AC Milan Review: Year Zero
With the 2013 Serie A season finally reaching it’s end, I take a look back at all the spills and the thrills of AC Milan’s 2012/2013 campaign, along with a look towards the future as to what lies ahead.
AC Milan Episode I – The Phantom Milan
Take a look back with me to August 26, 2012. Milan lost their first league match of the season at home to newly promoted Sampdoria and this led many Milan fans to fear what may be in store for them later in the season. Fast forward 7 weeks, and Milan sat just above the relegation zone with 7 points from a possible 24 after 8 matches. Much fault rested on the shoulders of board as fans felt they were stripped and left for dead after the sales of Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, along with losing many of the old guard who had been so successful with Milan. Out of the new players brought in over that horrid summer, only Montolivo and Pazzini have made a true impact in the side. One may also say De Jong and Constant but De Jong was injured quickly and Constant has been somewhat of a hit and miss as he has not been very consistent this season. Many more fans were calling for the sacking of the infamous Max Allegri. Although he led Milan to a Scudetto in his first season, he has proven many times to be tactically inept when it comes to substitutions, return legs, and line up consistency.
Another problem that faced Milan throughout the season are the under-performing players who were integral parts of the Milan line up last season. The two prime examples are Antonio Nocerino and Kevin Prince Boateng. Nocerino was Milan’s second top scorer in the league last season, with 10 goals, and was one of the best players in last year’s team. But, this season due to the loss of Ibrahimovic as a focal point for his bursting runs, he has under-performed massively. And now he struggles to even get into matches as a substitute. Kevin Prince Boateng is the second example of an under-performing superstar from last year. The scorer of numerous golazos including an insane volley vs Arsenal in the CL round of 16, Boateng also has only two league goals this season but has not performed as horribly as Nocerino. His experimental time at trequartista finally came to a close after the departure of Zlatan for the same reason as Nocerino not being able to make the XI, lack of run opportunities. Howeve, he has been able to find his feet near the end of the season and has put in multiple adequate performances.
AC Milan Episode II: The Rossoneri Strike Back
After the awful start that the Rossoneri faced, there seemed to be a subconscious light bulb that went off in the players heads (inspired by Berlusconi’s pre match team talks I’m sure) which saw them climb the table in spectacular fashion, and lost only once in 20 league games during 2013, 1-0 to Juventus. They picked up a possible 45 out of 60 points, second to only Juventus who have 46 points in the last 20 matches. Milan rose to 3rd spot, and besides a late scare from Fiorentina who triumphed easily over Pescara 5-1, were able to defeat already relegated Siena with two late goals by Super Mario from the penalty spot in the 84? and a winner right after from Philippe Mexes in the 87?.
AC Milan Episode III: A New Hope
It was continuously stressed by Galliani along with Berlusconi and Allegri that this was year zero for Milan, a time for rebuilding that would focus on the development of their youth and investing for the future. As of right now, this project has been a success. Out of the ashes of the early season horror, rose two shining gems that have helped lead and propel Milan up the table. Their names are Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio. Let’s start with El Shaarawy, an explosive 20 year old who is deployed on the left side of Milan’s attacking trident, finished as the 3rd highest scorer in the league this season with 16 goals, as well as 4 assists. His pace is his greatest attribute as he can easily beat his defender with a quick burst of speed and unleash a shot or cross. He has scored some spectacular goals this season, including a 30 yard screamer vs Udinese, and a magical solo run vs Zenit in the UCL. He created 56 scoring chances this season, and has hit the target with 66% of this shots (stats courtesy of Squawka.com). While he has experienced a dip in form during the second half of the season, that is expected as he has yet to play a full season of top flight football, making very few Serie A appearances with Genoa and playing in Serie B with Padova on loan.
While much praise is always given to El Shaarawy, I personally feel Mattia De Sciglio was the better player for Milan this season. He has already been hailed as “the new Maldini” and can play on either side of the defense, as well as at center back if needed. He has formed a very good partnership with El Shaarawy when he is played on the left side, and has shown immense signs of talent this season. He is very calm and composed on the ball, has not made a single defensive error this season, and has only two yellow cards showing his great tackling ability. He has a 77% tackling success, 68% aerial duel success, as well as 2 league assists. (stats courtesy of Squawka.com). He has proven to be Milan’s best defender in the squad, and being only 20, one can only imagine how good he can still become. What sets him apart from El Shaarawy, based on this season at least, is his consistently excellent performances. Off the top of my head I can only think of 2-4 inadequate performances from De Sciglio. There was no apparent collapse in form like with El Shaarawy, which is quite surprising as he never made a professional appearance before the derby vs Internazionale in May of 2012.
