AC Milan finished the 2019/20 Serie A campaign in scintillating fashion. Now comes the huge (and exciting) task of translating that form into a top-four finish.
The Rossoneri are Italian football’s sleeping giants but they roused themselves post-restart to go 12 games unbeaten and win nine of their remaining games. The result was a sixth-place finish and entry into the Europa League, where Shamrock Rovers await them in the second qualifying round.
The mood has shifted dramatically since Marco Giampaolo’s departure 11 months ago, with Stefano Pioli hitting all the right notes in the San Siro dugout. There is now genuine optimism among the red-and-black half of Milan and many believe Pioli’s team can mount a top-four push.
A step too far? Or justified ambition for a club experiencing a much-needed purple patch in Serie A? With a managerial change at Juventus and plenty of transfer activity across the board, the 2020/21 season looks a fascinating one for the neutral, but we’ve zeroed in on AC Milan and made a few predictions for this term.
Serie A top four finish odds with William Hill:
- Juventus 1/33
- Inter Milan 1/10
- Atalanta 4/6
- Napoli 4/6
- AC Milan 11/10
- Lazio 5/4
*You have to be 18+ to gamble. All odds and offers within this article are accurate at the time of writing (20:00, 16/09/2020). BeGambleAware.
1. Pioli’s first-choice Milan lineup will look something like…
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. AC Milan have been a club in flux for many a year now but looked a real force after the league resumed in June.
Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 seemed to get the best out of his squad. Among the main components was the midfield double-pivot of Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessie, providing a core of tenacity and ball-progression, while Hakan Calhanoglu shone just ahead in a No.10 role.
The Turkey international recorded eight assists after the season resumed, the most in the league, and scored six goals himself. He finished 2019/20 having created the most chances (70), the most big chances (13) and the most assists overall (nine) in Serie A.
So unless Pioli switches to a 4-3-3 and moves Calhanoglu out wide, where does all of this leave summer signing Sandro Tonali? Deployed at central midfield in Brescia’s 4-3-2-1 or 4-4-2 systems last season, Tonali produced the second-most passes per 90 minutes for the club (40.7). He also produced some of the most deadly delivery in the competition. Only one player, Erick Pulgar, assisted more goals from set-piece situations than Tonali (8) and created more chances (48).
Tonali may have to wait for game time given the stable midfield duo used by Pioli throughout pre-season but with European football back on the agenda, Milan should be able to offer plenty of chances.
There are fewer question marks up top and further back. Ante Rebic is now a permanent fixture following his move from Frankfurt and should occupy the left wing. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has extended his deal until next summer, leads the line and Samu Castillejo should play on the right.
2. Tonali to eventually break into the first team
For argument’s sake, this is what Milan’s line-up could look like with Tonali starting…
Though he often enjoys comparisons to Andrea Pirlo, the hair, build and vision are pretty much where the similarities stop. Tonali won possession at a higher per90 average (6.74) than any Brescia teammate last season and, although Pirlo did more defensive work than some remember, Tonali himself likens his game to former hatchet-man Gennaro Gattuso.
“It’s difficult to answer this, on the pitch I’m a little more like Gattuso,” Tonali explained last season.
“Ideally, I want to be a mixture of all three [De Rossi, Gattuso and Pirlo].
“For the fight I put in on the pitch, that’s more like Gattuso.”
Despite Tonali playing a holding role with Brescia, another option Pioli has is to take a leaf out of Roberto Mancini’s book. With Jorginho his go-to regista, the Italian national team head coach has often used Tonali as a box-to-box midfielder. This gives Pioli plenty of options. He could switch to a 4-3-3 with Calhanoglu returning to a previous role on the wing, allowing Tonali to form one-third of a promising midfield trident alongside Bennacer and Kessie. Or, Tonali could step into a double-pivot and function as either holding midfielder or box-to-box engine.
If his versatility gets Tonali into the first team, his quality should ensure he stays there. Milan convinced him to reject a Champions League side in Inter, after all, so you would think he’s been assured of an important role.
3. Ibra to join 150 club and hit a Ronaldo-Messi milestone
Ibrahimovic recently became the first player to score 50 Serie A goals for both Inter Milan and AC Milan and will be eyeing up more records this season.
The 38-year-old is on 132 Serie A career goals as things stand, leaving him just 18 short of reaching 150. Only 26 players have hit that milestone in the history of Italian football, stretching back from the legendary Giuseppe Meazza of the 30s and 40s to current-day star Fabio Quagliarella.
Post-restart, Ibrahimovic netted six goals in eight games in addition to three assists. His 10 goals in 18 Serie A matches and 0.7 xG per 90 minutes (the fourth-highest such average in the league) represent a good return for a player very much in his twilight years. If he can stay fit and replicate that form, the coveted 20-goal mark is feasible and would bring him up to 150.
Last season, he became the oldest player to score 10+ goals in a single Serie A campaign (38 years and 302 days) and we expect him to do so again this time round. Should he net at least 15 (in any competition) he will also bring up goal No. 500 of his career. By doing so, Ibrahimovic will become one of only three active players alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to reach that scoring milestone in Europe’s top five leagues.
Serie A Top Scorer odds with William Hill
- Cristiano Ronaldo 2/1
- Romelu Lukaku 4/1
- Ciro Immobile 6/1
- Duvan Zapata 10/1
- Lautaro Martinez 16/1
- Victor Osimhen 14/1
- Paulo Dybala 16/1
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic 16/1
4. Back into the Champions League
What a difference a few months makes. When Pioli stepped into the hot seat last October, his appointment was met with the sharpening of pitchforks among those who saw his arrival as a short-term solution to stem the concerning tide of Giampaolo’s tenure. The discontent on Twitter was enough to get ‘#PioliOut’ trending.
It was believed Red Bull’s Head of Sport and Development Ralf Rangnick would take over in the summer of 2020, but such was the uptick in form effected by Pioli that Milan made an astonishing U-turn and retained the Italian’s services for two more years.
Why? Well Milan were exceptional under his stewardship. His consistent line-ups were a breath of fresh air and positive results were forthcoming. They didn’t manage to squeeze into the top four, but their form in the business end of the season was title-challenge worthy.
With Ibrahimovic signed up for another year, Rebic on the books permanently alongside Simon Kjaer, and fresh blood in Brahim Diaz and Tonali in the ranks, Pioli has all the tools to build on that success and drive Milan back into the top four.