5 Bold Decisions Clarence Seedorf Must Make at AC Milan This Summer
However, he is still the manager now, and that means any projection of the future of the team should still be done with him in mind.
That future is very much in doubt, with or without the Dutchman. Milan can no longer be called a team in transition. The red half of Milan is in full-blown turmoil. If Seedorf survives and wants any home of turning things around, serious changes will have to be made.
What should Seedorf be doing to turn the Rossoneri around? Let's take a look at some of the things Seedorf will have to do to make Milan competitive—and respectable—again.
Double Down on Youth
Milan's youngest assets have been criminally underutilized this season.
Last year's purchase of Riccardo Saponara was supposed to herald the future in the advanced midfield. He was even issued the No. 8 shirt upon arrival.
But instead of making him an important part of the team, Milan signed Kaka—of whom Saponara is practically a clone. In the winter they added another advanced midfielder, Keisuke Honda. The consequence? Saponara played only seven games this season, only two of them starts (according to WhoScored.com).
Similarly kept off the field was Bryan Cristante. Only 19, Cristante played in just three games this season, despite being one of the best players on the field in the two games in which he played significant minutes. Against Atalanta in the first game back from the winter break, he hit the crossbar 13 minutes in before scoring on a long-range screamer in the 67th minute. Against Sassuolo the next week he might have been the best Milan player on the field, assisting on the team's second goal and contributing two key passes.
But Cristante hasn't seen the field in the league since that game in Reggio Emilia. He played the full 90 minutes three days later in a Coppa Italia match against Spezia, but that was the last game action he's seen this season.
Young players have been marginalized this term in favor of veterans such as Sulley Muntari, Robinho and Kaka. For a team in Milan's situation, that has to change. If the team is to reinvent itself, it needs to go the whole nine yards and give youngsters like Saponara, Cristante, M'baye Niang and Mattia De Sciglio starter minutes. When he returns to full fitness, Stephan El Shaarawy must return to regular status as well.
It may mean a season or so of results the fans are not used to, but given the team's current financial impotence, the only way to improve is to do it from within.
Blow Up the Middle of the Defense
Milan's defense has been in shambles for two seasons now. The centre-backs in particular have been disgracefully below par, especially given the legacy of players past.
Philippe Mexes, Cristian Zapata, Daniele Bonera and Cristian Zaccardo are not adequate for Milan's defense. The latter two are getting on in years, while Mexes, despite the odd in-form match, is a red card waiting to happen.
Given the team's financial situation, there are not a lot of choices when it comes to top-class defensive options. Last summer they weren't anywhere close to signing an upgrade—Angelo Ogbonna went from Torino to Juventus and Davide Astori stayed at Cagliari.
Milan must commit whatever resources they have to upgrade the center of their defense. Signing Adil Rami full time will be a start, but more is required. If that means selling a player like Sulley Muntari or Nigel De Jong, so be it.
One way or another, the current pairings simply aren't working. Whether they try for a bigger name in the market, look to find a low-cost diamond like Roma did with Mehdi Benatia or give a young player like Bartosz Salamon playing time, something has to change.
Splurge on a Goalkeeper
Christian Abbiati's career is over. He's 37 years old and, unlike Gianluigi Buffon, he has not reached that age gracefully.
Abbiati's save percentage is down 7.3 percent from last season (per NBC Sports) and simply isn't playing at the level that is needed for an elite team.
Milan fans have been aware of this shortcoming since at least the end of last season. The one-year deal Abbiati signed last year was always a stopgap until a younger (read: better) goalkeeper could be acquired.
There have been several situations posited since the beginning of the year. For a while Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes was considered an option by fans ever since he announced he would not be returning to Camp Nou next year. No reputable news reports ever talked of official interest, but he would have been an attractive option on a Bosman. However, his severe knee injury may kill off any possible traction that speculation may have ever had.
Mattia Perin would naturally be considered, but Milan may no longer have the financial wherewithal to make such a move—and Perin has, according to Goal.com, recently rejected the idea of a move to San Siro.
Literally almost anything is an upgrade over Abbiati, but where might there be an affordable option?
Milan may have cast their eyes to France, where Mexican international Guillermo Ochoa plays his trade for Ajaccio. His contract with the Ligue 1 side is up at the end of the year, and Goal.com quoted his agent, Jorge Berlenga, as saying that his client had "received an offer from Milan."
Ochoa has just been named to the Mexican World Cup roster and at 28 is in his prime. Goal.com refers to Ochoa as someone meant to "push" Abbiati, but what Milan needs to do is replace him, period. Seedorf needs to push for that to happen this summer. Another season with Abbiati in goal is unacceptable.
Drop Riccardo Montolivo...
...permanently, if necessary.
This summer, Milan handed Riccardo Montolivo the captain's armband after the departure of Massimo Ambrosini. He repaid them by having one of his worst professional seasons.
At his best, Montolivo is Pirlo-esque—taking control of games from the deep regions of midfield and delivering pinpoint passes. At his worst—as he was for much of this season—he's a non-factor.
Last year, Montolivo started his time at Milan in a horrendous slump, but his form rose as the team's did, and by the time Milan completed their epic run to third place he was consistently one of the best players on the field.
This year he saw no such rebirth. In his two seasons at the San Siro, he has been next to useless for three quarters of that time.
Montolivo's struggles are turning his spot in the XI into a black hole and keeping playing time away from youngsters like Bryan Cristante and 15-year-old Hachim Mastour, who need first-team time to develop. Unless a renaissance is in the offing, Montolivo should make way for these younger players in order for Milan to complete a youth movement.
Commit to the 4-2-3-1 as the Primary Formation
Seedorf showed a clear preference to a 4-2-3-1 formation when he took over in January. He only played in a different formation five times—once a 4-4-2 and four times a 4-1-2-1-2.
Given the results he got, Seedorf ought to make his first choice his top choice.
In 22 matches in all competitions, the 4-2-3-1 produced a W-D-L record of 9-2-6. In the other five Milan was 2-0-3.
The difference was palpable. When playing the 4-2-3-1 Milan was able to beat top-five sides like Fiorentina and Inter. When they deviated from it they fell to the likes of Atalanta and weren't even competitive against other top-of-the-table clubs like Roma.
The reason for this is easy to see—the 4-2-3-1 puts Milan's players in their best position to succeed. Mario Balotelli is set alone up top with a solid line of three to give him service, while a pair of holding midfielders can aid the defense and orchestrate the attack from deep.
The formation is especially suited to the young group of players that Milan needs to develop. Stephan El Shaarawy would be able to play on the left wing where he's most effective when healthy. Riccardo Saponara would slot in as a trequartista and Bryan Cristante would slot into the holding midfield, maybe along with Nigel De Jong to provide some veteran experience and defensive muscle.
Seedorf should obviously dabble here or there to see what tactical flexibility he can achieve, but the 4-2-3-1 looks to be the formation that will maximize his players' efforts. It should be his primary option.