A.C. Milan: The rebirth of a sleeping giant


DeMartin Soccer Complex/ Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

Luca Melloni, Soccer Beat Reporter

It’s been ten years since the giants of Italian soccer, A.C. Milan, were crowned champions of Italy’s top-flight soccer league, Serie A.

Juventus, Italy’s most successful team domestically, has won the competition for the ninth straight season. Teams like Lazio, Inter, and Napoli have come close, but Juventus’ budget for signing significant players, ala Cristiano Ronaldo, makes it difficult for other teams to compete with them.

Milan continues to be one of the most successful clubs the soccer world has ever seen, despite its recent lackluster history. It is evident that when new, young players like Sandro Tonali see the seven Champions League trophies, 18 Serie A titles, and five Coppa Italia trophies within the team’s facilities, Milan can once again reach that pinnacle of sustained excellence. 

After years of rebuilding squads, restructuring the club as a whole, and developing a new philosophy, Milan looks to be ready to head into a successful 2020 campaign after years of mediocrity and disappointment.

What changed?

Consistency in management, intelligent player recruitment, and passion from the executives to regain success.

It all started when the Elliott Management Corporation took over the club from Chinese billionaire Li YongHong, who failed to repay a loan of over $300 million euros and had to be bought out.

In the Li era, money was injected all over the club, especially when it came to transfers. In the summer transfer window of 2017, Milan signed several talented players to reinvigorate the squad.

Although this economic philosophy worked for some clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, it caused more problems on the pitch for Milan. The players that joined in the summer of 2017 like Hakan Calhanoglu, Frank Kessie, and Andre Silva, failed to gel together and showcase their strengths.

Fielding an entirely new group of players with an average age of 25 coming from different nations and expecting them to compete with Juventus was an unreal standard for the head coach at the time, Vincenzo Montella.

During the same time, Milan had on and off results, new players who failed to perform, and a revolving door of coaches/directors.

On the other hand, positive signs were coming from the team.

The young Italian goalkeeping prodigy Gianluigi Donnarumma debuted at the age of 16 under coach Sinisa Mihajlovic and Alessio Romagnoli, 23, was listed as one of the best young defenders in 2017.

For Milan fans, this was a step in the right direction.

When the Elliott Management Corporation took over in July 2018, the club needed to create a structure that could field a winning side without repeating the same mistakes in the Li and Silvio Berlusconi era.

They had to restructure the club with the right executives, scouts, and management that embodied the philosophy that the club intended to pursue.

In 2018, club legend Paolo Maldini joined as the technical director, and Ivan Gazidis was hired as the club’s CEO.

Gazidis, the former CEO of Arsenal FC, had an objective to use the funds Elliott supplied to carefully craft a team with the right players at the right price. Unlike two years ago, they did not want to throw money at players who did not fit the team’s vision.

With Maldini now at the helm of transfer decisions, the club saw players come in who could mesh with the players already there and help improve the team.

Milan employed Marco Giampaolo as the head coach at the start of the 2019 season, but Giampaolo found himself on the hotseat halfway through the season. Gazidis fired Giampaolo in October 2019, and Stefano Pioli, a well-respected coach in Italy, was immediately hired.

Although Pioli’s appointment was questioned at first by the media and fans, it took a few months of implementing his player-management skills and football philosophy to turn the heads of Milan fans.

A few names like Zlatan Ibrahimović, Ante Rebic, and Alexis Saelemaekers began to flourish under Pioli. More importantly, this team was winning in a variety of ways again.

Pioli brought a playing style that suited the strengths of his best players in key positions. His use of Calhanoglu at the No. 10 role and Ismaël Bennacer in the “regista” role helped his team go on a massive winning streak, beating teams like Lazio and Roma along the way.

Milan went from 13th place in the table since Pioli’s hiring to 6th place at the end of the season, clinching a Europa League playoff spot. Apart from their wonderful stretch of results, this team also showcased some of the best soccer in the league. The movement of players and the tight defensive tactics that Pioli coached were some of the best that Milan supporters witnessed in a long time.

Heading into the 2020-2021 season, Milan rightfully extended Pioli’s contract as head coach and they acquired a couple of talented players to add depth to the current roster.

Among those signings, Brahim Diaz (on loan from Real Madrid) and Sandro Tonali (on loan with an obligation to buy from Brescia) highlight the direction that Milan wants to move forward in. Milan wants youth and quality that can blend in with their current squad.

Now, Milan looks to build off their impressive second half of last season and compete against the other teams in Italy that also strengthened in the transfer market. This will be a difficult season for the biggest teams in Serie A, so hopefully, we will see one of the tightest title races across Europe’s elite.