Youthful Milan plot title defence and potential era of dominance

By Sports Desk August 12, 2022

As their Serie A rivals attempt to turn back time, champions Milan are looking to the future.

Romelu Lukaku, Inter's 2020-21 Scudetto hero, and Paul Pogba, the winner of four straight championships at Juventus, have returned to their former clubs following ultimately unsuccessful Premier League stints.

Of course, this is a move that worked for Milan last season, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic had played for three different clubs in three different countries between featuring in the Rossoneri's two most recent title-winning campaigns.

Ibrahimovic, soon to turn 41, has signed up for another season, but there is a young, exciting core to the Milan team who secured that latest title and will now bid to defend it.

Young stars repay Pioli's faith

Milan had the fourth-youngest average age of their starters in Serie A last season (25y 337d), older only than Empoli (24y 325d), Spezia (24y 334d) and Torino (25y 189d).

And this average was dragged up significantly by Ibrahimovic and Olivier Giroud.

Among the 10 outfield players to start 20 or more league games for Milan in 2021-22, nine were below that average age at the end of the season, with Giroud (35y 233d) the exception.

Giroud scored 11 goals, including two the day the Rossoneri won the title at Sassuolo, but even he made only 22 starts as Stefano Pioli showed faith in his young charges.

Pierre Kalulu (21 starts) was 21 on the final day; Rafael Leao (31 starts), Sandro Tonali (31 starts), Brahim Diaz (25 starts) and Alexis Saelemaekers (22 starts) were all 22; Theo Hernandez (30 starts) and Fikayo Tomori (30 starts) were both 24; and the now departed Franck Kessie (25 starts) was 25, along with Davide Calabria (24 starts).

Of those, only Diaz was not in the XI at Sassuolo, with the 28-year-old Rade Krunic preferred.

 

That this young Milan side held their nerve on that day – needing to avoid defeat to ensure they could not be pipped at the post by Inter – justified Pioli's approach, and the club have seemingly sought to get even younger ahead of their title defence.

Milan boosted by Belgium pair

Realistically, given the financial power of other clubs across Europe, Milan have had little choice but to pay for potential rather than proven performers.

Yet their early moves in this close season sought to find a blend of the two, as Milan honed in on two stars of Lille's shock 2020-21 Ligue 1 title success.

Centre-back Sven Botman, only 22, was a favourite of Paolo Maldini, while Renato Sanches, 24, appeared a good fit for a midfield set to be robbed of Kessie following his move to Barcelona as a free agent.

Unfortunately, Newcastle United and Paris Saint-Germain – backed by Saudi Arabia's PIF and Qatar's QSI respectively – outmuscled Milan in both cases.

Instead, Kalulu could be set to start again alongside Tomori, and Tommaso Pobega, returning from a loan at Torino and now 23, is a likely replacement for Kessie.

Milan have preferred to focus their limited budget on the attack, successfully holding off rival interest to sign Charles De Ketelaere.

 

The Belgium international, who turned 21 in March, contributed 14 goals and nine assists in 39 First Division A matches for Club Brugge last term.

De Ketelaere was the second-youngest player in the Belgian top flight to tally at least five goals and five assists for the season – after Anderlecht's Bayern Munich loanee Joshua Zirkzee (16 goals, nine assists).

He will now link up with Leao (11 goals, eight assists), who was the second-youngest to achieve that feat in Serie A in 2021-22 – after Sassuolo's Giacomo Raspadori (10 goals, five assists).

Even De Ketelaere's Belgium team-mate Divock Origi – another new forward signing, set to become Milan's latest experienced option up front – is only 27.

Still young, now experienced

The signing of Origi, an elder statesman in the Milan dressing room, would actually have made Serie A rivals Juventus (27y 319d) and Inter (29y 73d) younger.

Indeed, Inter were the third-oldest team in Serie A last season – after Sampdoria (29y 212d) and Lazio (29y 217d) – with their squad already in need of regeneration a year after winning the Scudetto.

There is no danger of Milan being in the same position, with their young side getting younger and extending their window in which they can expect to contend for further titles.

The Rossoneri were comfortably the youngest champions across Europe's top five leagues last season, with Champions League victors Real Madrid (28y 95d) the oldest.

 

Milan's title winners will undoubtedly benefit from their 2021-22 experiences, too.

Leao (85), Tonali (60), Diaz (47), Saelemaekers (45), Tomori (34) and Kalulu (13) had each played comfortably fewer than 100 games in Europe's top five leagues heading into the previous campaign. Kalulu had tallied a mere 727 minutes prior to his breakout year.

In the Champions League, they were even greener. Besides Giroud, who had played 41 games and started 25, those nine other Serie A regulars had made just 11 combined appearances and five combined starts in Europe's elite club competition up to that point.

Milan's European campaign did not pan out as they would have hoped, losing their first three group stage matches and finishing bottom of the table in a punishing pool, but there was a dramatic away win at Atletico Madrid, and the Rossoneri twice took the game to eventual finalists Liverpool.

