Before you read this I apologise in advance for the long, sometimes rambling nature of this article, but this is such a large topic that it takes a lot of explaining. Right, on with the article…
Its 3.03 PM local time on Sunday the 5th of May 2004. Andriy Shevchenko scores what turns out to be the only goal of the game as AC Milan, the reigning European Champions, beat AS Roma 1-0 at the San Siro to wrap up their 17th Scudetto. The Rossoneri eventually finish the season with 82 points from 34 games, putting them 11 points ahead of their nearest challengers Roma and 13 ahead of Italy’s Vecchia Signora (Old Lady) Juventus. Shevchenko finished as Serie A’s top goal scorer with 24 goals, and was backed up by the ever reliable predatory instincts of Filippo Inzaghi. Carlo Ancellotti’s team also boasted a perfectly balanced midfield, combining the industry of Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini with the art of Andrea Pirlo and an emerging Kaka, and the incisive wing play of Clarence Seedorf. The defence, marshalled by the aging but dependable Paulo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta was one of the meanest in the league. Even without the inevitable arrogance and infectious optimism that comes with any title success, the future seemed bright for Carlo Ancellotti and his team.
Now fast forward less than 4 years to Tuesday the 4th of March 2008. Milan, once again defending European Champions but by now a shadow of the team they once were, are dumped out of the Champions League at the Second Round stage after being out-fought and out-classed by a slick young Arsenal team. During the second leg at the San Siro, which Arsenal won 2-0, every Milan player lost his individual battle with his Arsenal counterpart and as a team Milan simply could not cope with Arsenal’s quick interplay and dogged determination. While watching that game I actually found myself agreeing with the ITV commentary team (and it won’t be often you hear me say that, dear reader) that this game took on a symbolic significance, as if the torch of footballing hegemony was being passed from the older generation of players, symbolised by Milan; to the new emerging generation symbolised by Arsenal. However, worse was to come for the Rossoneri. By the end of the season Milan were 5th in Serie A, a massive 21 points behind champions Inter, and had failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in six years. Milan’s top goal scorer for the 2007-2008 season was Kaka who managed an admirable 15 goals from midfield, with only one Milan striker, Filippo Inzaghi with 11, finishing with 10 or more league goals.
Given the club’s dramatic decline in fortunes over the previous four years, it must be asked, what is wrong with AC Milan? Where has the current malaise come from? Who is to blame? And, perhaps most importantly of all, how long will it last? In this article I will explain what I believe are the causes of Milan’s problems both on and off the pitch and what must be done to rectify them if the club is to avoid the steady slide into mediocrity from which it may take years to recover.
Lets start with the obvious, compared to many of their rivals for the top prizes at home and in Europe this Milan squad is old, very old. In an era where teams with an average age of barely 20 can be seen competing at the top of Europe’s major leagues a squad with an average age of over 30 seems an anachronism but that is the reality at Milan. On any given match day at least half the Milan starting 11 are likely to be in their thirties; while club captain Paulo Maldini is still playing regularly at the age of 40. While the benefits of having a settled side that has been together for many years should not be downplayed, the wisdom of persisting season after season with a squad containing many players who may be past their peak must be questioned for a club with designs on winning the game’s biggest prizes every season. In recent seasons Milan have also displayed a worrying tactical inflexibility, which has been exploited by the opposition. Never was this more clearly demonstrated than during the 2005 Champions League Final. Facing a 3-0 deficit at half time, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez withdrew full back Steve Finnan and replaced him with midfielder Didi Hamann. Unable to cope with Liverpool’s extra man in midfield and seemingly unable to adapt their tactics to do so Milan quickly surrendered what had appeared an insurmountable lead and went on to lose the game on penalties. The same appeared true in Milan’s match with Arsenal in last season’s competition. Unable to contain Arsenal’s midfield Milan desperately needed a tactical reshuffle if they wished to win the game. However, the club’s recent over-reliance on Kaka for goals from midfield meant that the system; initially set up to allow Kaka the chance to get forward as much as possible by limiting his defensive responsibilities; could not be changed and subsequently Milan lost the game. With other teams having apparently discovered the cracks in Milan’s system the issue of tactical rigidity, which has now been neglected for several years, will continue to cost Milan dear if it is not addressed.
