It was an enthralling game for the neutral, but for Axel Witsel and Stephan El Shaarawy, it wasn’t one of their better days.
The result sees Zenit lose their first home game in Europe since October 2008 when they lost 2-1 to Real Madrid. They also remain rooted to the bottom of Group C without a win or even a point to their name. No doubt, Luciano Spalletti will look to their next group game — a home encounter with Anderlecht — as a good opportunity to finally get some points on the board and rescue what is a failing attempt thus far to escape the group and flee to the next round.
As for Milan, it was unnecessarily nerve-wrenching, but job done in the end. They are yet to lose in the group so far, sitting pretty on 4 points, 3 clear of 3rd-placed Anderlecht and 2 off of 1st-placed Malaga, who posted a 3-0 victory away to the Belgian side on the day. But with Malaga awaiting Milan’s visit in the next round of fixtures, Massimiliano Allegri must know that there is still much work to be done, especially given the underwhelming display by his team
For this game, Flix & Trix took a particular interest in Zenit’s £32 million-man Axel Witsel as well as Milan’s 19-year-old wonderkid Stephan El Shaarawy, both of whom weren’t as good as they could have been in the end, though for different reasons. Let’s examine their situations on this day.
Axel Witsel was deployed as one of three central midfielders in a 4-3-3 setup for Zenit. He rarely ventured forward in this game, instead covering for his midfield colleagues as they did so, particularly Roman Shirokov, whose bursts from midfield saw him assist Hulk’s goal with a nicely-weighted through ball just before half-time.
His passing, which was simple and grounded, complemented his covering role as he kept things sewn together in midfield. The fact that he completed the most passes for Zenit (58) shows just how much of a pivot he was for the Russian side.
But on this day, he needed to do more when it came to his passing. Zenit needed ideas as they sought parity after going 2-0 down and with Hulk struggling to impose himself on the game until only just before the close of the first half, a spark needed to come from elsewhere. Axel Witsel, who cost Zenit around £32 million, should’ve stepped up to the plate; but he didn’t.
He didn’t try to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Instead, he trotted casually around the midfield area, keeping his passes short and unambitious. He has the ability and the technique to play an expansive passing game as well as take on players with the ball. He did neither and thus offered no kind of invention from midfield when it was sorely needed. In the first half, he created 0 goal-scoring opportunities.
His work on the cover could be called into question as well. He was of no help as Stephan El Shaarawy dribbled his way expertly past 3 Zenit players en route to scoring an impressive second goal for Milan. He made just the 1 tackle in this game, but would’ve made more had he shown a bit more grit instead of casually trotting around the field, leaving the heavy-lifting to be done by either his midfield partners Shirokov and Faizulin and the defenders behind him, who struggled for much of the game. At Benfica, Witsel had Javi Garcia to cover him in midfield. Without him at Zenit, however, Witsel must assume more of that responsibility now.
As Zenit sought parity, they pushed higher up the pitch to regain possession from Milan. And it worked as they, despite being on the ropes early on, clawed their way back into the game and made off with 52% possession in the end as they simply refused to allow Milan even out of their own half.
This meant that Witsel had to push up a bit to help the cause and, particularly in the second half, this was evident. He got forward and had himself 2 shots — 1 went wide in the 50th minute from the edge of the area after a good first touch and the other was blocked from a similar range and deflected out for a corner.
He even completed 2 dribbles and also created 2 goal-scoring opportunities — 1 fell to Shirokov to shoot from range in the 47th minute, though his shot went well wide, and the other fell to Alexander Kerzhakov, who had his effort blocked from outside the area. It still wasn’t Axel Witsel in top gear, but it was a more active display than was seen in the first half.
In the end, it wasn’t a bad performance from Axel Witsel, but it wasn’t a good one either. He needs to dominate midfield, take games by the scruff of their neck, and be a true leader in the middle of the park. For £32 million, Zenit management, fans, and team-mates — some of whom aren’t too happy about his and Hulk’s arrival — will expect that kind of contribution. And it’s not beyond him either.
True, he has been developed into a different type of midfield player over the years, with his role at Benfica differing from the one he had at Standard Liege, where he was afforded a bit more freedom. But that player is still in there and Axel Witsel needs to learn exactly when to bring him back out to play. He was certainly needed on this day.
Stephan El Shaarawy
Stephan El Shaarawy was deployed in the same position in which he impressed in his last appearance versus Parma — on the left side of an attacking midfield 3 in a 4-2-3-1 setup.
Parallels can be drawn between the situation on this day and the one versus Parma. Milan’s midfield again offered no creativity and thus El Shaarawy was starved of the ball yet again. In this game, though, things were a bit worse.
He and Bojan linked up well versus Parma, but here, Bojan made poor decisions on the ball, choosing to shoot when he should’ve passed or dwelling on the ball and being dispossessed as a result. They linked up just the once early on (El Shaarawy made a nice run in the 5th minute before passing to Bojan whose shot forced a save from Zenit ‘keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev, but the Spaniard was offside) and then another time just before Bojan was subbed.
The only telling contribution El Shaarawy was able to make in this game was when he scored a brilliant goal in the 16th minute after taking a pass from Kevin Prince Boateng, who showed great strength to retain possession. El Shaarawy used his turn of pace and quick feet to skip past 3 defenders en route to finishing with aplomb past a diving Malafeev.
That was the only goal-scoring opportunity Boateng created in this game. El Shaarawy created 3 himself, however, setting up Boateng for a shot that went wide from inside the box in the 3rd minute, Urby Emanuelson whose shot from range was blocked in the 9th minute, and Bojan whose long range shot was saved by Malafeev in the 50th minute.
El Shaarawy indeed did his best to give Milan something going forward, but when Zenit took control of the match, there was simply no way back into the game for him. As a result, after putting his side 2-0 up, he spent pretty much the rest of the match pinned in his own half.
He still managed to eke out 2 shots after his goal — 1 that was blocked in the 66th minute from outside the box and the other was a curled effort that went well wide just before the final whistle.
But as he was pinned in his own half, fans would see more of El Shaarawy off the ball than on it. He committed 3 fouls, all of which were shoves on his opponents, showing just how frustrated he was on the day as well as desperate to get his team back into the game. It also showed his inexperience in the tackle. The shove into the back of the Faizulin on the edge of the box earned him a yellow card.
“Today we dropped a bit after the second goal and we paid for that,” said El Shaarawy post-match.
Indeed they did and could count themselves fortunate to be heading home with all 3 points, but had there been more support for El Shaarawy, things may not have been so edgy for Milan.
Both players didn’t have the kind of impact that they should have had, but for different reasons. Axel Witsel didn’t personally step up for Zenit, while Milan failed to provide adequate support for Stephan El Shaarawy.
Hopefully things will go a bit better for both players in the next round of fixtures.
**Stats courtesy of Whoscored
**Heat maps courtesy of ESPN FC