It’s official. The Blueprint’s gone continental.

This week, we’re headed to Turin for a Serie A clash that pits the league frontrunners against an old superpower that has since faded. But maybe not in the way you think.

Milan travel to Juventus with the sides in two very different frames of mind.  Juventus’ start has been troublesome to put it kindly, and downright dreadful if we are being less kind.  Defeat to Napoli last Saturday left Massimiliano Allegri’s side with just one point from their opening three fixtures, and they sit in 16th place. It’s the first time they’ve failed to win at least one of their first three Serie A matches in 52 years.

But things can always get worse. Football is unforgiving. Fail to beat Milan at the weekend and the Bianconeri could go winless in their first four Serie A matches for just the fourth time in their history, with that last happening in 1961-62, aka the year that mankind put a man into space.

Talking of space, Milan are already eight points above Juventus in the table. They will arrive in Turin brimming with confidence off the back of three wins from three, with seven goals scored and just one conceded. A gutsy performance away at Liverpool in the first round of the Champions League will add to their belief that they can really start to mix it with the best.  

Betting markets still have Juventus as second favourites to win the Scudetto, with Inter Milan out on top. A loss against Milan on Sunday would see the gap open up to 11 points and, although Allegri was in the dugout the last time Juventus arrested an 11-point gap to win the title back in 2015, it’s no easy feat.

Here are five things to look out for as these two historic giants do battle.

1. Shaky Szczesny to Come Under Fire

It’s safe to say than a lot of Juventus’ early-season woe is self-inflicted. They’re credited (which is an ironic term, really) in the Opta database as making two errors leading to opposition goals, which is already more than anyone else in the league. But goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has already made three big blunders, after a horror show against Udinese where two costly errors saw Juventus surrender a 2-0 lead, and then spilling a relatively easy shot to allow Matteo Politano to equalise for Napoli in their most recent defeat.   

Without his mistakes, Juventus would have beaten Udinese on Matchday 1, and perhaps left Naples with a point. And suddenly this section never gets written.  

Szczesny’s form is a big concern for Juventus, particularly as they were happy to let Gianluigi Buffon return to Parma and content to let Gianluigi Donnarumma join PSG without much of a fight. Any would-be-parents of aspiring men’s Italian goalkeepers should now know what to call their children, by the way.

The Polish International’s save percentage is down at 66.7% this season, the lowest it’s ever been during his time in Serie A. Further to that, according to our expected goals on target model, Szczesny’s performing just about in line with league average when it comes to preventing goals for his side. Without the errors that would be fine but add in the errors and suddenly it’s a dangerous concoction.

He has fallen a long way from the heights he has previously hit in Turin. In 2018-19, his first season as Juventus No. 1, he prevented 5.3 goals over the season, the fourth-highest number of any goalkeeper in Italy. In the 2019-20 season, the one where he was named Serie A goalkeeper of the year, he prevented 4.3 goals – a drop, yes – but enough to see him top the league in that ranking.  

Szczesny xGOT 2019-20
Ladies and gentlemen, your Serie A goalkeeper of the year

The decline seemingly started last season, with the Pole actually conceding 1.6 more goals than the average Serie A goalkeeper would expect to concede based on the quality of shots faced. That’s really not very good.

Szczesny xGOT 2020-21

It seems Szczesny has reverted back to the player we often saw in his days in north London, with individual errors creeping into his game and costing his side points.

Milan will know this and know the increased pressure Juve’s keeper is under, particularly with his place in the team under question. Expect them to challenge Szczesny early and often, and – just as Napoli’s Politano admitted in a post-match interview with DAZN after they beat Juventus last weekend – expect Milan’s striker to follow up any shots for possible rebounds. 

2. Juventus To Pray for Chiesa Magic

Juventus fans will hope that Federico Chiesa’s exclusion from the squad who beat Malmö 3-0 in the Champions League was just precautionary, as the Italian star recovers from a hamstring injury. Although his involvement this season has been limited to 66 minutes against Empoli and a short cameo against Udinese, Chiesa has arguably been Allegri’s most dangerous player.

