AC Milan have had a rather successful summer in the transfer market.
Two excellent defenders in Philippe Mexes and Taye Taiwo have joined the club on free transfers, Stephan El Shaarawy has joined (on co-ownership) for a fee of €10 million and Marco Amelia has joined permanently to be the club's backup keeper for €3.5 million.
Marco Borriello on the other hand has been sold for €10 million to Roma, a great piece of business considering the congestion AC Milan have up front. Andrea Pirlo has also left for Juventus on a free transfer.
AC Milan appear to be gearing up for one more signing before the start of season, with Alberto Aquilani and Riccardo Montolivo being rumored as the two biggest targets for Adriano Galliani.
However, aside from that one additional signing, it seems that AC Milan are done wheeling and dealing in the transfer market, and so we can now look at how AC Milan will lineup in in the 2010-11 season.
Goal.com lists AC Milan's standard formation as 4-3-1-2, and considering Massimo Allegri won the Scudetto with that formation, it's safe to assume he'll be sticking with it in 2011-12. So that is the formation we will use to determine where each player fits in.
The 2010-11 season was an excellent season for Christian Abbiati, as the AC Milan shot-stopper conceded only 19 goals in league play and recorded 19 clean sheets as well—both career bests.
In the Champions League, Abbiati recorded four more clean sheets. He also played in 35 of 38 league games, by far his best total since rejoining AC Milan in 2008-09.
Christian Abbiati is 34 years old, but for goalkeepers 34 years old is the equivalent of 28-30 years old for an outfield player.
Thus, Abbiati, coming off the finest season of his career, will no doubt be the starting goalkeeper for AC Milan next season, but could easily be AC Milan's No. 1 for the next two to three seasons as well.
Behind him will be the reliable Marco Amelia, who was signed on a permanent basis from Genoa this summer.
Although he made only eight appearances in all competitions last year, he looked dependable and committed no major errors, and at 28 years old, could succeed Abbiati whenever he decides to hang up his boots.
Last but not least, Flavio Roma is the third choice goalkeeper at AC Milan. He made a total of three league appearances last season, and at 37 years old, is only in the squad to ensure that AC Milan have two fit, decent goalkeepers available at all times.
Last season, Ignazio Abate made 29 league appearances for AC Milan—the most appearances made by any defender in the squad not named Thiago Silva (33 league appearances).
Abate's story is very impressive. Starting out on loan from Milan at Napoli when they were still in Serie C1, Abate moved up to Serie B with Piacenza and Modena, before being bought by then-Serie A side Empoli.
Due to his good performances for Empoli, Abate moved to Torino, but after an impressive year with the team, Milan finally decided to bring the player back to his youth club—though as a reserve midfielder at first.
One day, Leonardo decided to try Abate out at right back, and the rest is, as they say, history. At 24 years of age, Ignazio Abate is well travelled, but still has many years left in his career and should hold the right back spot his for years to come.
There are a good number of backups for Ignazio Abate at right back (possibly even too many), but many Milan players are versatile and thus backups for more than one position.
For example, Daniele Bonera, a right back, played in 16 league games last season, indicating that he was probably the club's first choice backup for Abate. However, he's also capable of playing a center back, and actually played more games in place of Nesta than Abate last season.
Oddo is strictly a right back, but at 35 years old is way down the pecking order. Above him are Gianluca Zambrotta and Luca Antonini, both of whom are fullbacks capable of playing as either left or right backs.
Last season, Luca Antonini held the starting spot at left back for most of the season, until the 29th round of games, when Massimo Allegri decided he was fed up with Antonini's performances and dropped him from the squad for the rest of the season.
In response, one of AC Milan's first transactions this summer was to bring in a capable left back to take Antonini's place, and in Taye Taiwo, they found one of the best in world football, and brought him in for nothing (still have trouble wrapping my head around that sometimes!).
Taiwo has been a huge star at Marseille for some time now, and has been chased by big clubs all over the world during his career. With Marseille, he won Ligue 1 in 2009-10, Coupe de la Ligue in 2010 and 2011 and has been selected as part of the Ligue 1 Team of the Year in three of his last four years at the club.
Taiwo is world renowned for his long powerful shots and free kicks, both of which he'll have opportunities to take with Pirlo gone from the squad.
Luca Antonini will likely be Taiwo's primary backup, unless he is sold before the transfer window closes. If he is sold, or simply has fallen so far down the pecking order in Allegri's eyes, then Emanuelson will probably get a second chance to prove his worth after a less than stellar half-season following his transfer from Ajax.
