By the time Sunday evening arrived, Serie A Matchday 15 had produced seven red cards, a shed-full of goals and enough drama to make you need a lie down until Christmas. But, there was one more game to be played, a mouthwatering tie between Gennaro Gattuso’s AC Milan side and Walter Mazzarri’s Torino. Both teams sit in the European spots in fourth and sixth, respectively, and have shown enough this season to suggest they may well end up there come the end of the season. A win for either side would put down a marker as serious Champions League or Europa League contenders. With that in mind, it was a match high in drama, but disappointingly low in quality.
Free-flowing Torino frustrate stubborn Milan
Mazzarri set up his side in a 3-5-1-1, with Milan setting up in a 4-4-2 featuring the return of the Partick Cutrone-Gonzalo Higuain partnership. At the start of the match, it would have to be said that Torino won the tactical battle and started much brighter. Their midfield trio of Soualiho Meite, Tomas Rincon and Daniele Baselli was set up to pressure and limit the influence of Milan’s combative duo of Franck Kessie and Tiemoue Bakayoko.
With the middle of the park congested, the three at the back allowed wing-backs Christian Ansaldi and Chelsea loanee, Ola Aina, to fly forward on the break, or tuck in to make a five-man defence when needed. Usually, this would leave the space in behind the wind-backs exposed, but with Milan’s wingers not known for their defensive play, it was a gamble that paid off against Milan’s Davide Calabria and Ricardo Rodriguez.
Torino’s shape and energy caused havoc from the outset. Within a minute, Gianluigi Donnarumma was forced into a fumbling save, before having to pull off a world-class stop three minutes later to deny an Iago Falque header.
Falque’s position as a second-striker allowed him to roam around Milan’s rigid shape and find pockets of space. With the midfield duo occupied by Torino’s trio, he exploits Ignazio Abate’s inexperience in central defence and peels off him to find an excellent spot between the defence. Within the opening five minutes, the 19-year-old Donnarumma is forced to make a contender for Save of the Season, managing to stick out a hand and somehow tip the effort over the bar. The young Italian has come under fire for his mistakes, particularly on the ball, and this match was no different. However, this is an example of what the youngster is capable of and why so many European giants have their eye on him.
Chance after chance goes begging
This wouldn’t be the last time Torino exploited Milan’s tactical stubbornness. By the time Milan had their first shot in the 33rd minute, Torino managed six.
In the 16th minute, Milan lose the ball on the wing and again Falque springs into action, this time down the flank. As mentioned, the home team’s wingers, this time Suso (bottom-right of the picture), refuse to track back. This means Kessie has to abandon his position, Abate is unsure whether to stay or go and challenge, and Bakayoko is slow to react to Andrea Belotti’s run. Falque does everything right and picks out Belotti, but the striker’s volley is fired over the bar. Two seasons ago, the volley would have broken the roof of the net, but injuries have meant he is still trying to recover his form.
In the first half, Torino were far more dogged and determined than the sluggish and sloppy Milan. This is shown by the away side winning 33 tackles throughout the match, compared to the home side’s 13.
However, at the very end of the half, a golden opportunity fell to Higuain.
The Argentine, who came under heavy fire from the Italian press at Rossoneri fans alike for his red card against Juventus, looked like a man with a point to prove this match. However, it was clear he was perhaps too determined to redeem himself as this was one of the many, many chances he spurred against Torino. Not for the first time, or the last, he passes up the chance to lay it off to teammates in better positions and instead has a tame strike at goal. Milan could have arguably had two or three easy finishes had the striker had a clear head.
Two very different halves
Not many people have experienced a half-time team talk from Gattuso when his side aren’t playing well. The language used is probably colourful, to say the least. It certainly looked that way when Milan emerged from the tunnel and seemed to finally get their heads in the game the second half.
The passing was slicker and more direct, Suso and Hakan Calhanoglu still struggled to make any impact but were in far better positions, and the strikers looked lively. With Suso more involved in the game, Milan started to use their advantage up top and stretch Torino’s back-three. As sees above, Cutrone and Higuain took up dangerous positions in the box and with better delivery, could easily have led to a goal. However, the same problems in the first half of sloppy end product and wasteful finishing meant more chances went begging.
Torino looked far more content to sit back and hit on the break, with Ola Aina looking a particularly dangerous option with his pace and energy compared to the slower, more robust Ricardo Rodriguez. The stats reflect this, as throughout the match Milan had 57.6% possession compared to Torino’s 42.4%.
In terms of action, the second half laboured slightly compared to the first. It was mainly 45 minutes of Milan pressure and passes around the final third, with Torino’s occasion counter-attack.
In the last ten minutes, as the home side got desperate for the breakthrough, the chance of the match fell to Cutrone.
After chaos in the box, the ball finds its way through to Cutrone and all he has to do if finish from the penalty spot. But, the young star fluffs his lines and scuffs a shot wide of the post. Perhaps he was rushed by the desperate Torino defenders, nonetheless, he should have done far better.
That missed opportunity gave a sense that it was going to be their day, for either side. The match finished goalless, with both teams rather disappointed they didn’t find the net with several good chances.
Despite the 0-0 scoreline, it was far from a boring match. The lack of quality meant no goals, but for the neutral, it was a good watch. Both sides will take the point, not doing too much damage to their positions in the league or season prospects, but will be looking to do far better in their upcoming matches.
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