Set-piece issues at both ends continue to hamper AC Milan's progress
At the end of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Milan at the Olimpico, Torino owner Urbano Cairo inevitably bumped into his former player Alessio Cerci. It was the first time the wing-forward had been back to Turin since his ill-fated move to Atletico Madrid in the final days of the transfer window last summer.
Returning to Serie A with his tail between his legs after flopping in La Liga thanks to Milan agreeing to loan him in exchange for Fernando Torres before Christmas, Cerci knew Cairo wouldn’t be able to resist a joke. “Could you really not have stayed with us?” Cairo asked. “You’re such an idiot.”
It was said with genuine affection not least because Cerci had entered Torino hearts last season. His strike partnership with Ciro Immobile was the most prolific the club has seen since Francesco Graziani and Paolo Pulici fired the Granata to their last Scudetto in 1976. The only player in Serie A to get into double figures in goals (13) and assists (10) last term, it was actually a miss that earned him a place in Torino folklore.
Rotten luck is a thread running through their history and his failure to convert a penalty against Fiorentina on which qualification for Europe was riding oddly made him more Toro than had he scored it. Fortunately, financial irregularities meant Parma were denied a license to play in UEFA competitions and Torino got their spot instead.
Cairo’s wasn’t only a provocative comment on Cerci’s decision to leave Torino but also on his subsequent choice to go to Milan. Why do it? Are they really better than Torino? On the basis of the 94 minutes they’d just watched, it didn’t look like it. Milan mustered only one shot on target all game. It came after 160 seconds and from the penalty spot too.
Jérémy Menez had skilfully wriggled into the box where he went down after a shirt pull from Torino’s talismanic captain Kamil Glik. Milan’s capocannoniere made no mistake. Finding the net for the ninth time this season, it’s instructive to recall that four of them have come from 12 yards. Milan need more from open play, not only from Menez but his teammates in attack. Cerci has been signed to offer a helping hand but the absence of a natural born finisher like Inzaghi explains Milan’s interest in the loan of Roma’s Mattia Destro.
Dead-ball guru Gianni Vio, poached from Fiorentina with a reputation built on his book “Set-pieces: the 30-goal striker” has hardly delivered on his promise. For instance, Milan have scored only two goals from 91 corners this season, so the burden on their front players to score isn’t being relieved.
After ending a 622-day goal drought in Serie A against Sampdoria in November, Stephan El Shaarawy has run dry again. Upon putting every faith in him and even deciding on 4-3-3 because it plays to his strengths, Inzaghi dropped him in favour of M’baye Niang on Saturday following a poor display from his protege in the 2-1 defeat to Sassuolo at San Siro earlier in the week. With the score 1-0, El Shaarawy made the wrong decision on a counter-attack neither shooting with conviction, nor setting up a teammate. A chance to kill off Sassuolo was missed. The Neroverdi were spared and came back to win.
Another of the players that Inzaghi has protected, Mattia de Sciglio, contributed to the reversal too. Out of position and not sensing the danger with sufficient urgency, it was in the zone that he should have been occupying that Nicola Sansone equalised. Sassuolo’s clincher was also partly his responsibility. Marking Simone Zaza on a corner, he was cleverly impeded from following the striker by a clever blocking scheme.
Zaza profited by volleying in the winner. Expected to suffer the same fate as El Shaarawy and be left out against Torino, an injury to Daniele Bonera and Ignazio Abate’s lack of full fitness meant De Sciglio returned as right-back. Beaten for pace by his Italy international colleague, the former Milan academy graduate Matteo Darmian, he was shown a red card before half-time for a second bookable offence.
Already under siege - Torino had hit the post through Darmian - Milan came under more fire after the interval. Sulley Muntari was replaced by Andrea Poli, an understandable decision given the Ghanaian was on a yellow. Still, he kicked and threw water bottles on being substituted. Giampaolo Pazzini was asked to warm up for 20 minutes but never got on. And then, instead of introducing the pace of El Shaarawy or Cerci to to provide a release valve, Inzaghi took off Menez - Milan’s only nominal forward - to make way for Alex. Comprehensible considering that Torino were curling in cross after cross into the area and height was exactly what was required, it invited pressure and criticism.
Milan were playing 5-4-0 for the final 15 minutes. “We were down to 10, not 8-men,” Abate huffed. For a team that has only kept one clean sheet on the road this season (an ulterior reason why they have won just once away), why choose to defend exclusively when you know this is hardly a strength of your team while counter-attacking is. Milan had 38.4% possession and allowed 27 shots, their worst tally of the season so far. They played with the mentality of a provincial club rather than one with an intercontinental profile. It was catenaccio rather than braggadocio and we all know how Silvio Berlusconi wants his team to play.
Inevitably and with merit, Torino equalised through Glik. Serie A’s most prolific defender and his team’s top scorer, it was his fifth of the season. All have come from set-pieces and this was no different. The eighth Milan have allowed from a dead-ball situation, this was the seventh from a corner. They represent 38% of the goals the Rossoneri have conceded. A problem in 2012/13 when they let in 19, things got a little better last season as Milan shipped 11, but it remains an Achilles Heel.
In the Sassuolo (1) and Torino (2) games alone it has cost them three points, precious treasure that would have had them within two of Lazio. Factor in the others and Tuttosport estimate the weakness has lost Milan nine in total, which would put them in the third spot they covet.
And to think Inzaghi’s team ended 2014 on something approximating a high. They beat Napoli 2-0 at San Siro and held Roma 0-0 at the Olimpico, recording back-to-back clean sheets for the first time this season. That performance in particular was indicative of an improving team especially in its tactical astuteness without the ball. At war a year ago, the chief executives are now dovetailing nicely.
Barbara Berlusconi landed a deal with Emirates worth €100m over the next five years while Adriano Galliani did his bit, procuring Cerci. In Doha, Inzaghi also managed to claim an impressive victory over Real Madrid in a friendly. The future looked brighter. Milan seemed to be on the way up.
Their bubble however has been well and truly burst. Tuesday’s 2-1 win against Sassuolo in the Coppa Italia constituted revenge and a step back in the right direction. Milan played on the front foot, hit the post and the bar and deserved to win when Nigel de Jong clinched it though only in the 86th minute. It helped of course that Milan are prioritising this competition - “it’s our Champions League this season” - while their opponents left the likes of Zaza and Domenico Berardi on the bench until the final minutes.
Inzaghi’s former club Atalanta visit the Meazza next and it remains hard to confidently predict a home win. You never know what you’re going to get with Milan. “I’ve been here for 15 years,” goalkeeper Christian Abbiati said, “and the thing that bothers me most is that teams now come to San Siro thinking they can get something, while before they hoped not to get hammered. Things have to get back to being like that.”
It’ll take time. “I don’t have a magic wand,” Inzaghi said earlier this season. Unfortunately for Milanisti, it would appear that the one journalists poignantly presented him with as a gift at his last press conference before Christmas has no powers.
How do you think Milan can solve their current problems?