FEATURE | Milan’s Scudetto win is a big victory for solid recruitment

Milan won the Scudetto with the help of intelligent recruitment and Kaustubh Pandey looks at how a uniformity in every player’s objective brought about the win.

When Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016, there was an intangible that bound a lot of players together. Throughout their careers, none of the players had become acclaimed names. They had never tasted the top accolades in the game and a fair few of them were seeing their careers fade into mediocrity. There was also Claudio Ranieri, who was constantly mocked in Italy for never really making it at the bigger clubs to a point where his relevancy had all but faded.


If not for this state of congruence and uniformity across the board, Leicester may not have done the impossible.  Surely but silently, that state that uniformity was also achieved by Milan in the many months during their build-up to the Scudetto win. From Stefano Pioli and Olivier Giroud to Alexis Saelemaekers and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there was a commonality in all of them. And one way or another, they all had something to prove.


The 56-year-old Pioli had never won a single piece of silverware in his managerial career despite having a playing career which had seen him win Serie A, Serie B and Serie C with three different clubs. In his career as manager, Pioli acquired the reputation of being a ‘nearly man’. While his spell with Lazio had seen the Biancocelesti finish third in his only full season, defeat to Bayer Leverkusen in the playoff round of the Champions League meant that Lazio couldn’t return to the competition for the first time since 2008.


The brief spell at Inter had ended in a single season and then came a spell at Fiorentina, where Pioli had enjoyed a memorable spell as a player. Even though he resigned from the Artemio Franchi before the end of his second season, a lot of Pioli’s human values came to the fore in the midst of tragedy and troubles. Following Davide Astori’s death, Pioli got a DA13 tattoo on his wrist. He led the team through a crisis, often taking criticism away from the players and placing it on his own head.


The Italian was up at 2:30 in the morning, just so he was the first person new signing Christian Nørgaard saw on his arrival in Florence. Following a game against SPAL, Pioli bought a host of Fiorentina fans some sandwiches even though the fans were only joking when they were chanting ‘Pagaci, pagaci il panino’ (essentially means ‘Pay for the sandwich’). While he is still considered a legend in those parts of the country, a feeling of ‘forced nostalgia’ was always associated with the appointment.


For many, the Milan job was considered too big for Pioli. The club was reeling with the axing of Marco Giampaolo only some weeks after he was brought in from Sampdoria. Goals were hard to come by and despite heavy spending in the summer, things were barely going right for the Rossoneri. Pioli’s prior reputation of being a ‘nearly man’ didn’t help, especially at a club where demands have always been lofty. Being handed only a temporary deal was a sign of how few trusted Pioli in the long-term, as Ralf Rangnick was seen as the man to ‘revolutionise’ the club.


Things did hit rock bottom after the 5-0 loss to Atalanta and the timing could not have been more fitting for Ibrahimovic to return on an initial short-term deal. In the MLS, amidst constant comparisons with the mercurial Carlos Vela, Zlatan had seemingly ‘conquered’ the United States. As it was during his move to Manchester United, the Swede returned to Milan with the aim of proving that he was still very much relevant at the age of 39. That intention drove the striker back to the Rossoneri, who were losing Krzysztof Piatek. Andre Silva had been traded for Ante Rebic and Rafael Leao was still finding his feet at the club. Zlatan had lots to prove and for the youngest team in the 2019/20 season, they had loads to learn from the veteran.


And arguably, Leao needed someone like Ibrahimovic to step in. It was defined by how Ibrahimovic’s second but for Milan came alongside Leao in Pioli’s new 4-4-2 shape and the Portuguese youngster shone. Like a lot of others in the side, Leao had to live up to a €23 million price-tag and the expectations for him had been high for a while. The season hadn’t started too well for him and while lacking some confidence, Leao also lacked a final pass in his play.


A lot of the vital points in the 2019/20 season were seized by Ante Rebic’s goals. The 2018 World Cup finalist had not made the expected impact in the first-half of the campaign, despite becoming a key part of the iconic triumvirate of Sebastien Haller, Luka Jovic and himself at Eintracht Frankfurt. If not for Rebic’s key strikers against Udinese, Torino, Fiorentina and Brescia, the Rossoneri would not have finished as high as 5th.


The 19/20 season witnessed the first signs of what was to come from Theo Hernandez, who has now become an emblem of the club. Signed with the ambition to replace Ricardo Rodriguez, Hernandez had never truly realised his full potential at either of the Madrid clubs. The move to Milan was his golden chance and he had taken it with both hands, constantly bombarding down the left and threatening the opposition with ruthless pace.


After several diplomatic and technical issues led to Milan pulling the plug on a move for Rangnick, Pioli was handed a new deal. Placing an incredible amount of trust in the Italian despite being very close to bringing in someone who has made a living out of reforming clubs was a massive decision. Both Paolo Maldini and Ricky Massara had a job on their hands – the biggest of their careers, especially for how they had pushed the boat out for Pioli’s new deal.


The Rossoneri stuck to the same approach in the market as they had under Maldini. Sandro Tonali was nearly poached by Inter until Antonio Conte prefered bringing in Arturo Vidal. A lifelong Milan fan, Tonali’s status in the Italian game as a mix of Andrea Pirlo and Rino Gattuso was certain to put a certain amount of burden on his young shoulders. 

Later, Fikayo Tomori was roped in on an initial loan from Chelsea and a bit like Tonali, the Englishman also had a lot of hype to live upto. Highly rated for a long time at Stamford Bridge, this was Tomori’s first chance to make a mark away from the club and it was supposed to take time to settle into a new country. He could have stayed in England but he decided to move to Italy anyway.


