The 2019-2020 season started with some hopeful promise but it derailed much sooner than almost anybody expected. With Gazidis as CEO and Maldini and Boban in somewhat ambiguous sporting director and development roles the offseason’s main action was the hiring of Giampaolo to replace the ‘successful’ Gattuso. Rino had steered the team into fifth place but the decision was made to change the coach. The transfer market activity was based on value signings with solid but not superstar players arriving and everybody hoping that they would fit into a new coach’s system.
Giampaolo came with the 4-3-1-2 formation almost set in stone. This immediately put into question Suso’s place. The right winger was overused by several coaches and often under-performed. The Spaniards poor form and at least perceived one dimensional ability was going to be difficult to fit in the advertised formation and within one week – the week 1 loss to Udinese – Giampaolo was hinting at a change of formation. It only took 6 more matches for the coach to be fired. It was a case of unworkable and registered as a mistake for Boban, Maldini and all of management. In the meanwhile Maldini had acquired a bargain as Theo Hernandez started to display great offensive ability down the left. Stefano Pioli arrived to underwhelming reaction and results. Fans had hoped for a bigger name in the summer and still weren’t convinced.
The calendar year marched towards December with not much to write home about and ended with a humiliation. On the last match of 2019 Atalanta destroyed Milan 5-0. The ensuing transfer window found new homes for Piatek and Suso to free the team of two disappointments. Ibra was convinced to rejoin the team, Kjaer arrived on an initial loan and several other small moves replenished the team. A few decent results greeted 2020 but still a derby loss stung. In the background a possible management change was brewing. Rumours kept swerving that Elliott and Gazidis want to take a big risk and hire Ralf Rangnick of Leipzig in an all encompassing role to revolutionize the team from scouting to the wage bill. This almost certainly meant a big youth reset and cut backs. This was of course treated with skepticism and not only among fans. Boban publicly complained and left soon after. Maldini almost did too.
Then football stopped because of the COVID-19 pandemic as Italy and rest of the world were hit hard.
It took until June for calcio to return. Following up on some medical protocols and looking at the Bundesliga example closed stadium matches returned in an urgent need to conclude the 2019-2020 season. In the first match after the restart Milan exited the Coppa Italia as a 0-0 at Juventus tie was not enough to reach the coppa final.
Twelve Serie A matches remained to try to salvage the season and get a European spot. Lecce were beaten 4-1 away and the wins and goals kept coming. Initially Ibra was rusty and uninvolved but he along with Rebic, Calhanoglu and Leao too kickstarted an offensive machine that didn’t lose the rest of the way. Many of the players shined and some unexpectedly so. Kessie had become a different player, Bennacer mostly effective, Castillejo hard running and Saelemaekers – another January loanee – hard working. On the defensive side Kjaer showcased solidity, experience and leadership in claiming a spot alongside Romagnoli.
Milan turned the season around and Pioli kept his cool and despite continuing Rangnick rumours – which would or would not include a coaching change – insisted on doing his best. The team moved smoothly, was more direct and resisted the collapses of the recent seasons. A come back from 0-2 to beat Juventus 4-2 highlighted a changed team. The transformation was the catalyst for a change of plans. A sudden U-turn off the pitch surprised many when Rangnick announced that the near done deal was off and the team immediately rewarded Pioli with a two year extension.
Keeping the status quo brings great risk of its own because the team needs more than just a rethink at the very top. Milan needs better and more proactive scouting and youth development to navigate the financial fair play world. For this pandemic era UEFA has modified its rules to allow more flexibility for current accounts but in the near future Milan needs more income from top to bottom. Rangnick would have created the conditions for a big change that Milan needs for the long term but Pioli’s 2020 work had to be and was rewarded.
Boban has gone, apparently without regrets, but Maldini has a lot to do. Ibra had clear reservations about any management change but will now almost certainly stay and his influence is not to be doubted. He himself agrees(!) players agree and fans do too.