AC Milan’s place in the Italian football hierarchy is under threat. The club’s seventh-place Serie A finish in 2015-16 meant a third consecutive season without European competition, while the Coppa Italia final defeat to Juventus ensured the absence of silverware for a fifth straight year.
While the decline has not yet become a full-blown crisis, it is at times like these that holistic change becomes necessary. It is no longer enough simply to tinker with the playing squad and keep the managerial revolving door spinning; strategic decisions must be made.
Empoli’s recent arc has been different to that of Milan. This is why, according to MilanNews.it (h/t Football Italia), the Rossoneri plan to plunder the Tuscan club for players as well as coaching and transfer-market expertise.
The Azzurri’s director of sport Marcello Carli has been linked, as has former coach Marco Giampaolo and key players Riccardo Saponara and Leandro Paredes.
Those four individuals have been crucial to Empoli’s rise from Serie B to mid-table in Serie A. But would they bring about similar improvements for Milan?
The Director of Sport: Marcello Carli
The Rossoneri were Italy’s biggest spenders in the transfer market last season. Per Transfermarkt.co.uk, their overall expenditure over both the summer and winter windows totalled £68.23 million, while their income from sales stood at just £10.16 million.
Consequently, Milan’s net spend in 2015-16 was higher than that of champions Juventus. But this outlay wasn’t reflected on the pitch. Their points tally improved from 52 in 2014-15 to 57; they won two more games and lost one fewer, but they achieved their worst goals-for total since 2001-02.
The arrivals of Alessio Romagnoli, Juraj Kucka and Carlos Bacca had a positive impact on the team’s performances, though the contributions of Andrea Bertolacci, Luiz Adriano and Jose Mauri were at best questionable and at worst insignificant.
Clearly, Milan need to be more efficient in their transfer spending, bringing in players who correlate to the coach’s tactical ideas and who can improve themselves and the team upon arrival. This is where Empoli director of sport Carli could come in.
As well as links to the Rossoneri, according to Calciomercato.com he is also “in pole position to replace Walter Sabatini at AS Roma.” The rumours are testament to the job he has done on a tight budget.
After Empoli finished 15th in Serie A in 2014-15, they inevitably had to deal with the departure of several key players. Mirko Valdifiori and Elseid Hysaj moved to Napoli, while the loan spells of Luigi Sepe, Daniele Rugani and Matias Vecino ended.
However, Carli worked magic in the transfer market, securing the loan signings of Paredes, Marcel Buchel and Lukasz Skorupski to fill in at regista, central midfield and goalkeeper respectively. In addition, Andrea Costa was brought in on a free to strengthen central defence. All four players were important not just in replacing those who had moved on, but in helping Empoli to an improved 10th-place position.
The precision of the deals was impressive, allowing the club to bolster their squad while spending less than they had accrued. And the sporting director was at the heart of it all.
While handling Milan’s transfers entails a larger budget, bigger-name players, higher fees and greater expectations, Carli has shown himself to have an astute eye for acquisitions. He has an ability to strike cost-effective deals and, at a time when the club lacks continental football, that trait could prove particularly useful.
The Coach: Marco Giampaolo
In April, Cristian Brocchi was hired to replace the dismissed Sinisa Mihajlovic as Milan head coach; however, this deal was only to last until the end of the season. It remains unclear if the former Primavera boss will still be in charge come 2016-17.
Recently, Sky Sport Italia (h/t Calciomercato) reported that former Empoli coach Giampaolo could be the man charged with leading the Rossoneri forward should the ongoing takeover negotiations between current club president Silvio Berlusconi and a Chinese consortium be successful.
The 48-year-old worked wonders during his one year at the Stadio Carlo Castellani but is now available and intrigued by the prospect of working for Milan. Speaking at an Italian Association of Coaches event, per ESPN FC, he stated: “It's an honour to be linked with the Rossoneri.”
Giampaolo took over at Empoli from Maurizio Sarri, but despite expectations to the contrary, he managed to further refine the principles left behind by the old boss, achieving improved results in the process. This is something he discussed in an interview with Corriere dello Sport (h/t Football Italia), saying: “I harvested the principles that had been sowed by Sarri. After all, they are my own principles too.”
This style of play involved a high defensive line, compactness between defence and midfield, fast combinations in the build-up and dominating ball possession, something backed up by WhoScored.com, whose statistics showed the Azzurri to have had the seventh-highest average possession percentage and sixth-highest pass-success percentage in Serie A.
While Mihajlovic brought about a slight upturn in results, he did so while instigating dour football with an emphasis on functionality over flair. Giampaolo could be the perfect coach to return Milan to a more exciting, assertive style.
The Players: Leandro Paredes and Riccardo Saponara
Paredes was fundamental to Empoli’s success last season. The Argentinian, who is still only 21 years of age, had impressed only briefly for Roma before joining the Azzurri on loan. He would thrive at the heart of the Tuscan outfit’s midfield.
Giampaolo’s aforementioned principles were implemented thanks in large part to the competence and maturity of the young playmaker, who operated at the base of a diamond midfield. Pulling the strings from deep, his control and confidence allowed him to resist the opposition’s pressing, while his vision and exquisite passing helped to build attacks.
Further forward, Saponara enjoyed arguably his finest season in the trequartista role, probing between the lines, constantly seeking space and driving at defences from central areas. Indeed, only Paul Pogba and Miralem Pjanic assisted more goals than his 11, per WhoScored.
Having spent one-and-a-half unproductive years failing to break into the Milan side, the 24-year-old has rekindled his career with Empoli, and he could soon be on his way back to the San Siro along with his younger team-mate.
According to Il Tempo (h/t Football Italia), Paredes could join the Rossoneri as part of a deal taking Stephan El Shaarawy in the other direction on a permanent basis, while Calciomercato have reported that Saponara could follow the Argentinian should Giampaolo be made head coach.
Throughout much of last season, Milan struggled creatively and lacked charisma in their midfield, though these signatures could help to solve both problems.
Paredes would bring a level of class and control that the club has not had since the departure of Andrea Pirlo, while Saponara’s lustrous dribbles and spatial awareness would only enhance their chances of unlocking negative opposition.
Milan are a football club in need of an overhaul.
Their transfer policy and coaching appointments have failed them in recent years, but Carli, Giampaolo, Paredes and Saponara are ready to transpose their qualities onto a bigger stage. An Empoli influx could provide the direction the Rossoneri need, on and off the pitch.