For the average football fan today, AC Milan might not hold a lot of stature and prestige in modern football. However, anyone who has been following the sport for more than a decade will admit with great sadness that the Italian giants have fallen far off from where they once were.
Back in the 1980s and 90s, AC Milan were a force to be reckoned with. They were not only the best side in Italy, but the best in the world. Under the management of two of calcio’s greatest names, Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello, and benefiting from the millions of media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, Milan became almost unstoppable.
This included a period in which they won six Serie A titles, four Supercoppa Italiana, three Champions League trophies, three Supercups and one Intercontinental Cup, bringing their collective tally to 17 trophies.
This period covered the late 80s and much of the early parts of the decade in the 90s. Following Milan's golden era and a number of retirements from key players, club legend Paolo Maldini took over the club captaincy in 1997, and although they crumbled initially and succumbed to a lot of failures under his leadership, they were eventually able to pull through.
European glory under Carlo Ancelotti
At the start of the 21st century, Milan were able to regain newfound success under manager Carlo Ancelotti, most notably in Europe. During this decade, Maldini-led AC Milan made it to three Champions League finals, winning two of them in 2003 and 2007 respectively.
The club's domestic performances weren't too bad either as they were also able to capture the Coppa Italia in 2003, the Supercoppa Italiana along with the Scudetto in 2004. They had one of, if not the best, squads in Europe at the time.
Despite their renewed success, the club saw themselves mired in legal trouble due to their alleged involvement in the Calciopoli scandal in 2006. A period of financial struggle followed, which led to the departures of manager Ancelotti to Chelsea in 2008, and Ballon d’Or winner Kaka to Real Madrid in 2009.
Following the departures of two integral members of the team and the retirement of club legend Paolo Maldini, the club ended their most successful period, which saw them lift their 18th and final Scudetto in the 2010-11 season.
The downfall of AC Milan
After having sustained success for nearly twenty years, the question arises, what events led to the downfall of AC Milan? To understand this, we must take a walk down memory lane to the 2012-13 season, which saw the departures of star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and senior defender Thiago Silva to PSG.
These transfers basically laid the foundation to Milan’s hardships and downfall that ensued over the next ten years. Ibrahimovic and Silva's departure saw a decline in the team's performance, which led to the club failing to qualify for European competitions for four years, after which they qualified for the Europa League for the next five years.
However, abysmal performances from the team made sure that they didn't make it past the Round of 16 in any of these years.
The board was incompetent and it showed with their poor recruitment and spending limited financial resources on players who weren’t going to make the team better. This overlooked a period that saw the departure of Andrea Pirlo and sales of breakout players like Stephan El Sharrawy and Mario Balotelli among others.
Acquisitions included the likes of Fernando Torres from Chelsea, whose performances went downhill, Adil Rami from Valencia, Andrea Bertolacci from Roma, Luiz Adriano from Shakhtar, to name a few.
These decisions also led to repeated patterns of appointments and dismissals of a number of managers. The list included the likes of club legends such as Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi, and Gennaro Gattuso, who were unsuccessful in their bid to bring Milan back on top of Italy and the world.
What followed was years of failures, as the club repeatedly missed out on European competition and performed horrendously in the league for the better part of a decade. Poor financial management, no real resources, incompetent management, and poor recruitment — all contributed to the team’s inability to perform at the highest level.
This rendered AC Milan unable to close the gulf between themselves and Juventus, who were extremely dominant, winning nine successive Serie A titles.
A resurgent AC Milan
Their tide began to shift, thanks to the introduction of club legend Paolo Maldini in the summer of 2019 as the club's new technical director. He began overseeing operations, management, recruitment policies, new acquisitions and departures. Manager Marco Giampaolo was fired three months into the job after a horrendous start to the 2019-20 season and was replaced by Stefano Piolo in October 2019.
The renewed direction, attitude and objectives of the club, under the guidance of Maldini, brought upon the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the San Siro in January 2020.
With new management in play, Milan looked to portray an ambitious side who were looking to compete with the very best in the modern game through Pioli's vision of attacking football. A stable and competent management meant thoughtful use of resources and minimal wasteful expenditure. The team's construction was set afoot with a new model of recruitment used as a basis to fit the Italian's ideology.
This eventually led to the team finishing inside the top four and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in seven years.
The start of the 2021-2022 season saw the AC Milan squad hungry and motivated to prove a point, and they successfully transferred this approach to the league.
With the significant additions of Mike Maignan from Lille for £13 million, Fikayo Tomori and Olivier Giroud from Chelsea for £25 million and £1.6 million respectively, Sandro Tonali from Brescia for a total of £35 million and Brahim Diaz on a two-year loan deal from Real Madrid. They bolstered their defense and midfield with the intention of finally contending for the Scudetto, while having strength in depth.
AC Milan kicked off their Serie A campaign with a one-goal victory at Sampdoria, which was followed by consecutive home wins against Cagliari and Lazio respectively. They propelled their performances in the following months in the league, which eventually led to the team amassing a 12-game unbeaten streak.
Their Champions League performances, however, have been forgettable. AC Milan's return to Europe was nothing short of a travesty, as they managed to pick up just a single win in their CL campaign. The squad finished the 2021-22 Champions League group stage with one win, one draw and four losses, which saw them fail to qualify for the Round of 16.
The club's performances in the league leading up to the month of February have seen them labeled as 'title favorites' along with rivals Inter Milan and Napoli. The Rossoneri currently sit first in Serie A with a record of nineteen wins, six draws, and four losses. They lead second-placed Napoli by three points.
A big part of the credit must go to manager Stefano Pioli, who is tactically astute and flexible. Pioli's emphasis on possession, high press, and press resistance along with a strong focus on the basics and fundamentals of the modern game laid the foundation for attacking-based football at Milan. The club's record against the top teams in Serie A is an example of how Pioli has transformed this side.
These tactics have allowed plenty of players to thrive in his system, including Theo Hernandez, Rafael Leao, Tomori, and Ismael Bennacer.
AC Milan have also obtained a diamond in the rough in Pierre Kalulu on a free transfer from Lyon. The 21-year-old Frenchman's performances for the club have been nothing short of game-changing when called up. He has made 27 appearances across competitions for the Rossoneri this season.
Theo Hernandez's progression from a top French left-back with minimal minutes at Real Madrid to a world-class left-back at Milan has been exceptional to say the least.
With all this considered, Pioli is definitely the right man for the job and the right manager to guide AC Milan to their first league title in more than a decade. The Rossoneri's rollercoaster journey back to the top has certainly been a challenging one, but under the guidance of the Italian, can they finally compete with the top dogs once again?
AC Milan are absolutely heading in the right direction under the guidance of Pioli and Maldini. One thing is guaranteed, and it's that Champions League nights are back at the San Siro!