Stumbling Into Stability

A seven times Champions League winning club Including Europan Cups got traded as the pledge in an unpaid loan. To an American hedge fund. AC Milan’s recent history sums up a lot of football’s current problems. Roughly a year into the new ownership, however, most of the turbulence seems over and this fallen giant may just be on its way up again.

Written by Sander IJtsma.

Things looked to have been thought over so well when Silvio Berlusconi finally handed over the ownership of his beloved AC Milan. Li Yonghong had seemingly passed all due diligence tests and he took hold of the club for 740 million euros. Money that never really came from his own pockets, we now know.

Li funded nearly half of his takeover bid with high-interest loans taken at American hedge fund company Elliott Management. Quickly unable to repay any of this impressive loans, Li lost control of the collateral, the club. So, fifteen months after Li was announced as the new club owner, AC Milan came under the control of Elliott, who may or may not have had the intention to own a football club.

Ambitions meet reality

However they came about owning a football club, Elliott issued an ambitious statement. Our goal is to “achieve long-term success for AC Milan by focusing on the fundamentals and ensuring the club is well-financed”. Quickly, they made a deposit of fifty million euros to stabilize matters at the club. 

Back in the days, this was how football worked. A club sunk under the failure of one ownership, got traded to new wealthy owners, who then invested large sums of money to steady the ship and set sail to winning waters. 

However, times have changed. AC Milan came under scrutiny of the financial fair play (FFP) committee, who ruled the club out from European football for two seasons, for being unable to repay the Elliott loan. This ban was overturned on appeal, more investments from the Elliott group itself meant more breaches of the FFP rules and finally the club settled for a one year ban from European football, effective this 2019/20 season.

Actual football

Amidst all these financial and legal turbulence, there was actual football to be played. Over the past three seasons, AC Milan have finished with 63, 64 and 68 points, missing out on Champions League qualification each time. To make things worse, the optimism derived from last season’s fifth place quickly dries up when looking at the underlying numbers. A top six defense was paired with a dysfunctional offense, which was mainly kept afloat by efficient finishing – a combination that rarely bodes well for future performances. 

Milan’s management rightly concluded that further changes were needed in order to come anywhere close to reaching their ambitious goal of “returning the club to the Pantheon of top European football clubs, where it belongs.”


Manager Gennaro Gattuso left his position by mutual agreement, right after the 2018/19 season had ended. He had been in charge for two full seasons, where the club has failed to make the desired progress, most notably last season. Much like the player he was, Gattuso helped Milan play from a firm defensive base and put up solid numbers there, but was not the man to fix the offensive problems.

Gattuso almost exclusively played from a 4-3-3 formation, with rare excursions into a three-at-the-back formation failing to provide the desired outcome, such as the defeat at Lazio in the Coppa Italia semi-final. A midfield of Bakayoko at the base with Kessié and Çalhanoglu right in front often proved unable to provide enough ball progression. 

Wide forwards Suso and Borini were unable to provide striker Piątek with the service he enjoyed at Genoa during his impressive first half season of Serie A football. Furthermore, Gattuso clearly struggled how to make best use of Milan’s second winter acquisition Lucas Paquetá. The 35 million euros signing from Flamengo completed just two full matches in his first nine starts, and ultimately failed to live up to expectations in his first half season in Italy.

The new man

Milan’s management probably had a plan when deciding to get rid of Gattuso. Landing one of Italy’s two most rapidly rising stars in Marco Giampaolo can be considered the third big hit, after landing Piątek and Paquetá as their winter signings. Giampaolo came off a very successful three year spell at Sampdoria, after already having made a name for himself by pushing Empoli into tenth position in the 2015/16 season.

Giampaolo consistently plays a 4-3-1-2 formation, and it is no surprise to see Milan lining up as such in their recent International Champions Cup matches against Bayern Munich and Benfica. Both matches ended in 1-0 defeats, but were quite even on expected goals. The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. 

In terms of personnel it is hard to draw conclusions from these matches as Milan featured a lot of fringe players, and were still full in the midst of transfer business. Still, allowing Daniel Maldini to make his first team debut is almost guaranteed to steal the hearts of the rossoneri.

One of Milan’s big summer signings has been left back Theo Hernández, coming from Real Madrid. The talented 21-year old left back already made a very good impression in the aforementioned ICC matches. However, the biggest turnover is surely to happen in midfield.

Playing in the ‘ten position’ behind a pair of strikers is likely to bring the best out of Paquetá. To complement the finishing skills of Piatek, Milan attracted hot prospect Rafael Leão from Lille – at 25 million euros their most expensive asset in this squad overhaul. 

Behind Paquetá plays a midfield three with most places still up for grabs, as it seems. With loanee Bakayoko gone – and him nowhere being a Giampaolo type of player – playing at the base of the diamond could be veteran Lucas Biglia, or one of the new signings Ismael Bennacer or Rade Krunic. Both central midfielders were acquired from relegated Empoli, with a young Krunic already part of Giampaoli’s squad in that impressive 2015/16 season. 

New tactics

Giampaolo stands for possession-heavy football, with a preference for a high press. Gone are the days of Milan preferring to retreat in Gattuso’s medium low block A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. after losing possession. We’ve already seen Milan operate in their new style during the pre-season friendlies and what stood out in particular was this high press from a very horizontally compact formation.

The Italian fixture computer has been particularly kind to Milan, who will face all three of the promoted sides in the first eight match rounds. Just a single clash with another top six team – Inter at home – is included in this period. Even before a single ball has been kicked in the 2019/20 Serie A season, Milan fans have every right to be excited.

Sander IJtsma (43) is co-founder and data-specialist of Between the Posts. He is also the man behind 11tegen11, a company that provides player scouting advice and various other data services. Pioneer of the #autotweet to provide match plots on Twitter. Father of three. Now circling back to tactical writing, which was how it all started ten years ago. [ View all posts ]


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