AC Milan are reaping the rewards of a new defensive stability under Stefano Pioli following his move to a three at the back.
The Rossoneri secured a fourth successive win in all competitions with a 2-0 win over Atalanta at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on Matchday 24 which was a major boost to their Champions League qualification chances, and a major blow to Atalanta’s.
With goalkeeper Mike Maignan’s return for the Rossoneri stealing the pre-match headlines, it was Nerazzurri custodian Juan Musso who had the biggest impact on the game after deflecting a long-range Theo Hernandez effort into his own goal and Junior Messias added a late second.
New defensive formation bringing attacking returns
While the Milanisti have yearned for the return of Maignan, introducing defender Malick Thiaw and moving to a three-man defence has been crucial to the Milan revival in recent weeks. The youngster has dominated in the centre of a trio, while their new shape has seen expected goals against falling from 1.2 per game to 0.7.
However, while aimed at bringing a greater solidity to the Rossoneri rearguard, it also releases the likes of Hernandez going forward. It was shown against Atalanta when Olivier Giroud cushioned an awkward header into the path of the Frenchman, who hit a first time volley on the edge of the box, that cannoned off the goalpost against Musso for the opener.
In the second half, though, the former Udinese man showed that the goal was a moment of misfortune, stopping Giroud at point-blank range and then pushing a curling Rafael Leao effort away from goal, but coach Stefano Pioli had clearly instructed his own defence to limit the space in behind for Rasmus Hojlund to exploit, and Atalanta could not capitalise.
Milan end top six struggles
Since defeating Inter 3-2 in September 2022, the Rossoneri had taken just one point from four matches against teams placed inside the top six in Serie A at kick-off. This has contributed to their inability to chase down Napoli at the top of the league and left them in a five-way fight for to reach Europe’s premier competition.
Against Atalanta, Milan looked dominant in possession and could have been further ahead had Leao not squandered two chances in quick succession 30 minutes into the game. Despite breaking clear of his marker the attacker shot well wide of the Nerazzurri goal and then spooned a curling effort high over the crossbar.
Leao had not been involved in any of the Rossoneri’s goal-scoring output in his previous seven appearances in all competitions, but finally got involved again late in the game when slipping in Messias who lifted the ball delicately over the onrushing Musso.
Thoughts turn towards Tottenham
While the Rossoneri have the small matter of heading to Tuscany to face Fiorentina next Saturday, with their chances of retaining their Serie A crown long gone, it is continental competition that remains the focus for Pioli and his men.
With four successive wins in all competitions, the immediate challenge at the Stadio Artemio Franchi will be to extend that run and head Premier League side Tottenham on Wednesday, March 8, 2023 with a one-goal advantage, brimming with confidence and expecting to reach the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in 11 years.
Attacker Leao will get some extra rest ahead of the trip to London as well, after the referee booked the Portugal international on 28 minutes for overzealously pleading with him to send off Rafael Toloi for a handball.