Il Gigante Dormiente Has Awoken
For the first time in decades, there is a serious title race in Serie A, thanks in no small part to the re-emergence of AC Milan. Jack Donnelly takes a look at what I Rossoneri have done to put themselves back at the top pf the table.
There are some football clubs that will always be huge. No matter how much performances have slipped, no matter if their best players always leave for greener pastures, no matter how long it’s been since their last success – history maintains these clubs’ statuses as footballing giants. Such has been the case for AC Milan – at one time, I Rossoneri were regular competitors in Champions League finals. Recently, they’ve struggled to even qualify for the tournament.
Admittedly, growing up, I did not follow football religiously and had minimal interest of anything outside of Scotland and England. That being said, I knew of AC Milan. The red-and-black stripes were iconic, the San Siro was a footballing mecca and some of the best players to ever play the sport have competed for the club. For example, Paolo Maldini, arguably the finest defender in the history of football, spent 25 seasons at Milan, playing just shy of 650 matches for the club and winning 25 trophies, seeing his shirt number retired in honour of the career he had.
The legendary players don’t stop with Maldini; Ruud Gullit, Andrea Pirlo, Kaka, Marco van Basten, George Weah, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Nesta, Andriy Shevchenko, Filippo Inzaghi, Frank Rijkaard… there’s an endless list of greats who have donned the red-and-black. The club has 18 top-flight Italian league titles, equalling their city rivals Inter, with only Juventus having amassed more, while also boasting seven European Cup/Champions League crowns, five Coppa Italias and seven Supercoppa Italianas. Clearly, Milan have had success, but up until recently, the club have gone through a turbulent period of mediocrity.
Over the last decade, Milan became a shadow of their former selves. One Serie A title arrived at the San Siro in 2011, but the club have been way off the mark since then, with Juventus cleaning up comfortably each season since. It would be hard to place the blame on one particular factor, as there have been so many at work. For one, ownership of the club changed hands unsuccessfully, as Silvio Berlusconi had become more enamoured with his growing political career than his massively successful football club, selling up in 2017. While Chinese businessman Li Yonghong initially bought the club, it was later acquired by Elliot Management, who appointed Paolo Scaroni as president. The money spent by both owners was so excessive, that Milan were banned from competing in European competitions for one year after breaching UEFA’s financial fair play regulations.
Another issue was that for the amount of money that the club spent in the past decade, very little of it was spent well. After the title-winning season, a number of the ageing players, such as Pirlo and Nesta, left or retired, while a number of youth talents like Sokratis Papastathopolous and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were sold for minimal fees. Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic would also leave in seasons to follow, with the club unable to bring in suitable replacements – Mario Balotelli, while possibly able to match the Swede’s character off the pitch, was no replacement for Ibrahimovic’s footballing ability. Big money moves for the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and Andre Silva did not pay off at all, while a slew of stuttering strikers such as Nikola Kalinić, Alessio Cerci and even Fernando Torres and Gonzalo Higuain failed to make the grade. All the while, young prospects like the aforementioned Aubameyang and Sokratis, alongside players like Alexandre Pato, slipped through Milan’s fingers. Away from the squad itself, the man in charge was chopped and changed in a Chelsea-esque fashion, with all but one manager since Massimiliano Allegri’s departure in January of 2013 lasting more than two seasons in the San Siro dugout.
It’s been a torrid time for I Rossoneri without a doubt, but the club looked to have completely turned their fortunes around. Last season, while completely disruptive and unprecedented as all football was postponed for a number of weeks, Milan came out the other side not only unscathed, but stronger. After being appointed as manager midway through the season, Stefano Pioli saw his side go on a 10-game unbeaten run as the Serie A returned on the 20th of June, winning seven of those matches and finishing the campaign in 6th place, 17 points behind champions Juventus. There were promising signs in Milan’s restart, but their struggles before football’s suspension meant that there was no late charge into the Champions League places and their league position meant that the club would have to play in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League in order to secure a place in the group stages.
There would be no cause for concern though, as Pioli brought the excellent post-lockdown form into the new season, with Milan only recording one loss between September and the start of the new year, in a 3-0 defeat to Lille in their Europa League group. Milan tore through opposing teams in Serie A, finishing the year in first place, just ahead of Inter, while Juventus were uncharacteristically off the pace, floating adrift of the top four. Even now, Milan have only lost twice in the league and were narrowly knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Inter.
So, why have Milan brought about a red-and-black resurgence and shaken up the Serie A this season? Firstly, the club have been much cleverer with their money this season, with any additions to the squad costing considerably less than what had become the norm at the San Siro. Not only that, but the signings that have come in have performed admirably. For example, Sandro Tonali, a talented young holding midfielder, arrived on loan from Brescia in the summer and I expect that Milan will be activating their option to secure his services permanently in the summer, with the 20-year-old putting in performances that would suggest he had spent many years at the top level. Simon Kjaer, who signed permanently in the summer after a brief loan spell, has formed a solid centre back partnership with Alessio Romagnoli, while on-loan right back Diogo Dalot has been a decent counterpart to the marauding Theo Hernandez, who has scored four goals and assisted three in 17 appearances this season.
The main difference this season, however, has been the true return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. After his departure in 2013, the tightly strung fabric of success that Milan had woven began to unravel at an alarming rate, with the club entering what us in the UK would know as “The Banter Years.” The Swedish forward returned on a short-term deal in January of 2020 but extended his contract for a further season. Currently, Ibrahimovic has scored 12 goals in 10 league appearances, with further appearances limited due to injury troubles and a period of self-isolation. Even without the striker on the pitch, the team seems to have adopted his “winning-at-all-costs” mentality, pushing them above the other contenders in the title race and seeing the club easily progress into the Europa League knockout stages. It’s almost poetic that Ibrahimovic’s return has brought about the opportunity for major silverware and given Milan an edge that they’ve been lacking for the best part of a decade.
Milan are the main reason that football fans across the world have paid attention to Serie A this season, as it’s not only refreshing to see someone other than Juventus making a case for the league title, but the battle between the Milan clubs has long since been as impactful as it was in the 90s and early 2000s. In a world where so much can break you down and stress you out, especially in the current climate, the sense of nostalgia that Milan are providing this season allows people to reminisce on when times were best, which can be so beneficial to so many people. Is this the best Milan side we’ve ever seen? Not a chance. Is this the best Milan side we’ve seen recently? You would have to say so.
Success has been a long time coming for Milan and they have endured some rough times over the past decade. But, after all, dopo la pioggia, arriva il sole, and it’s looking likely that Milan’s storm is passing.