After two consecutive years of mid-table finishes, it feels like Milan are back. The 2014-15 season saw yet more turmoil as one of Italian football’s giants fell further from their past glories, finishing 10th in Serie A, their worst league position since 1998. Fans may point to the fact that the last time Milan finished so low down the league table, they won the Scudetto the very next year. Although they are perhaps not quite ready for such a feat, the Rossoneri are undoubtedly a rejuvenated side, having cast aside many of the erratic ways of their underachieving recent past.
With Thai businessman Bee Taechubol acquiring a 48% stake in the club, Milan, instead of bargain hunting, went all-out on the offensive in the transfer market, investing high quantities of cash in proven quality players. Furthermore, they have cut adrift much of the deadwood that weighed them down for so long. Gone are the likes of Daniele Bonera, Sulley Muntari, Michael Essien and Giampaolo Pazzini. In their place have arrived talented young centre-back Alessio Romagnoli, midfield creator Andrea Bertolacci and prolific strikers Carlos Bacca and Luiz Adriano.
Although the sale of Stephan El Shaarawy continued the disappointing recurrent theme of Milan selling off their finest young talent, that tide also seems to be turning. Newly appointed coach Sinisa Mihajlovic has dedicated plenty of time and space to youth, giving opportunities to 16-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, 21-year-old centre-back Rodrigo Ely and 18-year-old full-back Davide Calabria as well as more established youngsters; Mattia De Sciglio, M’Baye Niang and new signing from Parma, Jose Mauri, during pre-season.
Milan have also broken with the tradition of hiring former club legends to coach the team by appointing Mihajlovic, a former Internazionale player. It was a sad sight watching the likes of Clarence Seedorf and Filippo Inzaghi, each with little or no managerial experience, failing in the hotseat. Now, however, Milan can boast of obtaining a coach with a very reasonable track record to speak of, even if he wasn’t exactly on close terms with Milanisti in his playing days.
The more inclusive approach towards youth, along with a promising coach and investment in quality players, suggests the club’s future is bright. There now appears to be a longer-term vision at Milan, something which has not been evident for quite some time.
Sinisa Mihajlovic once said:
“I could never coach Milan. They are one of the best clubs in the world, but I played for and was a coach at Inter. I couldn’t do it out of respect towards my old fans.”
On the back of those words, spoken while he was in charge of Fiorentina in 2010, it was slightly surprising that he was Milan’s choice to succeed Filippo Inzaghi this summer. Other candidates were reportedly in the running, such as Maurizio Sarri and Vincenzo Montella, but Mihajlovic was eventually chosen as the man to steer the club forward.
A volatile defender with a cultured left foot as a player, the Milan job is Mihajlovic’s biggest club coaching post yet, having cut his teeth with Bologna, Catania and Fiorentina before taking charge of the Serbian national team. He then returned to Italy with Sampdoria in 2013 and guided the Blucerchiati away from relegation before achieving an impressive seventh-placed Serie A finish last season.
Alessio Romagnoli finally became a Milan player on 9th August after a seemingly endless chase for his signature. The Italian under-21 international had returned to Roma after a successful season-long loan with Mihajlovic’s Sampdoria last season, where he showcased good timing in the tackle and the composure to pass out from the back to emerge as one of the best young defenders in Europe.
Mihajlovic was keen to bring Romagnoli with him to San Siro but Milan were initially thwarted in their pursuit by Roma’s asking price. Eventually, however, the two clubs agreed on a sizeable €25 million transfer fee and Romagnoli and Mihajlovic were reunited.
In recent years Milan have completely failed to uphold their proud defensive traditions of solidity and style. The combustible Philippe Mexes; the slowing, ageing Alex, and the underwhelming Adil Rami and Cristian Zapata were not up to the standards previously set by the iconic Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta. Milan desperately needed Romagnoli to restore stability to their backline.
One to Watch
Mercurial French forward M’Baye Niang is still only 20 years old and highly rated, but his development has been stunted by a succession of coaches, multiple loan spells and the resultant inability to settle into any clear tactical system.
He impressed during pre-season after returning to Milan from a six-month spell with Genoa, where he hit five goals in 12 league appearances.
Primarily a winger, Niang showed increased potency in front of goal at Genoa, having failed to score in Serie A for Milan in 33 appearances over three seasons. With pace, trickery and versatility, he could be an ideal foil for new signing, Colombian hitman Carlos Bacca, up front.
Mihajlovic’s preferred system while at Sampdoria was a 4-3-1-2 with an enforcer in defensive midfield and two strikers capable of pulling out wide to stretch opposition defences and create space. Over the course of pre-season, he has tried to implement this with Milan.
He has been aided by the fact that he already had players well suited to specific roles. Full-backs Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonelli will have no issue providing the width given the narrowness of the midfield; both having played as wingers at different times in their respective careers. Elsewhere, Nigel De Jong has experience as the midfield enforcer, while both Giacomo Bonaventura and Keisuke Honda enjoy playing centrally behind the strikers, and so either could be utilised as the trequartista in Mihajlovic’s midfield diamond.
While the team is vastly improved from last season, the core area of concern remains the centre of defence. De Jong’s positioning can be askew, while his temperament has often been called into question throughout his career. Alongside him it looks as if Mihajlovic will choose two of Andrea Poli, Riccardo Montolivo or classy new addition Andrea Bertolacci, none of whom have ever been regarded specifically as ball-winners, which puts a lot of onus to shore up midfield on the occasionally wayward De Jong.
This midfield setup could heap additional pressure on the central defenders, which is a worry given that Mihajlovic’s probable favoured partnership of Romagnoli and Rodrigo Ely lacks maturity. While the former should be able to cope, the 21-year-old Ely lacks top-level experience having spent last season on loan at Avellino in Serie B. With the high pressure that comes with playing for a club like Milan and a possible lack of real authority in front of them, it will be interesting to see how such a youthful central defensive partnership performs.