It’s often said that a team’s strength can be measured by its ability to bounce back after setbacks; in this respect, AC Milan can take plenty of positives despite a goalless draw against Newcastle United in their 2023/24 Champions League opener.

It would have been easy for the Rossoneri to feel the pressure coming from a huge home crowd and to go weak at the knees in the aftermath of their 5-1 defeat to Inter in the Derby della Madonnina just days before.

Instead, none of that was visible as AC Milan quickly took control of the game and stormed Newcastle‘s goal with a string of attempts that forced goalkeeper Nick Pope to pull out several saves to secure the eventual point.

In the end, however, Milan‘s failure to find a breakthrough against the Premier League‘s newly-rich outfit can’t be simply reduced to their lack of precision, but rather highlights how Stefano Pioli‘s men are going through a transitional phase. Currently, Milan are reshaping and aiming to retain their old points of strength while also adding variety to their offensive play in order to improve the effectiveness of their chance creation.

Milan dominant even without the ball

It is no mystery by now that AC Milan favour a direct attacking style, which means they love to reach the opposition’s goal with a limited number of passes. This often happens by either straightly recovering the ball high up the pitch or aggressively pouncing on second balls before quickly breaking towards the opposition goal.

While such a playing style seems to enhance the features of the likes of Rafa Leao, Christian Pulisic or Loftus-Cheek, there’s also a clear downside to this approach which often forces the Rossoneri to finish their attacks in a hasty way that may hinder their ability to produce clear opportunities in some situations.

AC Milan’s Rafael Leao with Newcastle’s Sandro Tonali giving chase. [Photo: acmilan.com]

At least, this was the feeling in a game that saw the Diavolo take 15 of their overall 25 attempts in the first half, six of them being on target. Milan managed that with just 46% of possession, despite giving the impression of complete supremacy on the pitch.

The stat comes as no surprise, as Milan never showed a particular penchant for possession-based football, which was further proven by the fact that most of the chances piled up in their dominant opening 45 minutes came at the end of rapid transitional plays. Those attempts were also often from outside the box, with many of Newcastle‘s defensive players already comfortably and cautiously positioned in the box.

However, here lies one of the biggest problems of AC Milan‘s start to the season – against a side that showed a total lack of midfield control like Newcastle, the Rossoneri could and should have worked their opportunities better to give the players an increased chance to score. This, though, can be possible only by patiently moving the ball around to unlock a defensive low block.

Milan’s attacking limits against defensive teams

AC Milan’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Newcastle’s Sandro Tonali battle for the ball. [Photo: acmilan.com]

It was interesting to note how Milan‘s number of chances significantly decreased in the second half, during which they managed to keep the ball more than their opponents (54%). But, as also happened in the derby against Inter, it was without converting that supremacy into a threat, except for Leao‘s diving header.

As paradoxical as it seems, while the Rossoneri’s summer signings were aimed at making Pioli‘s side more versatile and dominant, they are still a team that prefer to attack without keeping too much possession. This could also be a strategic choice from Pioli in order to cover up the defensive vulnerabilities that Inter exposed by inviting the Diavolo to occupy their half.

But if that were true, it would mean that Milan are facing the short blanket dilemma; if Pioli really wants a dominant team capable of scoring in a variety of ways, then their offensive phase shouldn’t be limited to winning individual duels or releasing a restricted group of players towards the goal. Instead, they should rely on a more collective contribution from the whole team rather than splitting it into two blocks. They could arguably take inspiration from the way Simone Inzaghi‘s Inter bring a number of players forward and rotate them to compensate for their lack of natural dribblers.

In order for that to happen, though, the whole team should also learn to face transitions from their opponents when anticipation is not possible. Against Newcastle, Milan‘s defenders shone and looked at ease when called to handle the visitors’ offensive threat, with their task definitely simplified by the Magpies’ scant attacking presence.

But what will happen when the Rossoneri continue to face opponents who let them control possession and are good at counterattacking? Pioli got a first disheartening answer in the recent Derby della Madonnina, but with time and fresh faces at his disposal, including the little-tested Yonus Musah, Samu Chukwueze and Noah Okafor, the 2021/22 scudetto-winning coach will have to find solutions.