What is going wrong at AC Milan? Shambolic 2022/23 season explained
A 3-0 victory at the Mapei Stadium in May returned the Scudetto to the Rossoneri side of Milan for the first time in just over a decade. It was Stefano Pioli's time in the sun; the culmination of AC Milan's underdog-like resurgence.
Yet, just a few months after they edged out their closest rivals for the title, Pioli's side have entered crisis mode amid a dreadful run of form following the return of Serie A after the World Cup.
Defending their crown was never going to be easy given the competitiveness of the division, but the nature of their slump has many questioning whether Pioli's fire is burning out. The Rossoneri are 15 points adrift of runaway leaders Napoli having failed to win their last four league outings.
In their last two encounters, Milan have been beaten 9-2 on aggregate. On Sunday, the Rossoneri followed up their 4-0 defeat at Lazio with a 5-2 home defeat as Sassuolo ran riot. They've conceded four goals in back-to-back Serie A games for the first time ever, and Sunday was the first time they've conceded five goals at home since 1997.
So, yeah, all is not well. But why?
A poor summer
Milan's rise under Pioli was built off savvy recruitment. The likes of Sandro Tonali, Mike Maignan, Fikayo Tomori, Pierre Kalulu, and Olivier Giroud were all purchased for modest fees after Pioli took over in October 2019, just months after Theo Hernandez and reigning Serie A MVP Rafael Leao joined the club.
Each of these arrivals played a massive role in the Rossoneri's Scudetto success last season.
Milan were expected to go again in the wake of their celebration, but their summer transfer window, in retrospect, appears to have set the champions back. They failed to land key targets early in the window as Sven Botman joined Newcastle, Renato Sanches moved to the French capital, and Enzo Fernandez signed for Benfica.
Such additions would've stood the Rossoneri in good stead for 2022/23, but they were instead forced to settle for makeshift deals and unwanted loans. Their most notable arrival, Charles De Ketelaere, has just one goal contribution in 690 minutes.
“De Ketelaere has a five-year contract,” sporting director Paolo Maldini said. “We can’t judge him after five months.” Ultimately, though, their poor summer window has been a major contributor to their inability to evolve this term.
Failing to evolve
From a personnel perspective, 2022/23 Milan are near enough the same as their title-winning outfit. New signings have struggled to settle, and Pioli's loyalty to his old guard has brought about stagnation. They just haven't evolved.
From a tactical perspective, Milan have always been a fairly basic side. Pioli is wedded to a balanced 4-2-3-1 which often switches to a back three in possession to allow Theo to bomb on. Much of their good work arrives down the left, with Theo and Leao developing a near-unstoppable relationship during their title-winning campaign.
Pioli isn't all vanilla, however. The use of his star left-back in an inverted function was an unparalleled success last term, while Milan emerged as the best-pressing team in Serie A under the Italian's watch. No team registered more high turnovers in the division than the Rossoneri last season (367).
Currently, Milan have notched the 13th most in the league (136), but their PPDA (passes per defensive action) has only risen slightly (10.2 to 10.9). They're still an efficient pressing side, but they're not quite as proficient as they were out of possession in 2021/22.
Perhaps teams have just started to figure the champions out.
Mike Maignan's injury
Gigi Donnarumma's unsavoury departure was quickly forgotten when Maignan rocked up and played a pivotal role in Milan's Scudetto success. The Frenchman's composure in possession added another dimension to the Rossoneri's build-up play, and his shot-stopping ability got Pioli's side over the line in some huge games, most memorably in the derby against Inter.
However, the reigning Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year has missed much of the current campaign due to a calf injury. He's been out of action since September and his replacement, the wildly inferior Ciprian Tătărușanu, has been pretty disastrous between the sticks.
The veteran shot-stopper has conceded 21 times in 13 starts (Maignan conceded 21 in 32 games last season) and has proven to be a major hindrance to the previously stubborn Milan defence.
While Maignan's post-shot xG minus goals allowed (essentially the number of goals he saved) sat at the very top of Serie A last season at +4.9, Tătărușanu's -4.9 sees him rank third-bottom of the division this term.
In short, the goalkeeper has been a major problem.
Struggling to defend set pieces
Milan's defence as a whole has fallen off a cliff this season, but they've proven to be particularly poor at defending set pieces.
They've conceded the second-most goals (seven) from such situations in Serie A, and have conceded more in 2022/23 than they did throughout the entirety of 2021/22 (six).
It was their woeful set-piece defending that allowed Roma to come from two goals down to equalise in the closing stages of their January match-up; a result that established further doubt and insecurity within the Milan defence.
Since being pegged back by Jose Mourinho's side, the Rossoneri have conceded 11 times in three Serie A games, been dumped out of the Coppa Italia by Torino, and were beaten convincingly in the Supercoppa by Inter.
Talk about a season-altering result!