Back in summer, there was a feeling around Milan which hadn’t existed for some years. What is this new, alien feeling that the Milan faithful were going on about all summer? It was optimism. Along with the many millions put into the club by the new Chinese investors, Sino-Europe Sports, and the wave of new signings, there was a genuine thought that this season could be the one where fortunes begin to change. This is the season Milan return to Europe. This is the season Milan are back where they belong.
Fast-forward six months and AC Milan are in the same place, if not worse, than before the river of money started flowing. It would be easy to blame the investors, a £630 million takeover which could only be afforded through sceptical-at-best loans, inevitable Financial Fair Play sanctions and an unstable future. It would seem within half a year, the river dried up. The new owners were supposed to build a platform from which to build on, with stable investment so that the club could focus on the pitch rather than problems off it. But in reality, it is too simplistic to pin the blame on the owners. No, Milan’s woes are as much tactical incompetency as they are financial.
Seeing as we are talking money, let’s start with the signings.
Andre Silva, one of Europe’s most promising strikers, hailed as the heir to Cristiano Ronaldo for the Portuguese national team, by Ronaldo himself no less. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner said:
“When I retire, Portugal doesn’t need to worry. They have a great striker in Andre Silva.”
So why then, has Silva been used so sparingly by Milan? In the Europa League, he has scored six goals in as many games, but in Serie A, he has featured in just nine out of 17 games, mostly as a substitute, scoring no goals. The recently replaced manager, Vincenzo Montella, explained that Silva is ‘still adapting to the league’, and must adapt his playing style to settle into Italian football. But, with Silva being rotated with Milan’s two other strikers, wonderkid Patrick Cutrone, and Nikola Kalinic, the more likely reason is that Montella simply did not know who to play and stick with.
Milan’s other headline signing, Leonardo Bonucci, has had considerably more game time, but the same lack of success. Bonucci’s case however, can be partly put down to the pressure he has welcomed onto himself. The defender has said he sees himself as the leader of the new Milan team, however, the drawback of this is being largely scapegoated in the media for a string of poor team performances. Bonucci has been singled out, unfairly or not, for poor defensive performances, which could be levelled at any member of the defence.
In fact, no summer signing can hold their high at this point in the season. Hakan Calhanoglu has been faded out of first team action after a string of anonymous performances. Mateo Musacchio has made as many costly defensive errors as he has had solid games. Lucas Biglia looks a shadow of his composed self, being sloppy in possession and recently being sent off.
The state of Milan’s transfers can be summed up by the fact that Fabio Borini, who struggled to establish himself in a relegated Sunderland team, has featured in the majority of Milan’s matches (13 out of 17). What was accepted by Milan fans as an intelligent buy – a squad player who can add depth and step in, in case of injury – has become first-choice wing-back.
The performances of individuals has to be attributed to poor team selection and tactical naivety. A 3-5-2 was adopted early on, with some arguing purely to suit the defensive shape Bonucci was used to at Juventus. But Montella failed to get the team used to playing the system with any kind of fluidity to at Juventus. Slow, passive play, and at times no team shape whatsoever (see October’s Milan-Inter derby for a prime example) had lead to some damning statistics. As many losses as wins (seven), eighth in the league and a negative goal ratio means it was hard to argue with Montella’s sacking. His replacement, Gennaro Gattuso, has fared little better. A draw against Benevento which will go down in internet history, and a 3-0 loss against relegation battling Verona has done nothing to win the despondent fans. The fact his appointment is neither interim nor permanent shows an inherent lack of trust between the board and the manager.
For Milan fans, it is hard to find any hope in a season which was anticipated with so much optimism. It is little consolation that the season is only at the half-way point, with Milan just two places off Europe. A fresh injection of cash does not seem likely in January, but equally does not seem needed. The signings have been made, what Milan fans are crying out for now are tactics, consistent team selection, and maybe for the game which Gattuso finally has had enough, and brings himself on as a sub. We can but hope.