AC Milan 2022/23: What moves must be made in the transfer market to maintain their title-winning momentum – tactical analysis
AC Milan just won their first Scudetto in 12 years as Stefano Pioli built a team with balanced performance and maturity both in and out of possession. They have been the most consistent side throughout the 2021/22 season and despite them being tightly followed by their city rivals Inter, they managed to win their last six games and lift the Serie A trophy.
Expectedly, the club don’t want to make many squad changes and have confirmed that they won’t be selling any of their key players, despite the interest from various clubs. They only want to improve what they have now and as the club legend and current technical director Paolo Maldini said – they need at least a couple of new signings to be able to continue the winning cycle.
There is one player that parts his ways with Milan, though, which might directly impact their performance. The midfielder Franck Kessié, who has been one of the best performers for the Rossoneri over the last few years is set to leave for Barcelona, which leaves a huge gap in the midfield.
Despite the controversy around Gianluigi Donnarumma’s departure, which was expected to leave Milan in a difficult position, the club made a smart move by signing Mike Maignan from LOSC Lille. The goalkeeper quickly transitioned from Ligue 1 to Serie A football to actually win the Scudetto in his first season and become a crucial part of the team’s success. His performance off the ball was impressive as he kept 11 clean sheets in the league but even more importantly, his actions on the ball had an impact on Milan’s performances in possession and gave them more options in their build-up.
Their second-choice goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusano only played in nine games in all competitions this term. While his performance wasn’t satisfying enough, conceding 12 goals, Milan won’t be looking for a replacement yet and it is more likely that the 36-year-old will end his career at the club. With the third keeper Antonio Mirante being 38 years old, though, Milan need to consider bringing in a fresh face in the near future.
Things in central defence looked differently for Milan throughout the season. There was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the starting eleven due to several injury blows that caused Pioli some difficulties in picking the right partnership.
Currenty, the manager is secure with Fikayo Tomori, Alessio Romagnoli, Pierre Kalulu, Matteo Gabbia and Simon Kjær available. It looks like he found the best-working partnership in the face of Tomori and Kalulu, who were the regular starters towards the end of the season. The two youngsters displayed impressive maturity to carry out the manager’s tactics and provided defensive security in the most important moment of the season.
Having Romagnoli and Kjær is also crucial for the team as their experience brings a much-needed balance as well.
Left-back and right-back
Rossoneri’s options on the left and the right-back are more limited, and the players are not completely interchangeable. Theo Hernández is the regular starter on the left and is vital for Pioli’s Milan style of play. The left back’s involvement in the attack is key for the team’s actions in possession as he provides an additional direct threat in front of the opposition’s goal. The second choice Fodé Ballo-Touré is also involved in the attack, but he is committed to creating more crossing attempts and his movement is a lot more limited to the flank.
Having a couple of players with a different playing style is great if you want to change the direction of a match, but this way it would be more difficult for Pioli to employ his strategy in case Hernández is being sidelined.
The situation on the right doesn’t differ that much. The starting spot is for Davide Calabria. Considering Alessandro Florenzi’s regular injuries, the team might need to look for another option for the right-back. Providing depth to these positions might be crucial for securing their future success.
As mentioned, Milan need to quickly find a replacement for Kessié if they want to continue their winning cycle. The midfielder was key for the team’s ball progression through his passing abilities, while his presence in the defensive midfield provided additional support out of possession. His success in defensive duels and the low number of lost balls on average made him extremely important during transitions.
The Rossoneri are rumoured to have targeted Lille’s Renato Sanches who, despite the team’s poor season, proved his quality and made it clear that he deserves a chance at a leading European club. While Renato is less efficient defensively, he performs better on the ball and can use his dribbling abilities in ball progression quite successfully.
Kessié’s partner Sandro Tonali has proven his potential and is expected to be an irreplaceable part of Milan’s future ventures. He contributes perfectly through his strong passing which allows him to orchestrate play from deep and bypass the press.
The other two options in the defensive midfield are Ismaël Bennacer and Tiemoué Bakayoko who can both help through accurate passing and defensive awareness. The team should be covered in those positions should they find a good replacement for Kessié.
Another option in midfield is Rade Krunić who was recently used as a replacement for Brahim Díaz in the. attacking midfield. Milan don’t have many options in this position with only Díaz and Daniel Maldini being suitable for the AMF role. Díaz, who impressed at the beginning of the season, slowly lost his form and Pioli was forced to replace him with Krunić who performed decently but lacks the technical abilities for this role.
Left-wing and right-wing
The team’s best performer in the 2021/22 season Rafael Leão has secured his spot on the left wing and Milan are set to keep him despite the high interest from teams like Manchester City and Real Madrid. Scoring 14 goals and assisting 12 more as a result of his explicit dribbling abilities and composure have made him the key figure in this Pioli side.
