AC Milan: 8 Reasons to Believe the Rossoneri Will Be Back on Top in 2015/16
The last season and a half has been a bleak time for the fans of AC Milan. The proud club finished eighth last season and are currently mired in 12th position after 22 games.
It seems as though everything that can go wrong is going wrong for the Rossoneri. Recent transfer decisions have been calamitous. Stop-gap solutions in the squad have failed. Younger players who could make a major difference are either injured, regressing or unused. Coaching decisions have been questioned.
It seems like this discombobulated organization is light-years away from regaining its place at the top of the table.
It takes a close look to find bright spots for this team, but they are there. If everything works out to absolute perfection, it's still possible for Milan to vault their way back up the table and again challenge for Champions League places.
How could that be? Let's look at a few reasons Milan could climb back into the top three.
A Promising Winter Window
As bad as the results have been this season, it was no surprise that the Rossoneri were active in the January transfer market.
They acquired six players during the month of January. The difference between this and other recent transfer windows is that they might actually have a positive effect on the team.
The greatest need was in defense, and three of those six moves brought in reinforcements in the back. Luca Antonelli is a solid full-back who represents an upgrade on either spot from underperforming incumbents Ignazio Abate and Mattia De Sciglio. Salvatore Bocchetti brings versatility and depth. Gabriel Paletta was arguably the best center-back in Serie A last year, and Adriano Galliani was able to pick him off cheap from financially strapped Parma.
All three of these moves are improvements to a back line that has been one of the most unreliable in Italy.
Milan also strengthened the other end of the field, signing Mattia Destro from Roma to finally give Filippo Inzaghi a true striker—one that promises to be more consistent than Galliani's last big-name winter striker signing. The ill-advised summer move for Fernando Torres was wiped away quickly by swapping him with Atletico Madrid for Alessio Cerci, who has already begun paying dividends on Milan's wing.
The midfield wasn't neglected, either. Spanish youngster Suso was snatched from Liverpool. He represents another creative young mid who could shine in the middle of the park in the future.
After some monumental mistakes in recent transfer windows, this winter has been extremely positive. It's a sign that Galliani might finally be adjusting to assembling a team on a budget instead of doing a poor impersonation of Giuseppe Marotta's bargain-basement success stories. If the new players mesh quickly and Galliani manages to supplement them with similar moves in the summer, Milan could inch their way back towards the top five.
The Glimmer of a Plan
The San Siro holds an iconic place in Italian soccer. Unfortunately, the 89-year-old edifice is reaching the end of its useful life.
The stadium is expensive to maintain and it's difficult for either Milan or Inter to fill 80,000 seats on a regular basis, especially given the current economic climate in Italy.
In early February, the club unveiled plans for a new 48,000 seat stadium in the Portello district of Milan. It's a long-overdue move, and one that should be encouraging to its fans.
One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Milan's front office is that they lack a plan. There is a foundation to this criticism, but these stadium plans are the first glimmer of hope that the Berlusconis have been thinking of how to solidify the team for the future.
These stadium plans are a major step in the right direction.
A High-Level Coach in the Offing?
At the end of January, I made the argument against firing Pippo Inzaghi.
While it's true that Inzaghi isn't to blame for the majority of the team's problems, the legendary striker has basically been set up to fail this season. It's one thing to make one's rookie mistakes at Carpi or Crotone, it's another to be forced to make them at Milan.
Inzaghi has made some of those mistakes, especially when it comes to team selection. Choosing Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari as starting midfielders last weekend against Juventus was mystifying. Daniele Bonera has started nine times this season, which is nine times too many.
Does Inzaghi deserve to get sacked? Given everything that's against him, probably not. But at Milan, a coach is expected to get results. It's very possible that he'll be out of a job come the summer.
As for who might replace him, the two biggest names in the Italian coaching world are both being bandied about.
Rumors abound that Antonio Conte's conflicts with club sides will frustrate him enough to resign as Italy's head man, which would make him available to the Rossoneri. That speculation was scuppered on Monday when Conte again insisted that he would see out his contract through Euro 2016, per Football Italia.
The other man being discussed is Fiorentina's Vincenzo Montella. The former Roma striker laughed off such rumors as "gossip" at a press conference ahead of Sunday's match against Atalanta, as noted in Football Italia, but Fiorentina appears to have reached their ceiling, and the sale of Juan Cuadrado may be the nudge Montella needs to find greener pastures.
Montella resuscitated a languishing Viola team two years ago and had them in finger's reach of the Champions League in his first season. He could do the same thing with a Milan side that has some intriguing pieces but seemingly no plan on putting them together.
The next four weeks will present Inzaghi with a relatively soft schedule. If he is able to make a run there and put up enough of a fight against the top teams like Roma and Napoli, he may earn himself another season. If Milan can't hold their own against the league's underbelly and get flattened by the big boys, he will probably be watching the beginning of the '15-16 season from his couch.
Depending on who replaces him, the change could breathe some life into the moribund franchise.
On the field, Milan are increasingly giving off the impression that their roster is full of decrepit players well past their peak. Watching the likes of Essien, Muntari, Bonera and Philippe Mexes populate the field seems like confirmation of the team's geriatric qualities.
What's shocking is the bench looks very much the opposite. The Rossoneri are in control of young players that can go a long way towards making Milan their old selves again.
