Wednesday, 16 February 2011

In Defence of Milan

Last night Milan were beaten by Tottenham 1-0 at the San Siro. There has been much criticism both of Milan and the Italian league in response, but most of it has been misguided.

Milan were missing key players

Milan were missing Pirlo and Ambrosini who are both vital to their passing game. When they play, the midfield three are not so tight and so the side play with more width. When weaker passers of the ball take their place - Gattusso and Flamini - the midfield has to remain more compact as the range of passing is more limited.

It is also worth mentioning that Nesta has only just recovered from injury. In fact just about the only side harder hit by injuries than Tottenham are Milan.

See also: Cup tied van Bommel and Cassano.

Milan's focus is the league - Tottenham's is the CL.

Milan's signings this year have all pointed towards a desire to win the league. Ibrahimovic has won 8 straight league titles in three countries and has always made the different in Serie A.

Cassano and van Bommel cup tied and have represented Sampdoria and Bayern Munich respectively already in the Champions League. Signed to bolster an injury ravaged squad, it seems there is clearly an emphasis on gaining their first league title since 2004.

Tottenham by contrast are taking part for the first time in decades and have a desire to impress. Given a choice between 5th in the League and a Champions League semi final or 4th in the league and elimination to AC Milan, most fans would probably opt for the exciting European run...

This comes down to a question of motivation.

Had Yepes scored they would almost certainly be taking a lead to London.

Only a couple of fantastic Gomes saves kept Tottenham in it.

Milan were incredibly dirty.
Yes. But it's worth noting that Joe Jordan, Tottenham's assistant manager, is accused of instigating the tensions. Whilst Gatusso is to blame - and he has publicly apologised for his actions, accepting responsibility - it seems to have been a tactic of Jordan's to wind up the notoriously volatile Italian.

This is reminiscent of Mourinho instructing his players to wind up Drogba during their Second Round clash last year, which eventually resulted in his dismissal after a tempestuous stamp on Motta, with whom he had feuded all evening.

Comparing Serie A and EPL is dumb

2 years ago the eventual Premier League winners (Manchester United) knocked out the Serie A champions (Inter) comfortably.
Last year the Serie A champions (Inter) knocked out the eventual Premier League winners (Chelsea) comfortably.
This year the Premier League's 5th place team beats Serie A's 1st place team in the first leg.

It is simply not possible to extrapolate from a single game, the relative strengths of two leagues. It is a nonsense which has been repeated widely in the past day.

Milan's old men couldn't cope with the speed of a Premier League team

Spurs are a fast side and it is true that Lennon's pace was crucial for the goal. However there is an assumption that The EPL is so fast you need special goggles to watch it. This is an assumption that I have never seen challenged. The number of teams who move the ball about as quickly as Barcelona and Villarreal over short distances are ONE: Arsenal. Are players in England really faster (without the ball) than players elsewhere? How do you know? With the ball Krasic, Messi, and Robben are at least as fast and tricky as Walcott, Lennon or Nani.

Sure if you compare Milan - a team renowned for being slow - with Tottenham - a team renowned with being fast, then you might be tempted to draw grand conclusions about the two leagues. But compare Chelsea with Roma and you may well find the opposite to be true.

In any event a Milan side stripped of Pirlo, Ambrosini, Van Bommel and Cassano were always going to lack that spark that a good passing game or an unexpected dribble can provide. Nobody wonders whether Barcelona will struggle because Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta are slower without the ball, because in their heads they are two steps ahead anyway. They know what they will do with the ball before they get it. It is this experience and intelligence that Milan lacked more than an ability to "get physical".

It was a tight game with some close calls on either side (Milan might well have had both Flamini and Gatusso sent off just as Ibrahimovic's late equaliser was dubiously chalked off). Tottenham leave with a slender win. It is tempting to say they deserved it but this would surely be a reflection of our desire to support plucky underdog over ageing, established giants. Milan's behaviour - particularly that of (surprise, surprise) Flamini and Gatusso - was far from sporting at times. Nonetheless, it was a tight game and not one from which we should be making grand pronouncements about either side.

The second leg will be tight. An early goal could see Milan defend narrow and deep with no space in behind for Tottenham to exploit, being content instead to hit hard on the conterattack wth Robinho and Pato. Expect Milan to be far more aggressive in the second leg - as they were in the second half - looking for that early away goal.

But with Milan still unable to field Pirlo, Cassano or Van Bommel, Tottenham should still win. Expect a tense game.


  1. I agree with all of your statements. But want to say something about the last point: the speed of the Premier League.
    A few years ago the Germans were talking about that, too. They had statistics, but I don't remember the numbers. I will make something up: lets say the average time a Bundesliga player had the ball was 1.9 seconds (receive the ball and pass the ball), and for a Premierleague player was 1.5 seconds. (I made this numbers up!)
    The experts back then in Germany wanted better players to increase the speed.

    This is not only about speed, about playing fast and direct. It is more about what the player is doing and the sequence of tasks.

    you have players that receive the ball, take a look, think, and then pass.
    or you have players that look, think, receive, and pass.

    like Xavi said: think, think, think, Half a touch...

    pace is not about who runs fast, and it is not (exclusively) about who passes the ball fast. It is more about who thinks fast and is able to look, to control the ball, and to pass with minimum touches.

  2. Interesting. I'd love to see those stats.

    I sped through (hah!) in a paragraph what could have had a whole essay devoted to it. The point is this: the claim that foreign teams cannot cope with the speed and physicality of the EPL is wrong.

    1) Physicality - who was more physical by far last night? AC Milan.

    2) Speed - what is important isn't the pace at which you play but being able to control the pace at which the game is played. If you need to slow the game down to kill it off and frustrate the opposition, can you do this? If you need to inject a sense of urgency can you do this?
    Mourinho's teams are consistently good at this. Brazil at the last world cup were very poor. Once they went behind they were unable to up the tempo. Tottenham are poor at controlling a game (although MOST sides in England are).