Rossoneri’s second option in this position is Ante Rebić, who earned only 1,106 playing minutes this term and might become a part of a swap transfer deal in the near future.
The right-wing starting spot is reserved for Alexis Saelemaekers who is rumoured to be subbed if Milan succeeds in their negotiations for signing Nicolò Zaniolo from Roma. Another option in that position is Samu Castillejo who has only participated in four Serie A games in the 2021/22 campaign.
The team are in a delicate position with their centre forward spot despite having Zlatan Ibrahimović and Olivier Giroud. Both players are at the end of their careers, which leaves the Rossoneri only with the 18-year-old Marko Lazetić, whom they signed in Jan 2022 and is yet to make his debut in Serie A.
In which areas do they underperform?
While we have examined their squad depth and where they have a shortage of players, it is also important to look at the areas where they underperform. This will determine whether they need additional signings in order to be competitive enough and maintain their leading position.
Despite the team winning the title and having a considerably balanced approach, there are some areas where they might need to improve next season.
Despite being fourth in the league in terms of goals scored, a closer look at their attacking performance shows that they need to work on improving their shot accuracy. While the team produced a high number of shots per 90, they placed 14th in terms of accuracy. That underlines the need for a striker or winger with strong finishing who could increase their efficiency in front of the goal. Their former player André Silva is doing great in the CF position at Eintracht Frankfurt at the moment with 53.57% shot accuracy.
One of the best options in the top 5 European leagues in that indicator is Christopher Nkunku (RB Leipzig) who produces 2.41 shots on average per 90 with 51.95 of them being on target. He has scored 20 goals in the league but there is a long list of clubs fighting for his signature going along with his €65M market fee which might not be suitable for Milan. Olympique Lyonnais’ Moussa Dembélé also meets the criteria and carries a much more manageable transfer fee.
Another area they could improve on in order to increase their attacking efficiency is producing more crosses from the right. Most of the team’s crossing attempts come from the left side, which creates a disbalance and makes the need for a new right-winger even more noticeable.
The free-agent Ousmane Dembélé who currently parted ways with Barcelona is yet to decide on his future. The RWF produced a high number of crossing attempts (6.5 per 90) while he is also able to provide a direct threat, although his finishing is not among his strongest attributes.
When looking for a Kessié replacement the Rossoneri might focus on bringing a player that performs better than him in certain areas. The Ivorian could make some improvement in his aerial presence as his success rate in the air is not satisfying enough, while having a player with strong aerial abilities in midfield could prove crucial. Intercepting the ball is also something they should be looking at. Having the defensive awareness to block opposition attacks midway is also important.
We extracted data from the top five European leagues to find players that could replace Kessié and add more in certain areas. We narrowed down the list to three options that had similar numbers both in and out of possession and that could possibly be contenders for the position should Milan stay away from the most obvious players as Sanches and Jorginho.
Brighton’s Yves Bissouma, Nice’s Mario Lemina and Leicester’s Boubakary Soumaré have all appeared on our shortlist. A closer look at their data is illustrated in the below graphs.
Defensively, things look quite similar for all players. Kessié is the midfielder with the highest percentile of won defensive duels, followed by Bissouma and Lemina. Both of his possible replacements have been actively involved in their team’s actions off the ball. There’s a downfall to Bissouma’s reactions in direct challenges, though, as he has seen 10 yellow cards in the last calendar year, which should be carefully considered when looking at his profile.
All of the three suggested players have a higher success rate in the air compared to the Ivorian, which might give Milan a huge advantage in certain situations. Bissouma also excels in terms of PAdj Interceptions, followed by Lemina. Their awareness and ability to anticipate opposition passes might increase Rossoneri’s chances in attack and their time on the ball.
It should be considered that Soumaré is the least experienced out of all and has earned a lot fewer playing minutes in the last year. This might make him unsuitable for a replacement, despite his good numbers, as Milan is looking for someone who can pick up right where Kessié left from. Lemina could be a decent option, considering his previous experience in Serie A with Juventus. He has gained valuable experience since then and might be a good fit for the team.
We see a different narrative when it comes to their actions in possession. Here, Bissouma gives way to Lemina in most indicators. The Gabonese international has the highest average pass frequency out of all (49.43) and has a similar pass completion rate to Kessié, although Bissouma is the player with the highest percentile of accurate passes (90.87%).
Lemina and Bissouma have also performed better in terms of offensive duels and progressing the ball.
The ex-Juventus player has the most similar numbers to the Ivorian when it comes to providing long balls, which is an important part of Kessié’s style of play and has helped Milan immensely.
As our analysis showed, Milan are in desperate need of a striker, while they also might be looking to strengthen their right wing. Finding a replacement for Kessié is on the agenda and looking into the less commercial options might be a winning move for the team. Their squad depth in certain positions might not be enough for them to pull out another title-winning season, while also taking part in the Champions League.