Capello, Zaccheroni and now Pioli: Milan and the art of how not to defend the Scudetto

By Oliver Fisher -

AC Milan are on course for the worst title defence in modern Serie A history, but following a Scudetto-winning season with a disappointing campaign is nothing new for the Rossoneri.

Milan are heading into the current international break 23 points behind the current leaders Napoli having gone winless in the league during the month of March and after experiencing a terrible start to the year domestically.

However, the 1990s is living proof that the tricolore actually rarely brings a period of sustained dominance with Italy for Milan, despite having some of the best sides in Europe at the time.

Capello’s collapse

The season is 1994-95. Milan come into the campaign having won the league under Capello with 19 wins, 12 draws, 3 defeats in 1993-94. That team amassed 69 points – five more than eventual runners-up Juventus – and were led by the 11-goal scorer Daniele Massaro, five more than Juventus.

It was one of those season where Milan took the ascendancy and never really looked back, as barring a solitary blip in the 10th round they were top for every single matchday, and despite not winning in their final six games the title was a stroll.

Der ungefährlichste Meister aller Zeiten: Capellos AC Milan 1993/1994 - ballorientiert

However, the following year things never really got going under Capello as his side won only three of their first 10 games, and were 11th after 13 rounds of the season. They had a rampant run of 9 wins in 11 games to climb up to third that started at the end of February, but finished fourth with 60 points, 13 points behind leaders Juventus.

The problem for the main part is that the 1993-94 side benefitted from an incredible defensive record in which they conceded just 15 goals in 34 league games, and that worsened to 32 conceded the next year with only Marco Simone (17 goals) hitting double figures.

The transfer business done was largely viewed as disappointing, with the likes of Jean-Pierre Pain and Brian Laudrup leaving in the summer while signings like Gianluca Sordo and the return of Ruud Gullit did not really work out.

However, the decision to seemingly focus on the European campaign almost paid dividends as the Rossoneri made it all the way to the final in Vienna, losing 1-0 to Ajax. They also won the European Super Cup against Arsenal 2-0 in February.

At the same stage of the season, Capello’s team were 16 points off the leaders, making them the joint-second worst title defenders after 27 games in Serie A.

Tabárez and Sacchi suffer

Milan were still under the orders of Capello when they won the league in the 1995-96 season with 73 points. It was an impressive run of 21 wins, 10 draws and three defeats that saw the Diavolo finish eight points clear of Juventus, while they scored 60 goals and only let in 24. They were top from round four onwards, and never looked back.

However, Capello left Milan after five seasons to join Real Madrid, and the Uruguayan coach Óscar Tabárez was the gamble taken to replace him. It would not pay off, as Milan won seven of their first 17 games and by round 19 they were in 12th place.

The decision was made after 12 games to sack Tabárez and replace him with the legendary Arrigo Sacchi who had just left his post as head coach of the Italian national team, but overall the campaign would be a disaster.

Milan Associazione Calcio 1996-1997 - Wikipedia

Milan won only 11 of 34 games in the league that season, drawing 10 and losing 13. They scored only 43 goals and let in 45; only once since then have the Rossoneri had a negative goal difference. They would finish in 11th place, 22 points behind Juventus.

The new signings like Christophe Dugarry, Edgar Davids, Michael Reiziger, Pietro Vierchowod and Jesper Blomqvist (in January) were meant to add to a core of leaders like Franco Baresi, Dejan Savićević, Roberto Baggio, Mauro Tassotti, Sebastiano Rossi, Zvonimir Boban, George Weah, Paolo Maldini, Demetrio Albertini, Alessandro Costacurta and Marcel Desailly.

In truth though they didn’t inject the freshness required and the team really suffered in the absence of a decorated coach like Capello, going out in the group stages of the Champions League, being knocked out in the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia and losing the Supercoppa final.

At the same stage in the season the Rossoneri were 16 points off leaders Juventus, the same as they were under Capello in 1994-95.

Zaccheroni’s false dawn

Milan had won the league the previous season (98-99) under the guidance of head coach Alberto Zaccheroni when many had written them out of the title race prior to a ball being kicked, but in truth the underperformance of traditional powerhouses Inter and Juventus (who finished 7th and 8th) meant it was a straight shootout with Lazio.

In the end the Rossoneri beat Lazio to the title in last game of season after winning their final seven games and taking advantage of a slip-up from Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side. Zaccheroni’s men finished with 70 points – 20 wins, 10 draws and 4 losses – and were led by Oliver Bierhoff’s 19 goals.

However, the follow-up season was yet again disappointing. Milan won two of their first six games and were outside the top four by the halfway stage of the season. They had a run of three defeats in five games which started in March and finished third, 11 points behind eventual champions Lazio.

The story of the season was the emergence of Andriy Shevchenko, who had joined from Dynamo Kyiv and would finish as top scorer in Serie A with 24 goals, eventually becoming a talisman for the next seven years.

However, the other arrivals such as Diego De Ascentis, José Antonio Chamot, José Mari and Taribo West all disappointed, but a young Gennaro Gattuso and Serginho would become part of the core for the future.

