Massimiliano Allegri's Milan has identity issues. Since the former midfielder from Livorno took over on the Rossoneri bench in 2010, the team's split personality and constant state of flux has confused critics and infuriated the fans.
Allegri led Milan to the Scudetto in his first season on the bench and seemed to promise great things to come. Leonardo's tenure had been a disaster, and following the gradual decline of Carlo Ancelotti's once great side, the young tactician's success lent an air of positivity to the atmosphere at the San Siro.
The following campaign was a hard-fought affair and though the Rossoneri finished runners-up to Juventus, they could hold their heads high. There had been only four points in it and they'd had a respectable run in the Champions League before losing to Barcelona in the quarter-finals. No shame in that.
2012-13 has been another story. The sales of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva had enraged the supporters so much that the club was forced to issue refunds on season tickets. Then, the opening-stage losses to Sampdoria, Atalanta, Udinese, Inter and Lazio meant they were out of the running by October. It was an unmitigated disaster for one of Europe's grandest clubs.
But as quickly and as devastatingly as this dark period had come, the gloom lifted. Results improved and by November, they were good enough to beat Juve. Stephan El Shaarawy was the talk of the football world and his goals and all-round performances were a salve on the wounds left by Zlatan's departure.
So what changed? Well, on the face of it, not a thing. To use that most unhelpful of cliches, things just "clicked." Results went the right way for Allegri and his players and the youth that he'd shown faith in started to come around.
Allegri took over during a time of some upheaval at Milan. Ancelotti's incredibly successful reign had been followed by a debacle with club legend Leonardo, and the Rossoneri squad was something of a joke in football circles, known the world over as a glorified retirement home.
The last two seasons have seen the setup at Milanello revolutionized. The club shied away from big-money signings and worked hard to become financially responsible. The focus has been on building for the future and creating a platform for sustainable success at the San Siro.
CEO Adriano Galliani said as much himself in a recent interview with the Gazzetta dello Sport:
AC Milan should develop top players, not buy them. Then, perhaps, we could even sell the odd player, like we did in July 2012 when we completely revolutionised the team because we decided on a policy based on developing our younger players. If we buy anyone, it will be a defender. Ibra joining Juve? He is a professional. We did not want to let him go, but his wage bill was way beyond our limit. Would we re-sign him or Thiago? You win the league by letting in fewer goals.
The fact remains, however, that they're scrapping for the final Champions League spot and are some way off the league winners.
Young talent like El Shaarawy, Mattia De Sciglio and M'Baye Niang coming through is one thing, but it ultimately means little if Allegri can't manage to do something with his new-found riches.
Much has been made of El Shaarawy's cold streak since being joined up front by fellow Italian international Mario Balotelli, and questions remain over whether or not Allegri can get the prodigiously talented duo to gel in an effective manner.
Robinho, a star of the Scudetto-winning side just two seasons ago, looked washed up at just 29. Senior internationals like Philippe Mexes have failed to consistently impress.
Tactical constraints mean that despite owning Balotelli and Giampaolo Pazzini—Italy's best strikers right now—the manager can only field one at a time, leaving him with a very high-profile, expensive and talented bench-warmer whatever he does.
There's also been a shift back to over-reliance on one or two players. This was the main criticism of the Scudetto-winning side. They depended on Ibrahimovic too much. The Swede shared the scoring duties with Robinho and Pato that year, but more often than not, he was instrumental in all the goals. If he didn't perform, neither did Milan.
This season, the dependancy's been on El Shaarawy and then Balotelli. The winger almost single-handedly sparked their revival before the winter break, and since arriving in January, Balotelli's been indispensable.
The Champions League clash with Barcelona showed just how much they missed him, and when he recently picked up a controversial ban in the league, in the following games, Milan looked like a shadow of their former selves.
Now there's talk that El Shaarawy could leave in the summer. But there's also talk that there could be another A-list addition in the shape of Paris Saint-Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi. Which way is the club going?
Add the latter or someone similarly high-profile, keep the former and this looks like an incredibly confident side hard at work reinventing itself. Fail to do either, and the club looks weak again.
More dead weight needs to be shifted from the squad sheet and several areas of the pitch could do with reinforcements. The defence, especially, needs an overhaul. As Galliani said, you don't win the league by letting in goals and even when they've won, Milan have conceded too many this season.
Allegri has his work cut out for him. Thus far, El Shaarawy and Balotelli have not linked up in the way many hoped they would, and Pazzini is too good a player to simply keep as a plan B. Summer additions will have to be integrated quickly and come August, the Rossoneri will need to hit the ground running. One difficult season can be put down to transition, but two of them is called stagnation.
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