After 45 minutes, Milan were sitting pretty. Prettier than they’ve sat for some time. Several seasons, in fact. Winning 3-0 away from home against Udinese, a side that had troubled them in previous seasons, Milan were riding high thanks to goals from Mario Balotelli, Giacomo Bonaventura and Cristian Zapata. Praise was given to coach Sinisia Mihajlovic over social media at the break, who appeared to finally have figured out how to collate his talent into a winning formula.
Just 45 minutes later and a very different picture was painted, but one all too familiar for Milan fans. The Hyde to the Jekyll of the first period, the Rossoneri reacted slowly to a more up-tempo Udinese side in the second half, an undoubtedly bristling team-talk still ringing in their ears.
The exit of the impressive Davide Calabria took away the width Milan had used to pin their Friulian opponents back in the first period, which in turn gave Riccardo Montolivo the space to keep the Diavolo ticking over, helping them comfortably control the pace. The insertion of the more robust Alex in the middle meant a re-ignition of the Cristian Zapata-right back experiment. One would assume that’s an idea Mihajlovic may keep on the training ground in future.
Milan are still clearly a side in transition; split between the regular lapses in concentration that were commonplace in the previous seasons under Filippo Inzaghi, Clarence Seedorf and the last period of Massimiliano Allegri’s tenure and the dynamism of Mihajlovic’s approach. The split was never more obvious than today, where fans saw the team that has the potential to genuinely challenge for a Champions League position in the first period with the gutless, apathetic side that have been appeared more regularly in the last three years in the second.
Mihajlovic still has several kinks to work out including what his starting defence should be every week, but if the evidence Tuesday night is reliable then Calabria is becoming more important to the Milan defence than originally considered. Though, the former primavera player is raw and was impressive in the opening half but his absence perhaps reveals a more big-picture need for defensive width when operating a midfield three. Without it, Milan are much more susceptible at the back and have one less avenue offensively. The return of Luca Antonelli, allowing for the return of De Sciglio to right-back will certainly help.
Secondly, Keisuke Honda’s continual ineffectiveness is starting to become noticeable in light of the impressive start to the season Bonaventura has made. It’s becoming clear that Milan are best when the young Italian has the ball with striking options around him and when Jeremy Menez returns Honda may have even less time to prove his worth.
Finally, Mario Balotelli has begun to consolidate the form he showed flashes of in the derby with a terrific performance. A pin-point free-kick gave Milan the lead and the forward was a consistent threat, showing excellent awareness throughout the game in a variety of areas, drifting to the right in the second half absence of Calabria and vitally maintaining his cool in the tense, closing minutes of the match. Milan’s mentality slipped but, impressively, Balotelli’s didn’t.
Milan’s Jekyll and Hyde approach has recently yielded results – six points from four days is still a positive but for results to maintain, the Diavolo’s defensive effort needs to move away from the horror story. Milanisti have seen that one before.