A long-form analysis of AC Milan's newest defensive prospect
What a difference a month makes. Through January and early February, AC Milan went on a seven-match winless streak across league and cup competition. Results included 4-0 and 5-2 defeats to Lazio and Sassuolo respectively, as well as losing to city rivals Inter twice in the space of three weeks.
With Napoli marching away into the sunset with Milan’s title upon their shoulder, Stefano Pioli’s side were now staring down the barrel of failing to qualify for the Champions League too. The knives were out for the title-winning coach, in the terraces and the television studios.
Fortunes have changed dramatically since that latter 1-0 loss to Inter. Milan battled to a tricky win at home to Torino five days later, and Valentine’s Day yielded a gritty performance and win over Tottenham in the Champions League by the same scoreline. In fact, four victories since the Derby della Madonnina defeat have all come without conceding, and scoring more than once in only the lattermost outing, against Atalanta.
There were several factors at play for that revival. Firstly, Pioli has benefitted from the return of key personnel just as it looked as if their form had become untenable. Fikayo Tomori, Theo Hernandez and Mike Maignan were all mainstays of last season’s Scudetto-winning side, and each have returned in the last month to bolster the squad.
Another aspect has been Pioli’s adaptation to a three-at-the-back system. With Milan’s limited central midfield options following Franck Kessie’s departure and Ismaël Bennacer’s persistent injuries, Pioli has alleviated the dependence on the middle of the pitch to progress the ball and control matches. Neither Sandro Tonali nor Rade Krunić are capable of dictating play nor tempo, and so Pioli has deployed an extra centre-back to assist in build-up, quickening the rate at which they move the ball toward the left-sided Theo-Leao axis.
The third reason is tied into the previous – the defender added into the mix has been Malick Thiaw. The German defender arrived from Schalke 04 in the summer as an alternative to Sven Botman, and has shone at the heart of the Milan defensive trio since his full introduction in the Champions League to face Spurs.
Thiaw is the perfect proponent of the central defender in a back three. At 6’4” tall, the 21-year-old looks colossal and towering. Whilst not having the bulk or weight of an established aggressive defender, Thiaw’s frame is wide, his legs rangy and long, and his wingspan impressive. All of this contributes to the German’s overwhelming presence.
He uses that presence to excellent effect, not least in the air. With Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu the preferred pair to partner him, Thiaw is afforded the license to rush out under goal kicks and long aerial balls to battle with players. The pace and athleticism of Tomori and Kalulu allow Thiaw to be combative. He currently boasts an aerial success rate of over 72%, placing him in the top two percent of centre-backs across Europe’s top five leagues.
His leap is impressive; it enables him to spring higher than opponents to win the header. Thiaw’s arms and reach also come into play in these scenarios too, allowing him to pin the opponent down and force them away just as the ball drops from a height. Both Harry Kane and Rasmus Højlund have had tough nights against Thiaw in the last month.
Against Kane’s Spurs especially, Thiaw was magnificent as an active and aggressive centre-back. He put up six tackles and interceptions across the match, and whilst his aerial prowess was not tested, Pierre Kalulu to his right won four of his five such duels to maintain Milan’s proficiency at defending long and direct attacks.
It can be tricky to profile and assess centre-backs at such a young age. Thiaw has only 28 top-flight starts to his name, as well as the 28 in Germany second tier during Schalke’s title-winning season of 2021/22. The sample size is limited but, on spreadsheets and the pitch, Thiaw looks like the real deal. One particular fascination comes in his defending style.
Many aggressive defenders can be beaten by luring them into the challenge, using their strength against them; Cristian Romero, for example, is an exceptional ground defender and the archetypal ‘blood-and-thunder’ centre-back. Opposition forwards have found joy against the Argentine by combining with two players around him, tempting him to fly in, before quick interchanges take him out of the game.
Thiaw is far more subtle in this regard. Rather than telegraphing his challenges from afar, he prefers to get up to touching distance of the ball. When fronted up by an attacker trying to take him on, Thiaw squats to lower his centre of gravity and fixates his stare on the ball.
