It says quite a lot about how this season has gone for Milan so far that they went into their game against Napoli as considerable underdogs. The last time Napoli finished above the Rossoneri in Serie A, Diego Maradona was playing for them, and even then they weren’t necessarily favourites. So how have Milan fallen so far in just a couple of months?
In previous seasons, Massimiliano Allegri set up his side in a very split system. The star-studded frontline would be left to its own creative devices for the most part, made free of defensive responsibility by an energetic midfield and solid defence behind it. This difference became less pronounced as Milan began to replace their specialists with more all-round midfielders, but was still noticeable. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the perfect example of this: he probably hasn’t broken into a full sprint since he joined Juventus, yet he’s one of the most complete attackers in the world, transforming standards for the phrase “good feet for a big man” with 56 goals for Milan in just two seasons.
The unequal distribution of creative and defensive work had its problems, particularly when Milan came up against the better quality teams domestically and in Europe, but most Serie A sides didn’t have the quality to compete, so Milan were able to fight their way to the 2010/11 scudetto and missed out on second the following year by just four points.
Flash forward to this season and the system hasn’t really changed – it’s just the components that are a lot weaker. When rivals Internazionale sold Ibrahimovic, they reinvested the money throughout their team, building the side that won them the treble in 2010; Milan sold the big Swede and replaced him with Bojan Krkic – not a bad player, but certainly a disappointment both in how his career has turned out and the type of signing you would want when you have just sold one of the world’s finest strikers for big money.
They invested in more of a sure thing by bringing in Giampaolo Pazzini, but had to trade Antonio Cassano to get him. Pazzini’s a top goalscorer, yet doesn’t have the ability to create a goal out of nowhere that Ibrahimovic did. He needs someone to supply him – someone like, say, Cassano, as he did to many plaudits at Sampdoria. Stefan El Shaarawy is a good player but not a guaranteed match-winner, while Robinho remains unreliable and poor defensively. Alexandre Pato is a top player but his chronic injury problems make Milan relying on him for goals a genuine threat to his health – far from an ideal man to lead the line.
The midfield is the better area of the team, where they have brought in Nigel de Jong, Riccardo Montolivo and Sulley Muntari to join Antonio Nocerino, Urby Emanuelson and Kevin-Prince Boateng in, euro-for-euro, one of the best value midfields in Europe. Juventus fans could be forgiven for arguing that the shiny trophy in their cabinet makes their midfield more valuable, however. Although they are all very good players, Milan’s current midfield doesn’t really match up to the Andrea Pirlo-Gennaro Gattuso-Clarence Seedorf-Kaka Champions League-winning diamond that they are meant to be replacing.
The same can definitely be said of their defence. With Alessandro Nesta going into semi-retirement with his move to the MLS, Milan needed to strengthen their defence this summer. Instead, they let Thiago Silva – arguably the world’s best centre-back – go with Ibrahimovic to Paris Saint-Germain. Luca Antonini been something of a liability for years; Danielle Bonera has never been anything special; Phillipe Mexes is good yet prone to lapses in concentration; Mario Yepes is solid but nothing more; Cristian Zapata and Francesco Acerbi are decent moves, although neither is near the previous pair’s ability; and neither goalkeeper has ever shone brightly. You can tell standards are slipping when Ignazio Abate may be Milan’s best defender.
Milan haven’t done badly in the transfer window for the money they have spent, but that is precisely the problem: they have acted like a mid-table team in their dealings and have been rewarded with a mid-table position in the table.
Before the weak links in their side had been fairly obvious, but they had enough quality elsewhere to cover them up – now, not so much. The 4-3-1-2 they had become accustomed to using no longer worked with the players available: with the attack weakened, the frontmen needed more support from the midfield, but with the defence weakened, they too needed more cover from the midfield.
Allegri tried to rectify this by switching to a 3-4-3 – an increasingly common move in Serie A. By throwing an extra defender into the middle, Allegri gave them more defensive protection, which allowed the wing-backs to venture forward and support the attack. The more permanent change seems to be to a 4-2-3-1 however, giving them a stronger footing in midfield and more solidity on the wings.
Regardless of how he shuffles around the team though, Allegri can’t solve what is mainly a quality issue. At the very least they matched Lazio, yet found themselves 3-0 down with 50 minutes gone. Hernanes and Antonio Candreva were able to create goals out of nothing – exactly the trait Milan are now missing.
Speculation has been mounting for a while that Allegri is edging towards the sack, yet even in the trigger-happy world of calcio, there seems to be an admittance that there’s not really much more he can do. Providing you can find the odds, it would be a decent bet for him to go soon, but not exactly a safe one – Milan are doing very poorly, but few are blaming Allegri when he had no choice in where PSG’s money went.
Unless they make some serious changes in the January transfer window, Milan are nothing more than a solid mid-table team, so treat them as such. In some fixtures, their famous name will make them favourites when their line-up means they aren’t. Keep an eye out and you can make a decent sum from their mediocrity.
This post first appeared on Betting Expert.