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Home   /   AC Milan’s No. 9 problem: curse or lack of quality?

By Edoardo Stella

Mario Mandzukic is the latest of 10 brave players that have inherited Milan’s No. 9 shirt after it was worn by Filippo Inzaghi for 11 seasons. The Croatian joined Milan this January in what appeared to be a convincing signing to shoot for Champions League places.

Such a number at AC Milan appears to be cursed. Of those nine players, six left after six months and all of them after a very poor spell.

The Croatian striker hasn’t found the net yet and since he joined, Milan lost three games out of five. An astonishing figure if we consider that they had lost one league game in the previous 30 before Mandzukic joined.

Can this hint that the No. 9 shirt is striking again or is it simply the fact that nobody has been as good as Filippo Inzaghi? 

  • Filippo Inzaghi

In brief, Inzaghi is the owner of the No. 9 shirt at Milan. In 11 seasons he scored 126 goals, 43 of which in international competitions, most notably the Champions League, where he is the most prolific Italian player.

With Milan, he’s won two league titles, one Coppa Italia, two Champions Leagues, two Uefa Super Cups and a Club World Cup. It appears he left a legacy that will hardly be repeated by any of his successors.

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  • Alexandre Pato (2012/13):  A talent ruined by injuries

With Inzaghi retiring at the end of 2011/12, the Brazilian switched to the No. 9 shirt, but things didn’t go to plan. Pato always had a fragile body that caused him to pick up many injuries along the way, but he had scored 50 league goals in his first 102 games.

As soon as he switched number, he was only able to play seven games in six months, for an average of 49 minutes. He scored two Champions League goals in the period and left Milan to join Corinthians. His previous season was a nightmare for injuries and he continued on the same line.

Now 31, Pato looked like a veteran in his early years, but his level never quite recovered since. He joined San Paolo, Chelsea, Villareal, Tianjin Quanjian, San Paolo again and Orlando City, but he has never been the same. 

Games: 7

Goals: 2

  • Alessandro Matri (2013-14): Not the ideal man to carry a team

Another traveller. Playing for eight different Serie A clubs in his career, Matri joined Milan after winning two league titles for Juventus. His adventure didn’t go to plan, as he only netted one goal in 933 minutes before leaving in January.

Milan were entering their worst period of recent history, only finishing eighth and out of Europe for the first time since 1998.

What went wrong? The team was near collapse and probably Matri wasn’t the best man to rely on. He was never able to reach double figures in a single season anymore. 

Games: 18

Goals: 1

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  • Fernando Torres (2014/2015): Futile hope to recover a great

Once a force of nature at Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, Torres came with high hopes after some disappointing years at Chelsea.

He was off to a flyer, scoring in his first start against Empoli, but that was it. He only collected six more starts and left for Atletico Madrid after six months.

Torres just wasn’t the same player anymore and Milan’s move was arguably just a gamble to recover him that didn’t pay off. 

Games: 10

Goals: 1

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  • Mattia Destro (2014/15): A man of glory and disappointment 

The history of Destro teaches us that you never know what to expect from him. Joining to replace Torres after some scintillating seasons at Siena and Roma, Destro also scored his first goal against Empoli, but that was only one of three.

He parted ways after six months as Milan’s 10th place was their worst in 17 years. After Milan, he enjoyed some productive spells alternated with very dark moments.

Now he’s found a second youth at Genoa, justifying that his spell at Milan was one of those moments where he suddenly underperforms. Right player at the wrong time. 

Games: 15

Goals: 3

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  • Luiz Adriano (2015/16): Yet another disappointment

With nine prolific years at Shakhtar Donetsk on his shoulders and nine Champions League goals in the previous campaign, Milan saw potential in Luiz Adriano.

The team were restructuring and partnered him with Carlos Bacca. While the latter scored a fair amount of goals despite never entering into the heart of Milan’s fans, Luiz Adriano was disappointing.

He only scored four Serie A goals, again the first against Empoli in his first season, before failing to score in the successive six months, albeit playing with the No. 7. Rather than bad luck or curse, it was another gamble.

