Off the back of a crushing Napoli defeat to open their 2018-19 Serie A season, Gennaro Gattuso and his Milan returned home to San Siro with questions hanging over them.
The Rossoneri started positively with two goals versus the Partenopei last Saturday inside a packed San Paolo before succumbing to their own individual errors and lapses that allowed for Carlo Ancelotti’s men to reverse the match entirely.
After nearly a week to self-reflect and correct their wrongs on the training ground, Milan once again faced a tough task against Roma, who strived to turn in a convincing performance of their own after grinding out a 3-3 draw earlier in the week with Atalanta.
Much like last weekend, Milan leapt out of the gates with an energetic approach to pin Roma back, showing intent to apply immediate pressure and capitalize on their possession advantage.
Hakan Calhanoglu’s presence was felt early and often as the Turkish playmaker, a prime beneficiary of Gattuso’s spirited mindset, picked up right where he left off down the stretch last season. Without question, Gattuso’s men were well positioned to pull ahead, but lacked the final ball towards Gonzalo Higuain to make it happen.
Eventually, Milan’s patient build-up and calmness to let play unfold allowed for the Rossoneri to take advantage of a lax Roma defence who fell asleep at the back post, as Ricardo Rodriguez picked out Franck Kessie for the opener.
Though clearly the better side in the first half, Milan’s second half was nearly a repeat episode of the Napoli match; flat out of the tunnel and looking vulnerable to an equalizer. Eusebio Di Francesco’s initial tactical shape of a 3-4-3 was scrapped before play resumed, as Stephan El Shaarawy replaced Ivan Marcano in a switch back to a four-man defensive line.
Once Federico Fazio struck towards Gianluigi Donnarumma’s back post to level terms, it became clear Milan were in for yet another dicey half-hour of football.
Moments later, Higuain immediately responded with a goal, but it was wiped away after VAR ruled the Argentine a fraction offside. And even with Steven Nzonzi’s tap in from close range in the 79th minute following the same fate, Milan flirted with leaving points on the table at San Siro.
Yet, it was Gattuso’s summoning of Diego Laxalt, debutant Samu Castillejo and baby-boomer Patrick Cutrone that made the difference.
Laxalt and Castillejo injected an immediate dose of pace that helped stretch Roma out and credit Milan those few additional splashes of possession in the final third to seek out a winner. Of course, Nzonzi gifting the ball to Calabria opened the door to Higuain for his deserved moment and Cutrone’s stunning finish, but there is something to be said about pushing the right buttons with the substitutions.
Having said all this, despite the thrilling victory, Milan must improve on how they approach the second half and make more from their share of chances; Milan out-shot Roma 26 to 6 (10-2 on target) and narrowly won the possession battle (51%-49%). Quite clearly, they commanded and controlled the tempo, but probably could have made it easier on themselves.
Without question, Milan deserved the victory and Gattuso’s showing us all that he can forge an identity with his style of play, but the Rossoneri need to turn in a full 90-minute shift as a unit. One can argue that is somewhat of an unrealistic expectation considering the two opponents Milan have been tasked with facing to begin the campaign, but ultimately, submitting a more complete performance moving forward should be the aim.
Traveling away to Napoli and hosting Roma in a home opener to begin the season are no simple feats. Although Milan feel regretful in not having taken more from the opening round, supporters should be encouraged by the product thus far, while also recognising that there is certainly more for the Champions League hopefuls to give on the pitch once play resumes after the international break.