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Ralf Rangnick: AC Milan’s gamble worth taking?

Richard Pike examines recent talk regarding Ralf Rangnick’s rumoured move to AC Milan.

After a near two month disruption to the footballing calendar due to the Coronavirus crisis, the sport has in recent weeks took its first steps towards a restart. On Saturday 16th May, the German Bundesliga became the first major European league to resume action. So far, after 4 weeks & 5 match-days back in action, there has been no positive tests for Covid-19 and everything has passed smoothly. Let’s hope the positive news continues going forward.

Spain’s La Liga resumed on Thursday 11th June. The Premier League will follow on Wednesday 17th June with Italy’s Serie A being the final major league to resume on Saturday 20th June. Whilst football fans across Italy salivate at the return, one particular story makes the news in the Italian media. Reports are linking German Ralf Rangnick with a dual managerial and sporting director position at AC Milan. Italian journalist Nicolo Schira first broke the news on Twitter, also indicating that current Rossoneri legend Paolo Maldini, currently employed in a technical director role will depart at the end of the current campaign.

Rangnick’s record with young players gives Milan an opportunity to continue and improve a current recruitment strategy

61 year-old German Rangnick, who has had a long managerial record with the likes of Schalke 04, Hannover 96 and two spells at RB Leipzig in his homeland currently serves as Head of International Relations and Scouting at Red Bull GmbH’s sport programme. In this role, Rangnick focuses on clubs under the Red Bull footballing umbrella and is tasked with finding and nurturing new young talent at each club. Clubs under Red Bull’s football umbrella include the aforementioned RB Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg and New York Red Bulls.

These clubs and others in Red Bull’s portfolio have been responsible for the discovery and development of numerous talent in recent seasons. Some of these talents going on to establish themselves at the very top of the game. Examples of such talent unearthed and developed include Lukas Klostermann, Marcel Sabitzer, Erling Haaland, Takumi Minamino, Hannes Wolf, Amadou Haidara, Tyler Adams and Joshua Kimmich.

Since mid-way through the 2018/19 Serie A campaign and the arrival of new executive Ivan Gazidis, Milan have instigated a policy that mainly focuses on the recruitment of young players. Such examples since Gazidis’ arrival include Lucas Paqueta, Krzysztof Piatek, Franck Kessie, Theo Hernandez, Ismael Bennacer, Rafael Leao and Ante Rebic. These transfers have proved a mixed bag with two of the most expensive of all, Paqueta being a big disappointment and Piatek having already left the club to sign for Hertha Berlin this January window.

For many a season, Milan were famously known as a side with experience throughout their squad. With the exception of veteran Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who returned for a second spell this winter transfer window, much of this current Milan squad is aged 26 or younger. Rangnick has connections due to the time he has spent working at Red Bull. If there are up and coming talents in the Red Bull club network, he is likely to know them and he can tap into this. Therefore ensuring Milan continue to stick to this new philosophy of recruiting younger players.

Given past managerial and directional failures, bringing in someone outside of the “Milan Family” is no reason to be sceptical or fear future failures

Since the departure of Massimiliano Allegri in January 2014, the man who orchestrated Rossoneri’s last Serie A title in 2010/11, Milan have been a shambles on the managerial front. A succession of managers, many of whom having ties to the club from their playing days have been appointed since Allegri’s departure. Such names include Dutchman Clarence Seedorf and Italian Flippo Inzaghi. Both failed to even achieve UEFA Champions League qualification for Rossoneri, let alone challenge for Serie A titles.