There may be departures along the way – and Milan will hope to receive a fee, unlike in Kessie's case – but this team should continue to grow together.

If Milan's players progress as they have done so far, there will be plenty more title challenges – and perhaps even a tilt at an eighth European crown soon enough.

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    Harry Kane believes the experience he gained playing for Bayern Munich last season has prepared him for Euro 2024 in Germany.

    Kane made the move to Bayern from Tottenham in August last year, becoming the most expensive Bundesliga signing in history.

    He enjoyed an impressive maiden season in the German top-flight, scoring 44 goals in 45 matches across all competitions.

    Kane acknowledged how his time at Bayern has improved his game and given him valuable experience going into the tournament.

    "It's been an incredible experience," Kane told UEFA.com.

    "I think playing for a club like Bayern Munich can only improve you and only push you to another level because you're under huge pressure to be successful in every game and I think the standard of players, and the quality of coaches, you know, it's just a really high level, and I’ve really enjoyed that.

    "And I just think playing, for me personally, it was time to play in different stadiums against different teams, and I've really enjoyed that experience.

    "Some of the atmospheres here have been some of the best I've ever played in. So, I'm loving that part and I expect the games in the Euros to be the same as well."

    Kane is set to become the first player to captain England at four major tournaments when he leads them out against Serbia on Sunday.

    As the Three Lions' all-time top-scorer with 63 goals, Kane is set to be one of their key men once more, but he believes the team have earned the right to be labelled as one of the favourites.

    "Being England captain and leading the boys out is probably the highest privilege I can have as a player, and I'll never take that for granted.

    "That feeling is truly one of a kind. It's an honour to do it for a fourth time. We've had a semi-final, a final and a quarter-final, so I'm hoping we go to the very end and go on and win.

    "I think this squad is one of the best, if not the best, we've had, going on form and the domestic seasons a lot of us have had.

    "I hope that the guys can lean on me and ask me questions, and if I can help them get through anything, then great. But we have such a good togetherness, we're always talking or having dinner together and there's always conversations being had, so that helps us."

    After their opening fixture, England will play Denmark and Slovenia in their other group games.

  • The Numbers Game: Spain face Croatia to kickstart Euro 2024 'group of death' The Numbers Game: Spain face Croatia to kickstart Euro 2024 'group of death'

    No tournament is complete without a 'group of death'. 

    Euro 2024 may have two, with France and the Netherlands looking to fend off a challenge from Austria in Group D, while heavyweights Spain, Croatia and Italy battle it out in Group B.

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    La Roja are the only team to win back-to-back editions of the Euros, achieving that feat in 2008 and 2012, yet they have only won two knockout ties across five major tournaments since that latter triumph.

    Luis de la Fuente's team did, however, win the 2022-23 edition of the Nations League, overcoming Croatia on penalties in the final. Spain also memorably eliminated Zlatko Dalic's team from Euro 2020, winning an eight-goal thriller in the last 16.

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    The result of Saturday's game could go a long way to deciding both teams' fates in a group that could easily see a giant fall. Here, we use Opta data to preview the game.

    What's expected?

    The Opta supercomputer makes Spain favourites for this one, but La Roja's win percentage of 50 per cent suggests the outcome is far from a foregone conclusion.

    Croatia were victorious in 24 per cent of match simulations conducted by the supercomputer, with 26 per cent ending level and potentially handing the initiative in the group to Italy.

    There will certainly be plenty of familiarity between these two sides. Indeed, Spain and Croatia are facing each other at a fourth successive edition of the Euros.

    That has only previously occurred on one occasion, when Spain and Italy met in four straight editions between 2008 and 2020. They will, of course, do battle at a fifth successive tournament when they square off in Gelsenkirchen on June 20.

    La Roja have won two of their previous three encounters with Croatia (5-3 at Euro 2020, 1-0 at Euro 2012), while they were beaten 2-1 at Euro 2016.

    If recent history is anything to go by, an entertaining affair could be in the offing. 

    Three of the last five meetings between Spain and Croatia have contained at least five goals, and the most recent – a 5-3 extra-time win for La Roja three years ago – is the second-highest scoring game in Euros history, after France 4-5 Yugoslavia in 1960.

    The supercomputer makes Spain Group B favourites with a 47.3 per cent chance of finishing top, to Croatia's 18 per cent, Italy's 29 per cent and Albania's 5.6 per cent.

    With four third-place finishers reaching the last 16, La Roja (89.1 per cent), Italy (80.3 per cent) and Croatia (67.8 per cent) are all expected to progress.

    Can Spain add punch to possession play?

    At Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup, Spain won plenty of admirers for their patient, possession-based style, with Gavi and Pedri hailed as generational talents.

    However, their approach did not win them enough matches. La Roja scraped past Switzerland on penalties at Euro 2020 before going out to Italy on spot-kicks, while a bold rearguard action from Morocco dumped them out in the first knockout round in Qatar. Before that, a shock defeat to Japan almost sent them out in the group stage.