Virtually every other competition was a disaster too, with Milan crashing out of the Champions League group stage after one win in six games, losing over two legs to Inter in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals and also being defeated by Parma in the Supercoppa.

At the same stage in the season, the Diavolo were 10 points behind leaders Lazio who would go on to win their first league title since 1973/74 and avenge the previous year.

Present under Pioli

That brings us to the present day where everyone knows the situation, and there are plenty of similarities to draw from those title-winning sides in the 1990s.

The excellent defensive record saw only two goals conceded in the final 11 games like Capello’s squad in 1993-94, and the run of six wins to end the campaign was akin to the impressive run under Zaccheroni in 1998-99.

However, familiar mistakes have also been repeated such as the inability to address gaps in the squad during underwhelming transfer windows, as many blame the 2022 summer mercato for being one of the root causes of the current struggles.

Milan are on a good European run having reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League just like they did in 1994-95 but have done nothing to shout about in domestic competitions, again continuing a trend.

Going from having a consistently high-level defence to a team leaking goals is also a theme that has been replicated, with Milan having conceded more goals than only Cremonese and Salernitana in the league so far in 2023.

If there is a manual on how to defend the Scudetto, Milan’s name probably would not feature that much. Of course, there have been instances of successful eras such as the three league titles in a row from 1991-92 to 1993-94, but history shows that the Rossoneri tend to struggle to seize the moment and capitalise on their momentum.

Tags AC Milan


    1. Massaro and Simone were not “god like”. In fact there’s only be a handful of “god like” players in the history of football and that included Baresi and Maldini.

      But this notion that there were once these mythical creatures who roamed the San Siri is nonsense. If anything the reduced number of transfers meant the quality was probably lower but the stability was higher and it’s stability that’s key.

      And what happened in the above second seasons was that a Milan team had got out of its groove, and new signings had brought instability but not much quality, much as this.

  1. While the evaluation of what happens after a title winning season is true the comparison between the current team and those of the last are a bit unfair. None of those previous teams had to defend against a record breaking form team. Even when Juve broke the record, their next season was off their own record breaking pace by 13 points. Let’s say on the high end the average points per season for a title winner is around 85 points, our current form will put us at around 15 points behind which about normal for teams that have failed to defend the title.
    Besides were really in and around the ball park of fighting for top 4 so our level is around what the rest of Serie A is despite the despair in the comments section

  2. Can u plz provide a believable answer as to why you and the Sempre lackeys choose to NEVER criticize Milan ownership? Its INSANITY that supporters of a Club would just blindly back owners plans to increase their own wealth over improving the Club. But that is EXACTLY what you all continue to do on a daily basis. On what planet is “Financial prudence” something that FANS of any Professional Team should support? “Financial Prudence” is just fancy language for CHEAP. This idea that Milan can’t spend money is a JOKE. Milan is one of the wealthiest clubs in Europe and the owners should be held to the same spending standard as their peers. The only benefits for fans like yourself in supporting a strategy of financial prudence are hypothetical AT BEST. There is absolutely ZERO evidence to suggest that Clubs who prioritize prudence over spending end up better off in the short or long term than Clubs who spend money, even wildly and on junk players like Milan did from ’15-’19. Too many Milan supporters have PTSD from this period and assume that because for a period of time Milan spent wildly and it backfired that spending in general is a terrible strategy. This is such backwards thinking and it’s KILLING the dominant Club Milan has the potential to become. Milan fans need to IMMEDIATELY stop trusting everything they hear from ownership or their BFFs in the Italian media who are paid to promote the anti-spend agenda. Fans need to blow up the message boards, comment sections etc discussing how PATHETIC Elliot/Redbird has been in supporting this club financially over the last 3 seasons. They’ve let player after player walk and replaced that player with a solid,fddrr4jx7🤮🎂🤷‍♂️🤷‍♂️🚮🥺🤷‍♂️ CHEAPER alternative which is wonderful. But why in bleeps name do we as fans give a bleep whether Maldini and co can keep discovering diamonds in the rough? This is AC Milan for god’s sake, we’re an INCREDIBLY wealthy club regardless of what ownership leads you to believe. When we lose a player making X dollars than that money should IMMEDIATELY be reinvested back into the Club. Instead that money goes back into the pockets of ownership and their investors. Unfortunately Ollie this new way forward needs to start at the top with people like you in the Milan media. STOP kissing ownership bleep and carrying their water every time they make a CHEAP move. Start putting pressure on the Club to SPEND. I understand it’s not pretty because a large majority of your listener base are boomers who think “players these days are too rich and powerful etc..” And so they just LOATHE the idea of spending money to improve the club they allegedly care about. But it’s 2023 and THE ONLY WAY forward towards some standard of glory comes through the almighty dollar. The sooner the Milan owners get on board the better for ALL OF US who truly care about this club. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE remember there is ZERO BENEFIT to a fan of Milan for the club to save money. We, the fans DO NOT BENEFIT even slightly when Singer pockets a few extra million to replace Kessie with Pobega or Donnarumma with Maignan

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