What's going on at AC Milan? From struggling summer signings to a disastrous derby defeat

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Charles De Ketelaere AC Milan 2022-21 HIC 16:9
In the space of 10 days, the Rossoneri threw away four points in Serie A, got knocked out of the Coppa Italia and were hammered in the Supercoppa

AC Milan began the year in unsurprisingly high spirits. After all, 2022 had been good to them. In May, they won a first Scudetto since 2011. Then, they reclaimed their place among Europe's elite by qualifying for the knockout stage of this season's Champions League.

However, just over a month before their last-16 tie with Tottenham, it's become clear that all is not right at Milanello. Indeed, had it not been for Juventus' week from hell, the always excitable Italian press would no doubt be labelling the Rossoneri as Serie A's crisis club right now.

After all, in the space of 10 days, Stefano Pioli's side dropped four points in the title race, were dumped out of the Coppa Italia by Torino, and then hammered 3-0 by Inter in the Supercoppa Italiana.

Derby defeats never go over well and the nature of Milan's loss in Riyadh has set alarm bells ringing, given they've now slipped 12 points behind league leaders Napoli ahead of Tuesday's must-win meeting with Lazio.

So, what exactly is going on, and is there really a danger of the Rossoneri's season unravelling? GOAL runs through all of the major talking points...

  1. Maignan's injury
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    Maignan's injury

    Mike Maignan didn't win Milan the league on his own last season, but he played a massive part. The Frenchman kept 17 clean sheets and conceded just 21 goals in 32 Serie A appearances. Somewhat incredibly, he actually proved an upgrade on Gigi Donnarumma, who sensationally left for Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2021.

    So, the fact that Maignan has not played for Milan since September because of a calf problem that simply refuses to go away is hugely significant.

    It's not just that he's a fantastic shot-stopper, he's also excellent with his feet, and utterly integral to Milan's game plan. Just witness his incredible assist for Rafael Leao in last season's 1-0 win over Sampdoria.

    Maignan's understudy, Ciprian Tatarusanu, just doesn't offer the same quality, or inspire anything like the same confidence among those in front of him...

  2. Milan's mental block
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    Milan's mental block

    Maignan isn't the only key player to have suffered an injury this season, so Milan's bid to retain the Scudetto has undeniably been hindered by important absences.

    However, Milan's recent slump is solely about fitness, or fatigue. There's also a psychological aspect, as Pioli has admitted himself.

    "At this moment, we are struggling to react to an error, struggling to remain united as a team and, collectively, the lack of positive results is starting to weigh on us," he admitted after the Supercoppa setback.

    It's clear that the Rossoneri haven't quite recovered from the shock of blowing a 2-0 lead at home to Roma on January 8. They had absolutely dominated the game but conceded twice from set-pieces in the final three minutes of the game, and haven't won a game since.

  3. Fallout from France's World Cup final frustration
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    Fallout from France's World Cup final frustration

    Questions have been asked regarding the state of mind of two players in particular: Theo Hernandez and Olivier Giroud. Both players have looked off the pace since returning from Qatar 2022 and the pair could certainly be forgiven for needing some time to come to terms with France's devastating loss to Argentina in the World Cup final.

    The game certainly didn't go as either man would have expected. Giroud, who had been a minor injury doubt beforehand, was hauled off before the break, while Theo was replaced midway through the second half.

    Giroud has admitted this week that he was "surprised" by his very early withdrawal but insists he is feeling upbeat about the future. Indeed, the veteran forward says he might continue at international level, while he is also looking to extend his stay at San Siro. However, it's not gone unnoticed that he has yet to score for Milan in 2023.

    Theo, meanwhile, appears to be suffering from an even more severe World Cup hangover, though Pioli has been doing his utmost to protect the left-back from allegations that he has lost some motivation.

    “I don’t think [his poor form] is anything to do with his attitude or concentration, nor is it right to point the finger at individuals," the coach told Sport Mediaset after the derby loss.

  4. Milan's main men have been mediocre
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    Milan's main men have been mediocre

    It's very important to stress that it's not just Milan's France duo who have suffered a dramatic dip in form. Several players are miles off the pace right now.

    Fikayo Tomori has not been quite right all season. The England international was one of the best centre-backs in Serie A last season, one of the foundations upon which Milan's Scudetto success was founded, but he started the current campaign slowly, as even he admitted himself.

    Things then went from bad to worse in the Champions League group-stage double-header with Chelsea, which had been billed as Tomori's last chance to convince Gareth Southgate to call him up for Qatar 2022. Tomori failed both auditions and has yet to get back to anything resembling his brilliant best.

    Elsewhere, Simon Kjaer and David Calabria have been hampered by injuries, while midfield ace Sandro Tonali, so influential for so many months, has looked nothing like his usual self since the turn of year, the apparent victim of the general malaise affecting Milan.

    "My players are not bad," Pioli stated. "They deserve my trust and respect.” Very true, but they also need to start repaying his faith in them soon.

  5. Summer signings struggling
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    Summer signings struggling

    Milan are not big spenders. Their success can be partially attributed to a succession of shrewd signings made by Paolo Maldini and, more recently, Ricky Massara.

    However, despite the fact that entire project is clearly ahead of schedule – Milan, remember, were facing economic ruin just a few years ago – there is talk of the duo leaving this summer if the team does not finish in the top four.

    The main reason for such speculation is tension over transfers. Both Maldini and Massara signed new, two-year contracts after the title triumph, but there were lingering issues. Maldini was given the control he wanted in the transfer market, but not the budget.

    As a result, Milan spent just €46m strengthening the squad last summer, and some of that went on making loan deals permanent.

    The problem, though, is that Charles De Ketelaere accounted for €32m of the overall outlay, and the Belgian has been a disaster to date, failing to score a single goal in 22 appearances, and generally looking completely out of his depth at the highest level.

    Furthermore, while his compatriot Divock Origi cost nothing in terms of a transfer fee, a significant investment was made in the former Liverpool man's wages, and he has yet to justify his pay packet. Again, injuries haven't helped, but Origi has still only managed to score once in 16 outings.

    There is mounting speculation, then, that unless Milan arrest this slump soon, Maldini and Massara could end up paying a heavy price for the struggles of their summer signings.

  6. Leao's never-ending contract talks

    Leao's never-ending contract talks

    Milan, then, could use with a transfer market boost right about now, and there would be none bigger from their perspective than tying Rafael Leao down to a new deal.

    The Portugal international still has more than a year to run on his current contract, but talks over a new deal have been dragging on for months now, which has only made the supporters more and more anxious, particularly when there are so many Premier League clubs out there with more money than sense. The fear is that a massive bid could arrive even before the close of the current transfer window.

    That still seems unlikely for now, particularly with Chelsea now seemingly focused on other targets. It's also been reported in recent days that Milan and Leao's representatives have agreed terms over his pay rise. The one remaining issue is said to be not only the presence of a buy-out clause in his new contract, but also its size.

    It is absolutely imperative that Milan not only hold on to Leao for the remainder of the current campaign, but also ensure that when he does inevitably move on, they got top dollar for one of the most exciting wingers in the world.