After suffering their fifth defeat in all competitions this year to Inter, Milan survived against a gritty Red Star side to advance into the UEFA Europa League round of 16 where they will meet Manchester United.
The performance against Dejan Stankovic’s side failed to convince, highlighting further the issues that remain prevalent throughout the squad.
The Rossoneri, with recent defeats in the derby and to Serie A newcomers Spezia, are currently in their worst form in 12 months. The lack of sharpness, enthusiasm and ability to control matches has seen them concede first place to the Nerazzurri atop the table.
Now, with the first of four matches in ten days behind Stefano Pioli, focus shifts to Sunday’s pivotal test away to Roma who smell blood in the water as they seek a massive victory over a top six side.
This upcoming phase has been deemed an opportunity for Milan to round back into form and, when up against a bit of adversity, exercise a bit of bravery to pull out important results when they are otherwise not performing to winning standards.
Seeing as this is a trait most winning sides possess, the onus falls back onto Pioli to now identify the problem areas that have lingered for much of 2021 and find immediate solutions.
Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjaer have taken on criticism of late, committing errors in key moments and failing to meet the standard the two had previously set throughout 2020.
Entering last weekend’s derby, the 26-year-old captain had the daunting task of keeping Romelu Lukaku under control, only to be spun and beaten for pace on numerous occasions.
The Italian’s post-injury performances seem to have highlighted fitness concerns, with cracks in his defensive game often being papered over by the team’s good form and his Danish partner shouldering heightened responsibility.
As a unit though, Romagnoli and Kjaer are simply not performing like the sturdy defensive tandem we had come to witness, leaving many begging for Fikayo Tomori to receive a run in the starting XI.
The 23-year old moved to the Italian giants on loan from Chelsea last month with a €28 million option to buy in the summer, a sum many believe the Milan hierarchy has already thought strongly about exercising. Last night, Pioli tried him alongside Romagnoli, with the former proving more aggressive and confident in his defensive approach.
Tomori confronted each challenge with intent to win the battle or ball as opposed to Romagnoli who currently looks non-committal and fearful of costly errors. The Englishman was spatially aware and positioned well to close down the space and ball carrier whereas the Italian remains a bit too zonal, thus conceding space and windows for attackers to exploit as Ben did for goal last night.
Assuming Pioli opts to sit Kjaer for Romagnoli, Tomori’s contrasting profile could be utilized as the more progressive central defender that carries the ball out the back and takes those risks defensively higher up the pitch.
This limits Romagnoli’s vulnerability to be beaten in a high-line setup while also simplifying his defensive assignment a bit more to help restore confidence that has obviously taken a hit. The former Derby County loanee’s recent outings lend credence to an individual who, while still acclimating to new life in Italy, is chomping at the bit to come good and make the decision Milan currently mull over his hefty option a rather easy one.
Though currently sitting in a favorable league position to finish top four and into the next phase of the Europa League, Milan must restore order and balance if they are to make it through this moment.
Even if it requires Pioli making the difficult, and perhaps unpopular, decisions regarding his selections, now it is a matter of taking control of a season that promised so much and finishing the job of a long awaited return to the Champions League.