AC Milan's attack is incomplete without a support striker
What do you know, the money is finally flowing. Silvio Berlusconi had sealed his wallet and had thrown away his chequebook, but the impending sale of the club encouraged him to revisit his coffers. Adriano Galliani is busy jetting about, signing players of exceptional calibre. The intention is clear – to bring AC Milan back to the very top of European football.
Galliani wasted no time to address an important department in the squad; the attack. After years of mediocrity, Milan moved to sign two top-class centre forwards in Carlos Bacca and Luiz Adriano. Mattia Destro was sent back to Rome and Giampaolo Pazzini has joined Hellas Verona.
Stephan El Shaarawy leaves, Zlatan to arrive
Media reports are abuzz with talk about Zlatan Ibrahimovic returning to the club after spending the last three years in Paris. Zlatan has broken almost every record in the book for the Parisians and his return to Milan is expected to have a similar impact. A frontline of Bacca, Ibrahimovic and Adriano is terrifying on paper. But, football matches aren’t played on paper.
Milan coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, is a proponent of the 4-3-1-2. It is a distinctly narrow formation with little to no room for wingers. The uncompromising emphasis on the formation forced Stephan El Shaarawy out of the club, as he was reportedly unwilling to adapt his game to play in central midfield. The team, in an instant, lost a player who might have become the fulcrum of Milan’s attack for many a year.
Pre-season friendlies, press conferences and rumour mills gave no indication of the training staff attempting to trial him in the newly revised front-three. Traditionally a wing-forward, El Shaarawy possessed the attributes to be a successful second-striker. Alas, he shall ply his trade at AS Monaco this season.
Too many number nines
Bacca, Ibrahimovic and Adriano are, in essence, number nines. Ibrahimovic, who is undeniably more versatile than he appears to be, has shown previously that he can play alongside another forward. He was breathtakingly brilliant for Milan between the years 2010-2012, playing effortlessly as part of a front two in a 4-3-1-2.
His role enabled him to drop deeper and link-up play, allowing Kevin-Prince Boateng (a number 10 playing as a forward-destroyer) to make surging runs into the box. Tactically, it was a simple swap between the two during the attacking phases of play.
Bacca and Adriano are differently gifted when compared to Alexandre Pato and Robinho, who were members of the squad under Massimiliano Allegri. Both newcomers have predominantly played as primary strikers in their respective careers. They have a similar skill-set and score a whopping majority of their goals from inside the box. Their strengths are not complimentary, but are far too similar to form an instinctive partnership.
Their position on the pitch also creates a gigantic hole between the midfield and the attack, which would typically be exploited by a hard-working support striker or a dynamic number 10. In the absence of such a player, Mihaljovic’s model of an intense, energetic team might fall through even before the ball is kicked.
Wanted: A support striker
Zlatan Ibrahimovic makes Milan a serious title contender by merely being part of the team. His existence should not negate the necessity for Milan to sign a second striker, a player who can play off the number 9. A player of that ilk would equip Ibrahimovic to express himself and exhibit his natural game. Bacca or Adriano can seamlessly lead the line, without needing to plug the gaps. This positions them closer to goal, where they will inevitably be more effective.
Several other teams that play with two strikers often pair forwards with complementary skills. Nabil Fekir plays off Alexandre Lacazette at Lyon, Carlos Tevez ran the miles while Alvaro Morata or Fernando Llorente led the line at Juventus, Antoine Griezmann floated behind Mario Mandzukic at Atletico Madrid and Rodrigo Palacio supplemented Mauro Icardi at Inter Milan, enabling the youngster to bag 22 goals last season. There is a science that justifies striking partnerships.
Milan has players in Jeremy Menez and Alessio Cerci who are capable of playing as support strikers. That being said, their best position is out wide, where they are most lethal. M’Baye Niang too has shown, on multiple occasions, that his best position is as a number 9, making him excess to requirements.
His agent admitted that the management rejected offers from Italy, Spain and England in order to keep him at the club. The stance on retaining the French forward is baffling, given the team’s expensive resources in that position.
Mihajlovic might still get Bacca and Adriano to play together. However, the chances of them understanding each other and altering their style are rather remote, as both these players are in their late twenties and in their peaks as footballers. The myopic attitude of the management could yet see Milan being dysfunctional this season, particularly in attack.