The concentration is remarkable, refusing to acknowledge the opponent and instead shifting and twisting in time with the ball, almost to the extent that he hunches over it. That technique keeps him close, making it very difficult to manoeuvre past him.
Serie A matches this season have tended to be open-ended affairs, with the tempo high and the space in between lines wider. Such factors have benefited Thiaw, as his speed and concentration when defending in transition suits this unique style of ball-winning. It will be interesting to see how he adapts in tighter spaces, or when sides look to pass through Milan as opposed to try and carry past them in transition.
This distinctive style will bring challenges in time. When coupled with his role as the aggressive, ball-winning centre-back, he can rely on his tackling proficiency too heavily. Smarter attacks could look to play around the German, and whilst his capacity to win the ball means he can back-track and run towards his own goal to retrieve from an opponent, not all sides will be so direct.
Thiaw’s standout performances thus far have been against Spurs and Atalanta, two teams that play vertically with forwards that like to carry and attack space in behind. More possession-heavy sides that work their way into the final third through circulating possession and deft off-ball movement may present a different challenge to Thiaw’s defensive instincts.
Whilst Milan’s results have undoubtedly improved, they remain a side far from full title. Their victories have been hard-fought and resilient as opposed to vibrant or invigorating, and there remains questions about the sustainability of the system.
The inability of Tonali and Krunić to control a match and the heavy reliance on the left side, due to the repositioning of Junior Messias and Alexis Saelemakers to makeshift right wing-backs, make the last month a masterclass in recovery rather than planning.
In short, Milan aren’t seeking on-ball control. They have had less than 50% possession in each of their wins since the initial victory over Torino to start this run of form. Even against Atalanta – who manufactured a meagre 0.1 xG in a desperately poor performance – Milan ceded possession.
The true extent to Thiaw’s ball-playing capacity therefore has been limited as his side seek to get the ball as quick as possible over to the left wing in order to unleash Rafael Leão and Theo Hernández.
This has seen Thiaw play a supporting role in build-up, often moving the ball quickly and efficiently on to his closest centre-back as opposed to breaking lines himself. This suits Pioli’s new system perfectly. Both Kalulu and Fikayo Tomori (and Simon Kjær before the Englishman’s return) are confident carriers of the ball and complete over 70% of their long passes per 90 minutes.
Milan’s shape in build-up currently suits this efficiency too. From the goalkeeper, Milan will move to a back four in build up, with Thiaw and one of Kalulu or Tomori splitting to the sides of the penalty area, and the opposite sided centre-back moving much wider to allow the wing-back to occupy a higher position.
Creating that depth is essential to moving the ball forward without tasking one of the central midfielders to shoulder the burden. Thiaw will receive in such a position, and either shift the ball on to the next centre-back, or back to the goalkeeper. With Mike Maignan now reinstated, the Frenchman’s passing range can see him clip a pass directly out to the wing-backs in these instances.
Thiaw currently attempts less than two progressive passes per 90 minutes, putting him in the 6th percentile of top-five league centre-backs. With a stronger, more secure midfield ahead of him, this will naturally improve. For the time being, Thiaw is being asked to do the simple things often, and he is doing them well.
There is something in the air in Lombardy’s capital that draws brilliance out of its centre-backs. The names are numerous and storied enough to not need repeating, but there is enough evidence in the current side alone to demonstrate this fact.
Tomori and Kalulu forged one of Europe’s tightest central pairings last season, despite both being so young. Aggressive, confident, powerful and intelligent, there is so much to admire in each individually, and when combined into partnership.
In introducing Thiaw, Milan have only enhanced the potential of their backline. They are now playing in a three as opposed to a four, Thiaw has slotted in seamlessly, and his recent run of starts has coincided with Milan’s best form for many months.
Like the two young defenders to each side, the German is engaging on the eye, and together they can propel Milan back into league contention in the next few years.
The next question will be how he fares in a back four, should Pioli inevitably revert to his favoured shape. If his recent development is anything to go by, Thiaw will take it all in his long-legged stride.