Sooner or later, something was going to rain on Milan’s parade. At first it seemed like it might be the actual rain, as the skies opened above Rome on Sunday, dumping four inches of water on the capital in three hours. As streets were submerged and public transport ground to a halt, it seemed inevitable that the Rossoneri’s game away to Lazio would need to be pushed back to a later date.
Instead, it was postponed for just one hour: officials trusting in both the weather forecast and the pitch drainage system at the Stadio Olimpico. From a logistical standpoint, it turned out to be the right decision. With hindsight, however, Milan might have wished for more time to prepare.
Here was the first true test of their extraordinary summer rebuild. Milan had begun the season in encouraging form, winning six consecutive games between Europa League qualifying and Serie A.
But you don’t splurge €200m on new signings just to make life easier against Crotone and Craiova. Returning to the Champions League is not so much an ambition as an economic imperative for Li Yonghong’s new ownership group, and Lazio will be direct rivals in the race for the top four.
It would be absurd to talk of must-win games so early in the campaign, but at the very least this felt like a must-prove-that-we-are-headed-in-the-right-direction game. In that, Milan failed. On a day when the city hosting them flooded, they contrived to go down in flames.
There was a brief period, at the start, when they played with conviction, laying claim to the ball and forcing their hosts onto the back foot. Even then, though, they rarely threatened. The 19-year-old striker Patrick Cutrone, after excelling against lesser opponents, was bullied by Stefan Radu and Stefan De Vrij. Fabio Borini was woeful on the left of attack. Even Suso, on the opposite flank, looked subdued.
Lazio, by contrast, were swift, direct and clinical. They took the lead in the 38th minute, Ciro Immobile blasting home from the penalty spot after being felled by Franck Kessié. They were 4-0 up by the 49th, the striker completing a hat-trick either side of the break before teeing up Luis Alberto for the fourth.
Immobile was brilliant, exploiting the spaces left by Milan and taking his chances with aplomb. He is the first Lazio player to score three against Milan since 1942.
Behind him, Lazio dominated the midfield even whilst allowing Milan to enjoy more than 60% of the possession. Lucas Leiva and Marco Parolo provided a steady shield in front of the defence, while Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic gave the team length, slipping back into midfield to help combat the Milan press before racing forwards to support Immobile on each counter.
Most of all, Lazio were cohesive – a tight unit in which every player had a clear sense of their role. A testament, in short, to Simone Inzaghi, who is quietly establishing himself as one of the most promising tacticians on the peninsula. He confessed afterwards that he had been devastated when it appeared that the game might be called off, when he knew that his team had prepared it just right.
Milan were the opposite: a ragged mess of individuals, a truth which their own manager, Vincenzo Montella, acknowledged at the end. “We didn’t have the mental strength to react,” he observed. “Everyone wanted to fix things on their own.”
They would pull one goal back through Riccardo Montolivo: insufficient to disguise how poor they had been. Montella’s decision to leave several of this summer’s highest profile additions out of his starting XI – from André Silva to Hakan Calhanoglu and Nikola Kalinic – might raise eyebrows, though the latter two both entered as second-half substitutes without making any great impact on the game.
The absence of right-back Andrea Conti, who impressed last season at Atalanta and has continued to do so in Milan, was damaging, but cannot be an excuse on its own for such a defeat. It was the club’s most expensive signing, meanwhile, who put in the most disappointing performance of all.
Luring Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus was the greatest coup of a spectacular summer. Besides being one of the best defenders on the planet, this was a guy who could bring a dash of that elusive ‘winning mentality’ – a player who had won six consecutive Scudetti and been to two of the last three Champions League finals. He was immediately handed the Milan captaincy.
As with the rest of the side, early performances had been encouraging, but on Sunday he was all at sea. Bonucci lost track of Immobile at the back post on Lazio’s second goal, and seemed to get caught in no man’s land on the third as well. For the fourth he was nowhere to be seen, having been caught up the pitch attempting to support the attack.
Gazzetta dello Sport named him the worst player on the pitch, with a rating of four out of 10. That might have been taking things a bit far, but this was not a good day at the office. At times Bonucci was guilty of getting drawn out of position in a bid to cover for team-mates’ mistakes, but in other moments he was simply losing his one-on-one battles.
He has not forgotten to defend overnight, of course, and none should doubt that better days lie ahead. Having Alessio Romagnoli back to full fitness will be a boon – permitting Montella to move beyond his current 4-3-3 and experiment with a three-man defence similar to the one that Bonucci was part of most often in Turin.
These are still early days for a project with grand ambitions. If Rome was not built in a day, then Milan cannot be restored to the pinnacle of world football in a single summer, either. Nevertheless, a defeat this heavy cannot be shrugged off completely. Sharp improvement is required if this team hopes to weather further storms that lie ahead.Results and talking points to follow.