As the old cliché goes, “all good things come to an end”. Unbeaten in 304 days in Serie A, topping their Europa League group and being crowned ‘Winter Champions’ for the first time in a decade, the new year brought an air of excitement and expectancy not felt for several years in Milanello.
Milan fans revelled in their team’s impressive showing across 2020, with the Rossoneri steam train bellowing onwards to destinations previously deemed unreachable.
Barely three months into 2021, however, a thick blanket of reality has clouded and often swallowed the now chugging locomotive, which has threatened to derail, offloaded many passengers and has somewhat lost its way.
A first league loss to Juventus on January 6 spiralled into five Serie A defeats by mid-March, already more than double the league losses succumbed over the entire 2020 calendar year, coupled with a sucker-punch Coppa Italia quarter-final blow to rivals Inter.
Injuries mounted, confidence waned, performances dropped and January’s top spot in Serie A crumbled into a nine-point deficit to the Nerazzurri in a matter of weeks.
As shining representatives of Serie A alongside Roma in European Cup competitions, the Milan light was extinguished by Manchester United in the Last 16 of the Europa League as the red and black train struggled to keep the pistons pumping.
For the neutral outsider, the Milan wheels were well and truly off. Yet for ardent Milan supporters and close Serie A observers, the Milan train may have run out of steam, yet its journey had already surpassed its original destination.
With the youngest side in the league under what was initially deemed a caretaker coach, coming off the back of a sixth-place finish and under a period of reconstruction at various levels within the club, Milan had always been punching above their weight and were barely mentioned in title talks, to begin with.
Having played more games than any other club, enduring a lengthy injury list and making do with far less squad depth than their Scudetto rivals, Milan’s recent wobble was less of a surprise and more of an expected reality.
And while naturally far less consistent than their all-conquering first 15 matches of the campaign, the spirited side have managed to remain on track as it proved their 3-2 victory over Fiorentina on Sunday.
A return to Europe’s elite competition after a seven-year absence would be satisfactory for this campaign.
Still, the club, players and supporters will surely demand more next season, with the Rossoneri needing to focus on several key issues to ensure their train’s progression is not further delayed.
It’s no secret that the Milan attack is paper-thin and will need reinforcement over the summer. The ever-influential Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at 39, is the side’s leading scorer with 15 of the team’s 53 league goals.
The Swede became the oldest Serie A player to reach that mark in just 15 games as his talent and eye for goal cease to decrease despite his age. Midfielder Franck Kessie is the second-best contributor, though eight of his nine goals have come from the penalty spot, while wide frontman Rafael Leao and Ante Rebic have just five goals apiece.
In the initial stages of the season, the Rossoneri managed without their towering Swede when injured.
Yet with 13 out of 28 games missed and back-up striker Mario Mandzukic sidelined through injury as well, the side have struggled, experimenting with Rebic and Leao, who have both looked uncomfortable, out of place and far less effective in a central attacking position.
While talks are ongoing to extend Ibrahimovic’s stay for another year, relying on a 40-year-old who has scored almost 30% of the entire squad’s goals will certainly not be a sustainable option for a credible title tilt.
The likes of Dusan Vlahovic, Gianluca Scamacca and Andrea Belotti have all been thrown about in the rumour mill, all of which would no doubt grow their game under the ever beady-eyed Milan number 11.
With the experimental Mandzukic short-term deal falling on its face, the before-mentioned trio is all of the age and mould that will undoubtedly bolster the Rossoneri attack, while the likes of Leao, Rebic and wide-men Alexis Saelemakers and Samu Castillejo have to raise their game.
Achieving success on the pitch while balancing the finances in the boardroom is no easy task, with the new Milan project, largely in the hands of club CEO Ivan Gazidis, maintaining a close eye on both.
Negotiations with two key figures in the team in goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Calhanoglu, are still ongoing, and while renewal talks are seemingly positive with both stars, eyebrows are being raised over the amounts reportedly requested by the players and their agents, and whether or not the key players should be replaced, with the money better spent elsewhere.
Most fans would agree that talented gloveman Donnarumma is a crucial asset the club would not want to lose. The first name both literally and figuratively on the team sheet, the 22-year-old has already amassed over 200 games for the club he joined as a youth product, has grown in stature over the years and has produced countless match-saving performance between the sticks.
As the Rossoneri’s only assured Italian national team starter, he has become a symbol for the club and has frequently donned the armband in regular skipper Alessio Romagnoli’s injury absences.
Calhanoglu has often frustrated fans with his inconsistency and continued this unenviable trend this campaign. An assist machine over the first half of the season who won December’s Serie A Player of the Month, an unfortunate COVID-19-enforced break has seen him return a different player, with a noticeable decrease in impact on matches in recent outings.
Flashes of brilliance still form part of his armoury, such as seen with his well-placed winner in the recent victory over Fiorentina. Yet, his wage demands in comparison to his inconsistent showings have left many wondering whether he is worth his asking price.
Both stars can undoubtedly prove to be match-winners on their day, both have been committed to the Milan cause for several seasons and would be valuable leaders in a squad looking to step up to the next level next season, yet a failed top-four bid this term, an insistence on exorbitant salary increases combined with the club’s tight financial outlook could jeopardise their Rossoneri future.
In other areas of the pitch, this season’s solid performers in Kessie and Davide Calabria are deserving of improved contracts, with offers rumoured to be in place for both, who will no doubt be integral figures in ensuring the team’s upward trajectory.
The future of the highly-impressive Fikayo Tomori will only be made at the end of the season, with the on-loan Chelsea centre-back turning heads with solid and eye-catching performances in the heart of the Milan defence, having taken his opportunity with aplomb since his January arrival, yet his hefty price tag will again be one for the Milan board to ponder over for some time.
While empty stadia have had a major impact on the dynamic of playing at home, Milan’s form at the San Siro will need to be addressed next season. Away from the Giuseppe Meazza, with five away games remaining in the 2020/21 campaign, the Rossoneri have already earned a club record of 12 away wins in 14 encounters, with just one defeat – a startling statistic which makes for impressing reading.
Yet on the flip side, they have lost four out of their last seven Serie A games at home, with just six victories in the 14 matches played on their home turf and only 22 out of a possible 42 points earned – hardly championship-winning form.
A possible and hopeful return of home fans could do the trick, yet serious thought and consideration needs to be put into uncovering the significant disparity in the team’s home and away form.
Any title-winning team would want to make their home stadium a fortress, yet the hallowed San Siro turf is fast-losing its aura for travelling teams – something the Rossoneri will want and need to rectify.
Long-suffering Milan fans have endured a painful and trophyless decade, primarily due to the ever-changing state of affairs across all levels of the club.
Inconsistencies ranging from executive level to players, coaching staff and playing style have hampered any chance of steady growth and severely impacted the team’s chances of success on the pitch.
The chopping and changing of ownership, coaches, player transfers and philosophies have left the doorman of Milan’s trophy cabinet unemployed for the better part of ten years, bar the short break in his slumber to slide in the 2016 Italian Super Cup half-heartedly.
Should Stefano Pioli, in all likelihood, see out the season as coach, he will become Milan’s longest-serving boss since the club’s last title-winning coach Max Allegri, who was relieved of his duties in January 2014.
Hired in October 2019, Pioli’s current tenure will see him last longer in the Milan hotseat than all of Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Christian Brocchi, Vincenzo Montella, Gennaro Gattuso and Marco Giampaolo.
A consistent project, starting with committed management who have faith in a long-term manager who can rely on a spine of key players, will undoubtedly secure future longevity, awaken the stirring European giant and ensure the Milan steam train powers on into 2022 and beyond.