    Their patient approach is nothing new. Spain have had more possession than their opponents in each of their last 136 competitive games, last seeing less of the ball when they beat Germany with 46 per cent of the play in the Euro 2008 final.

    They have also attempted 1,000 or more passes in four separate World Cup matches but only won one of those, beating Costa Rica 7-0 in Qatar.

    Their last 50 Euros goals have all been scored from inside the area, with their last strike from outside the box coming via Real Madrid great Raul, against Slovenia in 2000's group stage.

    De la Fuente will not stray too far from Spain's identity, despite Gavi missing the tournament due to an anterior cruciate ligament injury.

    The key to their success will be adding punch to their patient build-up play, and wide duo Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams could hold the key in that regard.  

    Williams (second, 191) and Yamal (fourth, 141) both ranked among the top four players for dribbles attempted in LaLiga last season, also ranking third and fifth respectively for carries ending in a take-on (Williams 97, Yamal 82).

    Athletic Bilbao's Williams has six goal involvements (two goals, four assists) in 13 senior appearances for Spain, while Yamal will become the youngest player in Euros history as long as he gets an outing before the final, which is one day after his 17th birthday. Few nations boast a pair of wingers as exciting as the Roja duo.

    Tournament specialists set up to surprise

    As is the case with Spain, control has long been the name of the game for Croatia, yet many would argue they do it with a level of savviness that deserted La Roja long ago.

    At the 2022 World Cup, only Spain (135) recorded more sequences of 10 or more passes than Croatia, with Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic pulling the strings in midfield. 

    Brozovic (509) and Modric (484), as well as centre-back Josko Gvardiol (505), ranked among the six players to play the most passes in Qatar, with Rodri out in front with 676 despite only playing four matches.

    It was not everyone's cup of tea as Croatia relied on the penalty shoot-out heroics of goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic in their two knockout triumphs over Japan and Brazil.

    Despite playing the full seven games, they only ranked seventh in the tournament for expected goals, their 7.05 xG some five fewer than Brazil, who managed 12.08 xG in five games.

    But it was not simply a case of Croatia playing keep-ball until they could show their nerve from the spot. Dalic's team led everyone at the tournament for high turnovers (59), shots from high turnovers (10) and pressed sequences (109).

    Andrej Kramaric, Lovro Majer and Ante Budimir are all comfortable doing the dirty work up top, and the latter was on target as Croatia scored an impressive friendly win over Portugal on Saturday – admittedly with Cristiano Ronaldo rested.

    Difficult to beat and comfortable in transition and in possession, Croatia deserve their reputation as tournament specialists. Spain will underestimate them at their peril.

    PLAYERS TO WATCH 

    Spain – Alvaro Morata

    Missed opportunities have been a theme for Spain at recent tournaments. At Euro 2020, Morata missed more big chances (six) than any other player and also fluffed his lines as La Roja were beaten on penalties by Italy in the last four.

    However, after enjoying the joint-most prolific campaign of his career in Europe's top five leagues, scoring 15 goals for Atletico Madrid in LaLiga, Morata will be trusted to shoulder the goalscoring burden again.

     

    He ended a five-match goal drought for his country as Northern Ireland were routed 5-1 in a warm-up friendly last week, and though he has his detractors, he has tournament pedigree.

    Only Ronaldo (eight) and Antoine Griezmann (seven) have scored more goals than Morata's six across the last two editions of the Euros.

    Croatia – Luka Modric

    Modric personifies Croatia's measured approach, and despite playing a reduced role for Real Madrid in 2023-24, he will be their key man again at this tournament.

    The 38-year-old only started 18 games in LaLiga last term, yet he ranked ninth in the league for total passes in the opposition half, with 923.

    Among players with at least 15 starts, he ranked fourth for chances created per 90 minutes (2.94), joint-fourth for open-play chances created (2.14) and seventh for passes into the final third (10.9).

    Modric versus Rodri and Pedri could be the most watchable midfield battle of the group stage.

  • Netherlands can go far at Euro 2024, says De Ligt Netherlands can go far at Euro 2024, says De Ligt

    Matthijs De Ligt believes the Netherlands have every chance of claiming their first international trophy since 1988 at Euro 2024. 

    De Ligt, who will be featuring in his third major tournament for the Oranje in Germany, did not feature in the final four games of their qualifying campaign through injury.

    The 24-year-old endured another stop-start season with Bayern Munich, making 22 appearances in the Bundesliga and was left on the bench as the Netherlands concluded their preparations for the competition against Iceland. 

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    The Netherlands have had to deal with a number of injuries leading up to the tournament, with Barcelona's Frenkie De Jong the latest to withdraw from the squad. 

    While the Oranje have an array of talent within their group, De Ligt believes not having a standout player could prove to be an advantage heading into their Euro 2024 campaign. 

    “It means that everyone has their nose on the same starting line and are all pulling in the same direction.

    “We have a nice, good group. It's about performance. We are working well on that. We have a group that can grow closer together, on and off the field."

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