Can AC Milan emulate former glory?

Can AC Milan emulate former glory?

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The return of The Rossoneri: Can AC Milan emulate former glory?

When Italian side AC Milan get mentioned, many think of Paolo Maldini, Marco Van Basten, Kaka, Ruud Gullit and Andrea Pirlo to name only a few, but the past five years have seen a side nowhere near as glamorous or full of quality. Recent form brought on by manager Vincenzo Montella sees a side hungry for victory and looking transformed by the new gaffer, with them looking far more like the team who many enjoyed over a century of success. For the first time in several years, the future looks bright in the red half of the San Siro, but is this a guaranteed sign that AC Milan are returning to their rightful place in Italian football?

The last season where Milan were playing up to expectations was in 2011, where they finished second, winning the Supercoppa Italiana and reaching the Champions League Quarter-finals. It followed a Serie A league title in the previous season, with their squad boasting an impressive array of players consisting of veteran forwards Antonio Cassano and Filippo Inzaghi, Manchester City outcast Robinho, reliable defenders Thiago Silva, Gianluca Zambrotta and Alessandro Nesta, the elite midfield trio of Gennaro Gattuso, Mark van Bommel and Clarence Seedorf as well as star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Manager Massimiliano Allegri made a grave error though, allowing Andrea Pirlo to leave after hinting he was past his best, only for him to become a leader for Juventus and still be playing today.

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Andrea Pirlo at Milan (left) and Juventus (right). The midfielder reinvented himself at Juventus as a holding player, with many arguing that he improved with age since his move to Turin.

Pirlo’s irreplaceable leadership was clearly missed, with the next summer transfer window seeing the side’s two most valuable and in-form players, Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, leaving to Paris Saint-Germain, who were recently bought out by a massively wealthy Qatari firm. Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato also made a departure back to his home county, which was a shame after he showed masses of potential since joining at the age of 18 and jumping straight into the starting eleven. The only silver linings were the arrivals of promising young attack Stephan El Shaarawy, seventeen-year-old winger M’Baye Niang, temperamental midfielder Nigel De Jong and controversial striker Mario Balotelli.

An issue around the time was that many of the older players who had shown themselves to be crucial in the side’s success had reached an age where they were either retiring or making one last transfer before they consider their future, including players as important as Alessandro Nesta, Filippo Inzaghi, Gianluca Zambrotta, Genarro Gatusso, Mark van Bommel Clarence Seedorf. By 2014, they had finished eighth in Serie A, losing their usual Champions League spot and showing masses of uncertainty over who was best to lead the side as well as who was good enough to play for the side.

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Mario Balotelli playing for Milan against Udinese in the 2013/14 season.

Honorary Club President Silvio Berlusconi showed utter confusion over the right direction for Milan to go in. They continued to bring in players, giving them iconic shirt numbers, hyping up their love for the club and which former player the idolised, but always seeing them end up as flops. Queens Park Rangers midfielder Adel Taarabt, Valencia centre-back Adil Rami, veteran Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien, Japanese attacker Keisuke Honda, former Liverpool striker Fernando Torres and Italian forward Alessandro Matri are all fine examples of that philosophy, now all away from the club apart from Honda, who’s only made five appearances this season.

There was clear instability at the club since their last cup win in 2011, as the club have had six managers in charge since then and countless transfers that wasted millions of euros and didn’t have a positive impact on performances. Not only were they out of the Champions League with little sign of a likely return, they also had become a club that would finish at a stable top half position, where they should be aiming higher considering their vast history of success. Even last season’s seventh place finish wasn’t enough, where the club’s board had finally seen enough, hiring Vincenzo Montella, who had shown himself to be a interesting young manager from his time at Fiorentina and Sampdoria.

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Vincenzo Montella took over in June, coming from Sampdoria where he was in charge for just seven months.

Vincenzo Montella came in with the fierce outlook that the team needed, giving twenty-seven players their marching orders, sending a further seventeen out on loan to better their development. He only made four signings, spending a mere €20m, which was far less compared to previous seasons, where millions were spent with hopes that something good could come from an underwhelming transfer target. His first month in charge didn’t show all that much promise, especially against Napoli, where they lost 4-2, made worse by having two players dismissed after being easily frustrated by their opposition.

It’s been since then that their form has improved drastically, now looking a far more threatening side, winning ten and drawing three of seventeen league games. They currently sit fifth but have spent moments higher in the division, with a perfectly likely chance of making a heroic return back to the Champions League next season. Striker Carlos Bacca has spent a lot of time being their best player by a distance since his arrival from Sevilla in 2015, but now operates as part of a strong attack that also consists of former Liverpool attacker Suso, Italian midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura, forward Gianluca Lapadula and M’Baye Niang, who have an accumulative twenty goals and eleven assists.

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Carlos Bacca celebrating a goal with team-mates Riccardo Montolivo, Giacomo Bonaventura, M’Baye Niang, Alessandro Romagnoli and Suso.

Their biggest test came against in the final of the Supercoppa Italiana, where they were facing off against Juventus, who had taken their place at the top of Italian football, winning the league for the last five seasons in a row and always beating every other side to the biggest and best signings. It made the game even more important as they were going up against Massimiliano Allegri, who had gained his place in Turin just six months after he was sacked as Milan manager. The Red and Blacks went into the game looking strong, especially with seventeen-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal, who has been an incredible example of the sort of players that the club can produce after playing as their number one ‘keeper this season.

The Old Lady took the lead after seventeen minutes, where defender Giorgio Chiellini volleyed a blasted shot past Donnarumma. Milan looked composed immediately after and managed to get on the scoresheet before half-time, with Bonaventura heading the ball into the corner of Gianluigi Buffon’s goal following a perfectly swooping Suso cross. They played out the rest of the game as a draw, with it going to penalties after an ineffective extra-time for both sides. It was a tense shootout, helped by Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala missing their spot-kicks, leaving young midfielder Mario Pasalic to net the winning penalty, grabbing Milan their first cup in five years against the best side in the country.

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Gianluigi Donnarumma celebrating his part in the penalty shootout against Juventus.

Now, it’s not to say that this single cup win could push them on to becoming the elite side they were a few short years ago, but it’s a sign that they’re finally going in the right direction. They’ve pulled away from spending big in the hope that players who have experienced former glory will be able to do the business for them, instead opting for clever transfers that don’t break the bank and are tactically conducted to have a positive impact on the side. They also have a manager who has assured stability for Fiorentina and Sampdoria in past years, with an even mind over proceedings rather than being a former player who the fans love but has little experience in charge of a club.

It can’t be a coincidence that as soon as the deadwood is cleared from the squad and a manager who knows the league better comes in they start performing better. A side as gigantic in stature and past successes as AC Milan must be ran in the correct way and if they continue to push for a high finish in the table, they would achieve a Champions League position in the next campaign. Then, who knows what they could be capable of.

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