Coppa Italia: Semi-final / Team rating: [7/10] / Top scorer: Ante Rebic (11) / Europe: N/A
It was another season of chaos at Milan, writes Vijay Rahaman, with coaches, players, systems and directors coming and going, but might’ve finally settled on some consistency.
Milan entered the 2019-2020 season with one objective and one objective only, to return to the Champions League. Following the failure to do so by just a solitary point last campaign, they sacked Gennaro Gattuso and brought in Marco Giampaolo. Another revolution.
The Swiss-born manager said all the right things at his presentation, with his statement of ‘heads up and play football’ drawing particular praise and interest. However, his tenure really never got going. Declaring after one game that he’d have to completely transform the tactics used through pre-season was a bad sign. A reported lack of communication with the players and a failure to implement his version of football ultimately proved his downfall.
He was sacked after just seven matches, ironically after securing just his third win of the campaign versus Genoa. He claimed that was the performance he was waiting to see from the team, but it came too little too late, and we would never know how his influence with a full season with the club would have ended.
The man entrusted to take over the reins of the seven-time European champions was Stefano Pioli and all hell broke loose among the fanbase. The hashtag #PioliOut was trending even before the Parma born man was officially appointed. Fair play to Pioli though, as he took on the criticism head on and pushed forward.
Milan is a club that has been going through a fair bit of drama, both on and off the field for best part of a decade, with fans growing increasingly impatient, not just with the lack of trophies, but not even being able to mix it with the giants in Europe's top tier competition since 2014.
Pioli stuck in the same formation as Giampaolo though, regularly employing a 4-3-3 style, but what was noticeable was the defensive shape seemed to be more solid. Captain Alessio Romagnoli, who has continued to grow in leaps and bounds since being given the added responsibility, could be seen being more vocal and encouraging to his teammates and not just to those on the defensive end.
This team was obviously not Pioli's, but there were some improvements in the play which would eventually bear fruit as the season progressed. Not that anyone seemed to worry about that, because CEO Ivan Gazidis was already in talks with Ralf Rangnick for another revolution and director Zvonimir Boban was fired for complaining about it.
However, it all changed in January. Enter Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede had been sold along with defensive stalwart Thiago Silva back in 2012 to raise funds, something neither player was entirely happy with at the time. That moment was seen as a turning point when the club really began its downward spiral that it has been struggling to recover from since.
Ibra's sheer presence seemed to have a marked effect on the team. A last-minute goal from Ante Rebic in a 3-2 victory over Udinese showed a new sense by the players to give it all until the end. The coronavirus pandemic brought Calcio to a standstill for three months. However, when play on the peninsula did return, Milan looked like a new team.
By that time, Pioli changed the formation to a 4-2-3-1 with Ibra at the top, supported mainly by the ever-influential Rebic, a rejuvenated Hakan Calhanoglu and with the double pivot of Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer. Simon Kjaer was another valuable January signing to solidify the defence and win every aerial ball. A combination of intense pressure on the ball in the opponents’ half, quick and intricate passing and significantly, efficiency in front of goal saw Milan go unbeaten for the remainder of the season.
While the disappointment of not getting past Juve in the Coppa Italia semis following a controversial first leg left a stain, a record of nine wins and three draws from 12 games shot the club right back in European contention. By that point, the objective was finishing fifth and direct entry to the Europa League group stage, but their main rivals for that place Roma also experienced an upturn in form and would claim that honour.
Remember the mention of drama at the club? During an encounter with Sassuolo which would eventually be won, Rangnick announced he would not be taking the Milan job and hours later the club confirmed Pioli would sign a contract extension. The reasons for the sudden U-Turn requires a separate article in itself, but with the feel good way the club ended the campaign, the joy of the players on the field and all at least now being in harmony, there is much too look forward to from Milan.
The Coach - Marco Giampaolo/Stefano Pioli
Giampaolo came into the club with a wave of optimism behind him, but his inability to connect with the players with his reported aloof and stand-offish personality meant that his tenure petered out soon. Pioli was tasked with fixing the mess left behind and he did it with humility, positivity and even ultimately attractive football. It earned him a brand-new spanking two year contract. Now it's up to him to advise on the players he needs to carry on the solid work he has done so far.
Player of the Year - Theo Hernandez
Personally scouted by Paolo Maldini in Ibiza during the off-season, the French man took to the San Siro like a duck to water. He was a measure of consistency throughout the entire season. His marauding runs down the left, ability to put the ball in the back of the net (including a spectacular volley against Udinese) and his presence always excites. He does need to improve on the defensive side of things, but in a campaign of up and down displays, his was an ever present.
Highlight – Fightback stuns Juventus
There was no trophy on the line, it was not a clash in the knock-out round of the Coppa Italia or in Europe, but as Milan's own Twitter page exclaimed after the 4-2 triumph: MAMMA MIA!!! Il Diavolo had not beaten their rivals for 11 matches in total and after going behind 0-2, it seemed inevitable another defeat was in order. However, a four-goal blitz in the space of 18 second-half minutes gave players and fans alike an immense and unexpected joy. Needless to say, Ibra was heavily involved. It showed a never give up attitude that has been lacking in recent years, one which they must build on going forward.
Nightmare - Taken apart by Atalanta
Milan ended the calendar year 2019 with the worst performance in recent memory, a 0-5 drubbing in Bergamo. It was not only the score-line that was alarming, but the performance of the players. It seemed that they just gave up and did not show the will to fight, and considering they were only 0-1 down at the hour mark, they had enough time to show their mettle. On the other hand, it was the humiliation the club needed to agree Zlatan was required.
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