There is nothing quite like the build-up to a new football season. Any lingering despair from the previous campaign suddenly disappears, replaced with optimism and renewed expectation. Well at least that is how it is meant to be. Throughout the majority of the summer, it has been a vastly different story at Milan. Question marks over the new Coach, the sale of their best player, the subsequent lack of investment back into a team that badly needs rejuvenation, and some abysmal pre-season performances have all ensured that those who were becoming irate at the situation with the club are now even more frustrated and annoyed.
Let us start with the new Coach, Leonardo. Previously Technical Director (whatever that role actually entails at the club), he was handed the post formerly held by Carlo Ancelotti very swiftly indeed, suggesting that the mission to replace Ancelotti had been in place for some time. As you would expect, there are large concerns over his coaching ability. Indeed, he does not even have the requisite qualifications to be in the job. In a country where the tactical nous on display from rival Tacticians is arguably higher than in any other major league around Europe, the worry is that he could be found wanting very quickly. As such, he will have to learn even quicker, as the Rossoneri cannot afford yet another failure to qualify for the Champions League.
Fortunately for the Brazilian, he happens to be a very likeable man. Even if his (potentially short-lived) time as Coach is a disappointment, he has already impressed everyone with his lingual skills. Fluent in no less than four languages (English, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, and his French is not too bad either), the Americans found it incredibly useful in press conferences during the pre-season tour to the States. However, it is his willingness to express displeasure, his honesty, which is most refreshing. The tifosi have known for some time that the squad needs new players, an utterly dismal pre-season, which has yielded one victory, one draw, and eight consecutive defeats, was not needed to confirm this in their minds. For whatever reason though, it was needed to spring Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani into action, but not without some choice words from Leonardo, who declared that his squad was short of quality in all areas, and that reinforcements were needed. Indeed, he still speaks of how his squad is in need of another full-back, despite the €15m arrival of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Whilst it is pleasing to see a player of such quality, and at the right age, finally join the squad, the predictable over-reaction from Berlusconi soon followed – announcing that the squad is “second to none” as if Milan’s summer mercato work was complete and all that needed to happen now was that they win Serie A. It is a similarly misguided view that has dogged previous mercato campaigns. The thinking that a couple of big-name additions means that the team is ready to compete. Nothing could be further from the truth at the current moment. The Rossoneri are still desperately short of quality, especially in depth, in midfield and defence. The latter may sound particularly strange when you consider there are no less than 10 first-team defenders in the squad, yet the fact we are commenting on strength in depth in this area brings to light the club’s concerning habit of hanging on to dead wood. Giuseppe Favalli is not a centre-back, and is barely passing for a full-back (his original position) in pre-season. Far too many errors are starting to creep into Kakha Kaladze’s game, so much so that the club brought in Oguchi Onyewu on a free to become third-choice centre-back. Sadly, he is no better – indeed you would struggle to find anybody who actually believed the American had the quality to make it at a top-level club. All of this simply compounds the defensive problems Milan have been suffering for a couple of seasons now, particularly from set-pieces.
The midfield is slightly less alarming – there is just about depth in this area, but too many are the wrong side of 30 and do not have enough pace. There is, still, a distinct lack of creativity in the midfield. Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf are the only individuals who can pass a ball in a direction other than sideways and have it meet it’s intended target. Gennaro Gattuso, new club captain Massimo Ambrosini and Mathieu Flamini are defensive midfielders, and expecting them to be able to trouble a defence with their passing is unrealistic when their abilities with a football are accounted for. Leo’s desire to change the way Milan play their football is key to this whole issue. If you want a team to play the ball quicker, you need players who can pass the ball. If you only have one player in the midfield who can pass the ball, it is far too easy to negate this style by simply stopping him receiving it, or by marking him and ensuring it has to go sideways to a less gifted member of the team (Pirlo is likely to be flanked by two such players in Gattuso and Ambrosini). If it is going sideways, it will not reach Ronaldinho, and so the attacking play is slowed down – exactly what the Brazilian Tactician does not want.
To counter the ever rising average age of the squad, Leonardo has recalled a couple of players from loan deals – Ignazio Abate and Davide Di Gennaro. The former has been used in a variety of positions pre-season, but seems most likely to play in the midfield and attempt to provide some attacking thrust and pace from this area. He does not have a great amount of quality, especially with the players he is surrounded by, but he offers a different option and will feature heavily this year. The latter has been used as a direct replacement for Ronaldinho, playing behind the strikers. Il Diavolo need at least one of these to step up and prove they are capable of making the grade at a big club. With both having come from Milan’s own academy, they are in a perfect position to start creating a bright and, most importantly, winning future for the club.