Looking at the leaders for possession value (PV) in Serie A paints a clear picture of Chiesa’s value. Despite his limited playing time, the Euro 2020 winner has the highest net PV score of any player in Serie A on a per 90 basis, at 1.06.  

Remember, possession value assigns credit to individual players based on their positive and negative contributions on the ball. Basically, how do players increase or decrease their side’s likelihood of scoring with the next 10 seconds of play? Do good things like carry the ball forwards, or make a progressive pass and your PV score goes up. Do bad things like losing the ball and it goes down.

Serie A possession value breakdown 2021-22

And based on that, Chiesa is extremely valuable for this side. A large bulk of his threat comes from his fantastic progressive dribbling, where his close control and speed help him carry the ball up the pitch for his team. On average, whenever he carries the ball – defined as a player moving the ball five metres or more – he progresses the ball 14m upfield. That’s the most for Juventus and only Denzel Dumfries, via a rampaging cameo for Inter Milan, has averaged further per carry (16.6m).

With exceptional close control and dribbling, Chiesa is able to ghost round players and create shooting opportunities for himself and his teammates. This was laid bare for all to see at Euro 2020, where he took nine shots after a ball carry and set up a further three chances. The total of 12 shot-ending carries was the most of any player at the tournament.

Federico Chiesa chance-creating carries euro 2020

He flashed that ability against Empoli in the early stages.

During a transition, he finds himself in a pocket of space in between the lines…

Chiesa carries sequence 1

Receiving the ball on the half-turn, he spins and starts dribbling at the Empoli back line…

Chiesa carries sequence 2

He beats one defender, before chopping back inside and beating another…

Chiesa carries sequence 3

Before fizzing a shot just wide.

Chiesa carries sequence 4

It was classic Chiesa: running with the ball at speed, committing opponents, before carving out an opportunity himself.

There is certainly a sense at the moment that Juventus’ best game plan to just to get the ball to Chiesa or Dybala in the hope they will “do something” out of nothing. Even in the images above, you can see how outnumbered the attacker is when dribbling forward.

Juventus will pray that Chiesa is able to play this weekend, as they will need his ability to unlock the miserly Milan defence.

3. Milan Will Be Extremely Difficult to Break Down

Speaking of that robust defence… Milan’s strong end to the domestic season in 2020-21, and their flawless start this year has been aided by an extremely consistent backline. In fact, they’ve kept seven clean sheets in their last eight league games, and since May of last season, they boast the most clean sheets of any side across Europe’s top five leagues.

Most clean sheets, top 5 european leagues since may

They’ve started off 2021-22 strongly, with just one goal conceded thus far.  Fikayo Tomori and Simon Kjaer have formed a solid partnership at the base of the defence, and under the hood, the numbers look rosy too. Milan have conceded the second fewest expected goals (2.33) of all Serie A teams, as well as ranking well for shots faced (31 – fifth best) and shots on target faced (10 – tied fourth).  

Mike Maignan, fresh off a massive season at Lille where he prevented just shy of seven goals for his side, is performing well too. Given Milan haven’t faced very many shots, it’s hard for Maignan to rack up many ‘goals prevented’ but we can standardise for the number of shots each ‘keeper has faced by looking at their goals prevented rate. Goals prevented rate is the number of goals that a goalkeeper was expected to concede as a proportion of the number of goals they actually conceded.

Maignan has a goals prevented rate of 1.75, the third-best in the league. In other words, the Milan ‘stopper is expected to concede 1.75 goals for every one he’s conceded so far. Seems decent.  

Combine this with a Juventus side that have struggled to create good goalscoring opportunities thus far (just 4.2 expected goals for, ranking them 11th in that metric) and all signs point toward Juventus struggling to break down this Milan side.

