Assessing AC Milan‘s first half of the season comes as a complex task for anyone who hopes to find a strong link between their on-pitch displays and the never-ending rumours surrounding the club.
The Rossoneri’s 3-1 win over AS Roma extended their Serie A winning streak to three games and, while it is not still enough to realistically fire them back into the Scudetto race, it had the effect of cementing their third place in the standings, opening up an eight-point gap over fourth-placed Fiorentina.
That should not be taken for granted for a side whose top-four finish last season only came as a result of Juventus‘ point-deduction, although it is fair to say that their ambitions at the start of the season were higher and boosted by a busy summer transfer window.
How Stefano Pioli survived doubts and chaos
The Diavolo‘s struggles in the Champions League group stage, coupled with a plunge in form that saw them lose ground from the top of Serie A, seemed to have put Stefano Pioli on the brink of the sack in Autumn.
From that moment on, the coach was forced to work in an extremely hostile environment, with news of either his dismissal or potential new recruitments for the club, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, making the headlines week in and week out.
For several weeks, Milan looked like a wounded animal but were reluctant to give up, clinging to their sense of pride as they pulled off some surprisingly brilliant displays even in a chaotic situation, including wins over Paris Saint-Germain and Newcastle which meant they didn’t drop out of Europe entirely.
But amidst all the doubts surrounding the coach, it was probably overlooked how Pioli kept trying to find new solutions and, above anything else, managed to keep his side on track in a time when everything seemed about to fall apart, not helped by the countless injuries the Rossoneri had to deal with.
Instead of crumbling and being replaced by a new coach, Milan have picked up 16 points out of the 21 available since the start of December, falling to a single Serie A defeat at Atalanta and showing a consistency that left many surprised.
Have AC Milan turned a corner?
While their performances were not always convincing, this rebuilding process eventually resulted in one of their best displays of the season against Roma, as Pioli’s side showcased unfamiliar maturity as well as hints of their tactical evolution. It was a result that proved to be Jose Mourinho‘s downfall.
Their ability to understand and react to the different phases of the game proved crucial, notably in helping them decide when to apply real pressure to Roma, and when to have a period of consolidation.
After an aggressive start which resulted in Yacine Adli‘s early opener, Milan were able to tame the Giallorossi through an unusual possession-based football that, unlike in the past, was far from sterile and allowed the Rossoneri to both limit risks and wait for the right moment to inflict another blow to Roma.
Individual brilliance from both Adli and Tijjani Reijnders was paramount in helping the hosts execute such a gameplan – starting his first Serie A game since late October, the former displayed a level of focus and dedication that Pioli should take into account in the coming months.
Reijnders once again proved how much the whole team benefit when he’s at his best – the Dutchman’s presence in support of Milan‘s best runners and his ability to find space was crucial to them keeping the ball.
These individual performances come as a consequence of a team that is gradually evolving into a more versatile and sophisticated version of itself as the new faces start to settle in.
While Milan shouldn’t currently be considered Scudetto contenders, as Pioli himself stressed after their Roma win, they put themselves in a favourable position despite all the hurdles they had to overcome.
With their top four finish looking safe and having crucially gotten results in the most delicate moment of their season, they could and should simply aim to improve their haul of points in the second term, knowing they’d have everything to gain in case either Inter or Juventus lose their way.