There is no image more deceptive in Serie A than the one which will be offered by the Roma-Milan match this weekend at the Stadio Olimpico. The surface image has the Rossoneri in a comfortable position in the table (a third place with lots of potential for growth) and the team from the capital emerging from a nine-game streak which saw them winning eight and losing only one. The reality of these two teams, however, is one of serious tactical instabilities and marked uncertainties in the management of both squads. A careful look beneath the surface reveals that the future for both these teams can only be one – a drastic change of rails, or a farewell to all trophies.>
Milan, despite their leading position in the table, are the worse off of the two teams. The pre-Christmas debacle against Juventus stands for more than a three-point concession against a serious competitor – it represents the defeat of the entire Rossoneri system and philosophy. Juventus took the edge thanks to the young Italians in whom the team had invested – primarily Giorgio Chiellini, Claudio Marchisio and Paolo De Ceglie, who were immense, and whose efforts humbled those of their red and black counterparts Paolo Maldini, Massimo Ambrosini and Marek Jankulovski. Juventus balances a careful nurturing of its own talents with acquisitions of external ones selected when they are aged between 23 and 27. Milan buys players only when they have crashed beyond the barrier of 29, except for some rare occasions of euphoria when the management stoops and snatches up footballers who aren’t old enough to cross the road by themselves (markedly Alexandre Pato, who is yielding results only now, a year and a half after his purchase).
Despite the elevated maturity of the Milan squad, the players would probably still have enough gas in them to put up a fight if they were not in the hands of Carlo Ancelotti (arguably the most overvalued and bovine Coach in Serie A at the moment). No-one contests the past merits of the old legionary – his trophy cabinet speaks for itself. It is his current management which leaves room for perplexity. Ancelotti insists on using the tactical system which was effective in the context of Serie A five years ago, but which has long since been outdated. The players are the same, the style is the same, the formation is the same, and – most stunningly – the weaknesses are always the same. Milan has been conceding from dead-ball situations for four years now, their central defensive lines are an open highway because there is only one midfielder taking up truly defensive roles, and the over-reliance on playmaker Andrea Pirlo has made the midfield-offence connection disarmingly vulnerable, simply because every Coach in Serie A (outside of Ancelotti) has figured out that it is enough to put a fixed man marking high on the Milan midfielder to neutralise the play of the entire team. The culmination of this Victorian approach to tactics, management and mercato has been last year’s exclusion of the Milanese team from the Champions League and their relegation to the UEFA cup.
At the beginning of the season, when Milan was losing to Bologna and Genoa and fans were clamouring for Ancelotti’s head to be stuffed and stuck in the Milanello restaurants by the moose and the otter, ‘disaster’ struck – Pirlo got injured. In the subsequent string of games, Milan won the derby against Inter and garnered so many victories they conquered a stable second place. A variety of factors contributed to this, of course – the rebirth of iron man Gennaro Gattuso, who is now lost again, and the slight dementia of referees walking into the San Siro (apparently some unwritten rule in calcio states that when Milan is having difficulties at home against middle-to-bottom-table teams, they should automatically be awarded a doubtful penalty – cue the complaints of Sampdoria, Siena and Napoli). More influential than any of these, however, was the tactical reformation that Pirlo’s absence forced onto the team. Milan defeated Inter with a 4-4-2, not a diamond-shaped one like Roma’s, but a trapeze fielding two defensive midfielders and two highly flexible half-wings. When Pirlo returned, Ancelotti immediately switched back to his familiar 4-3-2-1, which as far as tactical intuitions go was akin to diving under a steamroller in front of eighty-thousand fans (which is exactly what happened against Juventus). Any other Coach would come out of the break with a renewed or at least more ductile formation, possibly aiming towards a more physical approach to the game – the names of Mathieu Flamini, Ambrosini, Clarence Seedorf, Emerson, Ronaldinho, Philippe Senderos, Luca Antonini and now even David Beckham allow for plenty of tactical variation and an ample turnover, giving people like Pirlo and Kaka a chance to breathe. But come the weekend game against Roma, expect Ancelotti to give us more of the 4-3-2-1 and some game great for keeping possession, but abortive when it comes to finalising and helplessly unassertive in defence.
