Glancing at the Serie A table during the league's traditional winter break throws up a number of surprises. Sassuolo qualified for the Europa League last term yet sit in 16th place right now, while Lazio (fourth) and Atalanta (sixth) have both improved massively since last term.
The former finally have their better players healthy, while the latter have benefitted from coach Gian Piero Gasperini trusting a talented crop of youngsters like Franck Kessie, Mattia Caldara and Roberto Gagliardini to rapidly improve on last term's performance.
Yet sandwiched between those two sides are fifth-placed AC Milan, which should not really be a shock, given their historical pedigree. However, the Rossoneri are not the formidable powerhouse followers of Italian football became accustomed to, the team a shadow of those graced by the likes of Paolo Maldini, Kaka and Marco van Basten in years gone by.
Indeed, since parting company with Massimiliano Allegri in January 2014, Clarence Seedorf, Pippo Inzaghi, Sinisa Mihajlovic and Cristian Brocchi have all taken a turn in the coaching hot seat, with Mauro Tassotti also being placed in temporary charge along the way.
The club had been a fixture in the Champions League since the tournament's inception in 1992, but Milan have finished eighth, 10th and seventh in the past three Serie A campaigns, a remarkable slump rooted in poor planning in both the sporting and financial sectors.
Their once-great team got old, and when vital players retired, there was no coherent plan or funding in place to reload. Vice-president Adriano Galliani and owner Silvio Berlusconi—previously shrewd and respected operators in their respective roles—failed to deliver off the pitch, and the Rossoneri suffered on it as a result.
Left behind as Juventus surged into a dominant position, their incompetence meant there was no clear path back to relevancy, with even the summer appointment of Vincenzo Montella as coach failing to inspire supporters.
The most hardcore fans, those who sit in the Curva Sud each week, had seen enough. Back in April they vented their frustration in a harsh public statement, per Football Italia:
A president who is incapable of recognising the real problem in his business and therefore doesn't resolve it is no longer justifiable, even if he makes big investments. If anything, he becomes the main person responsible for this situation.
For too many years now we have seen teams built with no plan, passed off as great sides to mask the inability to work on the market and the general fall of the club that sadly is increasing with each passing year.
Another uninspiring transfer window followed in the summer, with the squad looking remarkably threadbare in all departments. Even Montella arrived with his reputation in doubt, narrowly avoiding relegation with Sampdoria last term after leaving Fiorentina following a major disagreement over funding to strengthen his squad.
It seemed as if the coach had jumped feetfirst from the frying pan into the fire, but what he has done with this Milan side so far this term almost defies belief. Of course, players like Gianluigi Donnarumma, Alessio Romagnoli and Giacomo Bonaventura deserve immense credit, but the coach has brought out the very best in almost every player at his disposal.
He has done so not by playing the same eye-catching and free-flowing football that characterised his time with the Viola in Florence, but by proving that he is flexible, pragmatic and willing to learn from his mistakes.
Montella has brought even more homegrown young players into the first team, handing a regular starting spot to Manuel Locatelli. The midfielder rewarded him by bagging a sensational winning goal against Juventus back in October (see video above).
But more than anything, this Milan is about Montella. Like Allegri and Carlo Ancelotti, he has found a way to balance the pressure of the role with securing the results necessary to keep it, something that eluded his aforementioned predecessors.
"Berlusconi understands us, he is democratic," the coach told Tuttosport (h/t Football Italia) when asked about receiving advice from above. "Some of the tips he gives are very interesting. I am in charge day-to-day, however I listen and evaluate what he says."
Yet while the boss often demands two strikers and attacking football, Montella's Milan is built on defensive solidity. His Sampdoria side conceded more goals than all but three teams last term, while WhoScored.com figures show that only two other sides allowed opponents more shots than the 15.8 faced by the Genoa-based club.
This season, only Juventus (14) and AS Roma (18) have allowed fewer goals than Milan's tally of 20, despite the side being weak in a number of areas. Montella has set them up to operate as a collective, working on getting men in position to deny time and space while masking those problem areas.
Better protection from a more cohesive midfield has allowed Gabriel Paletta to shine alongside Romagnoli. The image below—taken from November's 2-2 draw with Inter Milan—shows just how the central trio hunt as a pack to regain possession whenever the Rossoneri lose it.
The back four (highlighted in red) are lined up traditionally to deal with the threat of lone striker Mauro Icardi, while wingers Suso and M'Baye Niang (yellow) track back to plug the wide areas.
In midfield, however, the blue line notes just how narrow and compact Bonaventura, Locatelli and the surprisingly effective Juraj Kucka move in search of the ball. With these movements now drilled into the side, Milan are a far more effective unit, as they proved in the recent Supercoppa Italiana clash with Juventus.
Having already defeated the Serie A champions this term, they maintained a perfect record against them by winning a penalty shootout in Qatar.
The victory marked their first trophy since 2011, and they thoroughly outplayed the Bianconeri, as WhoScored.com figures showed they enjoyed more possession (51 percent), more shots on target (9-5), completed more passes (475-458) and made more tackles (24-15).
It was a deserved victory, and one that Montella believes could inspire his young team to go on to greater accomplishments, as he explained in an interview with RAI Sport shortly after the final whistle.
"It's a nice feeling to win," the 42-year-old coach said (h/t FourFourTwo). "The lads have to see this as a good starting point for the future, as we played on a par with a great side like Juventus."
There can be no argument with that analysis. But Milan are not thriving solely because they have exciting youngsters like Donnarumma and Locatelli, they are doing so because of the coaching acumen of Montella.
It isn't always good to watch, but it is still an impressive approach, one that the coach has not been given enough credit for. As his demands off the ball are met, the former Roma striker has given his players more freedom going forward, leading to some entertaining attacking displays.
But this is no longer the captivating Milan who taught Europe a footballing lesson under Arrigo Sacchi or who thrilled the continent under Ancelotti. Yet thanks to Montella's guidance, intelligence and newfound ability to build a sound defence, the Rossoneri are now slowly fighting their way back into contention for silverware.
Make no mistake, this isn't a team built to thrill neutrals. It is a side constructed with the sole aim of climbing as high in the table as possible, one playing to restore hope among their own supporters and recapture their faith. The San Siro crowd know who to thank for that.