With Milan set to kick-off their Serie A campaign on Saturday, Rohit Rajeev previews the Rossoneri’s campaign and looks ahead to their chances of winning the Scudetto again.
The Serie A 2022-2023 season kicks off on Saturday with Milan beginning their title defense by hosting Udinese in front of a near full capacity crowd at the San Siro. Having defied the odds and the expectations of all pundits, Milan went on to win the 2021-22 Scudetto, pipping rivals Inter by 2 points following a win in Reggio Emilia against Sassuolo.
Milan’s main strength last season was their extra-ordinary defensive record. Keeping 9 clean sheets in the last 11 rounds of the season meant that Milan were tidy at the back. The backbone of the defence and in particular of the team, Mike Maignan was statistically the best shotstopper in not just the Serie A but in the top 5 leagues. It was barely a surprise that he was the keeper with the highest amount of clean sheets in the league.
Maignan was aided by an extra-ordinary centerback pairing of Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu, who were 1 caution away from getting a 1 match suspension right from round 33 but with some astute discipline and measured solidity, they were able to shepherd opposition attackers into impotent attacks.
Joining these 2 center-backs were the full backs – Theo Hernandez and Davide Calabria. The ex-Real Madrid man is widely considered to be one of the best attacking full backs in the modern game. A club that has had one of the greatest left backs of all time in Paolo Maldini, it was fitting that he himself chose his successor when Milan – under different ownerships, have failed to replace the man.
Theo Hernandez's goal v Atalanta yesterday. Could well prove to be iconic.pic.twitter.com/i0dwpovR7P— Get Italian Football News (@_GIFN) May 16, 2022
Right-back Calabria has been a symbol for the Tifosi as he personified hard-work, dedication and passion for the club to be the captain of the side. Coming from the youth ranks of Milan, Calabria’s sacrifices of staying back and allowing Theo to bolster forward lends balance to Pioli’s side.
Milan’s midfield had 3 regular names in Franck Kessie, Sandro Tonali and Ismael Bennacer. Kessie, since then, has moved on a bossman to Barcelona but he was rock solid for Milan in midfield and Il Diavolo are yet to replace him in midfield. Meanwhile Bennacer, a player who has given high expectations to Milan faithful, did well whenever he came on but it has never been enough as Milan fans expect him to take his game to the next level.
And then there is Tonali – a player who took a wage cut and refused offers from Manchester United and Barcelona to sign with the club he supported since he was 8 years old and idolised Rino Gattuso. His workrate in midfield, his drive and his ability to come through in tight situations has now given him a cult following in the fanbase.
Milan’s French connection seems to extend to even in the attacking department. World Cup winner Olivier Giroud was signed to give Ibrahimovic a hand, but he went beyond expectations by scoring a double in the derby which tipped the Scudetto in the favor of Milan.
With his lethal left foot, Giroud got two crucial goals against Sassuolo on the final match day; along with his goal to level with Lazio after going 1 down. It was inspiring and added to Milan’s cause. His injuries during the Champions League didn’t help as Milan were knocked out in the group stages.
The right side of Milan’s attack was identified as the achilles heel. Junior Messias, the harbinger of a fantastic rags to riches story, joined on loan from Crotone. Not starting professional football until the age of 26 and working as a delivery driver, Messias’ style of play reflected his life story.
However his productivity was questioned due to the lofty ambitions set for him at Milan and that is pretty much why his team-mate Alexis Saelemaekers’ reputation also suffered. Never questioned for his dedication or hardwork, Milan Tifosi were left frustrated at times with the Belgian’s work.
The man of the moment was none other than Rafael Leao. The Serie A MVP was the trump card for Pioli’s side, top scoring for the side with 14 goals. His injuries during Milan’s Champions League was a mini-catalyst to their exit. Leao’s ability to take multiple defenders on and beat them with searing pace meant he was a menace and coaches did not have an answer to his threat.
And then there was the man behind the scenes – Zlatan Ibrahimovic. When asked who would win the Scudetto, Zlatan replied earlier during the previous season in his usual cocky way: “The team that Zlatan plays for.”
Zlatan radiates confidence and like any fragrance, this confidence is infectious. Pioli spoke about how he never needed to speak during half time, given the presence of a locker room leader like Zlatan.
Milan’s summer signings
At the time of writing, Milan have made 4 signings in their senior squad. Divock Origi has arrived on a free transfer from Liverpool. Alessandro Florenzi and Messias have been signed permanently. And lastly, Charles De Keteleare also arrived from Club Brugge. Milan also welcomed back Yacine Adli, who was purchased last season but was loaned to Bordeaux to gain experience of first-team football.
In De Keteleare and Adli, Milan have 2 dynamic players who bring in a set of skills that were previously not possessed by the side. A rather underwhelming 2021/22 season means that Brahim Diaz’s position is under threat and both Adli and De Keteleare would surely threaten to prise away this position for themselves. Adli is a roaming playmaker and De Keteleare is a forward with an immaculate ability to find spaces threaten opposition to increase Milan’s efficiency.
During pre-season matches, Pioli showed a slight tendency to try out a 4-3-3 formation with Diaz and Tonali playing as mezzalas with Bennacer sitting back as a holding midfielder. But something that forms the core of his mantra – intense pressing, remained the same throught his time at Milan.
Pioli wants his side to press and suffocate opposition players especially higher up the pitch. Origi, a disciple of the pressing master Klopp, could be useful in this regard and therefore, his signings seems very prudent. Milan tried out various passing combinations in midfield but time will tell if their pre-season preparations will work out over the course of the next 38 Serie A matchdays.
Milan’s expectations for the new Serie A season
With still close to 20 days to go for the summer mercato to end, many teams are linked to a few names. Roma seem to be a real team on the rise and Inter have got back their talisman in Romelu Lukaku and haven’t sold anyone noteworthy, meaning that they have strengthened their team even further.
Juventus too have made a slew of transfers as they are looking to please their manager Allegri after two back-to-back fourth-placed finishes.
All things taken into consideration, I fully expect Milan to challenge for the Scudetto this season. The real competition for Milan would be their cross-town rivals Inter while Juve, Roma and Napoli could be possible detractors for Milan for the Scudetto. With an excellent record against the top 10 sides of the league last season, Milan will hope to improve on their record against the lower division sides.
Rohit Rajeev | GIFN