Red flags were flying high, the ultras were singing loud as 16,000 travelling fans watched as Franck Kessie scored a left footed thunderstrike to clinch Milan’s first title in 11 years at the Mapei stadium. It was a long wait, filled up with many ups and downs but the dark era of the club was finally over. AC Milan were champions of Italy again and this Scudetto might be the sweetest of them all.
After Massimiliano Allegri returned to Juventus, all pre-season predictions were in the favour of the Old Lady regaining her crown. But Allegri’s return hasn’t quite gone to plan. Early season bad form saw them in the relegation zone in mid-September. Then, the attention turned towards Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli and Simone Inzaghi’s Inter who were flying high in the league. Few people predicted Milan to go all the way. The continuous upwards trajectory since Pioli’s arrival wasn’t enough. The second placed finish last season, also, wasn’t enough to convince people that Milan can be champions this season.
However, this Serie A season has laughed at all the predictions made during the start of it. Napoli dropped off after injuries in November and losing key players such as Victor Osimhen and Andre-Franck Zambo Anguissa in January as they travelled to Cameroon to take part in the African Cup of Nations. Simone Inzaghi was still finding his feet at a big club when Napoli were soaring till November but the Nerazzurri were more than ready to take over the top spot from Napoli during the turn of the year and it looked like they would win the Scudetto again.
Milan, though, were staying within touching distance of Inter as they had to navigate injury issues of their own. Mike Maignan missed a month in Autumn through wrist surgery. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has barely played in the last 4 months. Simon Kjaer was ruled out for the season after tearing his ACL in early January while star defender, Fikayo Tomori, had to fix his meniscus in his left knee. Even after all that, Milan managed to stay consistent on the pitch and their results guaranteed that they would stay within touching distance of their rivals.
The turning point in their route to the Scudetto was when Olivier Giroud turned the Milan derby around on its head within a matter of seconds. Inter were in a comfortable 1-0 lead, and looked like they were going to run away with the win, and eventually, the Scudetto. Giroud’s quickfire brace resulted in a 2-1 win for the Rossoneri and then the title race was truly on. Ionut Radu’s mistake against Bologna in Inter’s game in hand in late April was the final nail in the coffin in this title race for Inter. Milan’s consistency, after that, ensured the Scudetto will come back to the red side of Milan this season.
Milan’s fall from grace
To fully gauge how Milan have won the title this season, we have to back up a bit. When Milan last won the Scudetto in 2011, it can probably be seen as the beginning of the end. Milan lost Gattuso, Nesta and the omnipresent Seedorf. Kaka made his way to Spain to practice his trade with Real Madrid. Milan’s legendary owner, Silvio Berlusconi, just could not keep up with the financial strength of the big clubs in Europe.
Milan still had a good squad in early 2010s and Massimiliano Allegri was a very competent manager. However, after Berlusconi’s tax scandal in 2013 coupled with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva’s departures to PSG and Allegri moving to manage Juventus in the span of 2 years close to the scandal, Milan went into free fall. Berlusconi was still one of the richest owners in Europe but there is still uncertainty of why the investment dried up post 2011. Reports suggest he was advised against investing money in the football club owing to the corruption charges and political reasons. In the end, Berlusconi sold the club to a Chinese consortium in 2017.
Following Allegri’s departure in 2014, Milan recorded 2 of their worst finishes in Serie A history with them dropping down as low as 10th in the 2014-15 season. A giant of Italian football had fallen and it looked a long way back to the top from the situation they were facing with a club high in debt. It was reported that Milan were facing a €91.1M loss in the financial year of 2014.
In 2017, Chinese investor Li Yonghong, bought 99.93% stake in AC Milan and the Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux became the parent company of the club. Li took out a loan of €303M from American hedge fund Elliott Management Corporation to go through with the acquisition of AC Milan. By July 2018, Li failed to keep with the repayments of his loan and eventually the Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux was removed as the parent company of the club with all the control now going with the Elliott Management corp.
Till 2017, Milan were a club with 0 stability. They had as many as 5 managers in 3 years until Gennaro Gattuso came back to the club as a manager replacing Vincenzo Montella. Gattuso defied expectations and did much better than what was expected of him. Milan spent the majority of the 2018-19 season in the top 4. However, Milan stumbled towards the end and finished 5th and Gattuso resigned after failing to make it to Champions League football. Marco Giampaolo was hired from Sampdoria to be Gattuso’s replacement. But his reign lasted only 4 months and was sacked after 4 losses in his first 7 games and fans were not at all convinced with the manager. Stefano Pioli was hired as his replacement and a new era began.
Pioli and Maldini era
Paolo Maldini will always remain a Milan legend. Ever since the downfall started in 2011, Milan have been flirting with the idea of bringing back Maldini at the club in some capacity. However, Maldini has continued to decline the approaches up until 2018, when sporting director Leonardo hired Maldini to become the head of strategic development at the club. It came as a surprise to Maldini when Leonardo announced his departure from Milan while naming Maldini as his successor. Maldini was unsure about his new job but learned as the time passed and is now doing a stellar job. It was around the same time that Ivan Gazidis joined the club as the new CEO while Ricky Massara came in as the DOF a year later, truly commencing a new era at the club.
