What exactly has gone wrong? A question that is surely resonating heavily with the fans and hopefully with the management.
It is a very valid question when considering that not even six months ago everyone involved at the club were celebrating and reflecting on a huge achievement in lifting the Scudetto. However, those same individuals involved – from the players to the management and strikingly Pioli – seem the furthest thing away from that team that lifted the coveted league trophy.
So, the next question is, where do Milan go from here? A holistic answer is needed, with an emphasis on the change in mentality that seems to have occurred in every facet of the club. Sometimes statistics like passes per defensive action and the metrics that the modern expert love are not needed, but rather observations and opinion to cut through.
A shift in mentality has ultimately caused this winning Milan team to lose the one major strength it had, in comparison to the other teams in the league. Namely, belief, heart and the will to win.
The current league outlook
Compared to last season, Milan are not that much worse off, especially considering we are not yet officially halfway through the season (due to the World Cup). There are however differences – major differences – that in the face of it make the situation far worse than this time last season.
Firstly there is the competition, given that the team ahead of Milan in the standings are Napoli and they are nine points in front. Not only that, but they are showing no signs of slowing down, with minimal injuries and test after test passed.
Then looking at the teams chasing the Rossoneri, there is Juventus and Inter a mere one point behind, then the two Rome clubs and Atalanta are only four points behind. Inter and Juve breathing down Milan’s necks is even more concerning when looking at how poor both teams started the season, Juventus in particular, implying they had another gear to go into.
Therefore, with these differences in mind and even with the glass half full outlook in mind, even though Milan are technically not much worse off in comparison to last season, it is very clear that in fact they are.
Looking at form, every team around Milan in the top six have had a better run of games, if not in terms of points accrued then most definitely in terms of performance, with Milan’s last objectively good game being back in October against Monza.
These are almost non-negotiable certainties that Milan are a much worse team in almost every sense. So the next question is this: where and when do Pioli and the players take the much-needed turn in form?
Putting the doom and gloom aside for the moment let’s quickly take stock. Aside from some major oversights in the transfer market 0 namely losing two key starters in Kessie and Romagnoli without proper starter quality replacements – the team left are more than capable of putting out more convincing performances that what are currently being churned out.
This is even more true when considering most of last season Pioli did not even have at his disposal his preferred starting XI and had to often ‘make do’ with what he had. This brings the mentality or lack thereof into full view, as it is seemingly the one thing that is severely lacking from this team.
As stated at the start, it was Milan’s greatest weapon and biggest advantage in comparison especially to the other teams and eventually saw the club to reaching the zenith and the league title.
The hope of Europe
Now, in terms of the current Champions League campaign, the jury is still out on whether the clear mentality problem will infect this season’s hopes, but it doesn’t look good currently. This is an area that regardless of the overall worse performances and inherent lack of concentration, the club, players and Pioli have improved in comparison to our title winning season.
Milan are due to play their first knockout stage UCL tie since the 2013-14 season, against Tottenham. This aspect has been a success as Milan were able to progress from the groups fairly convincingly in the end, despite the awful two matches against Chelsea.
It remains to be seen if the recent struggles and downturn in form will seep into Europe or if indeed the team might actually have a resurgence before that first leg in mid-February, but it must be put forward that a high stakes match could be what the team need to get fully fired up.
However, only a couple of days ago against Inter, the players and Pioli out one of the most drab and turgid performances of his tenure as they lost 3-0 against the city rivals in Saudi Arabia, thus seeing another trophy opportunity vanish into thin air.
Focusing on Pioli directly, it does seem that the ‘Pioli’s on fire’ chants have died out in line with the managers ‘magic touch’. Before this current rut, the head coach was always able to motivate and get the best out of what he had regardless of result at least in terms of effort and heart.
Pioli demonstrated both in the post-lockdown run, the season in which Milan finished second and of course the Scudetto winning campaign that he was able to juggle the injury crises and the lack of squad depth that sometimes led him to putting square pegs in round holes, rotating effectively and making the style of play combined with intensity the things that set the team apart.
These intangibles unfortunately, do not seem to be there anymore, and the worry is if this mentality malaise that surrounds the club currently will continue in the UCL.
Moving forward into next season
Where does this leave the team next year? The minerals of the team that hoisted the Scudetto are still there, the major players that were pivotal in the squad’s success will still be at Milan next season (providing Leao renews), so all is not lost.
If Pioli is able to get the team focused again and rebound from difficulties as he has in the past, and the squad are able stop the silly errors that are costing important points, then there is no reason to say that next season won’t be a success.
The issue is that it is genuinely unclear where the team will finish, in what state, in what position in the table and most importantly in what mental condition. The need for finishing top four cannot be stressed enough, whether you subscribed to the view that Milan should be defending the title or not, top four and continuous Champions League football is a pre-requisite for the stability of the project.
Paolo Maldini himself essentially stated after the Scudetto success at the end of May that the Scudetto win was an overachievement and that this is a squad that are still two or three significant additions are needed to make progress in the UCL.
The way that the economics of European football work now means that the bare minimum is continuous Champions League football. It is the only guaranteed way the club can evolve, as Maldini has stated many times, regardless of where you might fall in the Scudetto race. Finishing fifth by one point could arguably be more damaging that finishing second by one point.
A closing statement of hope: there is more football to play this season than has been played. Pioli and the players have achieved a step forward in the current European journey and the current period of difficult can be overcome. A win against Lazio in Rome would certainly be an excellent step towards restoring the belief that made this young and fearless core do what we thought was impossible.