It's a sad time when you learn a player, albeit a star player, that has been a member of the team you support for the entirety of your time as a football fan has decided to leave the club. Alessandro Nesta has been an integral part of the Milan back four since 2002. After being bought from Lazio in 2002 for a fee of roughly 31 million euros, Nesta cemented himself as one of the best center backs of his generation. He's garnered countless accolades for his defensive prowess and this can be quantified in his individual awards as well as those he's won as part of a team.
He helped Milan win Serie A in 2004 and 2011, the Coppa Italia in 2003, the UEFA Champion's League in 2003 and 2007, the FIFA Club World Cup in 2007 and was a vital part of the backline that helped Italy capture the FIFA World Cup in 2006. Individually, he's been named as a member of the UEFA team of the year four times, won Serie A Young Footballer of the Year way back in 1998, won Serie A Defender of the Year for four consecutive years, and was a part of the FIFPro World XI twice as well as being named to the FIFA 100, a list comprised by Pele consisting of, in his opinion, the greatest living footballers.
He recently announced that he would be leaving Milan and would explore other career opportunities, perhaps with the MLS, according to The Associated Press. While he lost a significant amount of pace and was hampered by injuries in the latter part of his career, he was always a welcome addition to see on the team sheet. One of the classiest defenders I've watched play in my lifetime, he will undoubtedly leave a void in the Milan squad both as a player and as a leader.
In the following slides, I will propose a number of players that Milan could purchase this summer in an attempt to replace Nesta. Needless to say, replacing a legend will not be easy but these players can attempt to emulate the legend in both his quality on and off the field.
First, let me say that getting Philippe Mexes last summer on a free transfer was a great acquisition. He does possess a good deal of quality and was a defensive stalwart for Roma during his tenure there. When Mexes was signed he was expected to play a large part as the first center back off the bench as well as filling in for the aging Nesta in certain games. He did not fulfill my expectations with his performance this season by any means.
He was injured at the start of the season but began training in the middle of September with the Rossoneri. He made a whopping 14 league appearances, and 24 total appearances, for a Milan side who could have used another class option at center back this season. Milan allowed 33 goals this season while Juventus allowed 20, a difference of 13 goals, that surely contributed to Juventus capturing yet another Scudetto.
Juventus had one of the best center backs in the world based on this season's performance in Andrea Barzagli, as well as the versatile Giorgio Chiellini. While nothing can be taken away from Juventus and their phenomenal team defense, there is no reason why Milan couldn't emulate that success.
Milan has one of the best center backs in the world in Thiago Silva, as well as Alessandro Nesta. While Nesta's play has declined at this point in his career, his savvy defending and positioning was still world class. Mexes should have been able to seamlessly integrate into this established backline and provide some needed rest for the aforementioned players as well as a boost off the bench.
Possibly the most frustrating thing about Mexes is that once he does not like competing for his spot. He lost his starting job to Nicolas Burdisso, whom I don't rate very highly, and failed to ever really compete for a starting job at Milan. Whether it be a lack of competitiveness, decrease in quality, or lingering knee injury, I don't view Mexes as the solution to defensive problems at Milan.
Carlo Ancelotti has recently preferred Alex and Diego Lugano as his starting center back pairing, meaning that Mamadou Sakho has lost his starting job. I have always been a fan of Sakho. He's captained France at every youth level, as well as captaining PSG at the age of 21. One year removed from winning the Young Player of the Year award in Ligue 1, Sakho has found himself on the bench. Yes he has experienced a drop in his play, but at the age of 22 a change of scenery and a new challenge would definitely help his career.
He was recently left off of Laurent Blanc's Euro 2012 squad which could not have sat well with the Frenchman and is a derivative of him losing his starting job at PSG. He could be in search of a team that would provide him first team football in hopes of being included to the 2014 World Cup squad. A powerful, big defender, he's adept in the air and not afraid to make a tackle. Debuting for a senior squad at the age of 17, as well as being a captain at both club and youth international levels, speaks to his quality on the field as well as his leadership ability.
One more thing that could work in Milan's favor is that PSG is very well off financially and could afford to sell Sakho at a lower price than he would be actually valued. The ever-frugal Milan front office would jump at the chance to sign a player at a cut price, and should Sakho be available, Milan should pursue him.
Mehdi Benatia has been one of the most underrated players in Serie A for the past two years. He's ready to make a jump to a bigger club and Milan could be the place for him. He's been linked with numerous top tier European sides and the Moroccan would be a welcome addition to any squad. He's been an important part of an Udinese squad who overachieved and has played themselves into the Champion's League the past two seasons.
