IT has been jarring to see AC Milan mired in mediocrity in recent seasons, one of the continent’s truly great clubs stumbling from year to year and seemingly unable to rediscover their true selves. Three separate ownership groups have each made catastrophic mistakes, the results of which have left the Rossoneri battling a variety of off-field issues while the team has looked equally disappointing on the pitch.
Yet perhaps nothing captures their steady fall towards inadequacy more than the story of their own no. 9 shirt. Just as Milan were the side who dominated the 1990s, it was routinely the man at the focal point of the attack who led the way. Sure, Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello were master tacticians who could rely on one of the greatest defensive units ever assembled but, as good as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and their colleagues in the backline were, their stunning careers also owed much to a series of world class strikers.
Foremost among them of course was Marco Van Basten. The Dutch legend won the Ballon d’Or three times while wearing the no. 9 shirt at San Siro, twice finishing as Serie A’s leading goal scorer as he helped the Rossoneri win three league titles and lift the European Cup twice in a sensational six-year stint that was only stunted by catastrophic injury.
George Weah soon followed, helping the club to two more Scudetti while claiming the Ballon d’Or himself in 1995 before he moved on five years later. Little more than 12 months passed between his departure and the arrival of Pippo Inzaghi, the Italian pushed out at Juventus following the arrival of David Trezeguet.
While he may not have had the balletic grace of Van Basten nor the heady combination of athleticism and skill exhibited by Weah, “Super Pippo” would write his name into Milan’s history books thanks to one undeniable truth; he always knew where the goal was. Arguably no player has done more to maximise his talents than the wiry striker who, outside the 18 yard box looked as if he had no business being on the field at the highest level.
Yet time after time, when the ball was inside the box, he would pop up at the perfect moment and find the simplest way to put it in the back of the net. Every goal was celebrated with the most emphatic release of emotion, Inzaghi as happy with a tap-in on the line as he was to score a volley from 12 yards out. He was a throwback to a bygone era but found a way to thrive as the game around him became equally modern, at times looking as prehistoric as a shark or crocodile but somehow equally deadly.
He was never going to receive Ballon d’Or consideration, but without him Carlo Ancelotti’s side would not have lifted so many trophies. Inzaghi helped propel the Rossoneri to two more Serie A titles and two Champions League triumphs, netting both goals against Liverpool in 2007 to avenge that most painful defeat in Istanbul two years earlier.
When he retired in 2012, only three men – Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Raul – had scored more goals in European competition, and unlike that trio he also lifted a World Cup as he played an important role for Italy in their 2006 triumph.
Also part of the squad that won the club’s last major trophy, the 2010-11 Scudetto claimed when Max Allegri was coach, the end of Inzaghi’s playing days has led to tales of a “curse” on their no. 9 shirt as subsequent wearers have failed to continue the legacy built by Van Basten, Weah and “Super Pippo.”
Filippo Inzaghi was AC Milan's #️⃣9️⃣ from 2001 to 2012
Since then they have had nine No. 9s
Who was the worst? pic.twitter.com/bbKdGyf4Cc
— Goal (@goal) January 30, 2020
The first to try was Alexandre Pato who switched immediately from his usual no. 7 when Inzaghi vacated it. A budding superstar, he had already succumbed to a series of injuries and the new number did little to help as the Brazilian – who previously became the youngest Milan player to score 50 goals for the club – managed to net just once in Serie A over the following two seasons.
A series of loans would follow, with Alessandro Matri brought in as the new no. 9. He would score just once in 18 games before being sent on his way, replaced at San Siro by Fernando Torres who would also muster only a single strike in 10 appearances. Mattia Destro followed on loan from AS Roma, but was sent back to the capital after three goals in 15 outings for the increasingly desperate Rossoneri.
Luiz Adriano managed to net four times in 2016/17 and fared little better when switching to no. 7 the following season when Gianluca Lapadula scored eight in the no. 9 shirt before leaving to make way for €38 million signing Andre Silva. The Portuguese forward struck 10 times but was utterly underwhelming and he too would depart, the club turning to Gonzalo Higuain in August 2018 and hoping he could revive their fortunes.
He scored eight times in 22 appearances but four months later was on the move again as he left for Chelsea, with Polish youngster Krzysztof Piątek arriving in the same January transfer window to replace him. It seemed as if Milan had finally understood the pressure of the Van Basten-Weah-Inzaghi legacy too, as their technical director Leonardo explained to reporters at the new striker’s introductory press conference.
"He wanted the number nine jersey but we think it has to be earned so we decided to give him the number 19 jersey instead,” he said, and over the following it seemed as if that decision was fully vindicated. Piątek continued in the same rich goal scoring vein he had found at Genoa, netting 11 times and breaking a series of records along the way.
In the following summer however, the 24-year-old was allowed to change to no. 9 and once again the shirt appeared to be more effective than any Serie A defender as Piątek scored just four more goals before being sold to Hertha Berlin. The trend has undeniably continued but, speaking to Sky Italia last week, one of the shirt’s former owners simply refused to believe there is anything more than misfortune to blame.
“It makes me smile,” Inzaghi said. “Wearing Milan’s no. 9 shirt is tough for anyone, but the curse doesn’t exist. If [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic puts on the no. 9 shirt, the curse is already over.”
At this point, Zlatan is probably glad he chose 21…