Milan 0, Empoli 0: Unnecessary Suffering

Milan had a chance to have two positive results in a row in Serie A, but Pioli singlehandedly undermined that chance. On a day bizarrely observed by Christianity as "Good Friday" for intense suffering and the ultimate sacrifice, Pioli sacrificed all reason and caused great suffering by making five changes to his lineups from what was nearly the perfect game on Sunday. As if those hideously traumatizing kits were not painful enough. The scoreless draw with Empoli was completely avoidable, two points dropped in a crucial run for Champions League qualification next year. Definitely not a good Friday. For the club, the team, and the fans, this was completely unnecessary suffering.

The players and the fans deserve better (so do our eyes.)

Traditionally, all Serie A matches on Easter weekend are played on Saturday. But as a reward for making it to the Champions League Quarterfinals, all three Italian teams involved had their matches moved to Friday. Inter had already drawn against Salernitana, and Napoli narrowly avoided dropping points to Lecce thanks to an own goal by the lower table side, so Milan had no pressure. Instead, we had an opportunity to take three points. Three points that we desperately needed. Since Pioli changed things up, this review will also be different, because I just can't review a match like this minute-by-minute.

Pioli's Choices

Why. Just why, Pioli. I get that Leão was not 100%. And that Giroud has got to get some rest at some point. There were precautions with Brahim Díaz for fitness reasons. So changes were needed. But to make five changes to the lineup, but play basically the same tactics that were tailored for those other players was unbelievable. Rebić is powerful, but does not have the speed or creativity that Leão does. Origi seems like a good player, but he does not have the size or strength of Giroud, nor does he do remotely as much on defense. Et cetera. You need different tactics for completely different players.

Pobega works hard. But should he ever be starting when we have 0 midfielders injured?

Also, to play the same tactics against a team like Empoli that you played against a team like Napoli was like using a hammer without a nail. Which actually might explain the scoreless part of the draw. Pioli has previously done well reading matches and making tactical changes, but since the freefall that has been our Serie A campaign this calendar year, he really seems to be the last one to realize his mistakes.

Also, not just his lineups, but his substitutions. Brahim Díaz replacing Bennacer and Florenzi replacing Calabria with 30 minutes still left to play, when there were other players were left on who had done so much less. When he finally decided to bring on Leão and Giroud for Rebić and Origi, they only had 20 minutes to make an impact, with no Bennacer, and tired legs from everyone else. Why not start your best 11, kill the game off, then rest them like winning coaches do? And seriously, how is De Ketelaere supposed to improve when he only gets five minutes every once in a while? All that does is keep fueling the negative media attention.

Origi, I acknowledge your previous accomplishments. But Milan need performances NOW.

Toothless Attack

While Milan held Empoli to only two shots, with only one of those on target, our attack took 23 shots. Twenty-three shots. How many of those were on target? Four. Just four shots on target for the team that maintained 70% possession throughout the match.

Pioli's decision to field our least creative, least effective attack paid dividends for the visitors, with their backup keeper needing to be hyper-vigilant, yet only really making one great save. Anyone could see that with a starting attack of Origi, backed by an out-of-form Rebić,  a young Pobega, and the inconsistent Saelemaekers, we were unlikely to score. 

Saelemaekers is amazing... sometimes. But he is never a guarantee for goals.

Anyone but Pioli, who seemed puzzled in his postmatch comments, saying Milan "were missing something in our final third." Really? 23 shots, only four on target and that is what you took away? I could have told you that before kickoff, just looking at the lineups. What we were missing in our final third was even one creative player or decisive scorer.

Giroud finally did score in the 89th, from a Florenzi cross, but his goal was rightfully called back by VAR after it was shown to have been last touched by his arm. You could see how crushed he was after the final whistle, and he was still upset about the call, too. All of this was just unnecessary suffering.

Honestly, Giroud deserves better.

