AC Milan have once again found themselves in a real predicament, exactly as they did one year ago while Gennato Gattuso was still in charge.
Well, it wasn’t exactly a year ago in truth. Gattuso, in his first full season as Rossoneri boss, had led his side on a run of three defeats in four up until the 31st round of action, including defeats in that period against Inter and Juventus.
However, we all know how the team ended the season; ultimately finishing just one point outside of the top four as Atalanta and Inter both avoided scares on the final matchday of the season to keep the Diavolo at bay.
It was reported by most media outlets before the end of last season that Gattuso was leaving as Elliott Management Corporation wanted to go in a different direction, one based around bringing in young players to develop on low-cost deals that would improve the balance sheets.
Sporting director Leonardo left too in what essentially sparked yet another revolution, and it was one that surprisingly didn’t really split the fanbase despite such a stellar end to the season and being so close to the major objective in a top four finish.
The proviso was though that Elliott would go out and get a top coach, like Antonio Conte, Maurizio Sarri or Max Allegri – one that had won major honours and knew the Italian game inside out. Marco Giampaolo arrived and lasted just 111 days, Stefano Pioli took over despite protests against his appointment, fast forward nine months and here we are.
But in fact to simply ‘fast forward’ the last nine months would be ill-befitting of Pioli’s rollercoaster reign. To put it in a simplistic sense, the results didn’t come at first despite an improvement in performances against tough opponents, then the results began to come but there were inconsistencies, and now both the results and the style of play has fans purring.
Milan have essentially found themselves at another incredibly daunting crossroads. Just as Gattuso found himself on the chopping block a year ago despite the work he had done, Pioli knows the same fate awaits him and Ralf Rangnick will be taking his place.
What the Rossoneri management did – more specifically Giampaolo – was undo the positives of Gattuso’s legacy pretty quickly. A complete change in playing style came which alienated certain members of the squad and ruined the overall cohesion, while only young players were signed who struggled to adapt.
It is probably no coincidence that Rino has since gone to Napoli and done a stellar job, and wherever Pioli goes next could lead to a similar sense of regret – that is the risk at play here.
Milan have no choice now and they have to double down on the decision that they have made in entering another new era under Rangnick. What is absolutely crucial though is that this time the positives of the last nine months and in particular what we have seen over the past five games is not forgotten about.
For starters, a core has been built. Donnarumma, Romagnoli, Kjaer, Theo Hernandez, Kessie, Bennacer and Rebic are all players who should be built around, while even the divisive Calhanoglu, Leao and Paqueta have shown very promising signs recently.
In addition, Pioli has seemingly completely healed the group from a psychological standpoint. He inherited a side who were mentally broken after a torrid first seven games, and while he only accrued one point from the first run of games against Roma, Lazio, Juventus and Napoli, he is already on nine out of nine this time around with a trip to Naples coming up this Saturday.
The cohesion is back and the team look like they enjoy playing. There is a good spirit in the group which is seen every day at Milanello, and the train has just kept rolling. Wise additions in January such as Ibrahimovic and Kjaer – upon Pioli’s request – have added a resilience and mental toughness that was sorely lacking.
Then there is the game system that Pioli has developed. The actual formation seems to be flexible and can shift wildly from a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 in game; what is most important is that the team now press intelligently, play with energy for 90 minutes, manage games much better and counter-attack with frightening speed and efficiency.
Not only is Pioli working with class, humility, dignity and the utmost professionalism through what must be a difficult time, but he is doing a simply fantastic job too.
Milan and Gazidis have made their bed though: Rangnick will arrive and the word ‘revolution’ will be thick in the air again for seemingly the tenth summer in a row.
What is important – and this cannot be stressed enough – is that it is an evolution not a revolution. Rangnick can arrive and build on the solid foundations that Pioli has slaved for nine months to put in place, and from it the Rossoneri could have something really special.
If the choice is made to rip it up and start again, don’t be surprised if the results are as bad as the start of this season. Patience is key in football but Milan fans have waited long enough.
At long last they have a team that is not only competing with the top sides in the league but beating them handsomely. Undoing all that good work would be foolish.