In midfield, the newly-arrived Suso could be paired with Giacomo Bonaventura or the criminally underused Riccardo Saponara—currently on loan at Empoli—to create a highly creative midfield anchored by Nigel de Jong—one of the few productive signings Adriano Galliani has made in the last two seasons. That group could be further augmented by another Atalanta product. Football Italia has relayed a story from Calciomercato that La Dea's 22-year-old Daniele Baselli may be earmarked for a summer move Milan in a matter of days.
There are talented youngsters at forward as well. Destro is only 23. Stephan El Shaarawy is still 22 and could contribute again if he ever manages to stay healthy. Then there's Hachim Mastour, the 16-year-old phenom who was promoted to the first team at the end of last season.
Mastour hasn't been put on the field this year, but with nothing left to play for this season, it might be worthwhile to see he can do for the team.
Unfortunately, Milan often falls victim to the syndrome that affects all Italian clubs. Serie A is so tactically driven that top clubs don't often play young players because they aren't trusted with the tactics. Despite recent displays from the likes of El Shaarawy, Empoli's Daniele Rugani and Sassuolo's Domenico Berardi that serve to debunk this notion, veterans are still preferred over gifted youngsters.
For Milan to get back on top faster, players like Mastour and Saponara need to play major minutes. It's the only way for a financially strapped club to challenge teams that can outspend them like Juventus, Roma and Napoli.
The unfortunate El Shaarawy is the first player to come to mind when one thinks of Milan's injured list, but the Rossoneri have been hit with other absences this year.
The absence of Nigel de Jong, who has been out due to injury at times this season, has deprived the team of vital steel in the midfield. The nasty broken leg suffered by Riccardo Montolivo, one of Milan's principle midfield creators, in a pre-World Cup friendly kept him out of significant action until December, and he's still not finishing matches on a regular basis.
If the Rossoneri are able to get healthy next year and bring their most talented players to bear at once, they may manage a few more results.
For years, Silvio Berlusconi was synonymous with lavish spending. He broke the world transfer record three times in the first 10 years he owned the team and spent lavishly on other players like Andriy Shevchenko, Ronaldinho, Alessandro Nesta and Pippo Inzaghi.
That simply isn't the case anymore. In 2010, Goal reported (h/t sports channel QSVS) Marina Berlusconi, Silvio's eldest daughter and chairperson of family holding company Fininvest, had put the brakes on an intended €60 million spending plan in the summer transfer window. Milan won the title in the '10-11 season, but faded since thanks in large part to the lack of investment.
In late January, Berlusconi confessed that the club has been losing money and expressed worry that it would continue, per Football Italia (h/t Corriere della Sera). Rumors, such as those seen in La Repubblica (h/t Reuters), are mounting that Berlusconi could finally sell the club—and soon.
The prospect of a sale of Milan has been thoroughly analyzed throughout the media. This article took up the issue late last month, around the same time that ESPNFC blogger Sumeet Paul explored the idea.
Selling the club would actually be the best thing for the team. Marina has clearly decided that Fininvest will no longer indulge her father's spending sprees in the mercato. Milan would be better in the hands of an owner who can invest more money in the squad.
If that transaction happens this summer, and the new owner invests immediately, Milan could slingshot back into the upper regions of the table.
Overachievers Will Come Back to the Pack
Sometimes you benefit from things that you have no control over.
Sampdoria and Genoa have each enjoyed incredible starts to the season. Both teams have spent time in Champions League position this season and both are still within striking distance of Europe's top competition.
That's probably going to change next year. Samp sold its best offensive player, Manolo Gabbiadini, to Napoli last month, and Stefano Okaka has clashed with coach Sinisa Mihajlovic and may leave in the summer. If they make Europe, they may be able to use the money to upgrade that position, but that's not a sure thing. Odds are they're not going to have the attack they had at the beginning of this year.
Genoa's rise is connected closely to Gian Piero Gasperini's coaching. Given the job he's done taking Genoa from perennial relegation battlers to contenders for the top five, he will likely be targeted if a major job opens up. There's also always the chance that another club offers an indecent amount of money for goalkeeper Mattia Perin, which would severely hamper their defense.
These two overachievers will likely not be as formidable next year, giving Milan a better chance at more points.
The Top Sides Slide Down
The gap between Juventus and the rest of the league isn't likely to close anytime soon. The gap between their nearest pursuers and the clubs chasing them, however, may get smaller next summer.
That closure would come in the form of coaching changes. Rumors of Rudi Garcia leaving for greener pastures have become increasingly persistent in the last few weeks. Tuttosport, via Football Italia, reported Roma has contacted former Inter and Napoli manager Walter Mazzarri to find out if he will be available at the end of the season in case Garcia were to move on. PSG and Barcelona are pointed out as potential landing spots.
Further south, Napoli has endured constant speculation as to the fate of Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard has been non-committal about renewing his contract, and ESPNFC reported in January that Aurelio De Laurentiis isn't thrilled with his coach either.
Losing these two fantastic coaches will be a big blow to both of these teams. Roma has always been one of the most talented teams in the league but suffered from mental meltdowns at crucial moments. Garcia has reined in that tendency—although he hasn't eliminated it—and there's no knowing if a successor will be able to continue that trend.
Benitez, on the other hand, is one of the most successful active coaches in Europe. His loss will be a huge blow no matter who may take his place.
Milan has beaten Napoli and held Roma to a goalless draw already this season. If those two teams have to adjust to new coaches, there is a possibility that they'll be more vulnerable than in the past two seasons. They will need to take advantage of that situation if and when it comes.