Zlatan AC Milan Season Preview
Despite joining nearly halfway through the season, Zlatan was AC Milan's second-highest scorer. Matteo Bazzi/EPA.

Ralf Rangnick had, according to widespread reports at the time, been lined up for months as AC Milan’s new head coach. The San Siro club had identified the German, widely credited as the man behind RB Leipzig’s success over the last five years or so, as the figure they needed to take them back to the top of the Italian game.

The late form of the team under Stefano Pioli forced a rethink of this, though. From a lowly mid-table position in March, AC Milan hit a rich vein of form after the Covid-19 lockdown, winning nine of their final 12 Serie A fixtures and drawing the other three to drag themselves up into sixth place, and Europa League qualification.

It was enough to convince the AC Milan hierarchy that Pioli should be kept on, extending the 54-year-old’s contract until the summer of 2022. Zlatan Ibrahimovic joined Pioli in signing a new contract to stay at the San Siro, with the Swedish striker scoring 10 goals and notching five assists in 17 Serie A appearances last season.

Most symbolic of AC Milan’s resurgence, however, was the signing of Sandro Tonali from Brescia. Widely seen as Italian soccer’s next great midfielder, the 20-year-old has been compared to Andrea Pirlo. The long hair and links to Brescia certainly help that comparison. Others argue he is more like Daniele de Rossi through the combative nature of his play. Either way, most agree Tonali has a bright future.

Until a few weeks ago, it appeared that future would be at Inter. By all accounts, the Nerazzurri were in pole position to sign Tonali having tracked him for much of the season. Juventus had also been linked, with Manchester United even credited with an interest in the young midfielder. AC Milan were the ones who won the race, though.

That almost certainly wouldn’t have happened without the late season rally to sixth place. Tonali explained upon signing for AC Milan that he had always held a place in his heart for the club, saying “More or less everyone supports Milan where I'm from, including my father, who passed that passion onto me as a kid.” Had the outlook at the San Siro remained bleak for the Rossoneri, the midfielder surely would have ended up elsewhere.

AC Milan have been here before, though. There have been a number of false dawns since 2011, when they last won the Scudetto. The summer of 2017, in particular, saw the Rossoneri go big, with Leonardo Bonucci lured from Juventus. Within a year, the central defender was back in Turin. Other big name signings, like Andre Silva, Krzysztof Piatek and Gonzalo Higuain also came and went without making much of an impression.

There are, however, signs that things are slowly starting to change. While AC Milan have previously targeted established names to take them back to the top, the club has made a more concerted effort of late to buy young, promising players who will get better as they mature. Franck Kessie is one such player, with the 23-year-old a key figure for the Rossoneri after lockdown.

22-year-old Theo Hernandez is another who has flourished at the San Siro, earning himself a reputation as Serie A’s best left back. Ante Rebic isn’t quite so young, but at 26 the Croatian forward is coming into his peak years and has proven himself as a reliable source of goals, netting 10 times in his final 20 league outings last season.

Gianluigi Donnarumma remains the natural heir to Gianluigi Buffon as Italy’s next great goalkeeper, and at 21 has already boasts a remarkable level of experience for someone still so young. Then there’s Alessio Romagnoli, widely regarded as the best centre defender Italy has right now.

The spine of a potentially successful team is there and the addition of Tonali will only strengthen it. Of course, Ibrahimovic is a veteran at 38 years old, but keeping him around for another season will prove to be a shrewd decision if AC Milan can find a way to use the Swede to instil a winning mentality in the San Siro dressing room that lasts beyond his usefulness on the pitch.

A window of opportunity is open for anyone bold enough to take aim at Juventus this season. The Bianconeri are in the midst of a transition, with rookie manager Andrea Pirlo expected to change the team’s ideality and lower the average age of the squad while still winning. These aren’t too different to the demands made on Pioli last season. The difference is he’s already made some progress.