A win is a win, especially in times where such thing has been hard to come by, but the drubbing of Udinese is unlikely to be meaningful turning point of the season, given than the main merit was taking advantage of mistakes by the opponents and the defense was again too sloppy and got bailed out by pure luck in more than one occasion. It is surely good for morale, but a lot of issues remain unsolved.
Still, there were some good elements that will hopefully continue in the next matches, like the intense pressure that led to the aforementioned mistakes, and such part of the game has generally been okay when Rodrigo Bentancur and Weston McKennie feature together, Aaron Ramsey had a very strong game and interprets the role in a way nobody else can in the roster, and Paulo Dybala, despite an unconvincing performance, found the target, which is always healthy for a striker.
On the negative side, Alvaro Morata will miss the clash and the team, also for a matter of sheer force of habit at this point, plays better with him up front, and Alex Sandro and Juan Cuadrado tested positive for COVID. Hopefully the continuous swabs and all the precautions will avoid an full-fledged outbreak, but it is certainly a very nerve-wracking situation. Losing both starting wing-backs at the same time creates a big conundrum as the options to replace them are not at the same level. While Federico Chiesa will probably get the nod on the right flank, where he has performed admirably all season, including Sunday, it is slim pickings on the other one with Federico Bernardeschi and Gianluca Frabotta as the only options, unless the coach comes up with something new. There are some alternatives given the flexibility of some contributors, but the absences risk being very noticeable nonetheless.
At least Adrien Rabiot has now definitely cleared the suspension and Giorgio Chiellini and Demiral are both healthy. At some point the manager might be tempted to field three center-backs together in order to tighten things up, but maybe against more physical forwards than the ones they are about to face. The Frenchman being available also means that the option of using three central midfielders and Weston McKennie as strategic no.10 is back on the table and it has often been the choice in more challenging games.
It is obviously a pivotal tilt to fuel the hopes of a comeback and it will be interesting to see whether the guys will be able to stomp their authority in this one, and they have the potential to do it, or if their well-known troubles will do them in.
UPDATE: it looks the coach will indeed go with three pure defenders, with Demiral slightly tilted to the right and Danilo on the other defensive flank, with more freedom to attack than usual. The alternative would be Gianluca Frabotta, while Chiellini and Federico Bernardeschi have fewer chances. Rabiot could unseat McKennie in the midfield, while it looks like Ramsey will get another start despite the short turnaround. Dybala has been under the weather but he is feeling better, otherwise it will be Dejan Kulusevski partnering Ronaldo.
4-4-2 Szczesny; Demiral, Bonucci, De Ligt, Danilo; Chiesa, McKennie, Bentancur, Ramsey; Dybala, Ronaldo.
Morata (thigh), Cuadrado, Sandro (COVID)
Milan have simply been brilliant so far this season and deservedly find themselves on top of the table: while it was kind of fluky and a product of a soft schedule in first six or seven matches, they have then been able to deal with major absences, and also underwhelming moments of form of their cornerstones, and take care of business in most matches with incredible resilience. The win over Lazio right before the break for a proper testament for that, plus they have not been defeated in almost 30 matches, so it is not like they have come from nowhere. They have showed great versatility as they have been able to prevail with finesse but also at times putting their hardhat on and going to work.
They design has stayed the same, 4-2-3-1, but they have had to rotate the men up front a lot because of injuries and each time they have been able to adapt to the striker du jour, which goes to show their malleability. When it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the front-line, looking for him with long balls and exploiting his flick-ons was a big resource. With either Ante Rebic or Rafael Leao in that spot, they play more with the ball on the ground and with quick passes, looking for the right opportunity to spring them past the offside trap. In any case, they displayed a large array of ways to hurt the opponents.
Ibrahimovic carried them in the first part of the season, then they relatively struggled a bit when he originally got hurt as Hakan Calhanoglu and Ante Rebic were not in great form, but they stayed afloat through extemporaneous goals, for instance by Theo Hernandez or Franck Kessie or by defenders on set pieces. Now Calhanoglu and Rebic are hitting their stride, which makes the offense work a lot better and obviously much more threatening, as the Turk has always been their man creative hub, while the former Eintracht attacker is the most prolific out of their forwards, barring Zlatan. Rafael Leao is not fully there in terms of consistency, but he surely has eye-catching skills and can bust out a gem at any time.
The recipe to win is fairly simply as when you are generally in contention when you have a top-five offense and a top-five defense. Their formation is solid throughout and then lifted by some stars, like Gianluigi Donnarumma between the sticks or Theo Hernandez at left-back, arguably one of the top specialists in Europe and often the heart and soul of the team with his leadership, on top being a devastating weapon with his bursting runs down the flank.
The one area where they will have some issues is the midfield, as both of their distributors Ismael Bennacer and Sandro Tonali are sidelined. They will lean a lot on Franck Kessie, who is also a factor with his cuts in the final third despite the role, then probably the attackers, mainly Calhanoglu, will track back more to make up for the lack of playmaking.
Milan have won pretty much in every fashion, for instance hitting opponents heard and early, like it happened against Sassuolo, Lazio and Benevento, even though the Biancocelesti managed to come back, or pipping them at the post with late second winds. They have rarely blown out opponents and they had to fight for every inch, which makes their track record so far even more remarkable. They have also been able to rise to the occasion in top matches, for instance they have had their best showing of the season in Naples and defeated Inter too.
The play with an intensity that is often far superior to the opponents, they have outstanding chemistry and it shows, then the quality of some of the contributors atop of the food chain does the rest, making them a very well-round team and surely a credible contender for the title.
UPDATE: While all eyes were on Juventus’ possible Coronavirus outbreak, Milan announced two cases as well as Rade Krunic and Rebic tested positive. They have just one midfielder left and have a couple of options to make up for it, either advancing defenders Davide Calabria or Pierre Kalulu or moving Calhanoglu there, going with a very aggressive lineup in the second case.
4-2-3-1 Donnarumma; Dalot, Kjaer, Romagnoli, Hernandez; Kessie, Calabria; Castillejo, Calhanoglu, Diaz; Leao.
Ibrahimovic (calf), Bennacer (thigh), Saelemaekers (thigh), Gabbia (knee), Rebic, Krunic (COVID).