If scoring 13 goals in the last seven games is impressive then conceding just five in 15 matches in all competitions, given the opponents Milan have faced, must be something of a shock. They’ve kept 10 clean sheets in that period, letting in only three goals in 2019. Not since the era of Fabio Capello in 1993 had this club started the calendar year with four Serie A clean sheets.
Let’s get a bit of perspective here. Milan’s defensive issues are well documented. They kept just four league clean sheets in the first half of the season. Those games involved Udinese, Torino, Bologna and Frosinone. Out of the four, the Rossoneri only managed a win against Udinese, with the rest ending in scoreless draws.
Milan shipped two goals against Atalanta, Sampdoria and Juventus, while conceding against Empoli, Cagliari, Sassuolo and Chievo. Gattuso’s men were knocked out of the Europa League after losing 3-1 to Olympiacos, when a draw would have ensured qualification for the knockout stages.
During these periods, the Diavolo showed a considerable amount of character in terms of finding the ne, as they came back from 2-1 down to beat Sampdoria 3-2. They also scored the first two against Napoli and did the same against Roma and Atalanta at San Siro
When things began to tick in defence, Milan became very poor in attack. Gonzalo Higuain struggled to get on the scoresheet after his meltdown against parent club Juventus. And Rossoneri fans have had to endure some frustratingly boring, unadventurous, fallow results versus the likes of Bologna, Frosinone, Torino and Fiorentina. The first two may be described as low-hanging fruits, which Milan should have plucked to increase their points tally.
Gennaro Gattuso’s men experienced their worst Serie A goal drought in 34 years under the former Italy midfielder, raising questions about his competence and future at the club. Higuain did not look happy as the weight of expectation grew heavy on him. To be fair to his teammates, goalscoring opportunities were created for the Argentine, but it seems the news of a possible reunion with his former Coach Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea had turned his head. And Higuain’s demeanor on the pitch suggested he wanted out.
The biggest difference since Krzysztof Piatek’s arrival is not just in goals scored, but also his movement off the ball to tire opposition defenders and create space for his teammates. No more Pipita standing there, waving his arms in frustration. Now things are finally ticking at both ends of the pitch.
It must be noted Milan’s defensive improvement coincided with the injuries to first choice centre-backs, Alessio Romagnoli and Mateo Musacchio. The coupling of Ignacio Abate as an emergency stopper alongside Cristian Zapata proved significant as they conceded three in five League games compared to the seven shipped by the former. Perhaps losing those guarantees at the back forced the rest of the team into focusing on some defensive duties that had previously been neglected.
The signing of another creative option in Brazil’s Lucas Paqueta, who is not afraid of a crunching tackle either, and the arrival of Piatek has kickstarted an amazing run of form, which saw them leapfrog bitter rivals Inter into third place in Serie A, just in time for the Derby della Madonnina.
Milan are not always great to watch, but they’re at least more efficient in attack now. Hakan Calhanoglu is still a long way off his best but is beginning to show great signs of recovery as he provided a goal and assist in his last three games. Musacchio has looked secure and reassuring, while Romagnoli has offered a steadying influence at the back. Gianluigi Donnarumma keeps making remarkable saves and Andrea Conti can be useful as an attacking weapon once he has regained full fitness.
There are those who also look forward to seeing the future Azzurri partnership of Romagnoli and Mattia Caldara manifest in the Milan colors. The former Atalanta centre-back played for the youth team last week - the final step towards a genuine comeback.
The Diavolo’s defensive resolve could be crucial in their aspirations for Champions League football next season. As Coaches so often say, it’s not about fixing the defence or getting the attack firing - it’s about balancing the two.