Overall, Milan’s 2020/2021 campaign was a resounding success. Although they left UEFA Champions League qualification late, Pioli’s men ultimately finished second place. However, it was far from a perfect campaign – the Rossoneri followed on from their impressive post-lockdown form and made a remarkable start to the campaign, becoming winter champions and suffering only two league defeats in the first half of the season, and finishing top of their far from straight-forward Europa League group, which contained eventual Ligue 1 champions, LOSC Lille.
But, the second half of the season was a different story, plagued by injuries and poor form. Milan’s “title ambitions” always seemed a little precarious at best, and the resounding defeats to Atalanta, Spezia and Inter were a hard pill to swallow for Milan fans. It became increasingly clear that Conte’s side were gaining form at the right time, and Milan were losing theirs at the wrong one.
The ambition at the start of the season was Champions League Qualification, and Milan’s form (particularly at home) put them at serious risk of dropping out of the top 4 – having been Winter Champions, this would have been a catastrophic failure. Milan were also disappointing in the Europa League – having outplayed Manchester United at Old Trafford and coming out of the encounter with a draw and an away goal – fans were hopeful they could get the job done at San Siro. This wasn’t the case. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side peaked at the right time, Pogba’s winner was enough to see the Red Devils through to the quarter-finals. The Europa League was always considered to be “second priority” for the Rossoneri: players, staff and fans know too well that a prestigious club such as AC Milan must be in the Champions League, not the Europa League – and there was a serious risk of failing on the top 4 ambition once again. The 3-0 defeat to Lazio was a huge blow and set the Rossoneri outside the top 4 for the first time in the season.
However, Pioli got his team united and they spectacularly battered Juventus in their own back-yard, a victory that would give them the confidence to go on and get the goal the team started out with. A win against already-safe Cagliari was all that was needed, but the Rossoneri failed to muster up a goal. Fans had little hope of beating Atalanta away from home on the final matchday, since the corresponding fixture last season ended in a bitter 5-0 defeat. Milan, Pioli and perhaps most of all – Kessié prevailed. In an inconsistent season, there was always one consistency – Franck Yannick Kessié would provide quality, strength and leadership in midfield.
The Ivory Coast international signed for Milan back in the summer of 2017, and has been a regular in the side ever since – whether it be as the right-sided player in a 3-pronged midfield (usually starting alongside Giacomo Bonaventura, Lucas Biglia, Manuel Locatelli, Tiemoué Bakayoko, Lucas Paquetá or Rade Krunic) or more recently, in a double-pivot – usually partnered by the Algerian, Ismael Bennacer, Italian U-21 international, Sandro Tonali or Frenchman Soualiho Meité. Franck Kessié has always been a guarantee for managers in his physical output, the Ivorian will rarely find himself unavailable for a game (his disciplinary record also outstanding). Milan will usually suffer a terrible injury crisis as the season wears on, Franck Kessié is seldom one of the players affected. But, his technical quality was often questioned throughout his first few seasons at the club – often seeming flustered in the final third, lacking composure in both his finishing ability and his ability to pick a pass under pressure. Kessié would often shoot from distance, usually without much success to the frustration of Milan fans. However, the Kessié seen in the 2020s is a completely different player to the one found in the years prior.
Since the arrival of Stefano Pioli, Kessié has not only had a change of position, but a change of role. Managers such as Vincenzo Montella, Gennaro Gattuso and Marco Giampaolo noticed his clear, dazzling athletic talent – Kessié is dynamic and quick. They sought to use him as a “Mezzala” and to refine his ability in the final third. Unfortunately, Kessié has never really had an outstanding ability in the final third – this is not his forte. Thus, Stefano Pioli astutely decided to play him to his strengths, rather than force the midfielder to refine his weaknesses – and this has worked an absolute treat. No longer demanded to be the next Clarence Seedorf, covering all areas of the pitch whilst scoring, providing and creating at the highest level – Kessié has become extremely useful as a defensive midfielder, making important tackles and interceptions whilst keeping it simple and playing a crucial role in the system. However, it would be remarkably shallow to suggest that Kessié is merely a defensive player with no creative chops – he absolutely isn’t, his attacking qualities have actually improved a great deal since he has adopted this new role. When he shoots from distance, there’s a much greater chance of seeing the ball ripple into the back of the net than there was three years ago, and his ability to pull strings in midfield, switching the play and playing long passes has improved so much as well. This, combined with his already staggering ability to simply be in peak physical condition throughout the course of the season has made him arguably, the finest midfielder in Serie A.
Kessié’s most attractive quality (certainly his most noticed one), is his incredible record from the penalty spot. For a player that was frequently criticised to have had absolutely no composure in the final third, he always had an impeccable ability from 12 yards that very few players could hope to replicate. Kessié is now quite possibly the best penalty taker Milan has had since Mario Balotelli. Kessié’s technique is quite different to Super Mario’s though, the Italian would usually pick his spot and hit it as powerfully and as accurately as he possibly could whereas Kessié will never try too hard to score. He waits for the goalkeeper to move, and puts it the other side – and rarely does this philosophy go wrong.
Franck Kessié has become one of the pillars of Milan, and an obvious leader. With Alessio Romagnoli struggling to get back into the team due to Fikayo Tomori and Simon Kjaer’s excellent partnership that has blossomed in the second half of the season, and Gianluigi Donnarumma certain to leave the club upon the expiry of his contract, Milan could well be looking for a new captain next season – and quite frankly, there’s hardly a more ideal player to carry the armband next season than the Ivory Coast International. He has been with the team since 2017, can play in almost every game of the season, and is one of the most important players to this club. There are other candidates such as Simon Kjaer (who’s unquestionable experience and leadership alone warrants a place in the discussion), Davide Calabria (who has been with the club since he was a child and has become quite possibly one of the best fullbacks in the league despite being wanted rid of by many) and of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (no explanation needed here). Kessié has to be a front-runner in the race, although ultimately, the decision is that of Stefano Pioli’s.
After an overall hugely successful season, it wasn’t Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Gianluigi Donnarumma who shone the brightest – it was Franck Kessié. Whether he deserves the captaincy or not, it is astoundingly clear that Kessié was Milan’s player of the 2020/2021 season – and what a player he has been this year.