Club Focus – Milan – Season review

The objective of automatic qualification for the Champions League set by Milan Vice-President, Adriano Galliani, has been fulfilled thanks in no small part to UEFA making it easier for big clubs in the three major leagues to access Europe’s top competition. You could be forgiven for thinking that was all that was expected of the players if you listened to the club’s hierarchy at the moment. It is easy to forget that at the start of the campaign, Milanisti everywhere were told how the current squad would be contenders for lo Scudetto, a promise that died prematurely in February. In truth, the squad was never good enough to compete with Inter over a 38-game season. There are too many holes in the squad that were filled with mediocre players who proved themselves not good enough to be playing for a club the size of the Rossoneri.

The first half of the campaign was centred on one star who was signed with the intention of leaving one less gap in the squad – Ronaldinho. His arrival from Barcelona last summer for €21m (rising to €25m with the addition of various clauses) caused widespread hysteria amongst the thousands of fans who actually turned up at San Siro to see the Brazilian officially presented as a Milan player. Former President Silvio Berlusconi was quite literally salivating at the prospect of seeing the trio of Kaká, Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato (ridiculously dubbed “Ka-Pa-Ro”) playing in the same team and producing the sort of free-flowing attractive football that he has yearned for so long.

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What Silvio failed to realised (I say Silvio, because it has become abundantly clear that Ronnie was not a Carlo Ancelotti signing) was that he did not actually fill one of the gaping holes that required urgent attention, and that his functionality with Kaká when playing for the Seleção had been under the microscope for some time. Nevertheless, Carletto was expected to somehow squeeze everybody into one system, pandering to the former Barça man’s apparent inability to put in an effective performance anywhere other than on the left hand side of the pitch, by unleashing a 4-2-3-1 system midway through the second half of the first game of the season, a defeat no less, to Bologna. As promising as Dinho’s performance was in this game, the right-hand side of the pitch was completely ignored. Andriy Shevchenko, who is not a right-winger, and Mathieu Flamini, who is not a right-back, were left to take care of things on the right flank. It was not difficult to see that the squad did not contain a right-sided player, and as such, any attempts to play with width were scuppered by a massive imbalance.

To his credit, Carletto quickly ignored this formation (for the time being at least), and attempted to play the 2004 and 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year behind a striker, and alongside Kaká or Clarence Seedorf. Results were good, a 16-game unbeaten run ensued, but Ronaldinho’s performances were still not up to standard, though this was masked by his often vital goal contributions – mainly from free kicks. In fact, there were a number who were not playing at all well, but when you arrive at such an expense, with plenty of baggage from your previous club, and in place of players who are genuinely needed, you are always going to be under the spotlight. His presence in the middle hindered the attacking play of the team, and that of Kaká. He drifted to the left on many occasions, only to be instructed by Ancelotti that he needed to stay central. The Ronaldinho of old had disappeared, the exciting dribbler who was capable of beating a couple of defenders to create a chance had morphed into somebody who held onto the ball for far too long and slowed down any forward momentum. Despite the nine goals he scored this season (contention still reigns over his effort against Napoli), his overall contribution was negligible. For whatever reason, he has struggled to reproduce the form that won him the coveted title of World Player of the Year two years running.

As the saying goes, there lies, damn lies, and statistics. Well here is one that highlights the Brazilian’s effect on the side. Milan played 47 games in all competitions this season, and lost just nine (eight in the league, one in the TIM Cup against Lazio). Of the 47 games, Ronaldinho started just 19. Only seven of these games were won, whilst six were drawn and a further six were lost. When you compare this to the 28 games that Ronaldinho did not start – 19 were won, six were drawn, and only three were lost. Now taking these figures in isolation does not account for the other factors, for example the 16-game unbeaten run mentioned earlier, contained nine Ronaldinho starts, of which six were games were won. The most intriguing aspect of this streak was that all bar one of the 16 games were played without Andrea Pirlo in the team.