With all that being said, Sunday’s hosts Roma find themselves in some dire straits themselves. Following the most catastrophic start of a season in Roman history since the autumn that Hannibal invaded from the Alps, Roma switched from their old 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 (with the midfielders arranged in a 1-2-1 schema) and finally appeared to pick themselves up. Some of the Giallorossi’s midfielders truly exploded (Matteo Brighi has been a revelation this season, and Jérémy Menez is electric after an indifferent start) and the team started on an impressive series of victories which subsequently earned them first place in their Champions League group and a safer position in Serie A. Yet their ‘resurgence’ is even more deceptive than that of Milan. Almost all of their games saw them winning by fortuitous one-goal lead results where the opposing team (mostly average squads) repeatedly came inch-close to equalising. When luck finally ran out, modest Catania took a 3-0 lead in fifteen minutes and sent Roma into the break with what we can imagine to be some pretty humorous Christmas cards.
Part of this has been due to the alternating physical conditions of Francesco Totti, Roma’s sine qua non leader (note how the string of victories coincides almost perfectly with his return to health, while the defeat against Catania took place immediately after he limped off the field). The captain’s contribution is incalculable and his absence alone is enough to make Milan the distinct favourites this weekend. But the T factor aside, Roma Coach Luciano Spalletti has some serious responsibilities as well. Ironically, these seem to be the exact opposite of Ancelotti’s. While the Milan boss possesses all the tactical sagacity of a sleeping Airedale, his psychological and moral management of the men is impeccable. Spalletti, on the other hand, is tactically brilliant (his new iteration of the 4-4-2 turns his team’s lack of wings from a weakness into a strength) but – as some ultras of the Roman milieu are known to have put it – his ‘utter lack of balls’ suggests he would have found a better career as a choir-boy in Tuscany than as a Serie A Coach. The popular statement, while harsh, contains some truth – it took Spalletti six weeks of crushing defeats before he finally changed his formation, he is still reluctant to play anyone under the age of 24 regardless of form, and his teams traditionally stop fighting once they have taken the lead. This year, Roma’s psychological problems have magnified while their tactical set-up has lost freshness. Following the triumph over Chelsea and the injury of Cesc Fabregas, many have been quick to call Roma favourites in the Champions League knock-out game against Arsenal, but we are not so sure. Roma’s game is currently quite ugly, and there is no guarantee that luck is still going to be on their side come the end of February.
The Roma-Milan game taking place this weekend sees Milan as slight favourites, but the final result is ultimately unpredictable not because both teams are very strong, but because both are deceptively weak. The irony is that whoever comes out on top is going to be lauded as ‘reborn’ – if Roma wins, their solidity and cynicism will be a ‘message’ to Arsenal and an important step towards the fourth place, while if Milan wins, they will be ‘definitively over’ the Juventus trauma and a major contender for the Scudetto. But neither of these statements would be true. Roma need important work on their psychological cohesion and continuity, a more dynamic game and, most importantly, a team that does not fall to pieces whenever one of Totti’s paper muscles tears. It may even be time for a new coach, but Roma at least have the consolation of knowing that their squad is young and the management has sharp focus. Milan need so much more. They need a complete overhaul of Coach, players and management, a mercato philosophy that looks forward rather than backward, an administration that works with and listens to its technical staff and a technical staff that can bring new ideas to the table for a fresh start. The acquisition of Thiago Silva is a step in the right direction, but it is nowhere near enough. Milan, even more so than Roma, need to change. Looking to the bigger picture, it will be almost immaterial who wins this weekend’s game. With Juventus and Inter holding two guaranteed Champions League spots, this leaves Milan, Roma, Fiorentina and Napoli competing for the two remaining places. Unless we see some serious tactical growth in the former two teams over the coming few months, it is not only possible but likely that one of them will end up out of the Champions League next season.