Serie A champions 2021-22: Modern Milan's title win and where to from here?

By Sports Desk May 22, 2022

For a club like Milan, 11 years make for a long wait.

Let alone the enormous hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan over that period, with turbulent changes of ownership and coaches that have impacted various transformations in approach both on and off the pitch, those 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift.

The Rossoneri's last Serie A title in 2010-11 sits as a stark contrast to this year's title charge that ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

In 2010-11, the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – upon Massimiliano Allegri's hiring as coach, Alexandre Pato was coming into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were solidifying their respective statuses as world-class footballers in their positions, amid the career tail-ends of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

That Milan team was inherently reflective of its time, leaning on the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic's added contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But coming into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to have scored over 10 goals.

Reflecting the totality of role that midfields at the top of European football must now characterise, Milan have effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third it can lean on. Less diplomatically, Milan's front third has been a collection of misfit toys jumbled together as the purse strings have tightened.

Despite falling away after Christmas, it is what made last season's run so distinct, for it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this term. Following Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic's injuries against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of Franck Kessie's penalty exploits and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at left-back. Their 3-2 win over Lazio coming into that Christmas was a particularly distinct example.

How has this Milan team achieved this Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something sustainable from it, given the Scudetto for this project has arguably come ahead of schedule, despite losing Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, along with successive injury spells for Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?

In contrast to last season, Milan have come home strongly, going undefeated since their loss in mid-January to Spezia. Following the African Cup of Nations as well as a debilitative run of injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the arguable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.

Along with the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the diminutive Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking it away from the opposition, in both attacking and defensive senses. The latter is a critical aspect for under Stefano Pioli, Milan press high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team for combined tackles and interceptions (4.08) per 90.

Something that's particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close off the middle for the opposition through where he wins the ball, not simply how much of it he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step onto the opposition's initial pass into Milan's defensive half and come out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to spring into transition or maintain territorial superiority.

 

 

His spatial awareness also transfers to the offensive side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact he shows for the ball to feet in areas his team-mates in midfield do not.

It unlocks his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to wriggle out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) dwarfs Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more of the ball over the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 in comparison to Tonali's 65.51 and Kessie's 66.63.

 

 

Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated to a correspondent gap in chances created from open play.

Kessie - who scored against Sassuolo - leads the three with 1.05 per 90 this term, in comparison to Tonali's 0.84 and Bennacer's 0.98. Kessie's forthcoming departure for Barcelona might actually unlock Milan's best tandem in Pioli's 4-2-3-1.

With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His open play xG p90 of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from open play p90 is simply eyewatering from left-back - especially in comparison to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre Kalulu's respective 0.55 and 0.34 in the latter category.

Ultimately, amid Ibrahimovic running on fumes at 40, the members of Milan's attack have largely singular skill sets and as a sum of their parts, are still largely inflexible.

 

Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available - are all necessary in some capacity on top of what they provide in defensive pressure up the pitch, but with the ball Milan are a much less flexible team in the absence of that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend's win over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.

The need to maximise midfield balance in relation to attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic across Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus' diminishing power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies across the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break 90 points, none reflect that dynamic more than the Rossoneri.

The narrative accompanying Milan's Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being quote unquote "back". 

Their ability to maintain this level domestically in coming seasons - as well as challenging on the continent, with meek group stage exits in the Champions League like this season only being tolerable for so long among an ambitious fan base - will ultimately depend on how this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.

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    Brazil coach Tite believes Neymar is irreplaceable because his technical abilities are what empower the rest of the team.

    Neymar was back in the starting XI for Monday's World Cup last-16 win over South Korea at Stadium 974 after injuring ankle ligaments on matchday one.

    His participation for the rest of the tournament had been in doubt, but he returned and played a key role in the comfortable 4-1 victory, scoring a penalty that took him to within one goal of Pele's all-time record of 77.

    Brazil were irresistible at times in the first half and Neymar was generally at the centre of their most promising attacks, even if he did not necessarily record an assist.

    Before Monday, Brazil's performances had been functional if not spectacular, but Neymar's return was important for the fluidity of the rest of the team.

    "He's a technical reference. This is technical leadership. When a team looks for the player, they know that they have a weapon there, [someone who can make] the difference," Tite said of the Paris Saint-Germain forward.

    "Everyone has their own striking characteristics, but Neymar is the centre, the one who empowers the others."

