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Malick Thiaw at AC Milan 2022/23 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

Malick Thiaw: Why AC Milan wanted the centre-back for a long time – scout report

AC Milan have finally added the centre-back that the management have been chasing for some time as Malick Thiaw was announced as a new signing from Bundesliga club Schalke 04. Malick Thiaw is the fifth German player to wear the AC Milan shirt and the first to join the Rossoneri in the 21st century: before him, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, Christian Ziege, Oliver Bierhoff and Jens Lehmann. The latter two, who both unusually arrived in 1998, helped AC Milan with the Scudetto.

It would be fair to say that little is known about the player except that he is very highly rated in his home country and that the management have clearly been keen for some time having also pursued him in the winter.

“It was a difficult decision for us to let Malick go. He is a homegrown player from the ‘Knappenschmiede’, has developed very well in recent years and would have been a sporting asset to our squad,” said the Schalke 04 sporting director. “We always have to consider the economic aspects in all decisions – as we did last winter when we still rejected a transfer. The general conditions now are different and financially so good that we have now agreed to the transfer.”

This tactical analysis provides an in-depth scout report of AC Milan’s Malick Thiaw, examining the 21-year-old’s playing style and characteristics. In addition to understanding how and where Thiaw plays, this analysis will also identify the style of tactics where he is most likely to thrive. Is he the next player to make his way up in European football under Stefano Pioli?

Player Profile

Malick Thiaw was born on 8 August 2001 and stands tall at 1.94m. Having bounced around different academies like Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach, Thiaw finally found his feet at Schalke when he was 14 years old. With Schalke 04 going through a financial crisis of sorts, Thiaw was promoted at a very early age and this gave him a wealth of experience.

Malick Thiaw has played 26 matches throughout the course of his career in the Bundesliga. Of these, he has won only two. Additionally, he played a brilliant season in the 2. Bundesliga. Thiaw made a total of 61 appearances for Schalke’s senior squad.

Playing under coach Manuel Baum in 2020, Thiaw slotted in at right centre-back in a three-man defence. However once Baum was sacked and Christian Gross came in, he employed Thiaw as the RCB in a four-man defence. Once Schalke got relegated, they once again reverted to a back three, where Thiaw was played on the right of a three-man defence.

Before opting for Germany, Thiaw had the chance to make his debut with the youth team of Finland, his mother’s native country: in 2017 he was called up for the Finnish Under-17 team, declining in favour of the national team of his own home country. Today, Thiaw plays a key role in Germany’s Under 21 team. After being part of the squad, then European champions, in the 2021 Euros group, the new Rossoneri defender made eight appearances in the 2023 European Championship qualifiers, also scoring against Latvia and San Marino.

So, his strong side to play is on the right. This also becomes clear by looking at his heatmap from last season. One cause for that might be that he is right-footed.

Malick Thiaw at AC Milan 2022/23 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

Data Analysis

Thiaw is averaging 7.32 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 71.26% as well as 5.22 aerial duels per 90 with a success rate of 54.62%. His ability to read the game and break up opposition attacks is also very clear and he has 8.47 possession-adjusted interceptions per game. Thiaw plays an average of 50.96 passes per 90 with 9.65 progressive passes per 90 and 5.09 passes into the final third per 90.

In the 2022/23 Bundesliga campaign, he played three matches for Schalke. Here, his pass success rate amounts to 92.92%. This result enables the tall defender to occupy fifth place in the Bundesliga ranking for this category. His tackle success rate amounts to 70.18%. In the Bundesliga ranking for this category, he is second-best with this result.

Defensive Phase

When Romagnoli was asked about his Milan days, he spoke about how Pioli’s system had a lot of 1v1s. This was due to Pioli using a man-oriented pressing system. Thiaw in terms of his 1v1 ability is generally good. He was faced with opponents like Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham at the age of 19 which is far from an easy task. The teenager is quick off his feet to block the opposition player’s vertical option forcing him to go wide or pass back.

His defensive zones are rather on the right side since he was deployed on this side most of his time at Schalke.

Malick Thiaw at AC Milan 2022/23 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

One of the most important parts of Thiaw’s game and his strong point is his ability to intercept the ball. His ball reading and tactical understanding are of the highest quality. Thiaw studies his opponent’s body orientation and posture before he moves into making his challenges. His rather long legs give him more reach and help him to make clean challenges.

As more and more sides across Europe look to operate with offensive wingbacks and a high defensive line, Thiaw’s ability to calmly step into wide channels and operate with the pace and power of an auxiliary fullback makes him stand out against some other centre-back prospects.

Malick Thiaw at AC Milan 2022/23 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

Given he stands at 194cm, it is naturally expected that Thiaw is aerially dominant and he has a high success rate. Compared to Tomori (1.89 aerial duels won per 90 last season), Thiaw had a ratio of 2.73 duels won per 90 in the 2020-21 season in the top flight. Therefore, Thiaw could represent a cure for Milan’s ailing set-piece worries at the back and in attack. Thiaw uses his tall frame to use his body as a shield and does not allow strikers or forwards, in general, to knock him over really easily.

Malick Thiaw at AC Milan 2022/23 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

The youth international has the presence required of a defender earmarked for the top, but even more impressive is his athleticism. Nimble and athletic in his movements, Thiaw is rarely caught out.

Schalke are not an aggressive pressing side like Milan were last year, but they did use a lot of man-oriented pressing towards the wings like Pioli’s blueprint tries to implement. Thiaw – under the instruction of the coach – generally stays back as the last defender and does not jump out of the defensive shape to maintain it but he does have a proactive approach to defending when afforded time. This is also displayed on this map of Thiaw’s high ball recoveries.

Malick Thiaw at AC Milan 2022/23 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

To a common observer, it may seem that Thiaw is a bit slow but he is deceptively quick. His huge frame allows him to make long strides which may make him seem not making an effort but he does cover a lot of ground very quickly.

Attacking phase

In possession, Thiaw is still somewhat ineffective. However, it’s unfair to judge him too harshly given that Schalke have looked generally bereft of ideas in possession throughout the unsuccessful Grammozis era. Under better coaching in a truly elite possession outfit like AC Milan, one would entrust Thiaw to take the next step given that he is still very young.

Generally, Thiaw is not a ball-playing centre-back but he acts as a passing option whenever a team-mate is in danger. His general instinct is to always take the safer passing options but as he grew in confidence, he did try to play the ball between the lines.

Nowadays, he has the composure and confidence to carry the ball out from the back and he will routinely look to step towards the halfway line in order to pull opposition players out of the slot before passing into space for teammates.

Malick Thiaw at AC Milan 2022/23 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

Decision-making is an area for Thiaw to improve, as needs to learn to close down his opponents more quickly and also when and how to play a pass. But all in all, Thiaw is very capable in possession. He has been a volume passer last season for Schalke as the following passing map shows.

Malick Thiaw at AC Milan 2022/23 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

Standing at 194 cm, Thiaw is always a threat in offensive set-pieces such as corner kicks or free kicks. But during his 26 matches in the Bundesliga, he only scored one goal which came in the 2020/21 campaign.

Conclusion

Moncadata strikes again as Milan are once more building for the future and are in it for the long term. With lots of rotation to come in this unparalleled season, Thiaw will get his chance at Milan.

Thiaw profiles as a very balanced defensive player who can perform in the defensive phase of the game whilst also helping his team in the build-up phase with his ability in possession.

If he can follow the path taken by Pierre Kalulu in adapting and learning patiently before taking the opportunities he does get, then the Rossoneri could have yet another gem for just €7m including bonuses.