New team, new scarf: Siniša Mihajlović looking to the future.
A.C. Milan are changing – again. The summer has barely started and they’ve got yet another, new, young manager on the bench. They’ve also already confirmed two big transfers and a third one is about to be sealed in a matter of hours. Unlike year ago, they’ve managed to throw a lot of deadwood out from the dressing room and Silvio Berlusconi has announced a bold plan of building new stadium that would exclusively suit rosso-neri without the need for an awkward co-existence with their rivals, Inter. As we speak, there are also plans being made for bringing the young, 20-years old AS Roma centre-back, Alessio Romagnoli, who doesn’t really feature in Rudi Garcia’s long-term plans at Olimpico and would likely be a first-choice player at San Siro. All those news, plus the fresh report that the Thai investor Bee Taechaubol is close to buying 48% of Milan’s shares promise a brand new era for the team.
‘Hell, It’s about time’ – most of fans probably sighed with relief. 8 years after rosso-neri’s last victory in UEFA Champions League, the team has reached it’s new low. Filippo Inzaghi, then leading Milan to the final victory by scoring twice against Liverpool, has put on a jacket and a tie and tried his luck as a manager. The goals set for him were already more modest that usual: after a highly disappointing 2013-14 season under Clarence Seedorf, rosso-neri were clearly below the Champions-League-quality level, but they still expected to find their way into Europa League. All they needed to accomplish was either a top-six finish or a Coppa Italia triumph – fairly challenging things to do, but not impossible for a team that’s been able to finish in Serie A’s top three just three seasons ago. At the very least, Inzaghi was expected to gain the control over dressing room Seedorf was thought to have lost at some point.
Superpippo had a fairly promising start. After painful thrashings received from Manchester City and Liverpool in United States, Milan struck back and finished their pre-season with prestigious wins over Juventus and Real Madrid, capturing three small, summer trophies out of four friendly competitions they’ve entered. Striker Stephan El Shaarawy and the all-around attacking midfielder Keisuke Honda were two main catalysts of teams’ success upfront, but more significantly, rosso-neri conceded only four goals in their 8 final pre-season games. Such record revived hopes for a much better defensive performance than in 2013-14 season, which Milan botched with 49 goals conceded in 38 games. Inzaghi, who inherited the ex-Chelsea sweeper Alex and brought Valencia misfit Adil Rami, could’ve been briefly pleased with a partnership of those two.
Alas, it did got worse quickly. Milan have won their two initial fixtures – against Lazio and Parma – but it only happened because Jeremy Ménez scored more goals than the opposition was able to reply with. Parma, the team soon to secure themselves a certain relegation and a bankruptcy, have exposed rosso-neri’s backline massively – and Inzaghi started to lose the plot, searching for an optimal lineup. Alex and Zapata; Alex and Bonera; Rami and Zapata; Bonera and Zapata; Alex and Rami… first six league games saw five different pairs of centre-backs! Later, Zapata fractured a bone in his foot in January and was sidelined for four months, complicating the matters even further. Meanwhile, away draws in Empoli, Cesena and Cagliari underlined team’s inability to collect three points against lower-rated teams – and the lack of stability at the back contributed greatly to this problem.
The owners tried to patch the wounds by loaning out Spartak Moscow’s Salvatore Bocchetti and spending £0.6 million on Parma’s Gabriel Paletta. Although those transfers prevented a total meltdown of Milan’s backline, they weren’t enough to redeem quite embarrassing overall outcome of the campaign. In the end, Inzaghi’s side conceded 50 league goals (one more than in 2013-14) and managed to win 52 points (five less than in 2013-14). Philippe Mexes, back in the first eleven following the series of his managers’ experiments, has made dozens of mistakes and will be remembered mostly for his Hulk-Hoganesque grip on Marco Parolo’s neck – grip that earned him a red card in January. Out of 38 league games, only eight saw Milan finishing 90 minutes with a clean sheet – and, ironically, if it wasn’t for ex-Real Madrid goalie Diego López, this record would’ve been even more appalling.
So here, the question presents itself: why a team so bad at defending starts their Mercato by securing the services of two pure goal-poachers and also gets rid of their probably most valuable sweeper at the same time? Because that’s exactly what’s happening right now. Silvio Berlusconi has just coughed up the money for Carlos Bacca’s release clause of £21 million as well as £5.7 million for Shakhtar Donetsk’ Luiz Adriano. Meanwhile, the same Sevilla that let Bacca go, have hijacked Adil Rami for just £2.5 million. As a result of these moves, Milan have now only three, half-decent centre-backs in the team and the total number of nine strikers competing for three slots in a 4-3-3 system (providing, of course, that the manager insists on keeping the formation unchanged). It doesn’t take a genius to spot a blatant lack of balance in the squad.