In addition to the club’s problems on the pitch, Milan’s unadventurous transfer policy has done little to rectify the problems currently being experienced by the first team. In the summer of 2007, when Milan had just finished 4th in Serie A and won a European Cup that many observers were saying merely papered over the cracks of what had been a disappointing season, the club welcomed Brazilian wonderkid Alexandre Pato to the club, having secured his signature the previous winter. The signing of one of the hottest young properties in the World, who had been interesting practically every club of stature in Europe, represented a major coup for Milan, with fans hoping that Pato would be the first of a number of fresh faced summer signings who would once again enable the club to compete for the Scudetto. However, Milan’s win in the European Cup seemed to have infected the club hierarchy with a serious bout of conservatism and the belief that the aging squad the club already possessed would be enough to both challenge for the title and defend the European Cup. Consequently only two players, both over 30, were signed; Brazilian central midfielder Emerson, to supplement Gattuso and Ambrosini who were both younger than him, and even more bizarrely winger Ibrahim Ba returned for his third stint at the club having previously been knocking around in the French Third Division. These signings, coupled with the arrival the previous January of the over-weight and increasingly injury prone Ronaldo did little to inspire confidence in the team’s chances at a time when Juventus were overhauling their aged squad and Inter were adding to their already formidable team. The travesty of a season that followed left the team crying out for an overhaul. At first the signs appeared good with Milan securing the signings of Mathieu Flamini from Arsenal, a dynamic young midfielder who could also play in the problem right back position, as well as Mathias Cardacio and Tabare Viudez, two Uruguayan midfielders who had impressed at the previous Under 20 World Cup. Defensive cover also arrived in the loan signing of Arsenal’s Philippe Senderos. However, the club then went on to invest substantial funds in bringing in two players whose careers appeared to be stuck in a downward spiral, first acquiring Brazilian Ronaldinho, who had been voted World Player of the Year in 2005 but had struggled for form and suffered numerous injuries and questions about his continued hunger for the game in recent months. Soon afterwards, Milan brought Andriy Shevchenko; now 31 and at least a yard slower than in his heyday; back to the club from Chelsea. The total outlay on these two players probably exceeded 30 million Euros with suggestions that the club would have been better served by spending that money on a younger striker such as Emmanuel Adebayor being commonplace. In spite of these new signings, the positions in which new signings were most obviously needed; in goal and at centre back as cover for the aging Nesta and Kaladze; were ignored. Unless these holes in the team are filled another season of underachievement could beckon. Early results this season have been a mixed bag, with defeats to Bologna and Genoa being followed by victories over Lazio and Reggina leaving Milan in mid-table while Inter continue to set the pace. Only time will tell if Milan’s risky transfer strategy will pay off but this writer remains sceptical.
No article on the state of AC Milan would be complete without an honourable mention for Silvio Berlusconi, the always colourful and often controversial billionaire who is the owner of the club in addition to being Prime Minister of Italy. Here lies the problem. Since being voted out of office in 2006 Berlusconi was able to devote more of his time to the smooth running and improvement of his other businesses, including Milan. However, the fall of Romano Prodi’s government in the Spring of 2008 and Berlusconi’s subsequent re-election as Prime Minister have distracted him from this task, just when it seems his team may need him more than ever. It was easy for Berlusconi to neglect his duties at Milan during his previous terms as Prime Minister when the team was doing well on the pitch but now, at what could be a crucial juncture for the club that he has guided to the most successful era in their history, Berlusconi’s dynamism and enthusiasm are concentrated elsewhere. During this time the overall running of the club has been left to chief executive Adriano Galliani, the man who believed that a 35 year old Dida can still play for a club with the ambitions of Milan, and who was supposedly instrumental in deciding to pursue Shevchenko over Adebayor in Milan’s search for a striker this summer. It would appear that as soon as Berlosconi has fixed the problems being faced by Italy’s economy, he will need to get straight to work on fixing the problems faced by Milan. Handing Mr Galliani his P45 would presumably be a good start.