Not everyone was entirely convinced when Milan appointed Massimiliano Allegri as the successor to Leonardo on Milan’s bench. Having experienced a campaign like 2009/10 where yet again the team was not really competitive in any competition – save for a few weeks in March where they managed to get close to Inter in Serie A – many fans were hoping for a big name Coach who could lead the club back towards the trophy hunt in 2010/11.
He may not be a big name Coach, but Allegri has achieved just that by leading the Rossoneri to their first league title since 2004. Many will (rightly) point to the level of investment in the squad that Allegri has been fortunate to benefit from. In came practically a whole new attack in Zlatan Ibrahimović, Robinho and January arrival Antonio Cassano, as well as midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng. But it is one thing simply having those players at your disposal, it is another fostering a winning group.
It is the latter for which Allegri deserves great credit. Not just in their mentality, but in the willingness to work for the team on the pitch. To make this message perfectly clear to his squad, he jettisoned Ronaldinho from the side in November. The Brazilian’s inability to contribute defensively opposed the ethic the Coach was trying to instil into everyone else, and his form was so poor that there really was no need to keep playing him.
The dropping (and eventual sale) of the former Barcelona man solved a few issues, but he still had a lot of trouble finding the balance of his side. For almost half of the season, Milan were painfully vulnerable to counter-attacking football. The Coach recognised it, but had difficulty devising a solution. He went down the extreme route of using three defensive midfielders, moving Andrea Pirlo away from his position in front of the defence, which improved defensive stability, but was rather lacking offensively.
He removed one of these defensive players for a more attacking midfielder once he was happy that everything had settled down at the other end, and by mid-February Milan were reasonably happy with their set-up. Boateng’s hard work as trequartista compensated for the use of a more offensive player in the midfield behind him, and the presence of a defensive player in front of the back line offered more protection than someone like Pirlo.
Yet for all the summer investment, more was still required in January thanks to the annual injury crisis that hits the squad (something that ought to be looked into, but that seems to be ignored). Mark van Bommel and Urby Emanuelson gave Allegri more midfield options, and without the former’s contribution they simply would not have won a thing.
Massimo Ambrosini’s injury at the end of January could have hit the team hard, but van Bommel’s form meant that they probably had a better player in his place. It is a good job he arrived too – the initial prognosis for Ambrosini’s injury was six weeks, but he only appeared again 12 weeks later (epitomising the nonsense of Milan’s medical staff).
Ambrosini was not the only midfielder injured, and it got so bad that Allegri had to introduce Alexander Merkel into the starting line-up, playing him more frequently than he would have liked. The German acquitted himself well, and if anything the fact he was brought into the first XI is one of the few bonuses that came out of the injury situation.
The injuries meant they struggled a little in January and February, and their drawing of games allowed Inter and Napoli to close the gap. But as the players started to return, Milan started to churn out the victories. They performed when it mattered in the crunch games against the aforementioned duo, and they were able to drag victories from games where it looked like they would have to settle for a point.
Ibrahimović’s two silly red cards allowed Milan to show they could win without him, whilst simultaneously giving the Swede to rest for Coppa Italia matches – a trophy Milan failed to win anyway.
Ibra’s ban also gave Allegri food for thought. He rarely rested the No.11, and his performances in the second half of the season suggested he desperately needed one at some point, preferably earlier in the campaign. The Coach would do well to use his squad, and Ibrahimović, more effectively in the future if they want to challenge in Europe.
Coach – Massimiliano Allegri: He found tactical solutions to the problems facing the team very well, and eventually learned to use his substitutions more effectively during a game after some initial criticism. The improvement of Ignazio Abate during his season says much about his ability with players and bodes well for the future.
Player of the season – Thiago Silva: Ibrahimović may have scored goals and assisted many more, but Thiago Silva’s efforts in defence were more important for winning the Scudetto. Another who has improved from last season, he is a complete defender. Allegri called him one of the best in the world – it is hard to argue with that.
Turning point – dropping Ronaldinho: It took some time, but the Coach eventually realised that the team could not sustain Ronaldinho, let alone a Ronaldinho that was not performing. It gave him space to add someone who would work for the team (namely Boateng), and set the tone for Milan’s improved defensive performance over the season.
Average starting XI: