The team spirit: Boetang, Ambrosini, Ibrahimovic and Robinho
‘He that can have the patience can have what he will’- As the European season reaches the half way point and teams head for a Christmas break, AC Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri’s is one name that has emerged into the managerial lobby announcing his arrival on the biggest stage.
The assignment handed over to Allegri was undoubtedly the biggest one in his managerial career so far. His last stint with Cagliari was an eventful one when he managed to bring them in the top flight circuit into the Italian football and more importantly helped them sustain their place over a season. During the process he managed to bag the ‘non-Serie A coach of the year’ award twice on successive instances.
His move to Milan—the most glorious club in Italy—was definitely a quantum jump into the higher orbit as he had never been into any association with a club that of Milan’s stature—neither during his playing days nor in any of his earlier managerial stints.
The concerns surrounding whether Allegri has got what it takes to manage a big club were duly raised with his rather immature experimentation during the initial phase of the season.
It took him nine league matches, a couple of frustrating draws to Catania and Lazio, a humiliation handed over by a promoted Cesena and a disgraceful defeat at the hands of Real Madrid to realise his choice of tactics was not in sync with the personnel at his disposal.
The introduction of a more dynamic 4-3-1-2 coincided with an unfortunate injury to Alexandre Pato, but has unarguably been the driving force for a secured pole position at the mid-point in the season.
Allegri had to take a tough call in disallowing Ronaldinho, fan favourite and more importantly Berlusconi’s favourite, to be a part of his project to revive.
Had the results not shown in immediateness, he would have faced some meticulous criticism for having dropped Ronaldinho from his plans. Under the initially deployed 4-3-3, Milan’s midfield looked too stationary and stubborn against the pace driven attacks.
The alteration in the formation coupled with a reservation for fresh legs of Boetang and Flamini in the three-man midfield made the structure appear more dynamic and stark. Clarence Seedorf was fielded right behind the two strikers into the traditional role of trequartista and the Dutch was far more comfortable in a role that was devoid of anymore defensive duties—something which was never his forte.
Allegri even dropped a semi-fit Pirlo from a number of matches when the Italian international was unable to translate the weight of his reputation on the field. However, the new structure adopted has offered Pirlo more space to work around and is expected to excel during the second half of the season, once he regains complete fitness.
Coming to the performances, the defence has so far looked solid enough to survive in the domestic circuit but question marks remain over its competitiveness on the next level of competition. During the intra-continent tournaments, Milan have failed to deliver for three long years and the defence would hold the key, should they aim to break the jinx this time around.
In Alessandro Nesta, Milan boast of one of the best central defenders active on the planet and he is having an unusually great season at the age of 34. The Italian is ably allied by his Brazilian partner Thiago Silva. The two form a formidable nexus at the heart of the defence that has so far looked stout and steady.
Worries rise when one takes a look into Milan’s prospects to their first choice full backs. Gianluca Zambrotta has fared decent in his limited appearances but one cannot ignore the fact that he is not getting any younger. His main advantage is his capability to field at either side of the flank, but as he steps into the wrong side of his thirties, he cannot be expected to take long strides forward and provide options into attack—something which modern day full backs are very much expected to do.
Luca Antonini on the other hand was the player of the season for Milan during the opening fold but his proneness to injuries helped little in exceeding his rich run of form. While he is excellent in linking up with the forwards, his sense of positioning and pace while tracking back have been inviting a strong stir of cynicism from fans.
In Ignazio Abate, Milan have found a full back who has a work rate that is second to none, but even at the highest of his abilities, Abate can best be described a makeshift defender who would do better in the defensive fold of the midfield.
The agility the midfield has shown thus far splashes some glimpses of those days of Carlo Ancelotti, though much more needs to be done to reproduce the success of that era. With all the rotations Allegri has applied, one may feel the best combination is still being worked upon and sooner rather than later should Allegri drop Gattuso from his first team plans.
Can Milan maintain the same form and bag the Serie A title after a long wait?
Veterans Ambrosini, Gattuso and Seedorf have enjoyed a surprisingly long playing time. All the three legends of the game have been long time bearers of the famous Red & Black jersey, but it is about time they started from the bench and keep their bodies in shape by featuring into the starting team only against the lowly competitive opponents in the league.
The front line has left no room for concerns and the new additions to the attacking prowess have gelled into the Milan idea of football much more comfortably than expected. The Swedish sensation Zlatan Ibrahimovic has helped raise the frequency at which the team has scored goals this season. Robinho too is slowly but surely getting on the track and once Pato reclaims fitness, it would only add to Allegri’s options.
No analysis of the Rossoneri’s current season can overlook the heroics of Christian Abbiati. Milan’s first choice goalkeeper has been instrumental both in league and in Europe and has demonstrated an excellent sense of positioning and anticipation time and again through the course of these six months.
He had missed much of the first team appearances last season thanks to his unending spell with one injury after another, but this time around he has been thoroughly professional making one wonder why is he not in Cesare Prandelli’s plans for the national side.
Having said all of the above, this squad is no short of areas worth concern. The drought of quality full backs is haunting Milan’s campaign big time and at the same time the midfielders have been sloppy while shielding the incompetent full backs.
Moreover, the link-up between the two layers of the field has shown some signs of resurgence in the last few fixtures but may still improve. During the first phase of matches, the three layers looked too isolated and far too disjointed but have started to get their collective act together.
Massimiliano Allegri has so far not disappointed with his composed and careful, yet bold approach to the league that has worked tremendously in favour of Milan. However, one must not forget Milan’s rise has been extremely fortunately coincided with the fall of their fierce city rivals Inter. There is a clique of pundits who equate Milan’s position at the top of the league with the lacklustre campaign of Inter.
Milan need to improve heavily on the sidelines to go past Tottenham Hotspur, whom they face in the next round of Champions League. Spurs possess two of the fastest players operating from each side of the flanks and Milan need an inspirational performance from their midfielders to stop them from orchestrating their magic.
Allegri needs to offer much more in order to provide a decent playing time to many of his squad members who have been benched for a little too long now. The likes of Merkel, Strasser, Yepes and Bruno form a quality bench pedigree, but the manager must make sure none of them are lost to their rivals for the lack of on-field action.
The addition of Antonio Cassano adds a whole new dimension to an already proliferative looking attack and it will be interesting to see how Allegri plans to fit the bad boy of Italian football into his first choice attack.
Rotation is the keyword to success and proper utilisation of available resources would elongate the pinch of success Milan have tasted so far during the run of the season. While a domestic title appears to be well within the reaches, a herculean effort is required to go the distance into the Champions League. Should Allegri manage to achieve the most of it, he would document a remarkable chapter into the history of both Milan and Italian football.
Needless to say, his instincts, decisions and tactical acumen are in for the highest test.