A few weeks ago, in the wake of Milan’s defeat and elimination to Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League last 16, questions were asked of Zlatan Ibrahimovic once again. The Swede is a man who has divided opinion for a considerable period of time, some rejoice in taking in his sumptuous first touch while others are aghast at his nonchalance and attitude when things aren’t going his way.
Ibrahimovic is also often accused on a regular basis of going missing in the ‘big games’. Guardian journalist Paolo Bandini proposed, with some certainty, that the big bad Swede often tends to falter around February and had done for the last few seasons. So in the name of science, and curiosity, it seems only fair for the numbers to do the talking.
In Serie A all eyes were on Milan following the international break, Inter started round 2 of the weekend games with a 2-1 win at home to Udinese. The talk all week had revolved around new Milan signings Ibrahimovic and Robinho, observers and fans all wanting to know if we’d see some form of ‘fab four’ front line (Ibra, Pato, Robinho & Ronaldinho) particularly against a Cesena side who’s wage expenditure is 15-20 times less than the Milanese club. Coach Max Allegri was quick to cool any notion of all four starting the game claiming that 1 week together was not enough time to gel and insisting the key was to find stability and balance between attack and defence, smart comments but he did not appear to have mastered the balance he was looking for just yet.
Milan started with Allegri’s favoured 4-3-3 with a front line of Ronaldinho, Ibrahimovic and Pato and Andrea Pirlo playing the deepest of the midfield three despite being the youngest at 30. Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini in the middle to be enforcers and do some of the donkey work.
Cesena are showing they are no mugs in the top flight this season (they snatched a draw away to Roma on , they took the lead through Bogdani. Luca Antonini had shown 2 or 3 times in the first half hour that he was not having the best of games at left back, he had allowed Luca Ceccarelli and Matias Schelotto to get past him twice already and create two chances for Cesena. Ceccaarelli receives a cross field ball in the air and Antonini fails to close down and stop the cross. Ceccarelli puts a ball into the near post where a similarly nonchalant Papastathopoulos is beaten to it by Bogdani despite a 3 yard head start.
At the 35 minute mark Milan had had 75% of possession, Pato was dropping deep to link up with the Milan midfield and Ibrahimovic was performing the target man role very well. The discarded Barcelona striker showed that with his gentle touch he could take in long balls and delicately lay them off for his team mates.
On 44 minutes Milan were put to the sword once more, a Milan attack is cleared and Papastathopoulos allows Bogdani to get goal side of him again. Once the striker was through Thiago Silva was forced into making a decision, whether to allow him to run at him or to attempt to win the ball high up the pitch. Silva went for the ball and Bogdani played the ball into an open quarter of the pitch for Emmanuele Giaccherini to stroll across and place the ball into the bottom right corner of the goal.
Thiago Silva was substituted at half time with Ignazio Abate coming on at right back, Daniele Bonera partnered Papastathopoulos and the Milanese back four looked even shakier than it had done in the first half. But Cesena were playing a waiting game once they had the 2 goal lead, kept their shape very well and looked to get the ball forward quickly on the counter attack.
Allegri threw on a fourth forward on 65 minutes, sadly we were not to see the all new fab four Robinho had replaced Ronaldinho 10 minutes earlier. Pippo Inzaghi came on for Gattuso and Milan shifted to a 4-2-4/4-2-2-2, none of the forward players were doing any defensive work, though not much was required with Cesena entrenched in their own half soaking up the pressure.
In the end Cesena deserved the victory because they showed incredible discipline and determination not to succumb to the pressure they were under for the majority of the game, they had less than 30% possession for the majority of the game. Milan were unlucky to have two legitimate goals chalked off when the scores were 0-0 and 2-0, it could have been different if Ibrahimovic had put away the penalty 4 minutes from time with Cesena under so much pressure.
Tactically Milan look a shambles, their backline leaves a lot to be desired and even when they only play 3 of their star forwards they are terribly disjointed, there was far too much work for the aging Gattuso, Ambrosini and Pirlo to carry out as well as finding the energy to be creative. The dependence on the full backs for width without cover from the midfield also left Milan threadbare on the break, they’ll face bigger thrashings in the Champions League when they play the likes of Real Madrid if they continue to leave the back door open.