Luiz Adriano only once went back to double figures after leaving Milan and despite his huge form in European Competitions, he probably didn’t suit playing in the top five leagues. 

Games: 29

Goals: 6

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  • Gianluca Lapadula (2016/17): Too much of a step

The Italian-Peruvian striker is the one enjoying the best minutes-per-goal ratio in the post-Inzaghi era, with eight goals in 29 games.

However, after scoring 30 goals in Serie B with Pescara, the Milan board expected him to continue with that high goalscoring rate.

He left after a year and never seemed to be the same player watched in Serie B even at Genoa, Lecce and Benevento. It’s another gamble that didn’t pay off, trying to transform a decent player into a champion. 

Games: 29

Goals: 8

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  • Andre Silva (2017/18): An unexpected fiasco 

The Portuguese’s failure is still another unsolved mystery of Milan’s recent history. At the time of this article, he scored 19 goals and got five assists in 22 games for Eintracht Frankfurt.

A favourite of Cristiano Ronaldo who publicly praised him, Silva joined Milan for €35 million and did have some impact in the Europa League, with eight goals. However, his league form was a disaster. Lack of playing time, plus only two goals in 24 games make his signing a total fiasco.

What went wrong? It’s hard to find a cause, as even his lack of playing time is unjustified, with Nikola Kalinic’s poor form and a 19-year-old Patrick Cutrone not guaranteeing good performances.

That season Milan almost spent €200 million, buying 11 first-team players to try and assemble a good enough team. Silva came at Milan at the wrong time, where there was no direction and a lack of leadership. 

Games: 40

Goals: 10

  • Gonzalo Higuain (2018/19): A declining man

The player that just three seasons earlier had broken the Serie A goalscoring record in a single campaign with 36 goals. He moved from Napoli to Juventus, where despite not emulating that glorious season, he netted 40 league goals in two years.

As Cristiano Ronaldo joined Juventus, there was no more space for the Argentinian, who left for Milan. Higuain was past his best but still made his mark, with eight goals in 22 games, even if more was expected from him. He had to be the man finally carrying Milan back to the top four and too much expectation was put on his shoulders.

Episodes like a red card against Juventus helped break his relationships with the fans, who watched their hero leave after six months. After that spell, Higuain didn’t enjoy a prolific record for Chelsea and Juventus but was still an impact substitute.

Failure can be spotted in Milan deciding to bid on an unhappy man whose form was quickly declining and putting all their expectations on him to carry the team forward. 

Games: 22

Goals: 8

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  • Krzysztof Piatek (2019/20): The real one-season wonder

Similarly to Pato, he changed number mid-way during his spell. Openly admitting he didn’t fear what was becoming a real curse, Piatek’s first six months where he scored 11 goals were followed by a further six where he scored five.

With three of those five goals being penalties, his lack of contribution to Milan’s playing style was evident. After joining Hertha Berlin, Piatek is back to scoring on a similar average.

It’s not that the No. 9 shirt cursed him, but rather that Piatek was enjoying a first season in which everything he touched turned gold and as he failed to develop, Milan was hoping he could keep up those performances.

In reality, Piatek probably will never enjoy a season as prolific as the 2018/19, finding 30 goals in 42 games for Genoa and Milan. 

Games: 20

Goals: 5

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  • Mario Mandzukic (2020/21): Why there are the basis to fail

Mandzukic has been an excellent player. Of the ones among this list, only Torres and Higuain have ever come close or equalled the Croatian’s successes.

The problem is Mandzukic is 34 and of the last 18 months, he has missed 12, albeit not due to injury. At that age, such distance from the football pitch can impact you massively, as form may be hard to recover.

It’s still unclear whether Mandzukic will play in the wing or as a substitute for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but he has appeared to struggle so far. If he recovers to be the player he once was, then there is no reason why Milan can’t enjoy success with him: after all, Ibrahimovic is doing wonders at 39. 

Games: 4

Goals: 0

For more of Edoardo’s work click here.

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