared in 8 out of 9 games this season for a total of 371 minutes played, scoring 2 goals – both in the Champions League against RB Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb – and adding an assist.
Messias meanwhile has played at least apart from all 9 games played so far by Milan. The Brazilian is on 408 minutes at present, and scored a goal in the 2-1 away win against Sampdoria.
The management can therefore be happy with their contribution so far, and while this is by no means a suggestion that Milan are fine on the right side of the attack, it is more a pleasant surprise than anything to get meaningful contribution from two wingers that many fans have deemed to be lost causes.
7. Pioli coming up with new tactical solutions
Stefano Pioli has often spoken of his desire to create an unpredictable and chameleonic side, and the Rossoneri coach admitted this after the victory against Samp – which featured a red card for Leao that forced him to redesign the team’s set-up during the game – that a three-man defense could be an option moving forward.
We have highlighted many different aspects of Milan’s play this season that have made them quite tough to predict, such as the transforming role of Ismael Bennacer, changing the amount of players used in build-up play, various midfield combinations being used and even a false nine being deployed.
Not only that, but the positional interchanges have been fascinating to watch as you can look up at various moments in games and see Theo Hernandez playing as a midfielder, Sandro Tonali on the wing, Rafael Leao as a striker and the playmaker dropping to be a midfielder.
Milan have many strings to their bow at the moment and given their struggles breaking down the low block at times in previous seasons under Pioli, these are positive steps.
8. Attacking depth
Pioli has not been able to rotate his key forward players anywhere near as much as he would have liked due to the injury problems that he has been battling.
A large part of the issue has been both Ante Rebic and Divock Origi being missing for each of the last few games as the former battled a hernia which now seems to have cleared up and the latter had a muscle problem which then affected the tendon.
That means that Rafael Leao and Olivier Giroud have both been working overtime pretty much since the season began. Some of the Portuguese winger’s performances have lacked sharpness as a result (but he has still been decisive) while the French striker cannot be expected to start game after game at the age of 35.
The hope is to have both back straight after the international break so some healthy rotation can be implemented, otherwise things could get worse before they get better from an injury point of view.
9. Strength to Weakness
Milan won the Scudetto last season after keeping 9 clean sheets in their final 11 league games, conceding just twice in that stretch, but this season so far they have let in 8 goals in the first 7 league games.
The Rossoneri have in fact already let in as many goals in the league this season as they did in the entire second half of the 2021-22 Serie A campaign, and there are a number of factors behind this.
Too many individual mistakes have been made, with lapses in concentration proving to be costly. Sergino Dest and Fikayo Tomori were at fault against Napoli and it proved fatal, but there is no cause for great alarm just yet.
That is because the group are still adapting to the defensive rotation that is quite simply a necessity. Although seeing Tomori-Kalulu every game would be the ideal, they do need to be rested at times and that is often partnered with other changes which lowers the cohesiveness and familiarity of the defensive unit a bit.
However, the panic button should not be pushed yet. Tomori remains a certainty as do Kalulu and Kjaer, with Theo Hernandez and Davide Calabria very capable full-backs, but now the break comes to reset everything and get those mistakes out of the system.
10. Objectives still on track
It is important to end on a positive, because that should be how Milanisti feel about the first seven weeks or so that the season has been going. Milan are within a game of being back top of the Serie A table (three point gap) and sit atop their Champions League group.
That means that the two main targets for the season – compete to defend the Scudetto and reach the knockout stages of the UCL – are on track to be achieved. Winning a trophy must be the objective goal for such a young group that still has obvious areas to be addressed, competing on two fronts would be a good effort.
The Coppa Italia bracket also provides a good chance to go deep into the competition, though the message must be as it has always been throughout Pioli’s tenure: take one game at a time and look to keep improving.