AC Milan spring a surprise in prominent rise back to the top of Serie A

Photo Credit: AP

AC Milan’s wait of more than a decade for domestic success in Serie A came to an end as they lifted the silverware in the 2021/22 season. It was their first taste of Serie A success since 2011, and they defied odds to get it.

Now the question for them will be whether they can start to build a new period of domestic dominance like they enjoyed through the 1990s.

AC Milan finally make it back to the top

Not only did AC Milan start the 2021/22 season of Serie A not having won the title in a decade, but they also had a long wait during the season to actually break their title drought. Their Scudetto success wasn’t confirmed until their very final fixture of the campaign.

Rewinding all the way back to the beginning of the season, it had been their great San Siro rivals Inter Milan who had been pre-season favourites for another title.

That is the current situation ahead of the current 2022/23 Serie A season. Once again AC Milan will have to defy some underdog odds in the Serie A title race.

Italy Serie A Winner Odds 2022/23

Inter Milan 7/4
Juventus 2/1
AC Milan 5/1
Napoli 10/1
Roma 16/1
Atalanta 25/1

How AC Milan won the 2021/22 Serie A Title

It was a strong start that really set the tone for AC Milan’s title win in the 2021/22 Serie A season. They came flying out of the gates. It was at such a hot pace that their rivals struggled to keep up.

The Rossoneri dropped only four points in their first dozen league matches with a tremendous W10 D2 record. The two drawn matches that they took in that sequence were against Juventus and Inter Milan.

So AC Milan had importantly held their two main rivals at bay, not giving away points to those expected to be right there in the title race. AC Milan were on fire in front of goal, scoring at least three goals in half of their first eight victories recorded.

Mid-season wobbles

The form that AC Milan produced at the start of their season was so good, that it was naturally going to be a bubble that was going to burst at some point. The wobbles started for them in November, as they took only one point from three matches played.

Across November and December, AC Milan had slipped backwards. At one point they won only twice in a run of seven fixtures. They were starting to feel a bit of pressure, but a 4-2 victory at Empoli in their final match before the winter break, set them on the road to recovery.

That sparked a run of three straight wins rolling over into the new year. That momentum was briefly lost in a 2-1 home defeat by Spezia in mid-January. But that was the fourth and final defeat that the Rossoneri would suffer for the season.

The telling shift of tactics

Over the second half of the season, AC Milan had a change of tactics. It was a response to the season becoming more and more of a grind. They had been a free-flowing attacking team for the first part of the season, consistently producing well in front of goal.

Their early momentum was built on the fact that they looked and believed as if they could simply overpower any opponent. If the odd mistake at the back happened, so be it, AC Milan had the scoring power to shrug it off.

But in the second half of the Serie A season, AC Milan’s defensive output was massively bolstered. They dialled back on attacking adventure to take on a more rigid defensive mindset. After earning six clean sheets in the first half of the campaign, they ramped that up to eleven in the second half.

Their best period of defensive output was a six-match streak of clean sheets from early March through to mid-April. That really was the catalyst for them sticking in the title race.

Inter keep up the pressure

It was in April that the reigning champions Inter Milan started to really get their act together again. The Nerazzurri won eight of their final nine matches of the season and there was just no margin for error for AC Milan because of that.

Seeing the tremendous fight and pressure coming in from their San Siro rivals, AC Milan dug out a six-match winning streak to end the season. The culmination of their efforts was a 3-0 away win at Sassuolo on the final weekend of the season.

The three points from that secured Milan the league title. It was by a margin of just two points over Inter. In the end, while AC Milan were outscored by Inter Milan during the season, the Rossoneri ended the season with the joint-best defensive record.

It was a thrilling climax to the Serie A season between two of the great clubs of European soccer.

How far did AC Milan come?

AC Milan had been something of a sleeping giant in Italian football since their 2011 Scudetto. A third-place finish in the 2012/13 season was followed by a run of six seasons in which they failed to even crack the top four.

However, in the 2020/21 Serie A season, AC Milan fought off the attentions of Atalanta, Juventus and Napoli to land the runners-up spot in the top flight behind Inter. While they had to watch their great rivals celebrate their first Championship since 2010, AC Milan wouldn’t have to wait long before all the spotlights were on them.