Brahim Diaz’s loan was another signing of the same mould. Always seen as a future star at Manchester City and Real Madrid, the move to Milan was seen as the attacking midfielder’s shot at finally showing his abilities at a high level. 


Two signings that did raise some eyebrows at the club though, were Pierre Kalulu and Alexis Saelemaekers. The Belgian was not seen as a game-changer of a signing in January but was seen as a solid squad option on the right, with Pioli’s system undergoing a vital change. Milan looked to play with an expansive left side, while maintaining an equilibrium on the right by keeping being conservative on that flank. 


Kalulu, meanwhile, had never played any first-team football at Lyon. The French club had decided not to give him a new deal, implying that the defender’s time at Lyon was over before he could make it to the first-team squad. A move to Milan, where he was expected to be a squad option, was seen as a massive challenge by many. 


On the way, Milan did lose a host of recognised players for free. Giacomo Bonaventura, Lucas Biglia, Mateo Musacchio and Pepe Reina all departed, while Suso and Lucas Paqueta also left in what was a mass clear out. 


It was a sign of a club which wasn’t just sticking to a plan while buying, they were also making sure that deadwood never accumulated in the side while reducing the average age. A return to the Champions League meant more finances for the summer of 2021. But that didn’t stop Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Calhagnolu from leaving. But it wasn’t the first time that Milan were losing recognised players for nothing. 


Tomori’s loan was made permanent and Tonali also arrived on a permanent basis. Tonali’s first season hadn’t been impressive but it was only meant to be a start, but Tomori had emerged as one of the best defenders in Serie A. 


As ultra-prepared as ever, Milan roped in Mike Maignan well before Donnarumma left. Diaz stayed on his loan deal, essentially replacing Calhanoglu. With the impending free exit of Franck Kessie, Yacine Adli was brought in before being sent back to Bordeaux. The midfielder, like Tonali, came in with a reputation of being a quality talent in Ligue 1 and was essentially unproven outside France.


A vital French signing though, was Olivier Giroud. Hurtling towards the end of his career, the striker was seen by many as the back-up to Ibrahimovic and little did anyone know that he would become Milan’s first-choice striker while scoring massive goals in the 2021/22 season. Alessandro Florenzi’s signing was of a similar mould, as Milan needed a back-up right-back following the departure of Diogo Dalot. Florenzi’s loan spell at Paris Saint-Germain hadn’t been excellent but the Rossoneri provided him with the perfect chance to either resurrect his career or show Roma what he was truly worth.


The definition of Milan’s template was the capture of Junior Messias. Having done well for Crotone in Serie A in the previous season, the right-winger’s career had gone from playing in the fourth division of Italian football in 2017 to playing in Serie A in 2020. After immigrating to Italy in around 2011, he had even worked as a delivery boy for refrigerators while playing amateur football. Milan had failed in their attempts to sign a right winger by the very last day of the window and Messias was seen as this unconvincing signing who was barely good enough, if Il Diavolo had to challenge for the league.


31-year-old Messias’ goal against Atletico Madrid late in the Champions League kept Milan in the competition. While they did end up going out, the goal was a fitting representation of the club’s approach and of what was to come.


Kalulu, who was never expected to even play regularly at right-back, established himself at centre-back while capitalising on an injury crisis in the defence. Playing beside the reliable Tomori, the Frenchman became the unexpected hallmark of Milan’s success in the window and became a sign that the club had learned from the recruitment mistakes of the past.

Florenzi, who had received a fair amount of criticism during the Euros, came up with crucial performances and the Italian is on the brink of joining Milan on a permanent basis. Rade Krunic, who was also seen merely as a bit-part player when he was signed from Empoli, did a solid job in the attacking midfield spot towards the end of the season. His involvement became key, largely due to Diaz’s drop in form even though the ex-Man City youngster impressed a fair bit in the early part of the campaign.


Tonali didn’t just become more of a possession-first player, he came up with vital goals against Verona and Lazio. While Franck Kessie didn’t have a great season by any means and Tiemoue Bakayoko wasn’t useful, the onus was on Tonali to reach a new level and he didn’t disappoint anyone. This also allowed Milan to become a team that can build centrally instead of regularly using an ultra-dynamic left side.


While Milan may not have won the Scudetto without Tonali’s vital goals, the same can be said for Maignan’s performances across the campaign. His proactive nature on and off the ball meant that Milan essentially upgraded on Donnarumma, despite not even paying a large fee. For someone who had to come in and replace Donnarumma instantly, Maignan ended up doing more than enough.


And it was rather fitting at the end that Giroud was the one who was heavily involved in the goals at Emilia-Romagna against Sassuolo and the strikes came through following assists from Leao, the man that Ibrahimovic had taken under his wing from very early on. Giroud had arrived only for a very meagre sum following the spell at Chelsea and his lack of usage at Stamford Bridge had prompted many to wonder if his time at the top end of the game was done. But his goals against Inter, Lazio and Napoli came when the Rossoneri needed it, as he has proved to be another excellent piece of recruitment for the club.

When Milan players were emerging out of the tunnel one by one to lift the Scudetto, Pioli was almost huddled into a corner when his comrades with congruent stories gathered around the title. It was the same Pioli who was never seen as the man to take Milan back to the top and could have been replaced by Rangnick.

It was the same man who would never come across as rambunctious in a press conference despite having seen numerous refereeing decisions go against him and put players first for praise. He had a point to prove, like all the other players that Milan already had or those that were signed.

And he was relishing in their glory, instead of taking it all on himself. All that, despite having to deal with numerous injuries on the way, having faced doubts about his abilities from many and dealing with a very young squad. He did it.

Kaustubh Pandey

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