AC Milan 0, Newcastle United FC 0: Cause for Concern

Milan opened our Champions League Group Stage by taking 25 shots this evening and converted not even one of them, leaving San Siro with only a point. And while the lack of goals could also be credited in part to Newcastle's goalkeeper, Nick Pope, who made a massive eight saves, the 0-0 draw was a disappointment for Milan. Every point will be needed to qualify for the knockout round from this "Group of Death." However, the true cause for concern was the potential new injuries to Loftus-Cheek and especially Maignan. According to Pioli, the midfielder reportedly only had cramping, while Maignan was seen leaving San Siro walking gingerly due to pain in a muscle in his left thigh. This, after losing backup to our backup center back, Caldara, for three months due to ankle surgery this week. It feels like our injury fortunes are already starting to repeat themselves, which is cause for concern.

The score was disappointing, but the injuries are the real cause for concern.

Let me just start out by addressing how toxic the Italian press has been this week. Rafa Leão was given a score of five out of ten by Milan News, and this was their review of his performance:

"Inexplicable. A performance like this from Rafa, who is not at all synchronized with the San Siro, is literally incomprehensible. He almost always takes too much time when playing and shooting, especially in the first half. A cross from Florenzi from the right gives him the chance to break the deadlock, but his shot goes just over the crossbar. And he finishes his match with the backheel attempt in the area, which becomes a meme."

The Italian media and fans may want to reconsider their footballing opinions.

There is a stark contrast between how they view things and how the rest of the footballing world views things. In contrast, UEFA awarded Leão with the Player of the Match. Their Technical Observer Panel said: "He was a constant threat all game – quick, strong, showing good movement and proving a real danger in the box. The Portuguese had good chances to score, too."

I point this out because Pioli has also been under fire in the Italian media and especially amongst an even more toxic Milan fan base since Saturday's excruciating Derby loss. Mind you, with this completely new look squad with €134 million worth of new players, he has won three and lost one in Serie A, where Milan sit in third place. Now Milan drew their first Champions League match. 

Five matches played, with a record of 3-1-1 in two competitions is not grounds for sacking.

His recent accomplishments with this team include winning the Scudetto just over a year ago, qualifying this team for the Champions League three seasons in a row, and taking them to the semifinals this past May. All with a team with a much smaller wage bill than their opponents. Any outsider would look at this criticism and think that Italy and Milan fans were all certifiably insane. But Pioli has never been given credit for his accomplishments, and this fanbase had "Pioli Out" trending on social media before he ever signed the contract. This toxic behavior is cause for concern.

That leads me to Pioli's choices for this match, where he made a couple of changes to his preferred starting 11. While simultaneously criticizing him for never changing anything, the Italian media and Milan fans were criticizing his decision to start Pobega and Chukwueze over Reijnders and Pulisic, respectively. Someone without the toxic lenses could easily see that his choices were both for physicality against this specific opponent, as well as due to both Reijnders and Pulisic being fatigued after national team duty and a tough Derby match. 

Toxic fans may not be happy, but Pobega proved he was the right choice for the first 60 minutes.

His decision was correct, as Pobega had the first shot on target, and Milan had six shots on target in the first 20 minutes of this match, a record for them since this data has been available, according to OptaPaolo. Pobega also had a shot in the 34th that was cleared off the line after Leão had a breathtaking run into the box, but was also unable to convert. In fact, Milan finished the first half with 14 shots, six of them on target. They dominated Newcastle, who only had two attempts at all in that half, neither of which were on target. 

Pioli started the second half by bringing on Florenzi for Calabria, who had earned a yellow card for dissent in the first half and was also likely fatigued. Discipline is also a cause for concern, as Milan players picked up a total of four yellows in this match, with Musah, Giroud, and Krunić all being cautioned as well. That could very much come back to haunt us, particularly if injuries continue to accumulate again.

In addition to missed opportunities, discipline is also a concern.

Newcastle started the second half with more confidence, including a Tonali shot right away that Thiaw confidently blocked. The Magpies were more aggressive and maintained more possession, and forced Milan to take more shots from outside of the area. The battle between Tonali and Loftus-Cheek was intriguing. While Loftus-Cheek towers over our former number eight, it was actually a pretty even battle. And it was after a foul from him that Loftus-Cheek went down and was eventually subbed off.

Pioli did bring on Pulisic and Reijnders in the 61st, which seemed to be just what was needed. Both players brought fresh legs and some spark to Milan's offense, and Reijnders had one shot that was easily managed by Pope. But it seemed clear that Pioli had made the right call here. Musah replaced Loftus-Cheek in name only in the 72nd, as he brings entirely different qualities, and he did well, too. That is how substitutions should work – they should make an impact. The big worry was when Maignan went down on his own in the 80th, and Sportiello replaced him.

One save was required, and Sportiello was up for it, but losing Maignan is worrisome.

Sportiello was confident, and came up with the big save in stoppage time against a great shot by Longstaff. That was Milan's only save of the match, as Newcastle only had the one shot on target. That was also in part to Milan's strong defense. Tomori, especially, put in a great performance, coming off of a suspension and having fresh legs. Meanwhile, both Leão and Giroud had big chances that were missed in the second half for Milan. It was that inability to convert on any of those attempts that kept Milan from taking the full three points. Newcastle must feel thrilled to come away with a point after their performance, while Milan will rue all 25 missed opportunities. 

The one opportunity that I was most proud of was the opportunity to honor Tonali, particularly since he had not had the chance to say goodbye to the fans. Not only did the fans greet him well, they sent him off with a standing ovation when he was subbed off. It was beautiful to see him greet and hug his former teammates, almost as if it was a bit of healing for us, as well. He did not hold back on the pitch, but did not manage to hurt us, either, so it was probably the best case scenario for all parties.

A battle of the heart, at least fans did not disappoint on acknowledging Tonali.

Another intriguing plotline was a visit from Ibrahimović to Milanello on Monday, clearly to help motivate the squad. This was followed by reports of him meeting with Cardinale to discuss a potential position with the Club, which he is reportedly taking time to consider. He was spotted sitting next to his good friend Abate, whose Primavera side dispatched Newcastle's U19 side 4-0 in the UEFA Youth League earlier in the day. Camarda, the 15 year-old striker who is practically become legendary already, scored a brace in that match (one being a penalty,) and in scoring became the youngest Italian player ever to score in the UEFA Youth League. So amidst disappointment, there are glimmers of hope, with a potential return of Ibrahimović, and the continued success of the Primavera side.

Cause for concern, sure, but also signs of hope for the future, especially in our youth side.

There are also signs that some of the toxicity in the Italian media was washed away by a bit of objectivity in some areas following a match where Milan did play fairly well, but were just unable to convert their chances. That gives me some hope as well, although with any poor result in the future, I fear they will pick up where they left off. Only taking the point is definitely disappointing, because playing Newcastle at home should have probably been one of our strongest cases for three points in this group. But it is the potential injuries I fear most. I mean at least we have Sportiello this year, who stepped in seamlessly for Maignan. But what we lose beyond the saves with our number one is massive, and cost us dearly last year. For me, that is the biggest cause for concern.

This post inspired by the music of The Cranberries' "When You're Gone"

Our next match is 
Serie A Week 5
Milan vs. Hellas Verona
Saturday, September 23, 2023 • 15:00 CEST (9am EDT)

AC Milan 0, Newcastle United FC 0: Cause for Concern AC Milan 0, Newcastle United FC 0: Cause for Concern Reviewed by Elaine on 11:59 PM Rating: 5
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