Why Axel Witsel Is the Player AC Milan Will Regret Not Signing in January

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2016

Axel Witsel has been a target for AC Milan since last summer.
Axel Witsel has been a target for AC Milan since last summer.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

The winter transfer window is a time for teams to shore up weaknesses that pop up in the first half of the year and fill holes created by injury. AC Milan looked through what was available and decided against making many additions. Kevin-Prince Boateng was signed on a free transfer, but other than that and a trio of departures, the Rossoneri's roster remained largely unchanged.

In a previous column, we actually praised Milan for standing mostly pat in January. Adding players to the team in its current state would have been foolish. For a team that isn't competing in Europe, the squad is bloated. At any given position, there are too many options, making for a potentially toxic have and have-not atmosphere in the locker room when it comes to playing time.

But if the Rossoneri had been inclined to have made a push for a big player in January, there was one clear target for them to have zeroed in on. That man is Zenit Saint Petersburg midfielder Axel Witsel.

Witsel was heavily linked to Milan this past summer, and team CEO Adriano Galliani told Milannews.it (h/t ESPN FC) at the end of the window the Rossoneri had done everything they could to sign him. In the end, though, the move never materialized.

But the move's pattern didn't degrade to the point where it can't be brought back.

When the summer window ended, Witsel told a gaggle of reporters (h/t ESPN FC) he wanted a move: "It's clearly time to move up a level and move to a big European team. ... I'll stay calm and see what happens in January."

Montolivo has failed to keep Milan's midfield running smoothly.
Montolivo has failed to keep Milan's midfield running smoothly.GIUSEPPE CACACE/Getty Images

The Belgium international certainly seems keen on a new challenge now it's clear Zenit's ambitious 2012 attempt to vault into the European elite has failed, and his own words showed him to be open to a move.

As the season went on, a January move for Witsel turned into a near impossibility. Zenit romped through the group stage of the Champions League, winning their pool and receiving a favorable draw for the round of 16—Witsel's previous club, Benfica. A dip in form dropped them into sixth place in the Russian Premier League—out of Europe entirely if they stay there—although they're only four points off the second and final Champions League spot.

Given Zenit's competitive situation, selling off one of their best players was never likely.

That was unfortunate for Milan. The Rossoneri desperately need help in their midfield. Regardless of formation, coach Sinisa Mihajlovic has not been able to find the right lineup that combines creativity and defensive solidity in midfield.

There have been more than a few players who could can offer steel, from Juraj Kucka and Andrea Poli to the recently departed Nigel de Jong, but the team still suffers from a dearth of creativity. Kucka sometimes shows off some surprising on-ball skills, but they tend to come and go. Riccardo Montolivo isn't the regista people thought he was earlier in his career.

Witsel would have been a fantastic addition. According to WhoScored.com, Witsel has completed 87.6 percent of his passes in league play and 89 percent in the Champions League this season. He isn't saddled with a lot of the team's creative burden—that falls more to forwards such as Hulk—but his passing ability is such he should be able to shoulder it in another system.

There are continuing links between the the player and Milan. According to a report from Corriere dello Sport (h/t Britain's Express) Milan will be favorites to acquire him this summer over the likes of Tottenham Hotspur.

To be clear, a move by Witsel—to Milan or anywhere else—was seemingly almost impossible in January. Milan didn't waste some big opportunity to sign him. But if the opportunity had been there, Witsel would have been a welcome addition to their roster.

As the midfield continues to run hot and (mostly) cold, Milan and their fans will likely cast longing looks toward Russia and hope for a summer run at the player to improve the unit.

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