4. Threat of Milan Down the Left-hand Side

Key to Milan’s attacking play is the dangerous duo of Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leão down their left-hand side. We can use Stats Perform’s Edge Analysis to assess the shape and style of Milan’s most dangerous possessions. The attacking patterns, or chains, shown below demonstrate the most dangerous types of attacks for Milan. To work out which patterns are the most dangerous we use our new friend possession value again.

We can see that the majority of these come down Milan’s left-hand side, and that’s where Hernandez and Leão wreak havoc.

AC Milan Most Dangerous attacking chains

The pair are a menace down the flank and work in tandem to create opportunities for teammates.

Both show a real willingness to take on their opposition number. Leão has attempted 11 take-ons so far (the fourth most of any winger), while Hernandez has attempted nine, the second most of any defender, including two in the opposition box.

It’s all well and good to beat your man, but it’s what you do after that that is important. It’s all about the much-touted “end product.”

To help quantify this, we can look at the expected assists value for both players following a take-on. It’s remarkably similar, with Leão contributing 0.18 xA after a successful take-on and Hernandez 0.17. These are not only by far the highest figures for Milan, but they also rank sixth and seventh in Serie A. Put simply, not only do each of them have an ability to beat a man, but they’re able to create good chances off the back of that.  

A little more on Hernandez. He’s an extremely advanced full back, as are most of the world’s best. The Frenchman registered 47 shots last season, the second highest of all defenders, which shows his desire to get forward.

A look at where he has received his passes this season shows he loves to bomb forward with advanced runs:

Theo Hernandez Passes Received Serie A 2021-22

His overlapping runs can also create chances for his wide teammate, Leão, even without him touching the ball. This was evident for Leão’s goal against Lazio.

The Portuguese winger picks the ball up on the halfway line, starting off a Milan counter. Hernandez, is off, overlapping his winger. You can see Lazio midfielder Lucas Leiva (yes, that one), signalling for his full back Adam Marusic to track Hernandez’ run.

Milan building down left sequence 1

Leão uses Hernandez’ run as a decoy and cuts back inside, going past Leiva like you’d expect a 22-year-old to run past a 34-year-old.

Look at the space that the Milan full back’s overlap has created for Leão to drive into.

Milan building down left sequence 2

He continues to run with the ball before playing a nice one-two with Ante Rebic and slotting the ball home.

Milan building down left sequence 3

Milan’s first goal against Liverpool in the Champions League came through a very similar pattern:

So, expect lots of Milan’s threat to come down the left. Juventus might opt to play the slightly more defensive Danilo at right back to try and counter this.  

5. Juventus Pressing Has Fallen Off a Cliff

One stark observation from the numbers is that, so far this season, Juventus have not pressed. Like, not at all. Historically, they are side who always rank in the top half when it comes to PPDA, or passes per defensive action, which we can use as a good proxy for pressing. This is particularly true over the past two seasons, where they’ve been the third-most aggressive pressing team. But this season that’s fallen off a cliff. Their average PPDA is 15.6 which is the third highest figure in the league: in other words, they’ve allowed the opposition to complete over 15 passes on average before they make a defensive action.  

PPDA-trend-line-juventus-serie A

Whether that’s a hangover from a gruelling summer for a lot of players at Euro 2020, the continued impact of COVID-19, or, perhaps more worryingly, a sense that Allegri’s players just aren’t running for him as much right now, it’s made Juventus an incredibly passive side in defence.

This is further supported by the fact that they’ve allowed their opponents to have a possession of 10+ passes on 33 occasions so far, the sixth most in the league. These numbers are hardly befitting of a team looking to impose themselves on matches in a bid to wrestle back their coveted Scudetto.

While a comfortable win over Malmö will feel good, Milan at the weekend is a far sterner test. The aura of invincibility has slipped from the Bianconeri, and Milan will look to pounce to go 11 points clear.

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