With the Serie A season finally here, Stefano Pioli and company are looking to replicate last year’s dramatic second-place finish. AC Milan will have to balance a rigorous Champions League schedule with league play, all while coping with the significant losses of Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Calhanoglu.
Milan’s defense is set to be one of the best in the Serie A this year, with Fikayo Tomori permanently joining Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjær in an elite centre-back trio. In addition to Tomori, Milan added two outside-backs in Alessio Florenzi and the intriguing Fode Ballo-Toure. The duo will operate as quality depth options for Theo Hernandez and Davide Calabria, who have proven to be two of the top full-backs in Italy.
With the talented Mike Maignan replacing Donnarumma, and Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer providing support in the deep central midfield, the Rossoneri’s defense should be their best unit this season. Fourth in goals allowed in 2020/21, look for Milan to crack the top three this year on the backs of a highly experienced and talented defensive front.
Milan’s top-choice midfield matches the talent of the defense, but its depth is extremely lacking. Hakan Calhaoglu left on a free transfer to Inter, Sandro Tonali has not lived up to his billing yet, and both Kessie and Bennacer are expected to miss significant time in January due to the African Cup of Nations.
Filling Calhanoglu’s attacking midfield position has taken a worrying amount of time, and it is essential that Paolo Maldini and the front office finalize the deal for Nikola Vlasic, a promising attacking midfielder and Croatian international. Brahim Diaz can temporarily fulfill the role, but the young Spaniard has shown that he is not yet ready for the starting number ten role.
The right winger or midfielder poses another tactical problem for Milan. Alexis Salemaekers has proven to be a solid, functional player, but he lacks the dynamic ability that is needed to feed Milan’s target men forwards. Rafael Leao and Saelemaekers can both temporarily fill this role, but it would be ideal to find a first-choice winger before the transfer window closes.
Despite the question marks that remain, Kessie and Bennacer both provide a high level of play that significantly raises the midfield’s floor. The talented, offensive-minded Ante Rebic and Leao also ensure that creativity and goal-creating actions will not be completely gone with the loss of Milan’s Turkish creator.
Perhaps Milan’s most surprising signing of the offseason was Olivier Giroud, a French national team and Arsenal icon. The 34-year-old joins Zlatan Ibrahimovic as by far the oldest striking duo in the league, inevitably summoning concerns about potential injuries. However, if the pair can stay on the field, they should still provide a high level of play and a solid goalscoring output.
Giroud and Zlatan are target men at this point in their careers, but both provide top-notch hold-up play and technical ability. In particular, Zlatan has proven to have a keen eye for accurate passes in the final third.
The 34-year-old and the 39-year-old are obviously not viable options in the long term, and Leao is the most likely replacement in the event of injury. The pair are solid options for Pioli’s preferred tactical system and should provide veteran leadership for Milan’s younger players.
Milan’s outlook for 2021/22
Despite retaining a majority of last year’s starters, the Rossoneri could take a significant step back in the upcoming season. The second half of last year saw the club’s form regress and they quickly fell out of the title race.
When looking at talented rosters like Inter, Juventus and even Napoli, it is difficult to see Milan keeping up in the long term, especially given the overall lack of depth past the defense. The Champions league will certainly draw the most attention from the coaching staff and players, and, as a Pot 4 team, the club will have a tough draw. With all these factors, Milan’s most likely finish is fifth-place, which will almost certainly lead to Stefano Pioli’s termination.
This bleak outlook aside, Milan’s vast amount of young talent could force a finish in a Champions League position. Brahim Diaz, a high-potential attacking midfielder, could finally have a breakout year and earn a starting position. A few other young players, like Tonali, Ballo-Toure and Leao, all are well-regarded and could become top players.
Whatever may be Milan’s fate, there are several clubs that can legitimately compete for the Scudetto this season. Juventus has an actual manager now, Atalanta has been incredibly consistent under Gasperini, and Roma had perhaps the best transfer window of any club in Italy. This could be an incredibly entertaining year, with the potential for almost anything to happen.