In addition to these two younger revelations, another key component of the Milan squad is 28-year old central midfielder Riccardo Montolivo. Signed from Fiorentina on a free transfer in 2012, Montolivo has come into his own this season and quickly cemented himself into the Rossoneri midfield. He has scored 4 goals and made 2 assists this season, along with 34 other key passes. He has great vision and a good eye for goal when needed. He is one of the few good facilitators of the ball that Milan have and his good distribution is what has made him such a key figure in the squad this year. If this form continues, and Milan can bring in 1-2 more quality midfielders, he will undoubtedly only get better and go on to captain Milan in the latter stages of his career.
Now, these have been Milan’s standout players for the whole of this season, but one cannot forget the arrival and the revival of Mario Balotelli. Signed by Milan in January, Balotelli has scored 12 goals in the league in only 13 appearences. He has finally begun to fulfill the potential seen by many during his time at Internazionale and with Italy in Euro 2012 where he scored 3 goals including a brace versus a very strong Germany side. He has more than earned his place in Milan’s starting XI and will continue to improve and become one of the best strikers in the world in the coming years. There is also a third budding young attacker who is looking to make his name in Milan. He goes by the name M’Baye Niang, and at 18 years of age has proven to be one of the most exciting talents in not only Italy, but in the world with his tricks and pace while attacking down Milan’s right side. He has shown good signs of potential but still needs to improve in multiple aspects of his game before he can finally take over the right wing of the Milan attacking trident.
Over the summer of 2013, Milan will continue their conquest for youth as they will look to add even more talent in their squad. It is expected that a midfielder and at least one center back will be purchased to aid both of these struggling areas, and some mentioned targets are Dragovic, Bonaventura, Ljajic, Fegouhli, Jorginho, Strootman, Poli, Benatia, and Ogbonna to name a few. There will also be the addition of Empoli’s Riccardo Sapaonara, who was signed in January but was loaned back to Empoli for the rest of the season. He can play on the right wing and as a trequartista; along with 18 year old Colombian centre-back JhersonVegara Amu who was signed a few weeks ago and will join this summer. Renato Civelli of Nice is also expected to sign on a free transfer to add more depth in central defense. There is also a possibility of young keeper Perin signing to add a younger goalkeeper to compliment the ever ageing Abbiati. It will be very interesting to see how Milan lines up next year with at least two new additions set to arrive along with Saponara and Bryan Cristante (talented midfielder currently in Milan’s Primavera).
AC Milan Episode IV: The Revenge of Count Max
Massimiliano Allegri, more commonly known as Max Allegri, or as Milan fans like to say, Count Max, joined Milan as coach in the 10/11 season and led that star studded side to a Scudetto and a Super Cup the next season. While this may seem like a good achievement for a manager who never managed a top side before, most Milan fans will tell you it has not be easy with Allegri as manager. Now, I will not sit here and berate Allegri for things that were not his fault, but rather point out the facts that prove he is not the right man for Milan no matter what he has done this season.He has consistently failed to impress during big games, minus 3 derbies and a win vs Juventus, he has only won 23% (a record of 7-13-10) of the matches he’s played against top 6 teams in the Serie A. He also has failed to progress past the round of 16 in the Champions league 2 out of 3 times. Once against a reasonably worse Tottenham side, and most recently against Barcelona, where he managed to throw away a 2-0 advantage because of his poor tactics, and has only scored ONE away goal in three years of knockout rounds.
One area that I feel Allegri has been given too much credit for is the massive turnaround this season. Granted he played a part of course but many of these times he has been bailed out by moments of individual brilliance from El Shaarawy, and most recently Balotelli. He also enjoys converting left backs into midfielders and vice versa. (Emanuelson and Constant the examples). He makes a habit of whenever his side is in need of a goal he throws on as many strikers as possible and hopes for the best. I recollect one match vs Napoli where Pazzini, El Shaarawy, Niang and Robinho were all on the pitch at the same time in search for a goal. This is what Allegri resorts to when he has no other alternative and has run out of ideas. His sides always seem to lack spirit and motivation when playing and it does not seem as though he has any clue how to motivate his sides. He does not play to win when he has the chance, and he will grind out results to the last minute to get the points, instead of trying to put the game to bed early . One of the main talking points involving Count Max this season has been the inconsistency in the starting XI, especially in defense. Throughout the start of the season Allegri tried at least 6 different center back combinations, and not once playing the same duo for two matches in a row. This caused a loss of many points and zero cohesion in the back four. And this only made more obvious the lack of talent that remained in Milan’s withering defense. They conceded a league high 15 goals from headers, most from set pieces which is the key point of issue with the back 4. This is something that should have been sorted out the first months of the season, it should not still be an issue as the season ended. Ironically, Siena’s goal that could have taken Milan out of the Champions League was scored off of a header.