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Indeed, he returned for the 15th game, a 2-2 draw away to Torino. His next start was a match which could potentially have yielded a 17th consecutive unbeaten match, away at Palermo. However the Rossoneri were soundly beaten 3-1 in what was one of their worst performances of the season. This brings us nicely to the next key aspect that goes some way to understanding the struggles of the year – World Cup winner Pirlo. This is where things become tricky, and though I take no pleasure in this ‘blame game’ that I seem to be advocating, the Pirlo issue is one that Andrea Tallarita highlighted back in January, in his preview of the Roma-Milan fixture which finished 2-2. He mused that Milan’s over-reliance on their midfield maestro was costing the team, as Coaches had realised simply man-marking him was enough to nullify large portions of Milan’s offence. He pointed to the unbeaten run, and the tactical change that had to occur in Pirlo’s absence. The tactical change however, was not really that huge – Carletto was simply forced to play Flamini or Massimo Ambrosini (both are more defensive minded midfield players, but with less talent and nous in ball distribution) in his place.

It is only fair therefore, that I provide the stats for Pirlo’s affect on the team. He started 29 of the 47 games this season. Only 13 of those were victories, with eight draws and eight losses. The remaining 18 played without him in the team from the start produced 13 victories once again, but with four draws and, amazingly, only one loss.

So who is most responsible? To emphasise a point I made earlier, stats alone do not provide the whole story. The team does not appear to win as many games when Ronaldinho starts, yet that changes when Pirlo is removed from the team. But when it is just the Italian in the side (no Dinho), the team evidently struggles. Either way, they have both performed poorly this season, and no number of stats can eradicate that particular issue. If anything, Pirlo’s poor year has hurt more, because of the important role he plays in the function of the rest of the team. Everything is channelled through him, so much so that when he was out of the team in the early part of the campaign, il Diavolo were forced to use alternative methods to ensure transition of the ball from defence to offence, rather than simply falling back on the tried and trusted. This should not be a shock to any Rossonero, as the No.21 has been on a steady decline since the 2006 World Cup. Rumours of Chelsea supposedly being willing to offer £20m (though it has to be said, it is unlikely), for a 30-year-old, should cause some serious thought in the halls of Via Turati. For now, we shall put a hold on this talk as issues such as this will be discussed further next week.

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If the andata was all about Ronaldinho, there can be no doubt ritorno was David Beckham territory. In January, Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani decided that what the club needed was a 33-year-old midfielder on a faster decline than the aforementioned Andrea Pirlo, who apart from Flamini (and the invisible Mathías Cardacio), also happened to be the youngest member of the midfield playing staff at 29 years. Carletto also received the defender he had been requesting for the past two years, in the shape of Thiago Silva, but he would not get the benefit of using him as the club had exceeded limits on non-EU players for the 2008/09 season. All-in-all, it was a typical Rossoneri mercato, signing players that were neither wanted, nor needed.

The Englishman’s arrival did not ignite the team to start hunting the then leaders Inter. With the second Derby della Madonnina looming in early February, it was vital that Milan did not give an inch in their pursuit. Despite this, Beckham’s first six starts (all before the derby) yielded three wins, and three draws. It was three draws too many, and left the club with a mountainous task of needing to win to realistically stay in the hunt, which would have reduced the gap to four points. The 2-1 defeat, live on the BBC no less, was the night the Scudetto was lost. The performance itself was not so bad, and Milan probably deserved a point from the game for their efforts. Consistency throughout the season cost them, a consistency that, oddly, they only discovered after this game, when nine of the last 14 games were won, with two draws and three losses.

As for Beckham, he had two great games, his debut against Roma, and then against Genoa (the two in between these games were okay). After this, Galliani announced he wanted to keep him at the club, but the performance levels dropped to such an extent that Beckham was incredibly fortunate to maintain a starting spot right until the end of the season.

Results and performances improved after the club tumbled out of the UEFA Cup to Werder Bremen on away goals. This season, more so than any other, has really brought the well-documented age of the squad to the fore. The players are clearly unable to perform to the level required twice a week, a major worry considering entry into Europe is of paramount importance each and every season. Eight UEFA Cup games were played in total, meaning eight games were played the weekend after each match in Europe. 10 points were dropped in these matches (four wins, two draws, two losses), the very gap that separates Milan from the champion’s. A team cannot afford to drop this number of points when playing twice in one week. It is a necessity for top clubs and if Milan possesses any ambition to challenge for silverware next season this must be addressed through the addition of younger players.

