Captain America hogs the headlines, but AC Milan’s new midfield is the true game-changer

AC Milan have hit the ground running this season, going in search of another Serie A title. While Christian Pulisic has deservedly come in for a lot of praise, it's the other new faces in the XI that are allowing Stefano Pioli to reshape his side.

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STADIO OLIMPICO (Rome): For an hour in the Eternal City on Serie A Matchday 3, it looked more like a champion facing a relegation candidate than a head-to-head between top-four hopefuls.

AS Roma were outplayed and outclassed by AC Milan until Fikayo Tomori‘s painfully predictable second yellow card allowed the Giallorossi a route back into the game.

Ultimately, even Romelu Lukaku‘s debut from the bench couldn’t spark a turnaround and the Rossoneri left the capital with a perfect nine points from nine heading into the international break.

So far, Milan‘s blockbuster summer signing Christian Pulisic has been the man hogging most of the headlines.

Not undeservedly. The USA international has started superbly, scoring two goals in three games, and that would’ve been three were it not for Rui Patricio‘s sensational point-blank stop on his volley.

And who can forget the Milan TV commentary of Pulisic‘s goal against Torino? The clip went viral as he bellowed: “Come on baby! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”

It’s easy to understand the hype – after all, Milan fans have been crying out for a threat on the right wing for a long time.

AC Milan’s Christian Pulisic celebrates. [@acmilan]

But the performance of Stefano Pioli‘s side in Rome highlighted that Pulisic‘s fellow new arrivals have been just as, if not more, vital to a fast start that has raised hopes of a renewed scudetto challenge.

Sandro Tonali‘s summer exit to Newcastle United was a bitter pill to swallow for a Rossoneri fanbase that hoped to see him captain the club long into the future. But they were very well renumerated for the sale and have reinvested that money wisely in the centre of the park.

Friday night’s clash in the capital was a battle between two new-look midfield trios.

Both sides had one familiar face – Bryan Cristante for Roma and Rade Krunic for Milan – with two new arrivals flanking them: Houssem Aouar and Leandro Paredes went up against Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tijjani Reijnders.  

AC Milan’s Tijjani Reijnders. [@acmilan]

There was no contest. With Milan cruising at 1-0 up, a stat flashed up to say that the visitors had enjoyed 76% possession in the opening 15 minutes.

Granted, Jose Mourinho isn’t a coach who wants his team to dominate the ball. But the control of Pioli‘s side was absolute throughout the first half as they suffocated their opponents to an extent that left Roma going in at the break to a smattering of boos and without a single shot on target.

It was the fluidity and understanding between Milan‘s midfield trio – with Davide Calabria frequently stepping in too from right-back – that was so impressive.

Loftus-Cheek and Reijnders could have been forgiven for needing some adaptation time, but they both already look confident and assured in a new league and team and were crucial to their side’s success. They were able to get between the lines, stretch the Roma defence and open up space for Rafael Leao and Pulisic out wide by dragging bodies into the central areas with neat passing triangles.

AC Milan players, including Olivier Giroud and Rafael Leao, celebrate a goal. (Photo: AC Milan)

Milan‘s new-look midfield has – so far, at least – made them look a more balanced and complete side than before, capable of creating and controlling through the centre of the pitch and on both wings.

The Rossoneri often looked lopsided last season, when the threat of Theo Hernandez and Leao on the left far exceeding any dangers down the right.

Now, the early signs suggest that smart work in the market could make this a Milan side that is less dependent on its stars and more functional as a unit – with the likes of Yunus Musah, Noah Okafor, Samuel Chukwueze and Luka Jovic offering further depth.

There was a time when it felt that if you could shut down Milan‘s left flank, you could shut down the whole team.

The evidence so far suggests that their opponents in 2023/24 will have a lot more to think about.

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