The next issue with the line ups was the lack of a formation that worked with the squad. Milan had used the 4-3-1-2 for all of Allegri’s rein up until about October 2012. Milan never had a true trequartista even though Boateng played there normally he could not be relied on anymore. So, this resulted in experiments. 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3, 3-5-2, were all tried along with the normal 4-3-1-2 formation, and none brought back positive results. But, the side finally settled with a 4-3-3 formation that has led to the team’s resurgence up the table and will continue to be the platform for seasons to come.
Now, before the pro-Allegri clan call me too harsh, I will point out the few things I feel he’s done right. The main area of focus is integrating youth. Many feel he would have been forced to anyway but that is not entirely the case. He could have stuck with more experienced players like Robinho, Antonini, Flamini, Nocerino, etc. but decided to use the young talent at his disposal and this has brought nothing short of good results.
Now, it has been reiterated numerous times that Allegri will remain at the helm of Milan next season but I think it would be better for both parties if they were to part ways this summer and bring in a more talented, proven manager. It has been rumored that Allegri will become Roma’s new manager next season, with Berlusconi wanting one of Inzaghi, Seedorf, or Van Basten to replace him. I feel this would be idiocy to say the least. Bringing in an inexperienced manager could result in a massive failure or an act of pure genius. Personally, I feel it has more chance of it being the former. If a managerial change is to be expected (which I believe it is) then Milan need someone like Montella of Fiorentina. He has played good football with an average side this season and could bring some of that much needed brand of football to Milan, as Fiorentina will not be in the Champions League next year.
AC Milan Episode V: The Return of The Red and Black
So what does the future hold for AC Milan? To put it bluntly, if they continue in a positive direction and are at the hand of a talented manager, everything is possible. They have at least 4 potentially world class talents along with veterans like De Jong and Montolivo, and will continue to add depth and talent to this ever improving side. In the next year (2013/2014) I can see them challenging for the Scudetto and the Coppa Italia. In the coming seasons (14/15 onward) they should be back to their old routine of battling for the Champions League trophy. They will hold one of the most fearsome attacks in Europe with El Shaarawy-Balotelli-Niang/Saponara, along with talents such as Cristante in midfield. With a few more proper additions in key areas, this Milan squad will be back to full strength in no time.
AC Milan Episode VI: Attack of the Mohawks
I will conclude this piece with three line ups that could be possible with Milan’s probable squad next season. One will be a 4-3-3, one a 4-3-1-2, and one a 4-2-3-1.
This 4-3-3 is the same formation used currently and the most likely one for next season. The addition of 1-2 new CB’s will most likely cancel out Mexes, as Zapata may still start if only 1 is brought in. Abate is still expected to be the starting RB unless he is sold to Zenit. Constant hopefully will never see the pitch unless De Sciglio is hurt or suspended, as the Allegri experimental product has been mediocre for most of the season. De Jong and Montolivo are guaranteed starters unless De Jong is not able to find his feet after his injury. El Shaarawy and Balotelli also guaranteed starters, with the RW being occupied by Saponara or a new winger such as Cerci. Niang is also an option but I would rather see him loaned out to another club to gain some experience and more playing time.
A 4-2-3-1 is relatively a type of 4-3-3 as the wingers can quickly get up the lines and offer more support, the difference is it requires a trequartista. Milan used to play a 4-3-1-2 without having a real trequartista and used Boateng (a mezz’ala) to fill this void, which did not work after Ibrahimovic was sold. But, with the addition of Saponara who can actually play as a trequartista, this formation would be a possibility and could be more well balanced between the lines with the wingers dropping farther back.
This is the least likely of any of these 3 formations to be used, but once again is a possibility. As I mentioned before, this formation was used when Milan did not have a true trequartista, but may be effective again with Saponara behind an attack of El Shaarwy and Balotelli. A new center mid such as Poli or even newly promoted Cristante could slotting alongside Montolivo and De Jong would finally give Milan the quality midfield they have been looking for all season.