The fashionable city of Milan has knocked long-time dominator Juventus off the top spot in Italy – for the second time in a row. After Inter’s 2021 championship, it is now the red and black of AC Milan that will lift the Scudetto. And that also has to do with an “old man” who already played a part in the last success.
In the 2010/11 season, when Milan had already lost the glamour of the previous Kaka era, the Scudetto was won for the last time by the Rossoneri. Players like Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Mark van Bommel were the heroes of Serie A back then – led by current Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri, who marvelled at 14 goals apiece from Robinho, Alexandre Pato and none other than Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
That Ibra, now in his 40s, is still in Milan’s kit more than a decade later – and certainly one of the keys to the return of this great Italian club from years of obscurity.
Of course, the Swedish oldie has long since ceased to be a regular player bursting with verve, as injuries have repeatedly accompanied him for many months. Nevertheless, Ibrahimovic is one of the faces of this 19th Milan championship. Why? In addition to his personal achievements since returning (ten season goals in 2019/20, 15 goals in 2020/21 and eight goals this season), the technically adept as well as finishing striker has established himself as an extension of coach Stefano Pioli.
“Ibrakadabra” unsurprisingly also credits himself for this success, saying in a typical interview with “Sportweek” as early as 2021: “When I came back to Milan, I asked in the dressing room who had already played in the Champions League. And only two raised their hands. At first I thought it was a joke … “
But one of the youngest Serie A teams around defenders like Pierre Kalulu (21), Matteo Gabbia (22) or Theo Hernandez (24) and midfield regulars like Ismael Bennacer (24), Brahim Diaz (22), Sandro Tonali (22) or Frank Kessié (25) developed more and more over the years into a real and above all new, old Serie A great.
This was due to refreshing attacking football with professionals like Alexis Saelemaekers (22) and Rafael Leao (22) as well as the influence of seasoned players like Olivier Giroud (35), Alessandro Florenzi (31) or defender Simon Kjaer (33). And also oldie Ibrahimovic. The Swede, who has by no means had enough of football (“I won’t stop until I’m kicked out”), has always predicted success – even a year ago after reaching the Champions League: the young players in particular have increasingly “understood what it takes for us to achieve this. But also that we haven’t managed something. We all always work hard at it. “
Indeed, the Rossoneri have – led by Stefano Pioli. The maker, who has been coaching at the professional level since 2003 and has found his home in the red-and-black part of Milan since 2019 after major spells at Lazio, Inter and Florence, is certainly to be largely credited with this title.
Pioli has stayed true to his plan despite initial mixed performances just before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic with the young players, pairing cultivated attacking football with his usual high tactics school – and reaping more and more rewards. Before this season, even the painful departures of European champion Gianluigi Donnarumma (PSG) and Hakan Calhanoglu (Inter) have been cushioned. Likewise, the coach has not been put off by an interim engagement of Ralf Rangnick – in the end, there has been the rejection for the German here as well as only one contract extension until 2022 and one until 2023 with an option.
In terms of play, this looks like the following for Milan: They defend more proactively than in the dark times without a clear idea, when they often got hit on the head by clubs like Atalanta, and press relatively high in the opponent’s half. Offensively, they should be busy on the flanks, for example with Theo or Saelemaekers always moving up – and in the middle they should look for Giroud and/or Ibrahimovic, who have clearly been chosen as target players. In addition, the centre offers everything: passing power through Bennacer, high balls into emerging spaces via Tonali, who has been compared to Pirlo, toughness and physicality thanks to leading figure Kessié.
Because of the older players in the centre, the 4-2-3-1 system has been the most popular of late, with one side often deliberately overloaded in order to get forward or, if it is too tight, to push forward with diagonal shots, for example to the pushing Theo.
“Like one big family “
“We have changed,” Pioli has repeatedly praised his team’s development, also saying, “This is a new Milan.”
A Milan who, with a strong 3-0 win at Sassuolo to end this season, are deservedly back at the top of Serie A and have put other giants such as last year’s champions and arch-rivals Inter, Napoli and, of course, Juve back in their place after their interim nine championships in a row.
According to Pioli, whose manner is said to go down very well with every player and everyone at the club, this has only been possible because everyone – really everyone – has pulled together. “It has felt like one big family from the first day I made a move to Milanello. The club itself does everything to make it as easy as possible. You breathe a unique, almost magical air here.”
And here we come full circle: if it was those magicians like Kaka and club legends like Paolo Maldini, Gattuso or Pirlo who sparked the magic of the old days, eleven often dreary years later it is new and shining faces that are dusting off a vacant place on the full trophy shelf again – including an older and already then present face of this great club with longer hair. Ibrahimovic’s. “Sempre Milan” can once again be proudly carried into the world by the fans who peacefully stormed the pitch and celebrated with the players at the end of the season in Sassuolo – with Scudetto number 19 in tow.