AC Milan ended the 2019/20 season in impressive form, going unbeaten in its last 12 Serie A matches. Stefano Pioli’s squad proved that it was a legitimate top six side and was eventually able to qualify for a Europa League spot. Despite a historically short pre-season, Europa League qualifying matches and a barrage of injuries and positive COVID-19 tests, Milan have managed to extend their streak and currently sit atop the Serie A table with 13 points from five matches.
One of the biggest factors in Milan’s continued run of form has been its reliable group of bench options, who have provided crucial performances while several of the Rossoneri’s starting XI have missed time.
Perhaps the most important development has been Davide Calabria, who emerged as Milan’s primary right-back while Andrea Conti recovered from knee surgery. Calabria was nearly sold during the transfer window, but the 23-year-old has dramatically improved his form and earned his place in the squad. The full-back has become a more consistent one-on-one defender, while also attacking the right wing more efficiently.
Another defensive revelation has been Matteo Gabbia, who was at one point the fourth choice centre-back last season. The young prospect was Milan’s only realistic option to partner with Simon Kjaer at the start of the campaign, with captain Alessio Romagnoli out due to a leg injury.
Gabbia is another player who has been in better form than last year, and Milan only conceded four goals in his six starts. That said, the 21-year-old must become a more consistent player when coming off the bench for Romagnoli or Kjaer, as he still makes too many mental mistakes on the backline.
Offensively, the sudden absence of Ante Rebic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic came as a shock to the Rossoneri, with the Swede contracting the coronavirus, while Rebic dislocated his elbow in a nasty collision. However, despite missing their two best forwards, Milan’s frontline has remained dangerous, with Rafael Leao, Brahim Diaz and Alexis Salemaekers each making the most of their opportunities in the starting eleven.
Leao in particular has been impressive, taking over for Rebic’s duties on the left wing. The Portuguese forward has provided two goals and three assists in just 224 minutes of Serie A action. Leao provides a fast and powerful presence in the left channel, and he can also drift inside and play as a second striker. He must become a more consistent passer, but when he is in top form he has the ability to take over a match.
Of course, Milan’s most intriguing new player has yet to completely settle into the squad. Sandro Tonali, one of Europe’s most coveted young talents, arrived in at the Stadio San Siro in the summer and is brimming with potential. The Brescia product is renowned for his passing ability and intelligence on the pitch, while being considered by some as second coming of Andrea Pirlo.
Tonali has the ability to play as a deep-lying playmaker or as a box-to-box midfielder as he had to play all over the pitch last season for his struggling Brescia side. The 20-year-old will need to become more comfortable in Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 system, as well as improving his defensive acumen, but he should eventually be able to challenge Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer for a starting position behind Hakan Calhanoglu.
Milan’s newfound depth comes at the perfect time, in the midst of what will clearly be another Covid-impacted season. With five substitutes per match, Europa League fixtures, injuries and virus-related absences to worry about, the Rossoneri will certainly have to field more than a few different lineups.
When dealing with these complications, Pioli and Milan supporters should remain confident with the knowledge that the club’s backup brigade is much more capable this season than in years past.