AC Milan's misfiring strikers must rediscover goal-scoring touch
After a difficult fortnight during which AC Milan's hopes of qualifying for the Champions League have taken a significant blow, the inquest continues over where the root of their issues lies. While speculation regarding coach Sinisa Mihajlovic's future continues, it remains to be seen whether or not the Serbian tactician survives beyond the summer, despite there being a strong argument in his defence.
Nevertheless, results are essentially what matter at this level, and he will have to ensure that there is an upturn in form. In order to do so, the Rossoneri need to rediscover their goal-scoring touch as it has gone missing in recent weeks.
Having been plagued by defensive issues throughout the past three years, Milan have seemingly found the solution with Gianluigi Donnarumma and Alessio Romagnoli providing youthful energy alongside the experience of the likes of Alex and Ignazio Abate.
However, it appears as though Milan have lost the balance between being defensively efficient and an offensive threat. Following their goalless draw with Chievo on Sunday, it is becoming clear that there is a real problem with their misfiring front line.
Of the top six sides in Serie A, the Rossoneri have the joint-worst scoring record, along with Inter, having found the back of the net on just 39 occasions in 29 outings so far this season. That figure is dwarfed by the likes of Roma and Napoli, who have scored 61 and 59 goals respectively, and in turn it is no surprise that those two sides have continued their strong push toward challenging at the top of the table.
The numbers are particularly damning when considering Milan strikers Carlos Bacca, M'Baye Niang, Mario Balotelli, Jeremy Menez and Luiz Adriano combined have scored five fewer goals this season than Gonzalo Higuain on his own. Naturally, those statistics are deceiving given that Balotelli and Menez in particular have missed a significant part of the campaign through injury, but it still reveals where this team's problems lie.
While the likes of Riccardo Montolivo and Andrea Bertolacci haven't contributed from a scoring perspective, the onus and pressure is on the strikers to finish their build-up play. However, it has been an ongoing problem that has led to real frustration for Mihajlovic, who has bemoaned the Rossoneri's lack of clinical edge in the final third on numerous occasions.
Worryingly, the situation is gradually becoming more problematic as not only have the goals dried up, but Milan are even struggling to now create opportunities. The five aforementioned forwards have failed to get a single shot on target between them in their past four games.
Each individual has different issues to contend with, which in turn makes it more difficult for Mihajlovic to find solutions.
From Bacca offering little without service, to Balotelli and Menez still lacking match sharpness, the Milan coach needs to figure out a way of getting the right combination that can be effective on a regular basis. With Niang now ruled out until early May at the earliest due to an injury suffered in a car crash in February, Mihajlovic's options are becoming more limited.
Combined with the absence of captain Montolivo, who, despite having many detractors, plays a key role in giving the side balance, Milan have either not been able to break sides down or if they have, have failed to take their chances.
With an inability to apply sustained pressure through games in a similar way to their rivals currently above them in the table, the Milanese rely on their strikers to be clinical even with half-chances.
Whether it is a loss of confidence, fatigue or a general issue that is affecting their overall performance, something needs to be done to fix their current woes. It is also worth noting that Giacomo Bonaventura has suffered from a dip in form, something that the team can't afford given how important his creativity is.
Mihajlovic has attempted to switch things up by rotating up front, with Balotelli and Menez starting against Sassuolo and Chievo, respectively, to partner Bacca.
While it is easy to blame the individual, something that Balotelli has had to contend with his entire career, this is bigger than that. With his job potentially on the line, Mihajlovic will be under pressure to get his stars firing again and they have to deliver starting against Lazio on Sunday.
Sumeet Paul covers AC Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @SP_Calcio.