    With his early spot-kick, Neymar became the third Brazil player to score at three editions of the World Cup (2014, 2018 and 2022) after Pele and Ronaldo.

    He also created two chances and stepped over the ball before Vinicius Junior coolly opened the scoring in the seventh minute, while only Casemiro and Raphinha – two players who finished the game – managed more than Neymar's 17 passes in the final third, highlighting his involvement in the Selecao's attacks.

    Tite's assistant, Cesar Sampaio, believes having Neymar back also provides a mental boost to his team-mates on top of his technical excellence.

    "Neymar for sure provides a competitive advantage, he makes a difference on pitch," he said.

    "He's a driving force. I'm going round and round, beating around the bush to talk about him, but in a nutshell I'd like to congratulate our physios for their work.

    "Neymar, besides his technical skills, he motivates the others and we are very happy to have him back. He had a great performance, he's recovered and ready for new challenges.

    "He made important steps, and with him we can reach our full potential."

    Brazil's victory set up a quarter-final clash with Croatia on Friday after Zlatko Dalic's men defeated Japan 3-1 on penalties following a 1-1 draw earlier in the day.

  • Bengals can afford to start dreaming of repeat run after latest Chiefs upset Bengals can afford to start dreaming of repeat run after latest Chiefs upset

    Prior to Joe Burrow's arrival in 2020, the Cincinnati Bengals were an NFL punchline. In the third season of what looks set to be a storied NFL career, he has helped them turn one of the most fearsome teams in the league into their own personal punching bag.

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    Continually perfect placement

    He reached a highpoint for the 2022 season on Sunday by once again outduelling Patrick Mahomes in an undulating thrill ride in Cincinnati, exhibiting the accuracy that defined the Bengals' unexpected 2021 ascension.

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    While the final stat line in terms of yardage may not be eye-popping, Burrow averaged 9.23 yards per attempt, his precision as a passer ensuring the Bengals maintained offensive efficiency that is critical against the Chiefs.

    Burrow ended the game with a completion percentage of 80.6, over five per cent higher than his expected completion percentage of 75.4.

    And yet, even in a game where Burrow was deadly accurate, the Bengals averaged 8.7 yards per pass play and Ja'Marr Chase had 97 yards on seven catches on his return from injury, it could be argued the Bengals did not fire on all cylinders.

    Though they moved the ball well, the Bengals went three of seven in the red zone, with Tyler Boyd committing a crucial drop on a would-be touchdown on third down in the third quarter, and Burrow regularly had to make plays with his legs when pass protection that has improved this season broke down.

    Normally such missed opportunities as the Bengals had inside the 20-yard line would be fatal against the Chiefs and the most feared quarterback of his generation, but since Burrow returned from the knee injury that prematurely ended his rookie year to reassume command of the offense in 2021, he and Cincinnati have become experts in finding a way to prevail against any calibre of this opposition.

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    Cincinnati's passing game was complemented by a ground attack that took advantage of Kansas City's vulnerability defending the run.

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    More critical, though, was the fourth-quarter defiance of the defense, which, despite struggling to get Mahomes off the field, came up with two crucial stops when the Bengals needed them most.

    Germaine Pratt forced and recovered a fumble from Travis Kelce on a 19-yard reception to set up a go-ahead touchdown for the Bengals, on which Burrow found a wide-open Chris Evans after Boyd redeemed himself with a key third-down catch, and Joseph Ossai – who missed all of his rookie year due to injury – showcased his pass-rushing prowess and his motor to bring down Mahomes for a sack on third and short, ending the Chiefs' subsequent drive and forcing a long game-tying field goal attempt that Harrison Butker pushed wide right.

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    Since Week 6, when the Bengals set off a run that has seen them win six of their past seven games, Burrow leads the NFL in completion percentage (72.3) and passing touchdowns (16), while he is third in yards per attempt (8.55), showcasing the kind of form that lifted the Bengals to the Super Bowl last season.

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    Against Kansas City, the Bengals used a balanced offensive approach to win the time of possession battle – Cincinnati limiting the Chiefs' opportunities by holding the ball for over four minutes more than their high-powered opponents – and delivered defensive stops in the crucial moments.

    But such key plays may not have borne fruit had Burrow not answered the bell with an unstoppable throw to Higgins when it was all on his shoulders.

    There is the talent on the Bengals' roster that Burrow doesn't have to do everything, but approaching the end of his third season as pro, the overwhelming evidence is that he can.