Moreover, Milan will be facing trouble to accommodate all those goalscorers in their first eleven. Bacca is surely the one to claim the #9 spot. It’s not just due to his big transfer fee: the Colombian had the impressive 33.8% conversion rate in La Liga last season (ahead of both Messi and Ronaldo!) and it was him, who sealed another back-to-back Europa League title for Sevilla. Compared to him, nine-time CL goalscorer Luiz Adriano doesn’t look nearly as hot of a deal, as he scored vast majority of his goals against dreadfully weak BATE Borisov. Still, the inclusion of these two means that 2014-15 top goalscorer for rosso-neri, Jeremy Menez, will have to become a winger again – and probably to step back from his impressive 16 goal landmark, he managed to achieve last season. And then, there are also El Shaarawy, Bonaventura, Cerci, Verdi, Niang… Does Milan really need all these lads?
Today, Bacca is a star. Will he confirm this status next season?
On the other hand, the one area rosso-neri can look at with high hopes is their midfield. Last time around, it was shambolic: after Nigel de Jong suffered an injury, Inzaghi had to either play completely useless Sulley Muntari, or to choose a setup with no defensive midfielder whatsoever. Now, however, with de Jong back to full fitness and awarded with a contract extension until 2018, the team has regained one of it’s leaders. And not only that: Milan has finally gained a classy midfield playmaker in form of Andrea Bertolacci. This 24-years old lad has been sensational recently, scoring six goals and registering eight assists in 34 league appearances for Genoa. Curiously enough, his best performance came on April 29, when he and Milan loanee, M’Baye Niang, outplayed their current club 3-1 at San Siro. In view of this fact, paying £14.2 million for Bertolacci seems like a great investment.
And what’s up there in the defensive department? So far – nothing. Rami is gone, there are few rumours spread around here and there, but the names they include don’t really seem like probable signings for a mid-table Serie A team. Can anyone realistically expect Mats Hummels, Aymeric Laporte or Samuel Umtiti to abandon their current teams and join club with the future as uncertain, as Milan’s? Could they handle a total lack of European Cup football for twelve months? And, most importantly – why any of them would treat seriously a team that is currently losing the race for Palermo’s Ezequiel Muñoz; the team that, at the same time, is in the middle of negotiations with Mexes regarding his new contract? Yes, that’s right: despite his abysmal form last season, Philou is unwilling to accept the wage cut and demands more than £1 million per season. If you ask me: ridiculous.
If rosso-neri want to be competitive, they should learn from their local rivals. Inter, nearly as hopeless as them last season, have already splashed £28 million on Geoffrey Kondogbia from Monaco, £10.5 million on João Miranda from Atletico Madrid, loaned Martin Montoya from Barcelona and are still plotting a move for Ivan Perišić from Wolfsburg. That’s four tenacious, defensively strong players that should perform well when it matters. In fact, if Inter manager to hold on to the Golden Boot winner Mauro Icardi, Copa America winner Gary Medel and a wonderkid playmaker Mateo Kovačić – their team is going to be miles ahead of Milan’s in terms of both current strength and development potential. Chairman Adriano Galliani and his outrageous quote about ‘saving money on Kondogbia’s deal’ can’t change the fact that rosso-neri were outplayed behind the curtains by their sworn enemies.
The one chosen to keep up with the Black and Blue offensive is Siniša Mihajlović. On the one hand: he is young, like Seedorf and Inzaghi. On the other hand: he’s a manager coming from the outside, unlike Seedorf and Inzaghi. In a current state of affairs, this should be one of his big strengths: he should not be afraid of punishing the mediocrity with a prolonged benchtime, which wasn’t really done during the previous campaign, when Poli, Montolivo, Mexes, Cerci or Bonera were given more chances than they deserved thanks to their somewhat ‘special’ status at San Siro. Mihajlović, already having the experience of sorting out struggling team at Sampdoria, could be first to deal with those issues properly. Actually, he even seem to like this kind of challenges: in order to take charge in Milan, he had to first snub the interest of much stronger Napoli, who saw them as Rafa Benitez’s successor.
Apart from cracking jokes with Silvio Berlusconi during his first press conference at San Siro, Mihajlović already declared that the best system for ACM right now is the 4-3-1-2 setup. He also hypothesised about retraining El Shaarawy into a midfield role, signalling that the team won’t really address the issue of striker surplus by offloading players. All media in Italy are speaking in the same tone: with those massive signings and the decline Milan tries to shake off, there’s been an enormous pressure put of the Serbian’s shoulders. Berlusconi himself didn’t make it easier, claiming recently that “to play in the Champions League is imperative”. Besides that bold claim from El Presidente, there’s also the shade of Carlo Ancelotti. Rosso-neri dreamt to bring their world-class coach back this summer – but it was just a daydream. To fill this void, Mihajlović has to simply bring the team back in business. ASAP.
Can he? To me: not without signing a centre-back. As it stands, it’s completely inconceivable to imagine them finishing in a top three while using Alex, Zapata and Mexes as their main force in front of López. The ex-Real Madrid keeper has been playing to his absolute 110% this spring, but one day his luck will run out. Mihajlović needs a solid man for the job before that happens; ideally, someone better disciplined than Mexes, younger than Alex and more consistent than Rami. Laporte, Hummels and Umtiti were already mentioned – but the list does not quite end here, as Schalke’s Matija Nastasić and OM’s Matheus Dória remain under close surveillance. If one of them arrives to San Siro and if the team fixes their chronic set-piece weakness – there will be a chance to fight for CL football. And if not? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time Milan has become a total trainwreck of a club…