AC Milan Must Make the Right Decisions After Firing Sinisa Mihajlovic

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistApril 13, 2016

Sinisa Mihajlovic has been sacked after less than a year as AC Milan's manager.
Sinisa Mihajlovic has been sacked after less than a year as AC Milan's manager.CARLO HERMANN/Getty Images

Let's make one thing clear here: In saying AC Milan need to make the right decisions in the wake of dismissing coach Sinisa Mihajlovic Tuesday, it should not be assumed that the decision to fire him was the right one.  It wasn't.

Mihajlovic was the victim of the outsized expectations of owner Silvio Berlusconi, who expected a return to the UEFA Champions League next season after making his first significant investment in the transfer market in five years.

That was never going to happen.  The three teams currently occupying the Champions League places—Juventus, Napoli and Roma—were demonstrably better than Milan on paper from the beginning of the season.  The other teams ahead of them, Inter and Fiorentina, were at the very least on terms.  To make Champions League qualification the definition of a successful season was totally unrealistic.

That's especially true when you see the tangible improvement Milan have seen under Mihajlovic.  Through 32 games, they're six points and four positions in the table better than they were at the same point last year.  In previous seasons, they were often defined by a weak defense, but this year they're tied for the fifth-fewest goals conceded in the league.

Berlusconi's expectations for the season were unrealistic.
Berlusconi's expectations for the season were unrealistic.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

The team has had its peaks and valleys this year, but overall Mihajlovic has taken a team that still has some serious flaws and turned in a much improved performance over last year, even making the final of the Coppa Italia.  For a team in Milan's situation, it represented a major first step for the rebuilding process.

But Berlusconi wants what he wants, regardless of what's realistic.  What he wanted was a jump similar to what their Coppa final opponents, Juventus, had in the 2011-12 season, when they went from seventh place to an unbeaten season and the first of what could, by the end of the year, be five consecutive Scudetti.

That expectation is the team's biggest problem.  Juve's rise four years ago is not something that's a regular occurrence in this sport, and they had the advantage of an excellent coach in Antonio Conte and a fantastic front office led by sporting director Giuseppe Marotta.

This season, Milan only had the former.  Vice-president Adriano Galliani hasn't made the kind of intelligent moves Marotta has made over the last five years in some time, and even if he intends to, there is always the chance of being overruled by one of Berlusconi's whims.

But what's done is done, and Christian Brocchi is now Milan's fifth coach in three seasons.  Milan's first order of business is going to be whether they will keep him or opt for a sixth in four.  According to Italian transfer guru Gianluca Di Marzio (h/t Football Italia), Brocchi is only on a two-month contract, after which he'll be re-evaluated at the end of the season.

According to that report, Berlusconi had initially favored giving Brocchi a contract that would cover not only the rest of this season but the next also.  Making Brocchi an interim coach, for now, is the right move, but retaining him after May is not.

A former Milan midfielder, Brocchi has been the coach of Milan's primavera team since the beginning of last season, but he's never coached at the senior level.  That has a familiar ring to it: Filippo Inzaghi had the same level of experience when he was named Milan's manager last year.

Di Francesco's style and ability make him the perfect candidate to be Milan's next manager.
Di Francesco's style and ability make him the perfect candidate to be Milan's next manager.Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

That did not end well.

Milan need to ensure that the man who takes them forward has the experience that Inzaghi, and Clarence Seedorf before him, didn't.  They also need a coach who will satisfy Berlusconi, who tends to insist on a certain style of play.

Just how much that means was displayed when Berlusconi put out a statement on Facebook (h/t Football Italia) thanking Mihajlovic for his service, when he said "Milan must return to a style of play and results worthy of our history."

Note that he mentioned style of play first—it's something he's always insisted on having his way.  In his memoir I Think, Therefore I Play, former Milan midfielder Andrea Pirlo recounted a scene in which even Carlo Ancelotti was harangued to follow the style Berlusconi wanted to see on the field.

If that distraction is to be avoided, Milan need the right coach, and that man is Eusebio Di Francesco.

Di Francesco's trademark 4-3-3 system is a modification of the tactics of his mentor, Zdenek Zeman.  His system doesn't sacrifice defense as much, and with the right players it can be the kind of style that would satisfy Berlusconi's desire for a team that can dictate games—with the added bonus that it comes from the mind of one of Italy's best up-and-coming coaches.

Di Francesco has been linked with Milan for a while now, and on Saturday he told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia) that the link was "certainly pleasing," but also cautioned "I don't like chaos"—something Milan has in spades.

If Milan can lure Di Francesco, the club can then move on to finding the players that will best fit into his system while still papering over their existing holes.  Alessio Romagnoli needs a long-term partner at center back, and Milan are desperately in need of a creative midfielder to take the burden of chance-creation off Giacomo Bonaventura.

Milan made a questionable decision in dismissing Mihajlovic, but that decision has been made.  What matters now is what they do going forward.  They need to pick the best coach they can and give that coach a roster with which he can succeed.  Getting a top coaching prospect like Di Francesco will be a great start.

If they repeat the mistakes they've made over the last three seasons, however, Milan's nascent rebuild will grind to a halt before it can ever make any headway.

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