AC Milan’s Dutch coach Clarence Seedorf reacts during the Serie A football match between AC Milan and Parma at San Siro Stadium in Milan on March 16, 2014. AFP PHOTO / GIUSEPPE CACACE (Photo credit should read GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

A noteworthy factor was the lack of coaching experience these candidates had when they took on the Milan managerial post. Seedorf succeeded Allegri on a full-time basis in January 2014. Yet, the Dutch great had only just retired as a player. AC Milan is a tough enough job for any newly appointed manager. However, for one with no managerial experience, it becomes even tougher. One felt Seedorf had been unfairly thrown in at the deep end. At the end of 2013/14, after an 8th placed finish, Milan harshly parted company with Seedorf after just 5 months. Despite the Dutchman accumulating 13 more points in the second 19 games of the campaign than Allegri had in the first 19. A contentious decision which proved the catalyst for continuous managerial uncertainty at the club.

Prior to both Inzaghi being given the manager’s role for the 2014/15 campaign, he had previously spent time managing Milan’s Primavera Under 19’s team. Yet, under his command Milan hit rock bottom. After a win percentage of just 35% during 2014/15, a campaign which saw just 13 wins and a 10th placed finish, the club’s worst finish since 1996/97, Inzaghi was relieved from his duties. One wonders, after just one season coaching with Milan Primavera whether Inzaghi, like Seedorf before him was put into a top job too soon?

In appointing both Seedorf and Inzaghi, Milan’s hierarchy had some defence for their choices. Allegri’s departure in 2013/14 came in the backdrop of Rossoneri facing struggles having recently lost the services of both the aforementioned Ibrahimovic and defender Thiago Silva. Two vital components of Milan’s 2010/11 Scudetto triumph. It was when then-owner, media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, whose investments into the club in the mid-1980’s brought them two decades of success began reducing his spending.

Seedorf and Inzaghi’s appointments were possibly an attempt to replicate happenings at FC Barcelona. When Blaugrana appointed former midfielder Pep Guardiola as manager in 2008, he had served just one season as coach of Barcelona B, the Catalan club’s reserve side. The success Guardiola enjoyed in four great campaigns at Barca likely gave Milan an idea. A blueprint of appointing a young manager who either had a distinguished playing career at the appointing club or had been managing its youth teams. In the case of Inzaghi, both. Milan’s great city rivals Internazionale even themselves went down the “Guardiola” model when they appointed Andrea Stramaccioni in 2012.

When analysing Stramaccioni’s appointment at Inter and Inzaghi’s appointment at Milan compared with Guardiola’s at Barca, there are mitigating factors to consider. Guardiola had taken over a Barca side which had missed out on the previous two La Liga titles. However, he had Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, arguably the two greatest creative midfield players of the modern era. Likewise, he had a 21 year-old Lionel Messi at his disposal, emerging as arguably the greatest player of all time. Finally, he also possessed other fine, experienced Blaugrana players from past successful campaigns like Carles Puyol and Samuel Eto’o. Much more favourable conditions than at both Milanese clubs, where the owners of both had begun initiating cut-backs in spending after previous successful eras.

In his one full season at Inter, Stramaccioni only achieved a 9th placed finish, failing to qualify Inter for Europe and was promptly dismissed. Since Stramaccioni’s departure, Inter have mainly chosen experienced managers to fill their managerial position. Perhaps an acknowledgement that trying to replicate the Barcelona & Guardiola model was always an impossible task owning to the unique situation Guardiola found himself in when taking the Barcelona job.

Milan, however, continued down the route of appointing previous playing heroes as new managers going in and out of a revolving door at the Red and Black side of San Siro. Christian Brocchi and Gennaro Gattuso being two other examples of former players put into the managerial position with either a lack of experience or previously unimpressive managerial track record.

Milan are currently on their 8th permanent manager in Stefano Pioli since Allegri left the club in January 2014. Continuous appointments of past Rossoneri playing heroes such as Inzaghi and Brocchi gave an impression of too much of a “jobs for the boys” culture at the club, and an inability to think outside of the box. Attempts to pacify disappointed supporters by the appointment of a club legend as new manager. Continuously re-arranging the deckchairs on a sinking ship, which in turn leads to more firing and instability on both the player and managerial fronts in future seasons.

