The AC Milan coach’s job has become a poisoned chalice in recent years. Inside the last three seasons, the club has appointed four different men to the position. Sinisa Mihajlovic is the current incumbent, and he has felt the pressure.
Since being given the job last summer, Mihajlovic has been under almost constant scrutiny with multiple unhelpful comments coming from above him in the Rossoneri hierarchy.
He had been in charge for just eight Serie A games when club owner Silvio Berlusconi ambiguously stated: "Who knows?" when asked about the coach’s future per Sportmediaset (h/t Football Italia).
More recently, Tuttosport (h/t Football Italia) reported that Marcello Lippi was set to replace Mihajlovic. However, in spite of the speculation, the Serbian coach has made it past the halfway point of his first campaign.
Now is an opportune moment to analyse if he truly is the correct person to lead Milan forward.
At the start of this season, Milan’s ambition was to return to Serie A’s top three. Bolstered by hefty investment in new signings, this objective didn’t seem overly outlandish, though the enthusiasm flew in the face of recent history.
In the last decade, the club has achieved a top-three spot on six occasions, missing out on four. Two of those four misses came in the last two years, with extremely disappointing eighth- and 10th-place final league positions.
Currently, after 20 league fixtures, Mihajlovic’s Milan lie in sixth. It isn’t the top-three place targeted six months ago, but it’s much better than the team’s performance at this stage in recent seasons.
At this stage in 2012-13, Milan had 31 points and sat seventh in the table. At the same point in 2013-14, they had 25 points and were 11th. At this stage last season, they were also placed in 11th, with 26 points. Compared to the past three seasons, Milan’s current standing and 32-point total is respectable.
There have been low points, such as the successive draws with relegation battlers Carpi and Verona, the 4-0 thrashing at home by Napoli and the 1-0 home defeat to Roberto Donadoni’s Bologna, but there have also been brighter moments, including the comfortable victories away to Lazio and at home to Sampdoria, and the recent 2-0 win over Scudetto-chasing Fiorentina.
An important aspect of Milan’s season is that there is still a possibility for silverware through the Coppa Italia. Mihajlovic’s side have reached the semi-finals of the competition—something the club hasn’t achieved since 2012—and are now a two-legged tie with Alessandria away from a final against Juventus or city rivals Inter.
Milan’s performance under Mihajlovic has been one of gradual improvement and, with historic context added, it’s evident that the results have been good enough to avoid resorting to drastic measures.
One of the primary issues with Milan’s performance has been their inconsistency. Results have wavered from week to week with little certainty, something that has not helped quell the rumours surrounding Mihajlovic’s future.
The most obvious reason behind the inconsistent results lies in Mihajlovic’s tactics. The Serb has chopped and changed with alarming frequency in his first season, perhaps in desperation to find a winning formula as quickly as possible, aware of the pressure mounting on him with every bad game.
The coach brought a 4-3-1-2 system with him from Sampdoria and was determined to implement his preference at San Siro, so much so that the club’s summer signings seemed to reflect Mihajlovic’s systematic requirements.
However, after the humbling loss to Napoli, the diamond midfield was shelved along with the strike duet, and wingers were introduced as he sought greater defensive stability.
The 4-3-3 didn’t last long either, being replaced with a 4-4-2 shape after back-to-back scoreless matches against Atalanta and Juventus, from which Milan reaped just one point.
The 4-4-2 has seen Milan obtain three wins, three draws and one defeat, making it the most effective formation used by the team in terms of points tallied during its usage. But Mihajlovic recently stated that he was considering further tweaking.
Speaking to Mediaset Premium (h/t Football Italia) after last weekend’s win over Fiorentina, Mihajlovic said:
So far this season we’ve never had a full squad to choose from. We started with the 4-3-1-2 system, then went 4-3-3 and with 4-4-2 had good results. When we get (Kevin-Prince) Boateng, Jeremy Menez and (Mario) Balotelli back to full fitness, my idea is to play 4-3-1-2. For now we have to continue like this.
Tactics go beyond formations but, with the 4-4-2 beginning to obtain positive outcomes, it’s unlikely that the notion of another switch on the horizon will be welcomed as good news by Milanisti.
Mihajlovic needs to stick to a system if Milan are to find coherence and obtain consistency on the field.
While Mihajlovic’s tactics remain open to scrutiny, his man-management skills are strong. His ability to cajole players when down and keep their feet on the ground after strong displays is admirable, especially given that this is his first year with the club.
Other coaches would have been less forward and honest with their players when trying to get them on side, but Mihajlovic has not been scared to stamp his mark on the squad. This appears to be paying dividends with some of the players’ individual performances.
Mario Balotelli’s return to Milan was seen as a controversial move. The 25-year-old was on the back of a career-worst spell at Liverpool, but Mihajlovic was in no mood to coddle him. Despite an impressive showing in a friendly with Mantova, the striker was told to lose weight by the coach, per Goal.
Within the next two weeks, Balotelli made his second debut for the club, coming off the bench against Inter and coming close to scoring on multiple occasions. He then put in a game-changing performance against Udinese on 22 September to lead the Rossoneri to victory.
Thanks to Mihajlovic’s tough love, Balotelli’s career—injuries aside—could be back on track. And the striker isn’t the only one to have benefited from the coach’s personal style and training methods.
Experienced Brazilian central defender Alex has been a surprisingly composed presence at the heart of Milan’s back four for much of the campaign, something he credits Mihajlovic with, per Milan Channel (h/t Football Italia).
“We’re working more this season,” he said, before adding, “I’m feeling good this season … the coach gave me a chance against Torino and I took it.”
Recently, Keisuke Honda has shown signs of being the latest player to be reborn under Mihajlovic’s tutelage, with his performances in the last few weeks evidencing an improved work ethic and willingness to defend as well as create.
But Mihajlovic hasn’t just focused on the experienced players. He’s also given ample opportunities to youth, with 19-year-old right-back Davide Calabria impressing when given chance, 21-year-old Alessio Romagnoli leading the defensive line, and attacker M’Baye Niang (also 21) showcasing the best form of his career, according to WhoScored.com’s statistics.
Sixteen-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is perhaps the greatest testament to Mihajlovic’s long-term vision, however. With Diego Lopez exhibiting signs of shakiness early in the season, the coach wasted no time in dropping him and bringing in a teenage novice with no competitive first-team experience.
The decision has since proved correct, with Squawka.com rating Donnarumma as the third-best goalkeeper in Serie A per 90 minutes played.
As an act, sacking a coach is a way of ripping up the existing script with the intention of starting all over again. As such, it is a decision that must only be taken when there is no other viable course of action.
While the initially ambitious aim of a top-three finish seems a long way off, it is far from being mathematically impossible. And even so, Milan should be contented with the prospect of quiet, slow progress for now after years of instability.
With his bold decision-making, inclusive approach towards youth and man-management skills combined with a modest improvement in results, Mihajlovic has shown more than enough to justify his continuing as Milan coach going forward.