The recent injury to Marcus Rashford can easily wreck Manchester United to the core. While the loss to Liverpool wasn’t proof of that, the young Englishman’s numbers speak for themselves. The freedom he has been given by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer isn’t something he has ever been given before and he is thriving in it.
As much as Rashford’s goal and pace down the left will be missed, United may not wait to feel that pain with the January transfer window open. The Red Devils have been linked with some interesting names. One of them is Edinson Cavani, who seems to have handed in a transfer request at Paris Saint-Germain.
But a more interesting name that has been on the lips of many United fans is Krzysztof Piatek. Much to their glee, the Athletic’s David Ornstein did report contact with the Milan striker recently. As much as the signing could guarantee goals, it is a bigger gamble than many might think.
It is easy to point out that Piatek has scored only one goal from open play in Serie A for the rossoneri this season- one in the Coppa Italia too. But that isn’t exactly his fault that he’s scoring fewer goals. The former Genoa man is playing in a team that is creating an XG of 28.24 this season. More than that, the situation at Milan has been strange over the past 12 months.
On his arrival from Cracovia at Genoa in the summer of 2018, the Pole was firing on all cylinders. He was putting away chances for fun, scoring 13 from the first 19 games for the rossoblu. Genoa saw him put away chances with as low an XG as 0.05, 0.06 and 0.09 last season. He never got too many high probability chances to score, bar one worth 0.98 that he buried against Eusebio di Francesco’s Roma.
He also got a shot worth 0.62 away against Torino, but it was saved well by Il Toro stopper Salvatore Sirigu. This was a man riding on momentum and scoring chances that many top marksmen will fail to put away.
After being left dazzled by his performance in just six months, Milan felt Piatek was the solution to their goalscoring options. Gonzalo Higuain’s move had proved to be a failure, as the Argentine then packed off to Chelsea in January. Piatek came in as a replacement and he just rode the confidence wave.
That confidence helped him score from much closer by at the San Siro. He was playing in a team that created 52.16 XG at the end of the season ( eight more than Genoa), getting and scoring chances worth 0.56, 0.68 and 0.69 for the first time in his short Calcio career.
He was getting all the support from the Milan faithful, who even devised an ‘Ale Ale Ale’ chant for their ‘Gunslinger’. The chant went viral on social media, leading to many taking note of this new potentially world-class marksman in Polish football.
But this season has been a directly contrasting one. Milan had a much more technically obsessed manager in Marco Giampaolo at the helm. Piatek, who has never been a technician, had to play in his possession-based 4-3-1-2 shape with the burden of doing work on the ball.
With the system settling in, points being dropped and goals from open play drying up for Piatek, Giampaolo used Rafael Leao upfront in his last game at the club against Genoa. Piatek was benched, as Leao was crucial in winning a penalty that Franck Kessie stuck away. Despite the sticky 2-1 win, Giampaolo was replaced by Stefano Pioli when his system was settling in.
This left the players and the club to go into reset mode once again. Bar the recent upsurge in form that has been down to a change to a 4-4-2 system, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front with Leao, Milan have underperformed massively on their XG.
The club has scored only 21 goals, underperforming on XG by 7.24. A lot of that underperformance has been down to Piatek’s own underperformance, with Theo Hernandez the club’s highest scorer currently.
The striker has been underperforming by 3.52. He is failing to score from chances that he was very efficient in putting away at Genoa and Milan last season- when he was riding his confidence. While he seems short of confidence and has been snapping at chances, it isn’t entirely his fault either.
The club’s creative players like Hakan Calhanoglu and Suso are known to be very inconsistent. The reset in system early in the season affected them. The shot with the highest XG that Piatek has got this season is 0.56– a hint that players around him are letting him down too. He has also missed chances of XG 0.50 and 0.48.
This is a player who is in his second season in Italy. Last season, he got immense love from both sets of fans and rode on that momentum. At Genoa, he was overperforming his XG by an insane 4.04. It will be unfair to expect him to replicate that. Since he got opportunities from closer by at Milan last season, the overperformance stood at only 0.19.
Piatek seems lost for identity. The blame for him being poor can certainly be down to expecting too much or there being a lack of service. But one thing is for sure- he can’t replicate his Genoa numbers anymore. No one can possibly keep that up, unless he is Lionel Messi.
If he can replicate his Milan form from last season, he has to get an immense amount of service from players around him. Because he isn’t just short of service. He is short of momentum and that confidence too. There isn’t a feel-good aura about him anymore.
As for United, they play in a system that demands the striker Anthony Martial to often come deeper to get on the ball. Rashford would play on the left side of a 4-2-3-1, constantly cutting inside because of the freedom Solskjaer gave him. But Piatek isn’t the sort of striker who gets on the ball and that is why he was failing under Giampaolo before being dropped against his former club.
He is someone who gets on the shoulders of the last man and taps the ball home. Even when he’s shooting 3.60 times per game this season, he’s failing to score as much as he did last season with an SPG of 2.73 only. His touches have come deeper than last season and it shows why he’s not getting chances from closer by.
If Martial was to play on the left for a striker to play up front while Rashford is out, United can’t rely on Piatek for it. It will require a drastic change in tactics from Solskjaer to play in that way. His team takes pride in having bundles of pace to get behind the opposition and run them ragged. Piatek is a different player, who is yet to find his true level.
United do create 40.41 Xg– well more than Milan’s. But the demands are very different. The style is different. The need is immediate and the time available for adaptation is less, with a top-four challenge awaiting them. They need a quick fix and not a player who is in need of a quick fix in his career himself.