The recruitment of a new sporting/technical director, players and manager which leads to titles and trophies is no exact science. Rangnick, himself has no professional playing or coaching experience outside of his homeland. His only playing experience outside of Germany came in 1979/80 when he had a spell playing at part-time outfit Southwick Football Club whilst studying at the University of Sussex. No-one disputes that it would be a gamble. However, given all of the aforementioned failed attempts to replicate past successes with former playing heroes, Milan would lose nothing thinking outside of the box and trying a different course for a change.

Rangnick could arrive at Milan at a perfect time

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the 2010’s, with the exception of the 2010/11 Scudetto triumph will go down as a lost decade for Rossoneri. Yes, Berlusconi had significantly cut spending prior to selling the club to Chinese businessman Li Yonghong in 2017, who subsequently sold himself to current owners Elliott Management Corporation a year later. Yet, 10th and 7th placed finishes in Serie A during the 2014/15 and 2015/16 campaigns respectively were disappointing. Despite the budget cuts, Milan were still financed and budgeted to do better than their eventual final position.

However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Milan supporters, despite a decade long drought on the trophy front. From the 2011/12 campaign onwards, Juventus FC have dominated Italian football, winning each of the eight Scudettos since. The Turin outfit, under the guidance of Antonio Conte, the aforementioned Allegri and current incumbent Maurizio Sarri, is enjoying the most dominant run ever seen from a club side in Italy.

However, Juve’s margin of superiority over the chasing pack has narrowed in recent campaigns. Compare the 17 point victory margins the Bianconeri had in 2013/14 and 2014/15 to the 4 point victory margins over runners-up AS Roma in 2016/17 and SSC Napoli in 2017/18 respectively. Juve’s dominance and aura of invincibility looks to be subsiding with further evidence this season. Before the stoppage due to Covid-19, the Turin outfit only held a one point advantage over SS Lazio at the top of Serie A with just 12 games to play.

The playing talent which has brought so much success to Juventus is starting to age. Giorgio Chiellini is 35, Leonardo Bonucci 33, Sami Khedira 33, Blaise Matuidi 33, Cristiano Ronaldo 35, Miralem Pjanic 30, Juan Cuadrado 32 and Gonzalo Higuain 32. An ageing squad which soon will need replacing under the backdrop of worrying recent financials that have emerged. According to figures from December 2019 pre-Covid, Juventus’ net debt stood at over EUR 300 million. Like many other clubs, Juve will likely feel the pinch financially. Limited manoeuvrability in the transfer market when replacing an ageing squad could allow the chasing pack to usurp their dominance soon.

The aforementioned facts give Milan hope. It is an ideal time for Rangnick to come in, the club to put strong structures in place and target a Scudetto triumph by 2022/23.

Milan have much more pulling power for young talent than current “hipster” clubs

An oft-uttered phrase nowadays is a reference to a club being described as “hipster”. Clubs just outside of European football’s elite engaged in a philosophy of developing young talent, employing an up-and-coming coach, playing attractive football and who challenge the dominant powers. Crucially, these clubs also have a fine ability to sell stars who emerge after 1 or 2 seasons for huge fees, replace said sold players and still maintain a continuous high level. The perfect example of such a club throughout much of the last decade has been Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga.

Milan may have slipped from their lofty standings of the early to mid 1990’s and early to mid 2000’s. Nonetheless, they remain a powerhouse club. Ask any football fan anywhere to name you a “big club” and with no disrespect to Dortmund it is likely Milan will be more commonly mentioned. They remain a historically larger and more famous club when it comes to titles both domestically and in Europe. Rangnick’s arrival and access to his knowledge of some of the planet’s most exciting young players could be a game changer. Without any disrespect to Dortmund, living La Dolce Vita in Italy could prove more attractive to prospective new signings than North-West Germany.

