In the build-up to Napoli-Milan, multiple reports out of Italy suggested Coach Vincenzo Montella was leaning towards not only fielding a few different faces, but also running out a different shape. Naturally, opinions were mixed on the many projected changes, but once official line-ups were announced, the Rossoneri’s formation and placement of certain personnel resulted in plenty of head-scratching.
Giacomo Bonaventura returned from his injury spell deployed as a left wing-back. Considering his work rate and comfort out wide, in theory, this made some sense; the squad lacks creative players and he is one of the best they have in that regard.
The problem you have here is this role demands a heavy defensive assignment, and throwing Bonaventura into this position after weeks on the shelf was bound to provide little to nothing in terms of quality chances. Meanwhile, Franck Kessie continued to struggle for form after a strong pre-season and dominant spell early on. He was playing alongside Riccardo Montolivo who, although he turned in a respectable performance, simply cannot be the main source of opportunity for those up front.
Manuel Locatelli was pushed more into a more advanced position in hopes that the recurring void between midfield and the attack could be plugged. While the teenager showed glimpses of settling into an unfamiliar role, this wasn’t the match to test Locatelli further away from goal, and hand him this creative responsibility. Montella didn’t make it easy on himself and his future by experimenting to these extremes in as difficult a tie as any in Italy.
Adding to the problem, Suso, the lone man in the side who possesses the ability to change a match with one touch of the ball, pulled up lame late in the half, resulting in his early exit and Andre Silva’s entrance. To no surprise, the former Porto man’s entry changed the game in the second interval.
Time and time again, we’ve seen it this year. When the service is non-existent from the midfield, the strikers seem isolated and ultimately disappear from the match. This was yet another example of that with Nikola Kalinic. The brunt of his damage will arrive in the box on crosses and aerial battles, though he’s made a meal of the chances he has been supplied with in recent weeks. This is exactly why supporters have been begging to see more of Silva.
Internationally, Silva has shown he holds the quality to strike the back of the net with regularity, enjoying 11 goals in 18 caps for Portugal. Additionally, the 21-year-old’s workhorse mentality, movement and on-the-ball technique loom large in the build-up when ideas are few and far between. For a side so desperately lacking ideas, it only seems logical to start Silva over Kalinic, especially when €35m was spent on his services last summer. But, for some reason, Montella doesn’t seem convinced it’s the solution to their problems to score goals from open play.
For all the tinkering Montella did in a defeat to Napoli, you could argue he failed to make the one move that would have at least won him some support from the fans.
There is no shame in losing to a first-place Napoli at the San Paolo, especially with such contrasting form. Sarri’s attacking three carried out their trademark high-press early and often, and really prevented the Rossoneri backline from finding a rhythm. Criticizing Montella is right and just in this one situation, but you also have to credit the Partenopei who, though they looked a bit worn out in the second half, defended well in open space and kept Pepe Reina relatively undisturbed.
Milan experienced not a single touch in the opposing box in the first 45 minutes, a stat undoubtedly attributed both to Milan’s attacking deficiencies and Napoli’s execution of their game-plan. In the end, it was Napoli who played the better match overall, enjoyed more frequent looks at goal, and ultimately had little to worry about from Milan’s unimaginative midfield.