“I didn’t feel safe having to negotiate with agents and clubs. Then I started having to do it myself and it became the most natural thing in the world. I figured out what to say and what not to say. How to change register based on the interlocutor, those with whom you need to speak clearly and those with whom you need to use more diplomacy. If you have always been in this world and you use common sense these things are very easy. And it’s nice to do them.” – Maldini
Maldini’s philosophy as a sporting director is the same as it was when he donned the no.3 shirt at the San Siro – Nothing is more important than AC Milan. There is a clear pattern of his philosophy coming into play as he never caves into a player’s demands. The most recent example of this being the departure of Gianluigi Donnarumma. Milan offered Donnarumma a new contract and a wage hike but it was not enough for the Italian goalkeeper. Normally, one would be tempted to offer one of their best players whatever they want in order to keep them at the club. However, Milan and Maldini didn’t cave into the demands of their player and as the deadline for Donnarumma to extend his contract came near, the club called the 23-year old to inform him that they have signed a new goalkeeper in Mike Maignan. And thus, Donnarumma went to PSG.
Franck Kessie and Hakan Calhanoglu have experienced a similar fate to that of Donnarumma. Calhanoglu switched colours and joined Inter in the summer on a free transfer. The Ivorian may have scored the goal that sealed the title, but he will be on his way to Barcelona when his contract expires in June. Milan, in this new era, have elected to go with a data-driven recruitment approach. The club feels like every player is replaceable through the correct scouting and correct analysis. In fact, one of Maldini’s first signings as a sporting director was the French left-back Theo Hernandez. Maldini flew to Ibiza to convince the Frenchman to join Milan and while Hernandez first struggled, he is now shining and has formed one of Europe’s best left-flank partnerships with Rafael Leao.
There are many examples as to why this data driven approach has worked for AC Milan. The Rossoneri have recently adapted to a counter-pressing, fast transition system. Winning the ball back in such situations is very crucial and something Milan were struggling with when the opposition bypassed their midfield press. Hence, Milan signed Fikayo Tomori from Chelsea. Tomori’s aggressive front foot defending coupled with his athleticism has helped the club to improve on their existing system and progress even further as a team.
Many other signings have gone under the radar at Milan. Alexis Salamaekers has proved to be a very useful outlet on the right flank. Rafael Leao and Sandro Tonali have shrugged off their initial struggles and are now flourishing. Mike Maignan has replaced Donnarumma seamlessly. Almost to a point where the departure of a superstar player has not affected Milan at all. The versatile Pierre Kalulu has formed a formidable partnership with Tomori so as to a point where Milan are wondering whether they even need a new centre-back. Brahim Diaz had barely played before his loan move to Milan in 2020 but has improved massively and is showing signs of replacing Calhanoglu as the primary creator in the final third.
One signing that has helped them massively has been Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Often, you would see veterans and legends going to big clubs in the twilight of their careers and helping the team strive on and off the pitch at the same time. Ibrahimovic had a similar impact at Manchester United. If we don’t count Ibrahimovic, Giroud and Tatarusanu, Milan have the youngest squad in the Serie A. Ibrahimovic has come in, and has helped this fairly young side find their way and improve themselves as footballers. A true leader of the pack, Ibrahimovic’s impact upon his return, which saw him score 15 Serie A goals in 18 games, set the tone for others to improve as footballers. His presence and return also helped to take the pressure off from the young shoulders of his teammates, allowing them to work and better themselves in silence. A type of personality that everyone gravitates towards, signing Zlatan, even considering his age, has helped Milan massively.
As for Stefano Pioli, this Scudetto will feel like vindication. From the very first day that Pioli was appointed as the manager for Milan, he was doubted. The hashtag #PioliOut was trending on Twitter on the first day that he was appointed and he has been doubted every step of the way since. From an outside perspective, the 56 year old always seemed like a stop-gap solution rather than a long term one, something Milan were lacking for a while with their constant chop and change of managers. In fact, Pioli’s form till the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 didn’t convince Ivan Gazidis that he is the man to take the team forward. So much so, all the steps were taken by the CEO to appoint Ralf Rangnick as the manager and sporting director starting from the 2020-21 season. Which would’ve put Maldini’s tenure in threat as well.
You could hardly blame fans for doubting Pioli when he was first appointed, though. The Italian’s track record doesn’t really inspire a lot of people. However, after football resumed in June 2020, Pioli’s Milan were flying and he did enough to convince Gazidis that the current structure in place is the right way to go forward.
Maldini, though, always trusted Pioli. And he always trusted players with rocky starts too. Theo Hernandez, Rafael Leao, Sandro Tonali, have all experienced rough starts to their life in Milan ever since they were brought into the club. But, with a crystal clear recruitment policy of buying players who suited the team more than anything else, along with Stefano Pioli bringing the best out of them, Milan have been making positive strides towards getting back to the top. Milan finished 5th in Pioli’s first season, and secured European football after their 2-year ban in the previous seasons. Pioli’s Milan followed that up with a 2nd placed finish last season, in a typical Antonio Conte style league domination season with Inter.
For sure, Milan’s group stage exit in the Champions League this season might have helped them and Milan could still do with more players in terms of squad depth. In fact, if you’d ask Maldini, he would say this Scudetto was earlier than what was mapped in their project. Nonetheless, in a football world dominated by who throws the most money, Milan have proved that their reluctance to bow down to player power and their data-driven approach for recruitment can still achieve success.
“At Milan, they only remember the players who won the Scudetto or the Champions League ”, Ibrahimovic said. “If we want to be remembered, we have two games left, let’s give it our all.” Zlatan promised a title upon his return to Milan. And he delivered. Pioli went from ‘Pioli out’ to ‘Pioli’s on fire.’
For only the third time in this century, Milan are champions of Italy.