Pioli’s San Siro Rebuild

What sparked the AC Milan revival? Interestingly it wasn’t a great influx of talent into the San Siro. AC Milan didn’t go out and splash the cash around in pulling in big-name signings like Inter and Juventus in particular, had been doing.

Instead they steadily built from the top down by installing Stefan Pioli as head coach in October 2019. The former Fiorentina player had been brought in with only a temporary contract until the end of that 2019/20 season. He replaced Marco Giampaolo.

Pioli guided AC Milan to a sixth-place finish that season. It wasn’t exactly the result that the club wanted, but there were positive signs of progress and rebuilding. The Rossoneri for example had recorded the highest tally of league goals since the 2013 campaign. AC Milan handed Pioli a two-year extension and things got even better.

AC Milan head back in the right direction.

Pioli’s stamp was all over the AC Milan side that started the 2020/21 season. They looked more of a unit, pulling together a collective effort as they pushed on with their development under Pioli. AC Milan started the season with a fifteen-match unbeaten streak in Serie A. They were clearly heading towards better things.

Interestingly, even though they eventually took runner-up spot in the 2021 title race, AC Milan finished the season without any of their players finishing among the top-ten goalscorers in the division.

But Zlatan Imbrahimovic who had arrived at the San Siro in 2020 on a free transfer, chipped in well, tallying 15 goals in 19 appearances for them. Franck Kessie and Ante Rebić both reached double figures for the season in the league.

The likes of Theo Hernandez and Davide Calabria were holding together the Milan back line, with Kessie, Alexis Saelemaekers and Hakan Çalhanoğlu proving to be big influences for the Rossoneri in the middle of the park.

Their only let-down was poor home form, winning one fixture against the top-ten finishers that season. AC Milan lost all four against the other top-five finishers. Their home form was something that needed to improve to turn them into title contenders. It did.

AC Milan went from a W8 D6 L5 record at home in the 2020/21 season, to a vastly improved W12 D4 L3 home return on their way to their 2021/22 league title.

Where do AC Milan go next?

AC Milan don’t seem prepared to go the spending route in the 2022 summer transfer window either. Despite the pressure of them heading into the new season as the defending champions, they have a working model that seems to be serving them.

Zlatan Ibrahimović has gone, but they have the services of fellow veteran Olivier Giroud who joined them for a mere £1m from Premier League side Chelsea the previous summer, and have brought in Divock Origi on a free transfer from Liverpool to help out up front.

They have lost influential midfielder Franck Kessie to Barcelona on a Free transfer, which is a large gap that they will need to fill somehow. In general AC Milan have a fairly youthful-looking squad, but there is plenty of quality around.

They have 24-year-olds Theo Hernandez and Fikayo Tomori as the backbone of their defence, while midfielder Brahim Diaz remains with them on loan from Real Madrid. In attack, 23-year-old Rafael Leão, who cracked double figures in Serie A for the first time last year, could be set for a big breakthrough season.

Champions League Challenge for AC Milan

Another clear area that AC Milan will be targeting is being more competitive in the UEFA Champions League fixtures this season. On their return to the competition last term, their first since the 2013/14 season, Milan finished bottom of their group.

A poor W1 D1 L4 return from their matches against Liverpool, Atlético Madrid and FC Porto, shows the gap that the Rossoneri have to close. AC Milan are 7-time European Cup/Champions League winners.

Rivals strengthen

But of course, it’s never just about what one club can do. AC Milan will see their rivals like Juventus and Inter strengthen over the summer, and that makes a title defence a huge challenge for them.

The last time that AC Milan successfully defended a Serie A title was in 1994 when they won it for the third consecutive year. Their 2022 crown was their 19th Scudetto, drawing them level with Inter’s tally. That itself is still a long way behind the 36 that record-holders Juventus have earned.

But AC Milan have a head coach that they clearly trust and who has so far worked wonders for them in pulling them out of the doldrums. They defied Serie A odds last term, can they do it again?