Zlatan Ibrahimović, AC Milan, and a Serie A title shakeup

Zlatan Ibrahimovic of AC Milan (Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic of AC Milan (Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images) /

After last winter’s free transfer of Zlatan Ibrahimović, no side in Europe has been in better form than AC Milan, the sleeping giant of Italian football.

December 2019: Italian giant, AC Milan, announces the free transfer of former Sweden international, Zlatan Ibrahimović. After an eight-year spell away from the club with stops at Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, and the Los Angeles Galaxy, the well-traveled striker returned home to Italian football and AC Milan.

Ibrahimović, then age 38 returned to Milan with far fewer expectations than his original arrival on loan from Barcelona in 2010. With his best days considered lost somewhere between Paris and Manchester, the Swede brought his world-famous personality to the United States, joining the LA Galaxy on a free transfer. The move certainly led to headlines across both the US and Europe (some of which were written by Zlatan himself) but was considered no more than a retirement tour, similar to that of David Beckham or Steven Gerrard.

Despite major knee surgery, Ibrahimović’s impact was felt immediately as he scored two goals as a sub in his Major League Soccer debut. While the Galaxy failed to capture an MLS title in his two years at the club, Zlatan’s 52 goals in 56 matches, regular appearances on the national highlight reels, and a shake-up to the league indicated the self-proclaimed lion still had more fight.

The end of the 2019 MLS season looked as it could be the end of Ibrahimović’s career. Nearing 40, undergoing major surgery, and being away from top-level European football, it was somewhat shocking seeing Ibrahimović return to Milan. The two agreed to a six-month contract beginning in January which would run through the end of the 2019-20 Serie A season.

Ibrahimović’s return to Milan, along with his reported €200,000 per week wages would require AC Milan to part with 24-year old Polish striker, Krzysztof Piątek in January. After joining Milan for €35 million from Genoa the prior January, Milan then sold Piątek to German-side Hertha Berlin for a reported €27 million. The financial loss for a side managing to fit within Europe’s Financial Fair Play limits, combined with the high wages of a short-term replacement further raised eyebrows behind Milan’s decision making.

At the completion of Ibrahimović’s transfer, Milan sat 12th in the Serie A table, sitting on 22 points and an -8 goal differential. While he didn’t score in his debut as a sub in a draw to Sampdoria, Ibrahimović’s impact would immediately spark a fire under the club. Ibrahimović would go on to score in the following 2-0 win over Cagliari and provided far more than goals as the club climbed the Serie A table prior to and after the break in the season due to COVID-19.

Ibrahimović finished the 2019-20 season with 10 goals in 16 appearances, providing both the leadership and the goals behind Milan’s rise to finish 6th in the table and clinch a Europa League qualifying spot. Milan’s 44 points over the final 20 games outpaced title-winning Juventus’s 28, Inter Milan’s 27, and Lazio’s 38. Ibrahimović and Milan agreed to a one-year extension in August, setting Milan up as one of the most intriguing sides in Europe.

The Summer Transfer Market

Italian football saw plenty of headline catching changes towards the end of the 2019-20 campaign and throughout the summer transfer window. Despite winning the club its 9th consecutive Serie A title, Juventus sacked manager Maurizio Sarri after just one year, replacing the former Napoli and Chelsea man with club legend, Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo took charge of Juventus without any senior management experience after Juventus had been linked with Zinedine Zidane, Mauricio Pochettino, and Filippo Inzaghi.

After swapping Miralem Pjanić with Arthur of Barcelona, Juventus shook up their line-up again, closing loan deals for Pirlo’s former teammate, Alvaro Morata, and Fiorentina winger, Federico Chiesa. Juve’s primary title contender, Inter Milan added Real Madrid wide player, Achraf Hakimi and aging stars Alexis Sánchez on a permanent deal, Arturo Vidal and Aleksandar Kolarov, and Ivan Perišić who returned on loan from Bayern Munich.

