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AC Milan 1-0 Fiorentina: Player grades and 3 things we learned

Despite a soul-crushing error, you can’t blame this team’s effort or toughness, and that’s a massive departure from what we’ve seen towards the end of the past couple seasons.

AC Milan v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A
Like a Yo La Tengo album.
Photo by Mairo Cinquetti/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Player grades

Pietro Terracciano—4: Made a couple of decent stops, to his credit, and claimed a cross or two quite well (although he missed a couple others and needed Igor to save his bacon once). But that pass straight to Rafael Leão for the goal was simply inexcusable. Don’t get me wrong, we all love the World’s Funnest Dad, but it’s absurd to pretend he’s on the same level as Bartłomiej Drągowski, even as the Pole has had a season to forget.

Lorenzo Venuti—6.5: Kept the lethal Leão pretty quiet, aside from a smart tactical foul he committed just before the break to earn a booking. For all his warts (and they’re definitely there), he’s a very smart player who sticks perfectly to a tactical plan and knows his place in the hierarchy. It’s no coincidence that, as soon as he was subbed off, AC Milan suddenly built a bunch of moves down his wing.

Nikola Milenković—6.5: Had a couple of oddly bad headed passes that gave the Rossoneri decent opportunities to attack a short field, but erased Olivier Giroud and Zlatan Ibrahimović from the game and swept up behind Venuti and LMQ. Probably deserved a clean sheet for his efforts, but alas, this is Fiorentina.

Igor—7: That goal-line clearance was the highlight, but he was fantastic throughout, constantly using his strength and quickness to put out fires all across the back line. He’s still not a perfect defender but at least he proved that the Salernitana game was just a blip. Dude is the future of Fiorentina’s defense, even if his finishing could use a bit of work.

Cristiano Biraghi—6.5: The fanbase’s favorite whipping boy had one hilariously ill-advised dribble attempt that got him utterly stonewalled by Davide Calabria, but he was actually quite good otherwise. Shut down Junior Messias and even played in some dangerous balls, including laser-guided pass that easily could’ve been a goal for Cabral.

Youssef Maleh—4.5: Got himself booked after 90 seconds for impeding Mike Maignan on a punt and had at least 3 other pretty dangerous incidents that could’ve seen him earn a second yellow. Has to control himself if he’s going to be trusted in games like this. Covered a lot of ground with his off-ball runs and laid in one or two nice passes, but was clearly the weak link in the middle.

Sofyan Amrabat—6.5: Another popular scapegoat, the Morocco international was quite good. He still takes too long on the ball and still tries to dribble out of sticky situations too often, but his physicality was crucial and he hit a few gorgeous balls out to the flanks. It’s a shame he’s not a stylistic fit for this team because he’s obviously very, very good at some aspects of the game.

Alfred Duncan—7: Man of the match. Constantly won the ball and carried it forward or pinged it around. Dropped deep to dictate play at times and helped establish a rhythm in the first half. Also showed some incisiveness, particularly with a brilliant interception high up and then a gorgeously weighted ball for Saponara to get a shot away on the break. Aside from the odd clunker, he is, at worst, a really good squad player for a very good Serie A team.

Nicolás González—5: Had chances to attack Theo Hernández but didn’t definitively have the beating of the fullback. Was fairly involved but looked more frantic than dangerous. Probably needs to spend more time running in behind than he did, especially with Cabral and Saponara dropping in. Doesn’t look quite able to win games on his own, which isn’t a fair thing to judge him on, but needs to acknowledge his limits a bit more.

Arthur Cabral—6: Gave the Milan defense some trouble at times when he got service, forcing an incredible save from Maigna with a header and occasionally peeling off to the wings. Dropped deep to receive the ball and then spread it for the fullbacks but didn’t really encourage anyone else forward. Love his enthusiasm, but he does need to stop tackling his own damn teammates, which he did twice today.

Riccardo Saponara—5.5: Got a good shot away and had a couple of neat moments against Calabria but was too often forced backward and struggled to produce a whole lot outside that first half attempt on goal. Would’ve loved to see him score against his former employer, but it wasn’t meant to be. Looked pretty gassed by the hour mark and probably should’ve been replaced a bit sooner.

Lucas Martínez Quarta—4.5: Produced a nice shoulder drop to win a foul within seconds of entering but that was the high point. Struggled to contain Leão (which is hardly a disgrace, given the winger’s form) and didn’t influence things going forward. Did have a couple nice moments in possession and put a crunching revenge tackle on Hernández after the fullback got away with a dirty elbow on Torreira; that kind of grinta is a welcome addition to a team that often seems a bit soft.

Jonathan Ikoné—5: Had a couple of neat touches but never looked like unlocking the defense. His highlight was in his own penalty box, absolutely bodying Leão on a break and cleanly taking the ball from him. Other highlight was his animated reunion with former teammates Tiemoué Bakayoko and Fodé Bollo-Touré at halftime, which saw all three doubled over laughing with each other.

Lucas Torreira—5: Offered his usual spikiness but didn’t change the game too much. Did play as a mezzala rather than a regista, leaving Amrabat at the base of midfield. Caught a nasty elbow from Hernández that somehow didn’t even result in a foul and set off a brief fracas.

Riccardo Sottil—n/a: Only got 10 minutes and wasn’t very involved.

Three things we learned

1. Somebody needs to run in behind. Even without their starting midfield, Fiorentina dominated possession in the first half, largely because Saponara and Cabral dropped in to help the buildup. Unfortunately, that meant that the only player with the pace to attack the space behind Milan’s defense was González, and he also tended to come short, which allowed the Rossoneri to simply keep everything in front of them. Maleh made a couple of bursts into the channels, but Nico’s the most obvious candidate to offer that verticality. Maybe he didn’t think his teammates would find him and wanted to stay involved, but a team can’t function with all three forwards constantly moving towards their own goal and nobody taking advantage of that space.

2. Castrovilli and Bonaventura are critical to the attack. One thing that Fiorentina does fantastically well is attack the wide areas. The wingers interchange with the mezzale and the fullbacks, overloading opposing fullbacks and generating interesting situations. The best way to defend that is to defend deep and narrow, allowing space by the touchlines while packing the box so that any cross has a low chance of succeeding.

While Jack and Tanino are expert at drifting wide, they’ve also both got the quality to pick up the ball in the middle and make something happen with a dribble, pass, or shot. Without them, there isn’t a midfielder on the roster who can force a defense out of its shell. While Duncan was brilliant in the middle third, he’s not the type to unlock a parked bus, and Amrabat was allowed to stand almost on the D before Milan lackadaisically closed him down, forcing him to pass sideways and recycle it. Without someone in the middle to make the defense react, it’s too easy to pack the box and hit on the break. These injuries really hit at the worst possible moment.

3. These guys are evolving into bastards (in a good way). After the past few games, it would’ve been easy for the squad to accept that they weren’t going to make Europe and basically phone it in until they could hit the beach. Instead, they dug in and gave it everything against a heavily-favored opponent. While an embarrassing individual error meant they didn’t win, their effort was commendable. My favorite part of it was LMQ’s revenge tackle on Hernández: that willingness to take a card to protect a teammate shows an edge that Fiorentina haven’t had for close to a decade (even Vincenzo Montella’s golden teams were about finesse rather than nastiness). To paraphrase Alex Stewart, “Every team needs someone who’s a bastard.” In Torreira and LMQ, Fiorentina have two excellent bastards who just aren’t fun to play against.