Furthermore, continuing a focus on young players and strengthening said focus by pursuing the planet’s most exciting youngsters is the best strategy for Milan going forward. Serie A lags considerably behind the English Premier League in terms of revenue. On Deloitte’s Football Money Rich List, Milan were only ranked 21st globally. Behind even the likes of Everton and West Ham United, highlighting the strength of the Premier League’s television broadcasting deals. These figures being published pre-Covid-19 as well.

Despite the excitement, one virtue is prevalent above all others, patience

Whilst Milan fans have a right, given Rangnick’s connections, to be excited at his possible arrival, the most important virtue needed by Rossoneri’s boardroom is patience. Rangnick will be coming into a new culture and into a side far from assured to qualify for European football next season. Milan currently occupy 7th place in the Serie A standings on 36 points with 12 games remaining. This is pending what happens in the Coppa Italia, as that might qualify them for the 2020/21 UEFA Europa League. They are only 3 points behind 6th placed Napoli, however, sides down to 13th placed Fiorentina are within just 6 points of Rossoneri. Qualification for Europe will go down to the wire.

Prior to the 2019/20 campaign, for 19 months between November 2017 and May 2019, Milan were under the managerial stewardship of former player Gennaro Gattuso. Now, as I eluded to earlier, prior to arriving in the hot seat, Gattuso had endured an unremarkable managerial record. His target for the 2017/18 and 2018/19 season was to achieve a top four finish. Gattuso failed to achieve this target, finishing 6th in 2017/18 and 5th in 2018/19 and was subsequently sacked by Milan last summer.

However, in his defence, the 5th place last campaign was Milan’s highest finish since the aforementioned Allegri achieved 3rd in 2012/13. If it’s fair to say Gattuso’s spell at Milan was not a success, it is also fair to not call it a failure either. For 2019/20, to replace Gattuso, Milan opted to appoint Marco Giampaolo, who after just 7 matches was sacked with Milan lying 12th in Serie A. One could argue Gattuso’s sacking was harsh. Had he been replaced by an elite manager, whilst harsh, it becomes justifiable. However, to replace him with Giampaolo, a 52 year-old who had only ever coached mid-table clubs in Serie A, a case can be made that Milan were too rash with their decision-making.

PARMA, ITALY – DECEMBER 01: Stefano Pioli head coach of AC Milan gestures during the Serie A match between Parma Calcio and AC Milan at Stadio Ennio Tardini on December 1, 2019 in Parma, Italy. (Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

A decision will have to be made on the current managerial incumbent. 54 year-old Stefano Pioli who replaced Giampaolo mid-season has steadied the ship. However, as with any new regime that arrives at boardroom level, they may wish to bring in their own people. In addition to the sporting director role Rangnick is reportedly taking, there is talk of him replacing Pioli and taking on the additional responsibility as manager.

My impression is that this would be a mistake. His longest managerial stint in management came during a five year spell at 1899 Hoffenheim between 2006 and 2011. Many of his other appointments throughout his managerial career have been less than two years in length. He also infamously stepped down as Schalke manager just a month into the 2011/12 Bundesliga campaign citing exhaustion syndrome. His role should just be to act as sporting director and identify playing and if necessary managerial talent.

Rangnick could decide to continue with Pioli, who has rescued Milan from Giampaolo’s nightmare spell. However, other names have been linked with the Milan job such as Borussia Moenchegladbach’s young coach Marco Rose. More recently, reports have linked Rossoneri with Portuguese manager Paulo Sousa, currently at Bordeaux, who has a wealth of experience as a player and manager in the Italian game. Whatever happens, being decisive on the managerial position and then patience with said manager is required.

After the horrors of a 10th placed finish in 2014/15, Milan look to have steadied the ship and halted further decline. The possible arrival of Ralf Rangnick in a backroom role is an unexpected left-field gamble for Rossoneri. However, it could leave fans everywhere eagerly casting an eye on upcoming events at San Siro. Approaching 62 years old, Rangnick may fancy directing one last challenging long-term project before retirement. Returning Milan back to the top of Italian and possibly European football could be that dream project.

Read all our Opinion pieces here.

Richard Pike

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