Some people receive their Christmas gifts after December 25 and such was the case for the Milan fans worldwide, as it was confirmed that Zlatan Ibrahimovic would be reuniting with the Rossoneri two days later after the festive holiday.
Following his departure from MLS side the LA Galaxy several weeks ago, rumours had been rife as to exactly where the former Sweden international would be plying his trade come 2020. Links with teams in La Liga and the Premier League were quickly dismissed, as the man himself hinted he’d be returning to Italy, which narrowed it down to Napoli, Bologna and Milan.
When the announcement was made official on December 27, the Milan social media went into overdrive with the hashtag #IZComing. The club's Twitter account alone posted six times about this return after seven and a half years. The man himself made a splash on Instagram as well with an image of him in quasi-religious garb arm-wrestling Satan. "Same Zlatan. Different Devil. @acmilan Arrivo."
However, make no mistake about it, just signing Ibra will not magically make the seven times European champions jump back to the upper echelons of club football alone. However, his presence, his personality, his aura if you will, should give the entire club a lift and they are badly in need of one.
Milan suffered a humiliating 5-0 defeat at the hands of Atalanta just this past Sunday in the club's worst loss for 21 years, so there is much work to do.
The Diavolo’s downward spiral can be traced back precisely to the summer of 2012, which might not have been the end of the world that the Mayans predicted, but it was the beginning of the end for Milan. That year, Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were both sold to Paris Saint-Germain to balance the books, despite both players making it clear they happily would’ve remained at San Siro. The only title won since then was the Supercoppa Italiana in 2016 and they’ve qualified for the Champions League only twice in that time.
From three changes in ownership, to seven coaching appointments to hundreds of millions of Euros spent on players that have not stepped up, Milan are in serious need of a boost. We could say that is exactly what Ibra coming back represents.
The club had made it well known that they would be ‘investing in youth’ and build from there, something which previous boss Gennaro Gattuso had clashed with the owners on, as he requested more experienced players for the squad. A request that was subsequently rejected. It seems though that the power brokers may have relented months after, as both Paolo Maldini and Zvonimir Boban have mentioned the need for more established figures as much for the dressing room as on the pitch.
Have they decided to "rip up the script" and start their transfer strategy over or is this a "one-off" acquisition to keep the fans happy? Time will tell.
Besides raising the excitement levels of the supporters, Ibra should give a much-needed boost to a squad that has been incapable of stepping up a level. Despite the criticism he has faced wherever he has been, Ibra is a winner and has won everywhere he has gone and even at 38 years of age, one must believe that he is not going back just for one last pay cheque.
The biggest issue the Rossoneri have had this campaign is putting the ball in the back of the net on a consistent basis. Through 17 matches in the league, they have just 16 goals, with even last-placed Genoa having managed to score 17 times.
Main striker Krzysztof Piatek has just four strikes in those 17 games, two of which were penalties. That is in stark contrast to last season when he took Calcio by storm, as he racked up 30 goals in 42 matches, between his spells at Genoa and Milan. He was so prolific that despite spending only six months at each club, he was still top scorer for the season at both.
Besides him, Rafael Leao has not always had the faith of the two coaches this season, as neither Marco Giampaolo nor Stefano Pioli have given the Portuguese 21-year-old an extended run in the starting XI. Attacking midfielders Hakan Calhanoglu and Suso have been their usual frustratingly inconsistent selves.
Ibra should not only give the club a boost in terms of goals, but he has proven to be a creative set-up man as well, having accumulated over 140 assists in his career. His experience, particularly his successful time in Italy at Juventus, Inter and Milan, should be an invaluable asset which can be passed on to Milan's young strikers.
Pioli will need to accommodate the arrival of the Super Swede into his team. The former Lazio and Fiorentina boss has so far employed a 4-3-3 formation, using just one central striker, but may he be tempted to change? Obviously Ibra can play as the man up top, but Pioli could drop one of Calhanoglu or Suso and possibly play Leao or Piatek in one of the positions, or alternatively decide to go with the 4-2-3-1 tactic playing that double pivot to protect the back four and unleash four attackers up front. It’s better for a tactician to have these problems than a lack of options.
Ibra said he is returning to a club he "respects enormously" and will "fight with my teammates to change the course of the season." This will be one Christmas present that fans will remember forever.
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