Surprise Champions League quarterfinalists, Atalanta completed the permanent deal for Mario Pašalić and signed Aleksey Miranchuk, Sam Lammers, and Simone Muratore. Atalanta, however, saw the departures of fullback Timothy Castagne to Leicester City for €24 million, Amad Diallo to Manchester United for €21 million, and the permanent departure of young center-back, Gianluca Mancini to Roma.

Meanwhile, surprise Serie A contenders from the 2019-29 season, Lazio signed center-forward Vedat Muriqi and wide player Mohamed Fares, along with adding additional depth through loans and free transfers. Perennial title contenders, Napoli, oversaw a number of departures including the sale of Brazilian midfielder Allan to Everton for €25 million before acquiring young Lille star, Victor Osimhen for a reported €70 million.

Milan’s summer transfer window activity went far beyond the extension of Ibrahimović, setting the tone for the club’s 2020-21 campaign and long-term future. The Rossoneri saw the departures of Suso, Lucas Paquetá, André Silva, Ricardo Rodríguez, and the free transfers of veterans Pepe Reina, Giacomo Bonaventura, and Lucas Biglia.

The departures of a reported €55 million allowed the club to acquire Ante Rebic on a permanent deal along with the permanent signings of youngsters Alexis Saelemaekers and Jense Petter Hague and loan deals for Manchester United’s Diogo Dalot, Real Madrid’s Brahim Díaz, and Italian wonderkid Sandro Tonali.

Milan usurped Inter in the signing of Tonali towards the end of the window, capturing what the Italian media labeled the next Andrea Pirlo. Tonali’s loan included an initial €10 million loan fee with an option to buy from Brescia for a total fee of €30 million.

Surprise Contenders

Despite a strong finish to the 2019-20 campaign and a productive window, Milan opened the 2020-21 season projected to finish sixth in the Serie A behind Juventus, Inter, Napoli, Atalanta, and Lazio. Former Lazio, Inter, and Fiorentina manager Stefano Pioli’s Milan side started the 2020-21 campaign right where they left off with a 2-0 win over Bologna. Ibrahimović provided both the goals for Milan, with the second coming from the spot while Díaz, Tonali, and Saelemaekers made their club debuts.

More from AC Milan

Ibrahimović’s presence on the pitch could be felt in every movement and counter put on by Milan. His impact goes far beyond his 8 goals in 5 Serie A matches (despite missing two starts due to COVID-19). Zlatan demands the best of himself and expects the same level of maximum output from his teammates.

The club, while incredibly young, are set to be shaped in the image of the legendary Swedish striker. Ibrahimović’s demand for greatness is as clear as the red and black stripes on the Milan shirt with frustration visible on his face or through his actions in every missing goal-scoring opportunity, pass, or penalty.

In a Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Juventus side full of the game’s highest-profile players, Ibrahimović’s abrasive personality could be seen as a point of tension in the clubhouse. The opposite appears to be the result for this Milan side.

Excluding Ibrahimović, the average age of a Milan starter in the club’s most recent 2-2 draw to Hellas Verona was 23 years old. The club’s captains Alessio Romagnoli and Gianluigi Donnarumma are still both 25 and 21, respectively, both serving the club since they were 5 years old. Milan is a side perfectly established to be defined between Pioli and Ibrahimović.

Milan’s loss to Lille on November 5 marked the club’s first competitive defeat in their last 24 matches. AC Milan remains top of the Serie A table at 17 points, just two points over fellow surprise contenders Sassuolo and currently sit four points above Juventus.

Ibrahimović may not be playing like a 39-year-old and while he can continue Italy’s streak of aging strikers putting up massive numbers, his impact goes far beyond the goal count or Milan’s current position. Ibrahimović has brought the intangibles to a struggling giant and has shown what a young side of potential can look like for 90 minutes when motivated.

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The only goal in Zlatan and his side of youngsters’ mind would be Milan’s first Serie A title since 2011, coincidentally the last time Juventus failed to win the league and the last time Ibrahimović played in Italy.