And then of course, Gianluca Zambrotta still remains an option to play at either left or right back, but like Oddo, his advanced age will probably see him further down the pecking order than his younger counterparts.
Yes, I know what you guys are thinking...where's Philippe Mexes?
The answer? On the bench.
Milan picked up 20 clean sheets in the league last season, their best total in years, and the rock solid partnership of Nesta and Silva was by far the biggest contributing factor to that defensive success.
In fact, so dominating was the defensive pair that when they played alongside each other, that Milan only lost on one out of 20 occasions where the pair started the game together (away from home to Palermo).
Thiago Silva's inclusion in the starting lineup is not up for discussion; the center back is easily one of the top five center backs in the world, maybe even better. He almost never makes mistakes, recovers excellently, covers excellently for defensive partners and can even score on occasion (although this is possibly one of the few aspects of his game that Silva could improve on).
Alessandro Nesta's inclusion is what may raise a few eyebrows. At 35, the ex-Italian international is far removed from his prime, and in his final years, or even year, as a player.
Yet, even out of his prime, Nesta is a world class center back. That's right, not decent, good, or even great, he's world class. Anybody who watches him alongside Silva can attest to this.
His quickness may no longer be as visible, and he is prone to making a couple more mistakes than he used to in previous years (when he made practically none), but his partnership with Silva is incredible, and to break up something like that would be foolhardy on Allegri's part.
He is, however, injury prone, and admittedly, I expect to see him call it a day on his career by the end of the season. He picked up four different injuries during the course of last season and was limited to 26 league appearances (which is actually a good total for Nesta given his injury issues since 2006-07).
But that's where Mexes comes in. Whereas Milan had to hold their breath and rely on the error-prone Bonera last season whenever Nesta or Silva were injured, they now have a top-class backup who would normally start on just about any other team in the world.
I fully expect Mexes to pick up between 20-25 appearances in the league next year despite his backup role, and at 29, I expect that he'll have at least a couple good years of being Milan's starting center back once Alessandro Nesta retires.
Milan have a very interesting problem going into the 2011-12 Serie A season.
Despite tinkering with their lineup on various occasions to incorporate youth products like Alexander Merkel and Rodney Strasser, and giving the 27-year-old Mathieu Flamini plenty of chances to stake his claim for a starting spot in midfield, it is the old guns of Milan that consistently prove themselves to be better candidates for a starting berth in Milan's lineup.
As such, the best options for Milan's midfield at the moment are the 34-year-old Mark Van Bommel, 35-year-old Clarence Seedorf and 33-year-old Gennaro Gattuso.
It seems crazy, but there's just no denying that these three are the best three central midfielders currently at AC Milan.
Mark Van Bommel has slotted in perfectly in the midfield since his move from Bayern Munich in January, and has been a perfect fit for AC Milan's style and formation.
Alongside him in midfield has been Gennaro Gattuso, whose resurgence in the second half of the 2010-11 season was nothing short of remarkable.
A player who most have considered washed up and done since 2008-09, Gattuso not only showed a return to his fearsome, warrior-like self in 2010-11, but in the second half of the season managed to even record two assists and two goals! The best of the bunch was his goal against Juventus, which turned out to be the winner in a 1-0 AC Milan victory.
Finally, Seedorf has provided the attacking component of Milan's three-man midfield. He too experienced a late resurgence after an up and down season in which he was frequently in and out of the lineup and subbed on and off frequently.
Down the stretch however, in the last eight games of the season, he gained Allegri's trust and rewarded him with some very solid performances as well as three goals and an assist. He was not subbed in any of these last eight games.
Should Alberto Aquilani be brought in by Adriano Galliani, there is an outside chance he could displace Seedorf, although Aquilani would be much more suited for the trequartista role having played in this role earlier in his career; and it is reportedly being his preferred position.
However, should Riccardo Montolivo join instead, Seedorf will almost surely be displaced from the lineup, as Montolivo generally plays as a deep-lying playmaker in the center of midfield.
If nothing changes in Milan's midfield, it can be expected that Milan's bench will get a good deal of playing time as all three guys are likely too old to be playing 50-plus, or even 40-plus game seasons.
Flamini will continue to be a decent rotation option, and Ambrosini, another veteran member of the squad, will also get games in place of Gattuso and Van Bommel. Stephen El Shaarawy, AC Milan's promising new recruit, will surely get to show his skills and talents in the attacking position of the three-man midfield.
The trequartista is probably the hardest role for casual or unlearned football fans to grasp, mostly because it's only referred to as trequartista in Italian football. In Spanish football, the position is hardly used and generally referred to as a "free second striker role" in England football.
