Talking Tactics: Mediocre Milan have suffered a fall from grace
AC Milan have suffered a fall from grace in the 2022-23 campaign and a poor run of form leaves them sitting fifth in Serie A.
Last season's champions are currently 15 points behind leaders Napoli and have only won one of their five league games in 2023.
With a derby clash against Inter Milan on the horizon, followed by a crucial Champions League tie against Tottenham, it is important for Stefano Piolo to recapture his side's form in the coming days.
Ahead of Sunday's Milan showdown, we take a deep dive into what has gone wrong for the Scudetto's current holders.
A sloppy summer
Piolo took over in 2019 and opted to recruit a mix of established talent and upcoming stars.
The likes of Fikayo Tomori, Sandro Tonali and Olivier Giroud were all brought in to create a solid foundation for a squad that included two of Milan's most prized assets in Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leao.
All of these players had a significant role to play in the Rossoneri's title success in 2021-22 and the expectation was for them to carry their momentum into the current campaign.
However, the 19-time Scudetto winners were unable to secure many of their top targets in the summer, with Sven Botman opting for Newcastle and central midfielders Renato Sanches and Enzo Fernandez also turning down the Italian side.
Instead, they signed a mix of untested and risky players, including Charles De Ketelaere, who was an unknown product from Belgium and is yet to score in the top flight this season.
Although it is unfair to judge a player after only a few months at a new club, De Ketelaere has not had the instant impact that Milan fans will have been hoping for as they looked to retain their title.
Football is always evolving and the Italian style focuses on the complexity of tactics and formation rather than high energy and physicality.
Pioli is stubborn when it comes to his coaching and he values loyalty and tradition over evolution and new methods.
This has led to a somewhat stale atmosphere within the squad and the insistence on playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation has allowed opposition teams to exploit their weaknesses this term.
Much of the focus is on Hernandez and Leao, who operate on the left for Milan. Although their influence has proven to be a success in the past, a lack of form throughout the team has left them with no back-up plan.
Their pressing game has noticeably declined and their work out of possession has taken a hit in the current campaign.
It may just be a case of opponents figuring out their tactics, but it is visibly evident when watching Milan that they are not flowing with the same intensity that saw them win the league ahead of rivals Inter in 2022.
Issues at the back
Milan have conceded more goals from set-pieces (seven) than they did across the entirety of the last campaign (six) and they are on course to let in more in total than they did during their title charge.
Their match against Roma earlier in January was an example of their woeful defending from dead-ball situations.
Jose Mourinho's side came from two goals down to draw and they have since gone on to concede 11 times in three Serie A matches — including a 5-2 defeat to 16th-placed Sassuolo last time out — and suffer defeat in both cup competitions.
A significant injury to goalkeeper Mike Maignan may have had a role to play in the decline in form. The Frenchman was a key contributor to their success last season.
The Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year came in to replace Gianluigi Donnarumma when he departed for Paris Saint-Germain and has done a stellar job between the sticks for the champions.
His absence is certainly making a difference — Maignan conceded only 21 times in 32 games last season, Ciprian Tatarusanu has come in to ship the same amount in just 13 starts.
Pioli has promised that his side will overcome their poor run of form and admits that they have not been good enough this season.
Speaking recently, he said: "Nobody should think that the players don’t want to overcome this moment or that they don’t put 100% into it to do better.
"There has always been great focus and will. We overcome this moment by working, as we have always done. We have always believed in our work.
"The last three games have been negative overall. We can do many things better both in attack and defence. Right now it is the collective that has to help the individuals and not vice versa.
"Nothing has changed within the group. There is great cohesion and availability. Clearly there are a few less smiles and silence, therefore more attention to work.
"The group works because it is aware and feels a great sense of duty towards the club and the fans."
Milan are only two points behind rivals Inter in second and a win over them at the weekend would take them above their neighbours and provide a timely boost for angry fans.