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  • Liberta faces possible expulsion from Antigua and Barbuda's Premier Division in standoff with football association Liberta faces possible expulsion from Antigua and Barbuda's Premier Division in standoff with football association

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    The league resumed two weeks ago after a Covid-19 enforced two-and-a-half-year hiatus but the Rowan Benjamin-managed club has yet to show up for any of their two games against All Stars United and Ottos Rangers FC, respectively, which leaves it at the mercy of the ABFA Disciplinary Committee that will meet in the coming days.

    According to Rohan Hector, the ABFA General Secretary, the teams that Liberta was scheduled to play will likely be awarded points and the club could face expulsion from the competition.

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    He added that the guilty team shall, as a general rule, be subjected to disciplinary action as recommended by the disciplinary committee, which may include exclusion from further participation in the competition.

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    Among those issues of concern is the appointment of an interim president after the incumbent Everton Gonzales fell ill shortly after he was elected in April 2022. In a letter dated, November 6, 2022, obtained by Sportsmax.TV, President of Liberta Sports Club Kenny Benjamin raised the issue regarding Gonzales’ absence.

    “On April 25th 2022 the Antigua and Barbuda FA held its elections where Mr Everton Gonzales was elected as president,” Benjamin stated in the letter.

    “Within the same week it was learnt via a radio talk show host that the president had left the country to seek medical assistance. Even at this time of penning this letter there has not been any communique’ from the ABFA to member clubs as to the president’s illness or his whereabouts, the person deputizing for the president as stipulated in the constitution.

    “This can be seen as gross disrespect to the clubs and largely, the general public.”

    According to the former West Indies bowler, seeing that President Gonzales has been out of office for the last six months, the constitution dictates that if the president is absent or unavailable, the longest serving vice-president available shall deputize.

    He continued stating that according to the constitution, if the president is permanently or temporarily prevented from performing his official functions, the longest serving vice-president shall represent him/her until the next Congress.

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    However, Hector explained that while President Gonzales is ailing, he is still functioning  in that capacity.

    “The president, upon on recognizing his illness and was going away for treatment, issued instruction to his executive on how they were to proceed in his absence,” Hector said.

    “So, the president was not incapacitated to the point where he is not aware or has not been involved or been in touch or nor kept apprised of things going on. He is constantly in contact.

    “Secondly, there was an update that was sent out to the membership yesterday (Sunday, December 4), that completely deals with that issue has been addressed.”

    Player insurance was another issue raised by the Liberta manager.

    In a letter dated November 22, Liberta President Kenny Benjamin fired off a letter to the FA inquiring about insurance for players for the coming season.

    “Liberta Sports Club is concerned about its members participating in the ABFA’s Premier Division and not been clear about insurance of the players,” the letter stated.

    “We are therefore requesting all information and details about the insurance be available to the team manager Mrs. Diane Anthony before our team PIC Black Hawks participation.”

    The club manager cited an incident from 2019 when a Liberta player lost a tooth during a match and the club was forced to spend approximately EC$12,000 or about USD$4000 in medical expenses, funds that took the FA some time to refund.

    Hector debunked those assertions, stating that the FA paid directly for the cost of getting the player’s tooth repaired. In fact, the general secretary said, the invoice for the player’s dental care was generated on February 26, 2019 and the cheque for said amount was paid on March 3, 2019, less than a week later.

    “The ABFA paid the dental surgeon directly to repair the young man’s injuries so this notion there was a reimbursement was completely untrue,” Hector said.

    Regarding the wider issue of insurance for the players for the season, Hector explained that the FA has engaged a new insurance company that will provide even more robust coverage for players, coaches and team personnel for the 2022/2023 season.

    In response, the FA sent out a form requesting individual  player contact information in a bid to speed up the process of getting everyone insured, Hector explained.

    He said what would usually happen is that each club would forward each player’s name using their club’s contact information. However, with the new insurer, the coverage required contact information for each individual player. As such, the FA sent out forms to the clubs requesting said information for each individual player.

    “We did not want to slow down the process,” said Hector, who noted that of 43 club teams playing football in Antigua, Liberta was the only club holding out at the start of the new season.

    “I want to take this opportunity to thank the other 42 teams for returning Antigua and Barbuda football after a lay-off of two and a half years, to not wonderful support from not only the clubs but also the fans who have turned out in massive numbers to support football in 2022/2023.”

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