In attempting to define the term, Wikipedia states that a trequartista is an attacking midfielder or playmaker playing behind the strikers, as opposed to a deep-lying playmaker. It offers the examples of Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti as natural trequartistas.
For a more modern version of the trequartista, Wayne Rooney would be the best example of a player playing in that role at the highest level of football. Playing behind Javier Hernandez, Wayne Rooney is given free license to do essentially whatever he wishes with the ball, and generally uses this free license to bring other players in the play. Ashley Young played in this role for Aston Villa last season as well.
At AC Milan, this position is presently filled by Kevin-Prince Boateng, who initially started out as a central midfielder before being moved into the role by Massimo Allegri.
Although a trequartista doesn't necessarily have to be an assist generator, the two often go hand in hand, and so the two assists recorded in 26 Serie A games last season is rather disappointing. Galliani, in the link above, highlights Boateng's physicality as a key reason for his selection in the role, but aren't AC Milan already loaded with physical midfielders and attackers?
This position will undoubtedly be the most important position for AC Milan going into next season.
Should Kevin-Prince Boateng continue to give Allegri what he wants to see, then will stay in the role, but should Allegri feel that his side need more creativity, I can see Boateng being the first player taken out of the lineup, and either moved back to midfield or relegated to the bench.
AC Milan already have a good backup candidate for the position in Antonio Cassano if Massimo Allegri decides he wants to move him from being one of the strikers into the role behind the strikers. And should Alberto Aquilani complete his move to AC Milan, he'd be an excellent candidate for the position. Stephen El Shaarawy, at the very young age of 18, could also be molded into a trequartista by Massimo Allegri.
Again, I can hear the masses crying out: Where's Alexander Pato?
This article summarizes the issue quite perfectly: Over the 2010-11 season, it became painfully obvious that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexander Pato do not make a good partnership, despite each of their individual class and brilliance.
To put some facts behind the words, here's Milan's record when Alexander Pato and Zlatan Ibrahimovic started a game together in the 2010-11 Serie A season: five wins, five draws and two losses.
So last season, Milan picked up half of its losses and draws whenever Pato and Ibrahimovic started a game together, but only little more than a fifth of its wins.
Towards the end of the season, Massimo Allegri gave up on the partnership and avoided playing the two guys together, resulting in a number of substitute appearances for Pato and Ibrahimovic missing out on the last two games of the season following return from his second suspension.
The main beneficiary? Robinho. The Brazilian striker had an excellent season, scoring 14 goals in 34 appearances, and despite having the reputation of being a selfish player, excelled alongside both Pato and Ibrahimovic. Cassano also benefitted from the extra playing time by recording four goals and eight assists in 17 Serie A appearances (nine starts, eight sub-ins, six sub-outs).
Going forward, Massimo Allegri has an interesting problem on his hands. Despite the excellent goal scoring record of Robinho, it's obvious that Pato and Ibrahimovic are the most talented strikers in the squad. So does he give them another try to establish a partnership this season, or does he go with what has worked?
I think Allegri will give the duo a game or two to see if they can work out their differences and establish a decent partnership; but should they fail, which I expect they will, I think Allegri will return to splitting time between the two, with Robinho being the second starting striker.
Cassano's role will also be up in the air following his poor preseason performances and being called out directly by Adriano Galliani over his weight and lack of fitness. It's unlikely he'll move before the summer window closes, but if his usual disciplinary issues show up, he' could easily find himself stuck to a spot on the bench.
If he does improve however, I still expect that he'll remain the fourth choice striker in the picture, taking time from Robinho on occasion—unless of course he moves into the trequartista role, which I believe is the best fit for him.
What do you guys think? For those of you who actually read through the entire slideshow, rather than just flipped through the names before heading down to the comment box to voice your disapproval (you know who you are!). You can see that many spots at AC Milan are still up in the air.
So here are some questions I'd like to hear your opinions on:
1. Will the Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Alexander Pato partnership ever work? Why or How? What will either player change from last season to make it work?
2. AC Milan's midfield: Can the old guys still get it done after a good Serie A 2010-11 season, or is it time to freshen up and let the younger guys like Shaarawy, Flamini and KPB stake their claims for regular roles in midfield?
3. On the subject of Kevin-Prince Boateng: Is he really Milan's ideal trequartista? Should someone like Cassano or Aquilani take his spot instead?
Answer as many of these questions as you like, and obviously you're free to make your own comments.
Looking forward to hearing you guys' opinions and thoughts!