As the game-winning goals, painfully quotable one-liners and laughably egocentric tweets pile up, Milan’s season is increasingly dominated by football’s ultimate showman.
However, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic bound to the sidelines, the ageless striker’s supporting cast came to the fore to record a wholly impressive 2-0 win – between their talisman’s shouts and fist-pumps from the stands – against Fiorentina on Sunday.
At the ripe old age of 39, Ibrahimovic has embarked upon a sensational start to the Serie A season, netting ten goals in his opening six league appearances while Milan sit atop the table. Not only does this set him out as the Italian top flight’s leading scorer, only Bayern Munich’s insatiable Robert Lewandowski can boast more goals in Europe’s top five leagues.
When Ibrahimovic returned to Milan last January, the Rossoneri were languishing in mid-table having already sacked one manager and not exactly overwhelmed by the results of his replacement, Stefano Piolo. They’ve only lost two of their 30 league games since their talisman made his second debut in red and black.
Ibrahimovic framed this change of fortune with a typical bravado: “If I’d been here since day one, we would have won the title.”
However, as good as Ibrahimovic has been, Milan’s comfortable 2-0 win over Fiorentina on Sunday was far from an irregular occurrence in the striker’s absence. Milan are unbeaten in the 11 games Ibrahimovic has missed during his second spell at the club, winning seven and drawing four across all competitions.
The Rossoneri, led by assistant coach Daniele Bonera with Pioli self-isolating, took to the field against Fiorentina with the third-youngest starting XI in Serie A this season. To highlight the youth coursing through the squad – one 39-year-old aside – Milan were also responsible for the only two lineups younger than Sunday’s in the other games Ibrahimovic missed.
With Milan’s chief scorer in the stands, Hakan Calhanoglu, their creative hub in midfield, did his best to supply his teammates on the pitch. After a couple of seasons finding his feet at San Siro, the Turkish attacking midfielder excelled post-lockdown, scoring five goals and laying on eight assists in the final 12 Serie A outings from June onwards.
Starting nominally on the left wing but with plenty of license to drift in-field, Calhanoglu either took or created ten of Milan’s 15 shots from open play against Fiorentina, though not a single one found the net. Even with Ibrahimovic on the pitch, Calhanoglu’s creativity hasn’t always been met with a clinical finish this term.
Despite having just one assist so far this season, the 26-year-old has created the most chances in Serie A and only three players with more than a smattering of minutes in the division have averaged more expected assists (xA) than Milan’s number ten.
One of that trio led the line for Milan in Zlatan’s absence on Sunday. Ante Rebic actually outscored Ibrahimovic in the second half of the previous season (11 to ten) and is one of a litany of players to have lauded the veteran’s impact and visibly benefitted from his presence.
Towards the end of the first half on Sunday, Rebic dropped slightly, collected a flick from Calhangolu while pinning Fiorentina’s Nikola Milenkovic in the style of a certain Swedish forward, before finding Theo Hernandez who won Milan’s second penalty of the match.
Franck Kessie, after a lengthy delay, did miss that spot kick, but had converted his first attempt to double Milan’s lead 28 minutes in the contest. Alessio Romagnoli opened the scoring as part of an all-round display befitting his status as club captain while Gianluigi Donnarumma put in a performance between the sticks which can only help his current contract negotiations.
It was an all-round team performance from the Rossoneri typified by the fact that three of Italy’s sports dailies all selected a different man of the match.
While Ibrahimovic might have overplayed his importance to the club by claiming to be ‘president, coach and player’, his impact certainly extends beyond his on-pitch displays. As Pioli underlined to The Athletic earlier this season: “His support is very important. He has an incredible competitiveness within… He helps in getting the group to work with precision, continuity and the right intensity.”
Milan’s buccaneering left-back Hernandez echoed Pioli’s sentiment, explaining: “He demands so much from us in training and in games. A lot of us are quite young and he knows how to guide and encourage us too. He supports and helps us.”
Almost a year into his return, Ibrahimovic’s unrelenting demands upon his teammates have seeped into the side’s displays even when he’s not on the pitch. Of course, one win against a ropey Fiorentina doesn’t mean Milan are as good without their number 11, but it does suggest that this impressive young squad has a future even after Ibrahimovic hangs up his boots, whenever that may be.