Milan started the season with not so much a step backwards as a stumble and accidental backflip. After their first official 90 minutes, Marco Giampaolo was already wondering aloud whether he should scrap the 4-3-1-2 system entirely and start from scratch. There was certainly little of the new-look Rossoneri on show in Udine.
The starting line-up was a big surprise in itself. Despite having spent about €80m to sign Rade Krunic, Ismael Bennacer, Theo Hernandez, Leo Duarte and Rafael Leao, none of them started. Giampaolo played a midfield that had Lucas Paqueta, Hakan Calhanoglu and Fabio Borini, as he looked to add technical skills to the heart of the park.
That never helped the side settle, as Calhanoglu played in a rather unnatural deeper role. While Borini had played in midfield in the pre-season friendlies, he never looked like someone who could play in that position in the long-term. Paqueta too started in a position that is deeper than usual for a player who will always prefer to play closer to the striker.
Udinese though, made full use of Milan’s inability to get going. Igor Tudor was clever to create wide overloads in their 3-5-2 shape, exploiting Milan’s lack of numbers in those areas. The Rossoneri’s lack of organization in midfield forced Ricardo Rodriguez and Davide Calabria to deal with extra pressure down their sides.
Tudor’s men stayed tight and narrow without the ball and played in wide areas while in possession and this countered Milan’s inefficiencies perfectly.
Calhanoglu’s lack of defensive awareness saw Milan’s backline get exposed many times on the break. It was very evident that Milan were playing their first Serie A game with a new system. The possession never led to anything special as they kept losing the ball in midfield, leaving Krzysztof Piatek to feed off scraps.
Samu Castillejo had a poor game, as he started alongside the Pole and did just about nothing. The only big spark that he provided came when the Spaniard countered the Udinese wide overload by taking up a position on the right, going past a couple of Udinese defenders and feeding Piatek. The resulting shot was blocked and that was the only clear chance that fell to the misfiring former Genoa man.
Castillejo and Suso looked as though they were lost - not knowing what their purpose was in a more complex system than ever. Because of them, Piatek cut a rather frustrated figure, as his tally remained at three since mid-March. It will be unfair to blame him, considering he was left isolated upfront many times last season too. This was a new challenge in itself.
Udinese also relied on the pace of Kevin Lasagna. The Italian stayed glued to the last man of the Milan defence, lurking and waiting to pounce on any pass or loose ball that fell in that area. The Rossoneri's high line in possession helped Lasagna in that regard.
Il Diavolo had possession that hardly led to anything concrete and it was the introduction of the highly-touted Rodrigo de Paul that brought the goal for Udinese - something that they richly deserved after having tested Gigio Donnarumma several times.
The Argentine's corner proved to be the assist for Rodrigo Becao's bullet header in the 72nd minute. It was a testament to how much Udinese will miss him if De Paul does leave the club this summer, with Fiorentina, Napoli and Atletico Madrid still interested.
The introductions of new signings Bennacer and Leao offered some hope, though. Having a more suitable figure in Bennacer brought better balance to the midfield and having a proper striker in Leao gave the midfield someone to look out for. Despite having played only about 15-20 minutes, the duo looked better than the men they replaced - Castillejo and Paqueta, with Calhanoglu playing slightly further forward.
Franck Kessie's introduction added some steel and venom to the same area of the pitch, but a rather lacklustre evening ended with Milan failing to register even a single shot on target, compared to the Zebrette's tally of six.
The new signings provided some much-needed hope towards the end and Giampaolo's admission about the need for a change in system caught some off guard. While he was at fault for the team selection and the way the midfield was set up, Giampaolo is still getting to grips with a side that has never really played a similar brand of football in recent years. The same goes for the players, who will take a while to gel into this new set-up.
Giampaolo implied that these players were simply not capable of fitting into his system, so he would have to adapt rather than try to change their basic characteristics. Does that mean the entire pre-season training period has been a complete waste of time?