Keisuke Honda hit the bar and Carlos Bacca had a goal ruled out for offside as the Rossoneri gritted out another important victory over a dangerous away side coached well to counter-attack by Giampiero Ventura.
The win, courtesy of Luca Antonelli’s strike just before half-time, acted as another validation of Sinisa Mihajlovic’s managerial qualities, more specifically his man-management.
The Serbian has shown an acute sensibility for each of his players since taking the reins last summer, finding the right balance between pushing and reassuring his team to get them firing.
Whether Mihajlovic is smiling calmly or gesticulating wildly, frantically shouting or silently glowering, each action appears to be measured. And, ultimately, his understanding and motivational capabilities are important factors behind Milan’s resurgence.
Several previously underperforming players continued their own individual ascendancies in form during the win over Torino.
Honda’s well-struck, curling free-kick hit the crossbar and—once again—the Japanese playmaker put in a sound display full of hard work alongside his refined ball skills.
After the match, he commented on speculation surrounding Mihajlovic’s future. He forthrightly backed his coach when asked if he should stay, telling Mediaset Premium (h/t Football Italia): “Of course. We are winning many games and have to go forward. When we play badly, he helps us and I hope the fans are also behind him.”
Honda isn’t the only player to have gained from Mihajlovic’s presence. The scorer of the winning goal against Torino, Antonelli, has also blossomed into an integral player on the left flank, with his flying runs from left-back pivotal to Milan’s attacking play.
His goal was set up by Juraj Kucka, a 29-year-old Slovakian midfielder who inconspicuously joined the club from Genoa at the start of the season but has grown in importance as the campaign has worn on.
His energy and dynamism are important traits going forward, and his tenacity adds an edge to an otherwise sophisticated midfield. Yet, while these characteristics have been useful, Mihajlovic deserves credit for utilising them correctly by offering Kucka a box-to-box role in the centre of a 4-4-2 formation.
On the opposite side to Antonelli, Ignazio Abate is turning back the years with his performances of late. The 29-year-old’s surging runs on the right-hand side are reminiscent of his younger days, and he too is fully behind Mihajlovic.
After Saturday night’s win he told Mediaset Premium (h/t Football Italia): “There was a period this season where we could’ve gone off the rails, but instead we stayed united around the coach. The results are finally arriving, but we can’t stop now.”
Perhaps one of the more surprising stories of Milan’s season is the form of 33-year-old Brazilian centre-back Alex. A player many considered cumbersome, slow and past his best has been vital to the Rossoneri’s improving defensive resolve, providing strength and aggression to lead the back line.
His towering headed goal kick-started Milan’s win in the Derby della Madonnina on 31 January and once again his aerial force and assertiveness caused problems for the opposition against Torino. Indeed, it was his header that led to Bacca’s ruled out finish.
According to WhoScored.com, Alex has been one of Milan’s best players this season with a 7.22 average rating. And, next to him, Cristian Zapata has put in some assured showings since coming in to the starting lineup for an unfit Alessio Romagnoli of late.
The Colombian was, much like Alex, considered not fast enough to play a part in a high, proactive defensive line but in his recent outings he has been key. It was his nudge that put Ciro Immobile off when through on goal in the win over Torino, a match in which he blocked two shots, made six clearances, two interceptions and one tackle, per Whoscored.
At a time when Milan lack big names, Mihajlovic is making unsung heroes out of ordinary players. Through hard work, motivation and inspiration, he has rejuvenated several careers during his time with the club.
After securing three points against Torino, he told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia): “I want to thank the players and the fans, because the team deserve those banners, and I’m pleased the crowd is happy with our performances,” making reference to supportive displays from the fans in the Curva Sud.
Devoid of the individual stars that some of Italy’s other top sides possess, Mihajlovic has undoubtedly assembled a strong core, with the bedrock being his reformed players: Alex, Antonelli, Abate, Kucka and Honda.
Thanks to this spirited group, moulded by the coach’s man-management, Milan are unbeaten since the beginning of January. And, if their good form continues, a top-three spot will not be out of the question.