Milan stumbled to a draw in San Siro against Porto in the Champions League, putting an end to their chances of reaching the last 16.
Milan was a juggernaut in Serie A, racking up 31 of 33 points available this season, but Milan lacked quality on the European front. Rather than the usual general tactical analysis, we’ve chosen to focus on a figure that seems to be dividing the fanbase right now in Alexis Saelemaekers.
Explain his role
Although Saelemaekers initially starts on paper as a right winger in Stefano Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 formation, his role is quite unconventional compared to other wingers in the competition. At this point it should be noted that Saelemaekers started out as a fullback in Anderlecht’s 3-5-2 system, where he excelled in terms of work pace and defensive skills.
Some fans were impressed by his January 2020 contract when a bigger name was sought, but Pioli – forced by a lack of options – chose to use Saelemaekers by bringing out his best skills.
This system takes full advantage of both its players on the right. Calabria has pace and can cross the ball or even get into useful positions as we saw against Bologna as Saelemaekers covers the space he leaves behind.
Calabria is even given the freedom to push the field up and fill it with numbers when a cross comes in from the left wing so as not to isolate the center striker Ibrahimovic or Giroud.
Saelemaekers has a knack for finding space between the lines, as we can see in the build-up to the goal against Liverpool. Against teams that tend to use numerical superiority on the flanks, the Belgian would sit back as a fullback, while Calabria would act as the third centre-back. Milan used this in the second half against Roma.
With a 40-year-old striker like Ibrahimovic or a 35-year-old like Giroud as the centre-forward, a player like Saelemaekers helps to make up for his work pace and pushes the opponents up the field.
Despite all this, he does not fulfill the role of a traditional winger: being a target threat, creating opportunities and taking on his man. Some would argue that these are the priority duties of a true winger, especially in a 4-2-3-1.
Saelemaekers has so far only had 2 assists from 15 games in all competitions for the Rossoneri in the current campaign, a very disturbing statistic for Milan, who returned to the Champions League after more than seven years of absence and knew they needed every player to to step up.
The 22-year-old has also not scored a single goal this season and is on a scoreless run of more than 40 games. Unlike normal wingers, Saelemaekers is not productive with the ball, as is always the case with the short pass option to avoid losing the ball or sometimes attempts a cross, which can often be misplaced.
To compound the shortcomings, Saelemaekers isn’t the best player when it comes to taking on his man with the dribble and creating more dangerous angles, meaning his attacking repertoire is actually very limited.
on the ball
Note: all statistics are per 90 minutes.
The numbers emphasize what was mentioned above, in that Saelemaekers is not the kind of winger who will give an opponent sleepless nights before the game.
His expected assists (xA) are 0.14 against a European average of 0.18. His shot creating actions i.e. passes or crosses leading to shots is 3.18 against an average of 3.34 in Europe
Finished passes have a good rate of 80.3%, but you could say this is due to him trying more short passes and not trying risky through balls.
So what about passes that help build the attacks? This is measured as progressive passes. Saelemaekers has a score of 3.25 per 90 against an average of 3.42 in Europe.
As we expected, his dribble is not that great and this is reflected in his score of 5.28 against an average of 6.22. Dribbles Completed is slightly better at 1.81 from an average of 1.77, but again this could reflect his preference for lower risk options.
from the ball
It must be said here that what Saelemaekers lacks in attacking threat, he makes up for with his defensive work pace.
Its pressing – which is measured as pressures per 90 – is an impressive 22.06 against an average of 16.10. Tackles made are 2.04 per 90 at an average of 1.36. Interceptions or otherwise intercepted passes are 1.57 against an average of 0.87. Blocks created are 1.77 against an average of 1.22.
Saelemaekers is a perfect player of the Pioli system, as highlighted above, but in the long run, if he stays at the same level as he is, he will ask more questions than answers.
His defensive work pace cannot be ignored, but his offensive contribution is too little to be considered a winger who can provide guarantees from a creative or a goal-scoring standpoint, especially in a team that is challenging for trophies.A
Part two follows in which we explore personnel and tactical solutions to the Saelemaekers conundrum.
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