AC Milan: The Biggest Changes to Expect Under Filippo Inzaghi
AC Milan's Filippo Inzaghi is getting set to start his first season in the manager's office of his old club. After two years coaching in the club's youth ranks, the legendary striker will try his hand at the first-team level for the first time.
He's jumping into a cauldron. Milan is a club in crisis. Just three years removed from a title, the team barely made last year's Champions League and this year nosedived to eighth place. A 4-3 loss to Sassuolo saw Massimiliano Allegri sacked and replaced with Clarence Seedorf.
Seedorf improved the club's fortunes somewhat, at one point engineering a five-match winning streak and winning the Derby della Madonnina. But Seedorf failed to get the club back into European position and began to alienate some of his charges.
Andrea Poli told La Gazetta dello Sport (via ESPNFC) that Seedorf was too authoritarian in trying to impose his philosophy on the club. Longtime assistant coach Mauro Tassotti nearly left the club after clashing with the Dutchman.
Inzaghi will now be tasked with picking up the pieces and turning Milan into a side worthy of the club's illustrious history. What will he do differently to his predecessors to achieve this task? Let's take a look and see what Super Pippo has in store for his second act in soccer.
Focus on Youth
Inzaghi has spent the last two seasons with Milan's U19 side, known to Italian clubs as the Primavera. He has brought the Rossoneri success at that level for the first time in a while, winning the prestigious Torneo di Viareggio this year over defending champions Anderlecht.
One of Milan's biggest problems the last few years has been the front office's tendencies to paper over blemishes with aging veterans rather than building for the future. A prime example came this summer, when Riccardo Saponara arrived at the club after he was purchased in the 2013 winter transfer window.
Rumors abounded that Silvio Berlusconi was insisting on the use of a trequartista in Milan's tactics this year, and Saponara was perfect for the role. But instead of putting the youngster into the role and letting him grow into it, Milan proceeded to buy Kaka back from Real Madrid and sign Keisuke Honda on a Bosman from CSKA Moscow. According to WhoScored.com, the talented Saponara only played seven times all season.
Similarly misused was midfielder Bryan Cristante, who played only three times all year under Allegri and Seedorf.
A team with financial issues like Milan can't afford to ignore its youth talent. That's where the hiring of Inzaghi may be inspired.
While he will likely lean on experienced hands like Nigel De Jong and, once healthy, Riccardo Montolivo to anchor the side, many of Milan's most promising academy talents like Cristante, Hachim Mastour and Andrea Petagna have been under Inzaghi's charge for the last two years.
Look for him to gradually introduce these younger players into the lineup while giving more established youngsters like Mattia De Sciglio and a finally-healthy Stephan El Shaarawy permanent berths in the starting XI.
With first-hand knowledge of what his youth system can do, Inzaghi is in better position than his predecessors to begin the process of building a contending team out of those parts rather than using stop-gap solutions.
"A Winning Mentality"
Inzaghi's coaching thesis—the highlights of which are translated here by Steve Amoia of soccertranslator.com—focused on this theme. The full title, Una mentalita per "essere" vincenti, sums up everything that follows.
Inzaghi certainly did have a winning mentality. During his playing career he won three scudetti, one Coppa Italia, two Champions League titles, three Supercoppas, two UEFA Supercups, a Club World Cup and the 2006 World Cup title. That's a lot of winners' medals.
At the time of writing, Inzaghi is second all-time in goals in European competition, the fifth-most prolific Italian scorer in history and holds the Serie A career record for hat-tricks (10).
The mentality of a manager—and by extension his club—is an underrated yet critical component of the job.
A manager with a winning mentality can inspire a team to greatness. Take, for instance, Antonio Conte, whose fire and passion on the touchline has turned Juventus into a juggernaut. Not only can the team outclass their opponents, they can also out-grind them, taking three points from ugly games when they need to.
On the other hand, we have recently seen Cesare Prandelli ruin a promising start to the World Cup by panicking into tactical errors and playing for draws. The fire of a team like Juve just wasn't on the field, and the Azzurri couldn't grind out the points they needed to advance.
There was no better grinder than Inzaghi. He was so technically inferior to his peers that the only way he could build a career to remember was to outwork them and get himself in the right position to succeed. If he can translate that mentality to the bench and instill it in his players, Milan will be back sooner rather than later.
Between Allegri and Seedorf, Milan's tactics never seemed to get the most out of their best players last season. Mario Balotelli was often left alone up top with little support. Riccardo Montolivo was used as one of a set of holding midfielders rather than in his natural regista role. Both last season and the season before Stephan El Shaarawy was often deployed centrally rather than on the left wing where he is most comfortable.
Inzaghi will likely be heavily influenced by his former manager Carlo Ancelotti. In a 2013 interview with L'Equipe (via ESPNFC) Inzaghi called the former Milan boss "my reference." The esteem to which he holds Ancelotti might be fortuitous for the Rossoneri.
Ancelotti's tactics at Real Madrid are good fits for the San Siro outfit. An approximation of Ancelotti's 4-3-3 would allow El Shaarawy to play on the left wing, where—when healthy—his game can be described as Cristiano Ronaldo Lite. It would give Balotelli more support as a center forward and not leave him isolated against an entire back line and give Montolivo a natural vantage point as a deep-lying playmaker.
Alternatively, Inzaghi could copy his mentor's 4-2-3-1, which would put a trequartista like Saponara directly behind Balotelli and wingers on either side. It would shift Montolivo over, but it would give Milan a powerful offensive thrust that could compensate for the team's defensive shortcomings.
If he can manage a bit of his role model's tactical acumen, Milan could slingshot themselves back into Serie A's elite.