Needless to say, quite a lot of things went horribly wrong with our team yesterday, and a number of them were completely atypical. After allowing only one goal in its first five matches, our defense laid out the welcome mat this weekend, and four goals went screaming by. After forging a largely rock-solid midfield, we allowed Fiorentina to run rampant through the center of the pitch all match. And our goalkeeper, usually one of the best in the league, turned into a hapless stooge on several key occasions.
These are all worrisome deficiencies, and I’m hopeful we can straighten them out and recapture our earlier form. But there was another key flaw with our game last weekend, and it’s something that’s been going wrong all season.
Yesterday, Mauro Icardi had exactly two goal-scoring chances all match. They came within two seconds of each other. The first was when Telles whipped in a cross that Icardi headed against the bar. The second was when he scrambled to get his own rebound from the aforementioned header and scored. That was it -- he only had the ball in goal-scoring position twice, and only one of those chances was created by a teammate.
And that's pretty consistent with the season so far. Against Chievo, he scored with his only shot of the match. Against Verona, he missed his only shot of the match. The derby was the only match so far where his teammates provided him with more than one scoring chance in a single game. (In each of these matches, he also had the fewest touches of any starting player, usually by double-digit margins.)
Obviously, we’re using a small sample size here, but looking at this season's league scoring leaders, Gonzalo Higuain and Fabio Quagliarella both average 4 shots per match, while Eder averages 3.3. Napoli’s Juve-killer Lorenzo Insigne averages 5.5 shots per match. And for Icardi? So far he averages 1.4 shots per match. That gives him a pretty microscopic margin for error.
Icardi didn’t score against Milan, but statistically speaking, if you give him three goal-scoring opportunities, it’s more likely than not that at least one of them is going to end with the ball in the back of the net. What was so impressive about Icardi’s co-capocannoniere season last time out was how many goals he managed to score with so little overall involvement – there were matches where it felt like the only times Icardi even appeared on camera was when he was walking out of the tunnel and when he was celebrating a goal. And that’s absolutely not Maurito’s fault. Icardi has withstood criticism, especially early last season, for his lack of involvement and seemingly poor work-rate. I hate that criticism, and I think it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the player. It would be a waste of Icardi’s gifts to force him to constantly track back on defense or bring the ball up from midfield. That’s not his game. When you have one of the best pure strikers in the league – as far as predatory instincts go, I’d put him second only to Higuain, and just barely – you simply have to get him the ball. Early and often.
And the club clearly recognized that. When you look at our transfer activity this summer, almost every signing seems to have been made with one of two objectives in mind. The first objective: shore up the defense. To that end, we signed two new center backs, as well as two physical, imposing midfielders. Until yesterday, this worked out spotlessly for us. The second objective: get more service for Icardi. To this end, we signed two new fullbacks known for their crossing abilities (Montoya, Telles) and no less than four wingers/second strikers who work best next to or behind a big No. 9 (Jovetic, Perisic, Ljajic, Biabiany). While Jovetic has done just fine on his own as a goalscorer, none of these four have yet forged any kind of connection with Icardi at all, and he continues to cut a lonely figure up at the top of the pitch.
I point this out while acknowledging how early we are in the season. Ljajic still needs time to gel with the squad, and Perisic will presumably stop resembling a headless chicken at some point in the near future. But it should worry us at least a little. A year ago, the senior staff of this club often talked about Icardi and Kovacic as the two young players we were hoping to build the team around. Kovacic is obviously gone, but building around Icardi still very much appears to be the plan, and he’s shown so far that he’s the kind of player you can build a team around. Building around Kovacic was always going to be a tactically complicated proposition; building around Icardi is not. Just get him the damn ball, and the rest will hopefully be history.