Referee Decisions

Let me start by pointing out that our referee on the evening was a less-experienced referee. Matteo Marcenaro had only refereed eight Serie A matches prior to this one. His resumé includes the infamous Juventus-Salernitana VAR debacle back in September (although that was not his fault, it was a camera/linesman issue.) His inexperience became quite clear at various times throughout the match, but blatantly obvious when questions of penalties arose. Despite being assisted on VAR by the experienced (and also experienced in controversy) Paolo Valeri, Marcenaro managed to get three calls wrong in a matter of five minutes:

54th minute: Theo Hernández was fouled from behind by Fazzini just inside the penalty area, though where it happened was a very tight call. Marcenaro awarded the corner as if Fazzini got the ball, VAR reviewed it, and the decision stood. After watching it numerous times, it appears that not only did Theo get the ball and Fazzini fouled him, he was inside the line when the foul occurred, and it should have been a penalty. 

Theo can exaggerate calls, but replays show he had a point on the call for the penalty.

55th minute: Saelemaekers took a powerful shot, but it was deflected out by the arm of De Winter. Because Marcenaro made no call, VAR could not review it, but they should have. De Winter may have had his arm pulled into his body, but he used his arm and body to thrust toward the ball and send it clear. Had he not done so, that ball was actually heading toward goal. Marcenaro did award the corner, which means he did see the deflection, but not the handball.

58th minute: Marcenaro whistled for a penalty for Milan when he judged that Ebuehi handled the ball in the box. Ebuehi's hand was in the air, but never touched the ball. After Valeri alerted him to review the call via VAR, Marcenaro had to rescind the penalty, which he rightfully did. It felt like he was trying to give Milan a makeup penalty for getting the other two calls wrong, which is never good reffing. Also, Milan cannot be relying on referee calls for scoring, but referees cannot be this bad at this level, especially with VAR.

The AIA really needs to step up the level of referees and the proper use of VAR.

Marcenaro's card distribution was also strange, as he handed out a number of warnings for some pretty big fouls early on, then dished out the first yellow to Pobega in the 38th for a foul that seemed far more innocuous than some of the others he ignored. He managed to get through all of regulation without giving another (though perhaps that was not right, either,) then gave two cards to Empoli players for unsporting/timewasting tactics. His final yellow was given to Tomori for something he said after the final whistle.

Why Is PUMA Making Our Fashion Choices?

Milan is the fashion capital of Italy, and for some, the world. So why is a German sportswear company making our fashion choices? These "military green" kits are a color that do not look good on ANY skin color. They literally drain the color out of anyone and make them look more sickly. That's a real thing, there is actual science behind some fashion choices.

I get that PUMA are giving us boatloads of money, but is it really worth it? Our players come to the match in their killer Off White suits, looking and feeling amazing (that is also a real thing, too.) Then they have to change into these hideous things and try to fight for three points, it is so shameful. Just more unnecessary suffering, for them and for all of us.

PUMA isn't the only one making poor fashion choices, Theo dyed his hair instead of Easter eggs.

Why Milan Needs Champions League Next Year

Pioli must be feeling the pressure. He must be aware of how much Milan need Champions League next year. Not just for the prestige, or the continued growth of the club, or even the income, let alone his job. No, there is even more at stake than that. Our entire summer transfer window depends on it, including some incredibly important renewals (cough)Leão(cough).

We talked on the last podcast about how our Champions League campaign this year is estimated to have earned us €71 million to date this season. That is a lot of cash, and it is hoped that it will all be reinvested in the transfer window. However, if we do not finish top four, we are likely to lose key players. We are also much less likely to be able to bring in players worth building the squad we want to keep moving forward. This season is key in Maldini's project, and achieving top four is the minimum goal at this point.

Every point we drop increases the risk of saying goodbye to this incredible player.

For all of these reasons, this game was especially difficult to watch. It feels like Pioli does not quite get the magnitude of it all, or is not quite on the same page somehow. The players he fielded played hard, but our bench is nowhere near the quality of our first team. All of us fans know that. In order to close that gap, we need to qualify for Champions League again and invest in the transfer window. Having to watch our bench players run around with so much possession and no goals in these hideous kits with more poor reffing just made for more unnecessary suffering.

Buona Pasqua!

This post inspired by the music of Måneskin's' "The Loneliest"

Our next match is 
Champions League Quarterfinals
AC Milan vs. SSC Napoli
Wednesday, April 12, 2023 • 21:00 CET (3pm EDT)

Milan 0, Empoli 0: Unnecessary Suffering Milan 0, Empoli 0: Unnecessary Suffering Reviewed by Elaine on 11:59 PM Rating: 5
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