Not a huge goal threat as a center back, he's more astute defensively than offensively which would allow him to link up well with Thiago Silva, given the Brazilian's penchant for the occasional burst forward. Udinese has played with a three man backline during Benatia's time at the club and he has generally been the central defender of that line which is a huge responsibility. He would come in and automatically compete for the starting job with Mexes, and given Mexes's lack of competitive fire, Benatia should win the position.
Making the Champion's League did not curtail the departure of Alexis Sanchez and should an offer come for the center back, Udinese would be keen on accepting. Signing a player with Italian top flight experience is always a bonus and Benatia has been the best defender on a top Serie A team for some time now. The Moroccan is only 25 years old and could have a bright future in red and black should Milan pursue him this summer.
Angelo Ogbonna has the quality to be playing in Serie A and he should be. He's a member of the provisional squad for Euro 2012 and, in my opinion, should be a part of Cesare Prandelli's squad. I've covered him before in a previous article and I still rate the player highly. He plays for Torino and for that reason would probably be reluctant to sign for Juventus if he goes on the market this summer.
Ogbonna is 23 years old and already on the periphery of a usually veteran driven Azzuri backline which shows the promise the young player possesses. While Manchester City and Arsenal were linked with the player last summer, I'm unsure if their interest has been renewed. Regardless, Milan should look to pursue the player. He's an intriguing player with a stature similar to the aforementioned Mamadou Sakho.
This past February, he extended his contract to be at the club until 2016, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he won't move before 2016. Not a huge goal threat, he has appeared in at least 28 games for the past three seasons and will look to move to a European powerhouse. There is no time like the present for Angelo Ogbonna and Milan could be just the place for him.
It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Jan Vertonghen would join Arsenal, but with Arsene Wenger foolishly ruling out a spending spree this summer, Vertonghen could be up for grabs. The player has been courted by many top clubs because of his starring performances for Ajax. He's the most versatile defender on the list and can play at both center back and left back, though he favors the former. He has also featured at holding midfielder for Ajax and has been praised for his offensive ability and surging runs through the midfield.
He has scored 23 goals in 155 appearances for Ajax — a remarkable scoring rate for a defender — and his offensive ability could add another dimension to the Rossoneri attack. He was recently named the Dutch Footballer of the Year in 2012 and at 25, is looking to make the jump from the Eredivisie to a more renowned European league.
While he may be the least probable of the names on this list, it would be a shame to completely rule him out. If Arsene Wenger is again too frugal, he could miss out on the Belgian International leaving him up for grabs. A star for Ajax and a starter on the up-and-coming Belgium National Team, Vertonghen looks to have a bright future and Milan would be remiss to not submit an offer for the player.
Howedes doesn't generally receive the praise he deserves for his performances. Not a household name, Howedes quietly goes about his business for his club Schalke and has been frustrating opponent's forwards since 2007. At 24 years old he has been capped at the international level and has experience in European competitions as Schalke have contended in both Germany and Europe during Howedes' time at the club.
He's the typical German center-back: big and strong. Not nearly as technically skillful as Thiago Silva, not that many defenders are, Howedes' industrious style of play has been one of the first names on the team sheet for his Schalke side. Not a huge goal threat (7 goals in 110 club appearances), what he lacks in offensive ability, he makes up for with resolute defending and hard tackling.
Schalke could see a number of bids for their better players and could be keen on keeping their defensive leader. Should Howedes express interest in exploring other options, Milan could use a no nonsense defender who's keen on making a tackle. He would not be priced too highly and could be an affordable option. He's not a major upgrade from Mexes, but he could add very solid depth at center back for the Rossoneri.
None of these players will be able to come in and have the same type of impact as Alessandro Nesta. Of the names I've touched on, Vertonghen is the most unrealistic and probably will not be pursued by Milan. Ogbonna and Benatia are very realistic targets as they have experience in Italian football. Sakho and Howedes are plying their trade in France and Germany respectively and I don't think that their clubs will be keen on selling them.
With that being said, there's no harm in trying. I think that each of these players would be an upgrade from Mexes and thus drastically improve the Milan squad.
It will be interesting to see what center backs Milan will target this summer as it is of paramount importance. I decided to leave out players like Mats Hummels, Daniel Agger, and Raul Albiol as they are even less realistic than Vertonghen, though I'd love to see them wearing red and black.
It's never easy replacing a legend, so whoever Milan purchases will experience growing pains at the San Siro, but one can only hope that the player can amount to even half the player that Nesta was.