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A new medical team would be nice too, the current incumbents being possibly the most inept known to man. Marco Borriello and Kaká have both suffered at their inability to diagnose injuries correctly, whilst some of the older brigade have been falling like flies with muscular injuries. Simply blaming their age is not good enough – other teams have players in their mid-thirties too. It does make you ponder whether the current medical staff have heard of injury prevention. It is hardly revolutionary – the majority of football clubs will have some sort of programme in place, especially for their older members, to maintain fitness. All of this makes Paolo Maldini’s 31 league starts all the more remarkable.

It would be an understatement to say that mistakes have been made. It is with sadness that we see Carlo Ancelotti seemingly being made to carry the can for the below-par campaign. Ignore the reports of mutual consent, Ancelotti would have seen out his contract if the duo in charge had given an indication they wanted him to stay (and possibly signed an extension) – he admitted as much only a couple of weeks ago. Carletto divides so many fans. Many wanted him to stay and believe he was the right man for the job, whilst others are glad to see the back of him and believe he was too attached to certain players, or lacked the gumption to change things tactically. This writer falls into the former category. He is a magnificent Coach, and the period of 2003-2007 was one of the most successful in the club’s history. Unfortunately, he was not helped when it came to transfers. Too many players were foisted upon him that he did not want, or that he had no plans to fit in tactically. No manager can continue to work successfully under such conditions, and it is a credit to him that he did not complain about the situation sooner.

However, he was not without his faults. He did probably persist with certain players for too long – partly because he was given no choice due to the club’s transfer strategy, and partly through his own sentimentality. He stuck by Pirlo even though he has played badly for over a year now. It is both his greatest strength and his weakness. It was not surprising to hear of some players weeping upon his departure, his willingness to believe in his players has inspired such loyalty. Yet, not being able to let go has played its role in a sub-standard couple of years.

Mistakes were also made tactically. The 4-3-2-1 system has never truly worked. The balance in the three-man midfield between defensive and attacking players was never truly found, other than during the 16-game unbeaten streak previously discussed. Carlo was also incredibly negative at times, sometimes overly so, and it caused several dropped points throughout the season. The greatest example of this is the home game against Genoa. Having taken a 1-0 lead through Beckham, the Tactician decided to remove the goalscorer and put Flamini on in his place. All fine you are probably thinking. Yet the 70th minute was far too early for this change. It invited Genoa onto the attack (and they do not need much encouragement to do so), and the inevitable equaliser arrived, fashionably late of course, through Diego Milito.

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Carletto’s replacement makes his departure all the more hard to take. Leonardo, a man who has been loitering around the club like a bad smell for far too long, has bizarrely been given the reigns despite having no coaching or managerial experience whatsoever. He is credited with “discovering” Alexandre Pato and Kaká. In reality all he did was act as a mediator between the club and the club’s hierarchy, ensuring a seamless movement of both players to the club. Berlusconi has made it clear that he is attempting to recreate the Fabio Capello moment of the nineties, a Coach who was also appointed with little experience. He has conveniently glossed over the fact he did take charge of the team at the end of the 1986/87 season, and continued to float around the club after that brief spell. Even more importantly, football has changed. Appointing nobodies whose experience in management is non-existent rarely works. While the former club President believes this could be another Capello situation, it more closely resembles that of the post-Capello era, where another South American in Oscar Tabárez was appointed after the Italian’s departure, only to be sacked within months.

The depressing conclusion is that the future is not looking particularly bright for the Rossoneri. The new Coach, probably realising that very few people want him in the job, has attempted to win people over by claiming he wants his Milan to play attacking football, yet his first task is going to be persuading Kaká to turn down the overtures of Real Madrid. At the time of writing, there are strong reports the Brazilian star is about to sign for the Spanish club, with only interest from Ancelotti’s Chelsea holding up the deal. Leonardo’s intentions of attacking football would take a serious knock if he were to leave. The same would be true if Pato were to depart, another player who has, according to Galliani, attracted a concrete offer. The excuses from the bald-headed Italian are out already – that the other clubs have too much money, that Milan cannot pay the top wages. His words echo those of a child complaining about being bullied by the bigger kids in the playground. What would be nice is if he defended the club, rejected the offer for Pato (preferably Kaká as well, but this appears to be too far gone now, with the only hope that the player rejects the club) and made a few signings to bolster the squad for next year. But all of that seems to be too much to ask for. Depressing times indeed for Milanisti.

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