Saiguhan Elancheran writes about the route that AC Milan are on to get back to the top of the European game.
With 18 officially recognized UEFA & FIFA titles, AC Milan are the third most successful club in the world and the second most decorated club in Europe after Real Madrid, at least in terms of trophies won. Gradually all the cherishment of their accolades started to fade as things didn’t work out for the seven time Champions league winners in the past five years. When they won their seventh European Cup in 2007, Milan were five ahead of Barcelona and only two behind Real Madrid, but in the past nine years Real have extended their lead by two more and Barca have closed to within two of Europe’s second most successful club.
How did Milan fall from being the European giants to mid-table finishers in Serie A? How did they even fail to reach the Champions League spots in the last three years on a continual basis, after securing the first and only Scudetto under Massimiliano Allegri in the 2010-11 season? Let us see below.
A large portion of the blame must lie with the club’s owners, Fininvest. Fininvest is a financial holding company which is controlled by the family of Silvio Berlusconi. The former Italian prime minister’s daughter, Marina, is the company’s chairperson. The company has not fared well since the global financial crisis began in 2007. In 2013 Fininvest made an operating loss of €485.9 million and was forced to lay off large numbers of staff.
Some of the staff included Ariedo Braida and Leonardo.
Ariedo Braida (now working in Barcelona) was Milan’s sporting director since 1986. He is considered to be a person most responsible for bringing all those great players since Berlusconi took over Milan (alongside Galliani). He had contacts all over the world and was known for his ability to recognize a player’s talent and to make a timely buy. He was sacked in 2013.
Leonardo on the other hand, a combination of scout and agent for the club in a period between 2003 – 2009, was mainly based on Brazil and credit goes to him for helping the team in bringing the likes of Kaka, Pato and Thiago Silva. Milan later wasted him by appointing him as the head coach, as a replacement for Ancelotti, only to sack him after one season.
Had these two people continued to work, we might have seen some Brazilians starring in AC Milan’s squad such as Lucas Moura, Oscar, Felipe Anderson or even Neymar, in the time the whole world wasn’t crazy about them.
Lack of patience shown towards managers
Since the sacking of Allegri in 2014, the club is currently with its 6th manager in 2 years. This is due to the lack of patience shown towards the managers by the club’s powers. These supposedly long term managers finished 2nd, 3rd, 8th, 10th and 7th after their title winning season.
Milan started their 2013-2014 season, without big reinforcements made during the summer, despite the club finishing barely on 3rd position in previous season. By the end of December, the club found itself in mid-table position, and as a result, Massimiliano Allegri was sacked.
In his place, Milan appointed their former player Clarence Seedorf. It was Seedorf’s first job as a head coach and although Milan were trumped by Atletico Madrid in Champions League first knockout round, and the club finished the season in 8th position in Serie A, the opinion of majority was that Seedorf was pulling out the maximum of less than impressive players in Milan’s team.
Many shared the opinion that Seedorf, given the time and proper investments, could prove to be the right choice as a head coach. Instead, Milan hierarchy ended his contract at the end of the season.
Poor transfer activity
The acquisitions of both Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic by PSG in 2012 by former manager Ancelotti saw a decline in form. Italian stalwarts such as Alessandro Nesta, Inzaghi, Zambrotta, Massimo Oddo and Gattuso also departed the San Siro around the same time.
Their inability to find a striker after Zlatan, showed their poor activity in the transfer market. They signed Mario Balotelli from Manchester City. But the striker was unable to improve Milan’s play in general and had a significant drop in form, before being offloaded to Liverpool. Balotelli aside, Milan signed the likes of Pazzini, Maxi Lopez, Torres and Destro over the years. Milan made a panic buy and brought Allegri’s favourite – Matri – for €12m at the time in which they needed to spend their money more wisely.
“When Andrea told me that he was joining us, the first thing I thought was: “God exists”. A player of his level and ability, not to mention that he was free, I think it was the signing of the century!” – said Buffon when Juventus signed Andrea Pirlo on a free transfer in 2011.
Since then Pirlo won Serie A titles with Old Lady, season by season, and was arguably their most important player. Milan released him with a lame excuse stating that they could not pay his wages anymore. Clearly that didn’t stop them from paying the likes of Montolivo, Essien and Muntari later.
New season, new manager, new hopes
In July 2016, AC Milan appointed Vincenzo Montella as the club’s new head coach to replace Sinisa Mihajlovic who ended the last campaign at 7th place. The former Sampdoria manager, though young, has plenty of Serie A experience to coach a big club like Milan. He finished three consecutive seasons in fourth place with Fiorentina, before moving on to Sampdoria in 2015.
Things have started to look good for the side from Milan as the club actually looks to be planning towards the future with a good number of youngsters in the first team at the moment. The most impressive so far has been 18-year old goal keeping sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma. The youngster made his debut last season and quickly cemented his place in the team’s starting XI with a number of very good performances. The team shipped 49 goals last season and this was down to inconsistency, incoherence and a lack of quality defenders. Though we’re just nearing the half-way mark of the season in the current campaign, there is a certain assured feeling about the defence already. Milan have conceded 18 goals but they have kept clean sheets against top opponents like Juventus, Lazio and Fiorentina. Mattia De Sciglio looks to have regained his confidence following a strong showing at EURO 2016 and the two footed full back once touted as “the new Maldini” is slowly rebuilding his reputation.
Milan’s midfield was heavily criticized last season for being unable to create enough chances for forwards and provide sufficient protection for defence. But the midfield trio of Kucka, Locatelli and Bonaventura have been brilliant this season with Locatelli looking a promising replacement for the veteran captain Riccardo Montolivio. The front 3 of Niang, Bacca/Lapadula and Suso have been the most impressive set of the squad as they have scored 18 goals of Milan’s total 27 between them in the league.
Montella has been playing a 4-3-3 which transforms into a situational 3-4-3 during the offensive phases of the game. Having said that the team plays a back three in the offensive stages they often tend to build up from the back.
In the defensive phase once the possession is lost, the team retreats into a deep midfield block and a zonal marking system is employed. This is mainly to prevent the penetrative balls being played behind the defence. Counter attacks have been another well used tactic. With Niang and Suso adept at holding on to the ball and running at defenders it has been a very wise move.
A good start has brought quite a smile in the face of the fans as they could see their team winning games against the league’s finest such as Juventus and Lazio. There is a lot of confidence in the squad and a real togetherness about their play. Investment in youth continues to pay off as the likes of Donnarumma and Locatelli have shone for the Rosseneri. Montella’s man management has been absolutely spot-on. The squad is happy and everyone is content with their roles in the team but most importantly they are a united group.
After winning 32 points from 15 games, Milan are at third place behind Juventus(leading by 4 points) and Roma(level on points but with a higher goal difference). Though their defence seems a bit shaky, their attack compensates and it is evident from games in which Milan have outscored their opponents. The first game of the season saw Milan win 3-2 against Torino to wrap up all the 3 points. Similar games include the 4-3 win over Sassuolo. This goes on to show that Milan have the tendency to outscore opponents as well as shut them out in big games. With no European games to play unlike Juventus, Roma and Napoli, this should be the year for the Rossoneri. And they are just 4 points behind the leaders and with more than 20 games to be played, Milan can push for a serious title challenge this year. After three to four years of struggle in the league and no participation in Europe, it seems as though the tides have finally started to wave towards the direction of the red half of the city. Milan under Montella is a team to be followed.