AC Milan have lost what made them champions – can a humiliation reignite them for a second time?

AC Milan's poor start to 2023 has their title challenge fading fast, but could their recent hammering at Lazio be the spark they need to switch back on just like their 5-0 loss to Atalanta in 2019?

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STADIO OLIMPICO (Rome) – By the end, Lazio were toying with AC Milan. When Luis Alberto nutmegged Pierre Kalulu with a no-look pass to send Felipe Anderson clean through on goal, it was with the gay abandon of a player who knew one act of deception would be enough to bamboozle a ragged defence.

The Biancocelesti won by four, but it could’ve been more. It was a galling night for the reigning Serie A champions, whose defence was shredded by the relentless directness and pace of Lazio’s attacks.

But as good as the hosts were, Stefano Pioli must have been furious by the complacency of his team’s defending for the goals.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was left completely unmarked from 12 yards. Adam Marusic went clean through on goal with the simplest of overlaps. A dozing Kalulu caught Pedro to concede a penalty.

There was no shape left whatsoever by the time the Frenchman hit the turf after being nutmegged for the fourth.

The thousands of travelling Milan fans waiting in the Distinti Sud-Ovest after the game may well have been pondering one question: what has happened to the defence?

AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan. (@acmilan)

AC Milan’s defensive collapse

Last season, the Rossoneri’s title win was built on its defensive foundations.

Mike Maignan in goal was protected by a rock-solid partnership of Kalulu and Fikayo Tomori, while the dynamic Davide Calabria and flying Theo Hernandez balanced the team from the full-back positions.

No team conceded fewer goals in Serie A last year than Milan’s 31 in 38 games. By the halfway stage of the current campaign, they’ve shipped 24 in 19 matches.

That puts them on course to concede – *checks calculator* – 48 by the end of the season. That’s an enormous change, and not in a good way.

Pioli’s Rome rollicking marked the first time Milan have conceded four goals since the infamous 5-0 defeat to Atalanta in December 2019 – a game that was a watershed moment for the club, a moment to change things for good and set a course to the Scudetto.

Fikayo Tomori shows off his Serie A winner’s medal. (REUTERS/Alberto Lingria)

Hoping for a similar response this time around might be a fool’s errand. Milan have shipped 12 goals in their last five matches in a run that’s seen them dumped out of the Coppa Italia by 10-man Torino, travel all the way to Saudi Arabia to be pumped 3-0 by Inter in the Supercoppa, and take one point from three league games against Roma, Lecce and Lazio.

“A lot of things aren’t working right now, tactically and mentally,” Pioli said after the game. He’s not wrong.

Injuries alone can’t explain AC Milan form

Yes, there have been injuries. Maignan’s absence has been sorely felt, with Ciprian Tatarusanu proving to be a far-from-adequate deputy, while Hernandez missed the Lazio game and Tomori limped off early.

But things shouldn’t be this bad. The same players are still there. The same coach is still there. Yet they look like a disorganised rabble right now, and were punished badly by a Lazio side that didn’t even have its biggest goal threat on the pitch in Ciro Immobile.

It’s not a disaster. Milan are still in second place, and they’re only four points worse off than they were at this stage last season.

But a team as good as the current Napoli side wasn’t around last season, and it would take a brave person to bet on the Rossoneri clawing back a 12-point gap.

Napoli celebrate away from home after an Eljif Elmas goal. (@sscnapoli)

According to Paolo Maldini, a man whose defensive nous and trophy-winning experience is probably worth listening to, the solution is simple.

“Last year we won thanks to our team spirit. Now we need to rediscover it calmly,” Maldini said.

“This happened also when I was playing, that you lose confidence – we know how to get out of it.”

Milan fans will hope he’s right, and that a night of punishment in the capital proves to be Bergamo Part Two – the start of another reset.

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