As AC Milan fell to a 3-1 defeat to Olympiacos on Thursday night, their hopes of winning the Europa League disappeared in bitterly disappointing fashion in Athens.
It was arguably what we deserved in truth, as after being largely outplayed by Real Betis across both meetings, struggling to see off our Greek rivals and failing to convincingly brush aside Dudelange, it was a group stage flooded with concerns and question marks.
There’s undoubtedly a sense of regression after last year’s trip to the last 32, but in truth, had Milan advanced and been handed a difficult draw perhaps against the likes of Arsenal or Chelsea, it’s difficult to see anything other than a disastrous tie unfolding.
Responsibility must be taken at all levels, but three key failings arguably led to Milan being left to analyse and dissect their short-lived journey in Europe this season.
The decision to play in a 4-4-2 regularly through the Europa League campaign was perhaps his biggest downfall. Although Franck Kessie and Tiemoue Bakayoko offer physicality and energy, they consistently failed to win midfield battles and were ultimately given the run around by more technically gifted opponents.
Hakan Calhanoglu and Suso simply aren’t as effective in wide roles across a midfield four, while putting both Patrick Cutrone and Gonzalo Higuain in the starting line-up with no option off the bench to change the game if necessary ensured Milan essentially played their full hand immediately.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that despite being constantly outplayed for large periods against sides we were still expected to beat, Gattuso failed to adjust and make changes and seemingly made the same mistakes over and over.
Domestically, he’s proven on countless occasions that he has the tactical know-how to compete with his peers. In Europe, he looked completely lost at times and it showed.
Attitude of players
Milan belong in the Champions League. As seven-time winners of Europe’s biggest prize, it’s regularly been suggested that the competition is ‘in our DNA’.
However, these players don’t have a divine right to sit at Europe’s top table just because of the badge on their shirt, and at times it looked as though they believed that they were perhaps better than the Europa League.
Evidently based on results and elimination, they are not. Milan seemingly burst into life after going behind throughout the group stage, as seen in Athens on Thursday night, and there simply is no excuse for that.
Whether the issues with attitude and approach start with the coach is up for debate, but the players should have enough pride and desire to go out and take the game to supposedly inferior opposition.
Naivety in Europe
While Milan haven’t exactly lit up Serie A this season, they’ve shown the experience and know-how to deal with certain situations and grind out results when needed.
However, they were simply unable to make the necessary adjustments in Europe and allowed teams that were expected to cause us problems to dictate games and control proceedings to force us to chase shadows and look average.
The tempo, style and mindset is completely different in Europe. If we are to secure fourth place this season, this group of players is going to have to learn very quickly how to deal with that as especially against Betis, it was borderline embarrassing the way in which the talented Spaniards were able to look a level above.
Injuries were a problem of course, as Alessio Romagnoli, Lucas Biglia, Giacomo Bonaventura and Mateo Musacchio would have made a huge difference. Nevertheless, this squad is still talented enough to have made it through to the knockout stage, especially given we took the competition seriously.
It’s a painfully disappointing way to bow out of Europe and ultimately it has to be said that it’s rather pathetic that we couldn’t at least make it out of the group. Instead, the full focus is now on securing a top-four finish in Serie A and hopefully showing that we’re a different animal in the Champions League.