Serie A

Why Piątek has become the latest victim of Milan's No.9 curse

 • by Adam Newson
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It appeared an inspired piece of business. Milan had not only captured the most sought-after striker in Italian football in Krzysztof Piątek but had also managed to rid themselves of the expensive and underwhelming Gonzalo Higuaín.

The Argentine forward arrived on loan from Juventus in the summer of 2018  and had struck six times in 15 Serie A games. But his form had deteriorated and his attitude had been questioned. When Chelsea’s interest materialised in January 2019, I Rossoneri were only too happy to let Higuaín go.

In his place came Piątek from Genoa. The Pole had scored 13 goals in his first 19 appearances in the Italian top flight and earned comparisons to compatriot Robert Lewandowski. The £31million fee appeared a bargain.

He wasn’t handed the club’s No.9 shirt, however. Milan fans believe the jersey is cursed after a string of failures, but then sporting director Leonardo said superstition had nothing to do with the decision.

“We made the decision,” he said at the striker’s unveiling. “He asked for the No.9 but we think that right now, that should be earned. It’s a pretty important number, so we had him choose 19.”

Leonardo added: “We didn’t plan on signing him. It was an unforeseen investment. But we had the chance to invest and choosing him wasn’t difficult.  Every decision we make is shared by everyone, even by the coach. We resolved Higuaín’s loan with Juventus so we could sign the player we wanted.”

The hope was Piątek could score the goals to fire Milan back into the Champions League, a competition the club hasn’t featured in 2013/14, and he started well with seven in his first five starts in all competitions,

But his prowess in front of goal waned and he ended the campaign with one strike in seven matches. I Rossoneri missed out on Champions League qualification by a single point.

It was a bitter blow and one that cost head coach Gennaro Gattuso his job. But Piątek had done enough to convince the club he deserved the No.9 jersey for the 2019/20 campaign.

It was time for the curse to be broken. With an attacking coach in Marco Giampaolo at the helm, several intriguing summer additions, a new system, and Piątek in situ from the off, it was expected Milan could finally break back into the top four.

That optimism didn’t last. Milan were beaten in their season opener by Udinese and after seven matches – in which Piątek had struck just twice from the penalty spot – had lost four times. Giampaolo was sacked and replaced by Stefano Pioli.

The change of coach and system, Pioli has restored Milan to 4-4-3, hasn’t reignited Piątek. He has only netted once more and there have been calls for the 24-year-old to be dropped. Speculation has also emerged that he could leave in January.

Those flames have not been fanned by the Pole. But during the international break he did, perhaps unwisely, hint he doesn’t view his long-term future at Milan.

He told TVP Sport: “In football, it’s always about setting new goals. Now I’m worth €38million and the next time I change clubs I’d like to be worth €60-€70million. I have to be ambitious and I’ll work for it.”

Ambition is no bad thing and it’s often claimed the best players, and especially strikers, are those with innate confidence in their ability. The problem is unless Piątek’s form improves, he won’t be moving upwards any time soon.

The graphic below, produced using Football Whispers‘ exclusive content toolbox, highlights Piątek’s output at Genoa and Milan. What immediately stands out is his open-play goals per 90 has dropped dramatically at San Siro.

Krzysztof Piątek, stats

However, his open-play expected goals has actually increased to 0.47. Piątek is, according to our model, actually getting higher quality goalscoring opportunities at Milan. He’s simply not as clinical.

That is reflected in his open-play post-shot expected goals, which takes into account not only where a shot was taken from but also where the effort hit the target.

At Genoa, Piątek’s open-play post-shot expected goals per 90 was 0.46, a slight increase on his open-play expected goals. He was, in essence, slightly improving the quality of his chances through his finishing ability.

At Milan, however, it’s been the opposite. His open-play post-shot per 90 (0.39) is far lower than his open-play expected goals per 90. He is also getting fewer shots on target and is taking fewer touches in the opposition area.

This may simply be down to a loss of confidence, but the clinical edge Piątek displayed at Genoa appears to have ebbed away at San Siro. The turnover of head coaches will not have helped yet that’s no excuse given the Pole experienced similar during his short time with Il Grifone and it didn’t affect his form.

It’s obvious there is an abundance of talent inside within. He has the ability to be one of Europe’s great strikers and is clearly driven to establish himself as such. But Milan may have been a jump too soon. Or perhaps there is something to this No.9 curse after all.

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