Only 18 months ago, AC Milan fans packed the Piazza del Duomo celebrating with flares, chants, and greeting their heroes on the bus as the players showed off their first Scudetto in 11 years.
Many defined it as an unexpected title triumph that was conquered through tremendous team camaraderie, a willingness to fight, and a clear project on the pitch where a real sense of identity was formed for the first time since the Silvio Berlusconi era.
Most would agree that Inter were the team more built to win the league that season with the strength in their squad, only unstuck by some poor managerial decisions from Simone Inzaghi, including their 2-1 loss to Stefano Pioli’s men in the derby which ultimately turned the tide.
There is no doubt Milan’s title was fully deserved and was not ‘handed’ to them by Ionut Radu’s comical error against Bologna. In saying that, perhaps it covered some long-term cracks which are now slowly coming to the forefront.
Arriving into the new 2022-23 season as defending champions, Milan’s struggles in Serie A outlined that they were not ready to juggle multiple competitions.
Despite what some might suggest as an easier route to the Champions League semi-finals, albeit well-earned, the humiliating manner in which they were eliminated by Inter summed up the vast discrepancy between the two squads in terms of both quality and depth.
For all of the criticism that has come Pioli’s way over the past weeks and in spurts last season, what he has achieved so far with both current and past players is simply quite remarkable given that his roster has never been boasted with the necessary talent pool across the board.
It was only a few months ago that the 58-year-old was forced to choose between Alexis Saelemaekers, Junior Messias, and also Samu Castillejo the season prior down the right wing.
During the recent summer transfer market, all hope that was lost after Paolo Maldini’s departure was soon transformed into immense scepticism as Sandro Tonali was sold to Newcastle United for a club-record €70m fee.
Right from minute one, owner Gerry Cardinale has stayed firm regarding his vision involving a sustainable financial approach whilst also building a strong competitive squad for the long haul. As a result, that Tonali cash would end up being spread out across the board to help strengthen the squad compared to the position it found itself in last season.
Christian Pulisic and Samuel Chukwueze are a massive upgrade to what Pioli had previously on the right flank, as the American in particular has demonstrated a positive start. For the fact that Giroud isn’t getting any younger, Noah Okafor has played his part off the bench as a back-up option in the centre-forward position, as well as a back-up to Rafael Leao.
The midfield was another major concern leading in, and Milan supporters were adamant that at least two new signings were required. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tiijani Reijnders, and Yunus Musah have settled in like they’ve been at the club for years, displaying maturity combined with technical quality coupled with much-welcomed energy and intensity.
To add to their depth, Milan opted for Luka Jović and Luka Romero as well as centre-back Marco Pellegrino intending to rotate the squad throughout the season as a result of multiple competition commitments.
#ACMilan's record in Serie A since the last break…
➤ Two draws and two defeats
➤ Four goals scored, six conceded
➤ Average points per game: 0.5
➤ Points lost on Inter and Juve: 7 vs. 10 (the Nerazzurri have a game in hand)
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) November 12, 2023
Although those new arrivals have made the squad better on paper, the 2-2 draw to Lecce over the weekend underlined the harsh reality that Milan yet again is in a position where they lack the appropriate depth to last the circa 50 games that each season contains.
A common trend is occurring in the sense that whenever Pioli decides to chop and change the team – as evident with the midfield inclusion of Tommaso Pobega and Rade Krunić – meaning Milan’s consistency frustratingly fluctuates. There are no signs to suggest that the role players understand the system as opposed to the usual regular starters.
Further examples stress the over-reliance of players in key positions. How many times has the storyline revolved around Rafael Leão needing to be in top form for Milan to look threatening in the final third and stand any sort of chance? Without him, does Milan really have a suitable replacement who can at least put in a consistent shift?
Limping off with a hamstring injury less than 10 minutes on the clock at the Stadio Via del Mare, the two goals scored by his team-mates should not be enough to fool you. Without him, where does that world-class spark emerge?
Eye-opening statistics involving the Portuguese star support a worrying trend. Out of the seven games that Leão did not start last season, Milan picked up seven points out of a possible 21.
Englishman Fikayo Tomori has acted as a stonewall for the backline, especially since the season recommenced. After the heavy 5-1 derby defeat to Inter recently, Tomori had contributed to a 66.7% win percentage as opposed to a 26.7% win percentage when the former Chelsea defender was out of action. If you put it this way; a reckless Thiaw, an out-of-favour/unit Kalulu and the unknown in the form of Pellegrino shouldn’t fill anyone with any real ounce of assurance.
Loftus-Cheek arguably played the game of his career against Paris Saint-Germain at the San Siro, yet without his presence a few days later against Lecce, Milan seemed lost for answers which was more obvious in the second half.
➤ 10 games, 7 wins, 1 draw, 2 defeats
➤ 1.7 goals per game
➤ 2.2 points per game
When he didn't play:
➤ 5 games, 1 win, 2 draws, 2 defeats
➤ 0.6 goals per game
➤ 1 point per game pic.twitter.com/LymVd89PDB
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) November 9, 2023
People will point to some ridiculously bad fortune with the injury toll piling up as every day passes. A total of 24 injuries would be a headache even for Pep Guardiola to manage, but Milan has faced the same adversity for as long as memory serves, including the Scudetto win back in 2022.
From September 2020 to December 2021, Radio Rossonera uncovered that Milan’s squad had missed over 100 more Serie A matches than any other Italian club. Those same problems haven’t vanished, but it cannot be an excuse to deflect away from the clubs’ depth concerns.
Putting that all to one side, the quality that was on the bench against Lecce is simply not enough to be vying for trophies and making a deep run in Europe, despite the fact they went 2-0 up in the first half.
Jović and Alessandro Florenzi’s best days seem to be behind them. As stated before, Okafor has not been terrible, but there’s a reason why Pioli decides to stick with a 37-year-old striker who is a proven goal scorer consistently.
Yes, it’s great to see some youth on the bench with the likes of Lapo Nava and Davide Bartesaghi gaining experience within the first-team environment. However, surely this is proof that when Milan are hit with injuries and suspensions, the limited depth becomes more noticeable.
All of the hype surrounding the new acquaintances seems to have slowly drifted away. Let’s remember, this team finished in fifth place just outside the Champions League places last campaign, but because they qualified for Europe’s premier competition at Juventus’ expense, perhaps more action needed to be taken during the transfer window.
A lack of depth equates to inconsistent results and performances; something that Milan fans are used to by now. The situation at present in November should be a worry: there is no reliable centre-forward for Giroud to alternate with, there is no deputy left-back and there is a shortage of centre-backs, while some would argue a natural No.6 was not acquired.
That begs the following question: without serious investment, and investment that does not follow the sale of a core team member, will Milan ever be able to go toe-toe with the world’s very best? The answers might just come sooner rather than later.