The systemic issues at the heart of AC Milan’s woes: Why has it gone so badly wrong for the Serie A champions?

AC Milan have won just once in 2023, are winless in seven, and have lost each of their last four. So what exactly has gone wrong for Stefano Pioli's Serie A champions?

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AC Milan’s treatment tables have had queues backed around the corner for much of the 2022/23 Serie A season. In it have stood Mike MaignanAlessandro FlorenziFode Ballo-Toure, Fikayo Tomori, Davide Calabria, and Theo Hernandez.

Three of the afflicted mentioned started over 30 times in Milan’s title-winning 2021/22 campaign. Their absence this year has been hard felt as Stefano Pioli’s side slip away from runaway leaders Napoli.

Whilst the ill fortune of these injuries to key players can’t be ignored, addressing it alone fails to acknowledge the underlying issues within the team. Issues that Pioli must continue to consider even when his trusted players return to fitness.

Ismael Bennacer after AC Milan’s Supercoppa Italiana loss. (Photo: Getty)

Disproportionate expectations

How do you follow up a triumph like 2021/22? A small but unified squad, unfancied by many to even reach the Champions League places, defying the odds to bring back a first scudetto since 2011.

Wrestling the title away from rivals inter took remarkable runs of form from key personnel. Rafael Leao exploded into life as a world-class forward, Olivier Giroud arrived to exude a level-headed winning mentality, and the likes of Tomori and Pierre Kalulu performed at a level beyond their years.

It might have been viewed as Milan’s return as a true Italian superpower. To do so, however, might have ignored the factors surrounding their success. Inter’s implosion in spring, Juventus‘ dire season, and Napoli’s challenge falling away before it ever really began. Milan’s title win was a miracle that belied their small, underfunded squad.

What followed, however, is perhaps a truer reflection of where Milan are as a project.

A malfunctioning system

Rafael Leao celebrates. (@acmilan)

Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 amalgamated his resources perfectly last season. The individual brilliance of Leao on the left wing was counterbalanced by the dogged work rate of the more limited Alexis Saelemakers on the other. Franck Kessie and Sandro Tonali formed a disciplined yet progressive pivot to cover for Ismael Bennacer’s injuries.

However, the features of that side have been stripped of fitness, form, or have left altogether. Kessie left for Barcelona, and with only three players in the squad bettering his goal tally in 21/22, there has been no midfield presence to pick up that slack. Brahim Diaz, afforded the responsibility of the creative space behind the centre-forward, has flattered to deceive and failed to kick on from his promise shown last season.

Olivier Giroud is now 36, and has never been a bonafide 20-goal-a-season striker. Coupled with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s own age/injury concerns, and Divock Origi’s dreadful start to life at the club, then Milan’s attack looks malnourished for one that is trying to defend its title.

This is all before mentioning the state of the wide options behind the brilliant Leao. Ante Rebic, Junior Messias and Alexis Saelemakers have contributed five goals and four assists in 20 combined 90s between them. One dreads to think where Milan would be without Leao’s 13 goals and assists.

AC Milan midfielder Brahim Diaz celebrates after scoring against Monza (@ACMilan)

Is there space for a no.10?

Pioli’s system is unique for its insistence on using a liberated creative midfielder. Rarely in the modern game is such a role still utilised, with the best European sides now favouring to use two interior midfielders to flood attacking areas and combine with wide players, either side of a single defensive player. See Arsenal’s use of Martin Odegaard and Granit Xhaka, or even Inter’s deployment of Nicolo Barella and and Hakan Calhanoglu.

Such a development favours a more athletic and powerful midfielder that can contribute in build-up play, and offer physicality in driving with the ball from deep. The more traditional no.10 used by Pioli, in this case Brahim or Charles De Ketelaere, are a very different mould. Their best work comes in the final third only, combining with the centre-forward and occupying the space around the penalty area’s edge, known as ‘Zone 14’.

The issue with this is that this less dynamic profile of player can be easily negated by a disciplined man-to-man marking instruction on the opposition’s deepest midfielder, and this type of player is unlikely to pull the marker around by dropping deep. It’s just not in their game style. It leaves a creative void in Milan’s side that falls almost entirely to Leao and Theo. When two players (particularly on the same side of the pitch) are so heavily relied on, the opposition’s plan can be executed much more easily.

Charles De Ketelaere in action for AC Milan against Bologna. (@acmilan)

What must Pioli do now?

First and foremost, the return of key personnel must happen before the sword swings for Pioli’s head. It would be unfair to relieve him of his duties under such circumstances, given all he achieved last season.

However, there has to be a development tactically to ensure Milan do not stagnate. This should be supported in the transfer market. De Ketelaere was an expensive and exciting signing last summer that currently looks stifled. Either Pioli must curate his system to fit the young Belgian, or they must cut ties.

Stefano Pioli. (Photo: AC Milan)

Milan’s squad is crying out for reinforcements. Quality on the right wing is essential. The threat of their left flank is so heavy in comparison that it tilts the opposition’s shape to negate its threat. A suitable back-up goalkeeper, a starting centre-forward, and centre-back depth would also go a long way to improving the squad. This is before you even consider the sale of Leao over the coming years.

The intrigue of elite-level football comes in the variations between coaching designs and systems. Pioli’s no.10 is one such anomaly in a world where that role has largely faded. At current, neither of his options to play the role are sufficient. The coach must either adapt his demands to suit a more physical interior-style player, or continue to play with nine outfield players.

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