Last Wednesday, a sensational poker of goals by Zlatan Ibrahimovic stunned English fans but moreover saddened supporters of AC Milan, already depressed by their poor start to the season. Zlatan was their key player for the last two campaigns, leading them to a Scudetto and a second place finish, but this summer joined PSG together with the other star of the team, defender Thiago Silva.
AC Milan now languish 13th in the league following the 2-2 draw against Napoli on Saturday, and are second in their Champions League group, only two points above bottom-placed Zenith St. Petersburg. Today they have a crucial match against third-placed Anderlecht which could decide their fate.
The fans have already lost patience, especially with the coach, and the common consensus is that Massimiliano Allegri is a dead man walking. However, sacking was never a method very favourable at AC Milan (it has happened only four times since Silvio Berlusconi bought the team in 1986), and both president Berlusconi and CEO Adriano Galliani backed the manager, although they did express concern for the poor performances. Some hopefuls believe that Allegri will last until the end of the season, when he will be substituted by Pep Guardiola after his sabbatical year, while some more the more cynical minded believe he will survive just because the board itself does not know what to do. The truth is, AC Milan are in transit from being a top European club to a second-lined one. A decline perhaps irreversible.
Last season was clearly a watershed in the club’s history. The backbone of the last great AC Milan side left (Gennaro Gattuso went to Swiss Superleague team Sion, Clarence Seedorf to Brazil at Botafogo, and Alessandro Nesta joined the Italian colony of MLS’s Montreal Impact) or retired (Gianluca Zambrotta, Massimo Oddo and Filippo Inzaghi), while in the transfer market other key players were sold, with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Mark van Bommel and Antonio Cassano moving away from Milanello. Many of these players were no longer in their heyday and played less frequently, but their importance in the locker room was unquestionable. In addition to that, they were all accustomed to winning, used to playing high level football and big matches. It was mainly thanks to this backbone of wonderful players that AC Milan remained competitive in the last decade even after losing other top players such as Andry Shevchenko, Kakà, Paolo Maldini and Andrea Pirlo. Nowadays the last of these winning breed are goalkeeper Christian Abbiati, club captain Massimo Ambrosini and defender Antonio Bonera (though he was always considered a reserve). A change of generation is one of the most natural thing to happen to winning teams, so it should not have been as big a tragedy to AC Milan, but sadly it is.
Firstly, there was a massive flow of players (nine, including at least six first team regulars), in addition to the previous year loss of Andrea Pirlo to Juventus, in a move that retrospectively was a massive mistake and a misjudgment of the importance of the playmaker. Therefore Galliani had to buy many players and all the had to be accustomed to play together. Secondly, Galliani kept speaking as if all the new players were international superstars, generating confusion and rage amongst the fans.
Overall, the old guard was replaced not with top players nor with the hottest young prospects, but with inadequate players. Riccardo Montolivo, despite being a regular for Italy, never truly became the international player he was supposed to become, and the same can be said about Giampaolo Pazzini. To replace both Thiago Silva and Alessandro Nesta, AC Milan bought only Francesco Acerbi, a 23-year old that last season had his first full season of Serie A with ChievoVerona. He may have potential but arguably is not ready now to take care of the rossoneri defence all on his own. Other signings, including Nigel De Jong from Manchester City and Bojan on loan from Barcelona, via AS Roma, shows a certain degree of confusion in terms of the team’s technical direction. These players, and the ones already in the team, would have been functional with Ibrahimovic as the starting striker, but without him they are much less useful.
Ibrahimovic is not only an amazing goalscorer (35 goal in all competitions last year), but is also crucial in creating goals, as his last season’s 14 assists testify, and his movements create space for other players, especially midfielders. The player who benefitted mostly from this was Antonio Nocerino whose 10 goals last season were largely made with the help of Ibrahimovic. Replacing such an impact player is almost impossible. Arguably, it can be done only if the team signs another top class player, like Inter Milan did exchanging Ibrahimovic with Samuel Eto’o in 2009, or if the team itself has a strong game plan and does not rely upon just one player, as Barcelona do. By selling Ibrahimovic in the middle of the transfer market last season, AC Milan remained with a team largely build around the Swedish player and that was lethal and functional with him. It was his sale, rather than that of Thiago Silva’s (who is the best defender of his generation), that was a major step down for the rossoneri‘s aspirations.
Serie A is no longer the attractive league that was ten years ago, and it is increasingly difficult for Italian teams to economically compete with Premier League sides and the new riches. Lack of significant earnings means that Italian clubs must rely on the owner’s money. Berlusconi is not anymore up for piping a huge quantity of money in football, largely because of his outside legal problems (that left him with a huge 300 millions euro fine to pay) and because the board of his financial empire, led by his daughter Marina, does not want to throw away money in football. Therefore AC Milan must find a way to assemble a good team without the financial support they used to have. Galliani has a hard task. He is good at spotting players, and in picking up bargains, but he has never found himself out of money like in the last two years. In this situation, AC Milan can either improve the scouting system, trying to sign the best youngsters and re-create a winning team from scratch, or hope that Berlusconi will again spend big money for the best players available. Either way, they must keep in mind that Italian teams are now less attractive and less powerful than they were a while ago.
This season AC Milan did not follow any of those two paths in the transfer market and as a result, they struggled to produce good football, lacking creativity in the middle and up front, with a fragile defense. Allegri has already tried many different formations, jumping from his trademark 4-3-1-2 to 4-5-1, 3-4-3, 4-3-3 and others, still without much success. The best news so far in this tormented season has been the big growth of Stephan El Sharawaay. The Pharaoh has been in tremendous form so far and has scored ten goals in Serie A, all of them crucial and some of rare brilliance (like the first one in the last match against Napoli). He is clearly the future of the team, and if Pato and Bojan come through their bad patch, AC Milan may be settled for many years up front.
AC Milan is in danger of not reaching the round-of-sixteen in the Champions League and, worse than that, they are seriously in danger of not qualifying at all for next year’s competition. With only three qualifying spots available and with some fierce competition, it is hard to see how this AC Milan will be be able to climb up the rankings and finish the season in the top three. Failing to reach the Champions League may be disastrous or it may be a blessing, depending on how the board opt to build the future team. What happened to Juventus and Inter Milan is a good example. Both teams after bad seasons rebuilt in a more clever way and as a result they are both again powerhouses in the league.