AC Milan kicked off their pre-season schedule with a 2-1 win over Bordeaux last Saturday. The result was positive, and the team’s performance showed several promising signs, as discussed in this post, but there remains uncertainty off the pitch concerning the club’s transfer activity.
Rossoneri president Silvio Berlusconi’s negotiations with a Chinese consortium are ongoing, and consequently, it is unclear exactly how busy the club will be in this summer window.
In such circumstances, head coach Vincenzo Montella will have to utilise as much of his tactical nous as possible to maximise the playing resources already available to him. The good news for the former Fiorentina boss in this respect is that there are a number of individuals within the existing squad who have plenty more to give.
The new coach has been attempting to impress his philosophy upon his new charges and, judging on Milan’s display against Bordeaux, he has had some success. This, he believes, is down to the attitude of the players, though he also feels there are further improvements to come, telling Milan TV (h/t Football Italia):
The lads are available and keen to learn. They’re very good in their approach to training and they’re great professionals. With consistency and time we’ll show those characteristics.
I think that the past few seasons are evidence that we can do more. I think the players need to take on a lot of responsibility and be aware of what this shirt means.
It can’t always be the fault of the coaches, so they can probably do something more.
What follows is a look at three specific Milan players who are set to make great strides, both in their amount of time spent on the pitch and the quality of their performance, under Montella in 2016-17.
1. Mattia De Sciglio
Last season, Mattia De Sciglio was the Rossoneri’s clear back-up full-back option. Versatile in the sense that he can operate just as effectively on the left as he can on his favoured right, he was unable to establish himself on either side, making just 22 Serie A appearances.
Furthermore, it was all fairly ad hoc; the 23-year-old would usually step in whenever Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonelli were unavailable due to injury or suspension. But, on the back of a sequence of bright displays for Italy at UEFA Euro 2016, there is reason to believe he can reassert himself as a first-team player for Milan.
The Azzurri were one of the surprises of this summer’s finals under the inspirational leadership of Antonio Conte, and De Sciglio in particular benefitted from his time with the former Juventus coach.
“Conte has certainly helped me a lot because he's made me feel his faith in all stages of the season, calling me up during the months in which I was not at my best," the player said, according to Omnisport (h/t Goal). “He made me feel part of this squad, giving me his faith and making me realise and feel that I am a big player for this squad and for him. Certainly he's helped me a lot.”
De Sciglio has struggled to deal with the intense scrutiny and hype that followed his quick ascent to the Milan first team in 2012-13. Stefano Tirelli, a professor at the Catholic University of Milan whom the player began to work with last December, told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Gazzetta World) about these issues, saying:
When Mattia and I first met, he was checked out. He wasn’t depressed but he was on his way, and he suffered from media and fan critiques, and struggled with injuries. He even felt guilty if he went out for pizza with his girlfriend.
His father, Luca, told me, "there’s Mattia the footballer who isn’t the biggest concern to me, and then there’s Mattia our son, who we love. Give us back his smile, and we’ll be happy."
With a strong performance in last season’s Coppa Italia final against Juventus and a positive European Championship behind him, De Sciglio is beginning to look more like the prospect that excited so many. And, as a result, he has attracted interest from a number of big clubs, including Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, per El Diario (h/t Forza Italian Football).
He has greater upside than either of Milan’s current full-back options; both Abate and Antonelli turn 30 years old in 2016-17. And, having seemingly refound his self-belief, he should earn more playing time going forward.
2. Jose Mauri
During his breakout season with Parma in 2014-15, Jose Mauri imposed himself upon Serie A as one of the league’s most talented prospects. He made 33 league appearances for the Crociati and, while unable to prevent the club’s eventual demise due to financial problems, did enough to earn a move to Milan last summer.
The 20-year-old was seen as a long-term successor to Gennaro Gattuso, a tigerish ball-winner with an appetite for tackles, an excellent work rate and a hearty supply of stamina. But, despite all that promise, his debut year at the San Siro was disappointing.
All in all, Mauri made just five league appearances, only three of them from the start, in his maiden Milan campaign. This was all the more strange considering that, when he was brought into the fold in April, he showed the sort of dynamism, desire and willingness to drive forward that—Juraj Kucka aside—the Rossoneri lacked.
The Argentinian will no doubt be hoping to build on that in his second season, though with Montella in charge, he will have to work on his composure and technique to earn a starting berth in the centre of midfield.
While his distribution is effective, Mauri lacks assuredness on the ball. It was thus strange to see him used as a regista in the second half of the win over Bordeaux, and the fact he struggled to immediately adapt to the role was much less surprising.
Montella's decision to pitch him into such an area of the field suggests the new coach has faith that the player is capable of creating as well as destroying, though for now, his primary aim will be recovering full fitness; according to a statement on the club’s website, he suffered a posterior thigh injury to his left leg in the friendly.
Since joining Milan in January 2015, Suso has made just six league appearances for the club. His difficulties establishing himself at the San Siro only escalated last season during Sinisa Mihajlovic’s tenure, as he was given just one start before being loaned to Genoa at the midway point of the campaign.
However, in his six months at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, he definitively proved his quality at Serie A level. Thriving as a second striker behind Leonardo Pavoletti, he found the net six times in 19 outings.
If that wasn’t enough, Suso’s performance against Bordeaux must have convinced Montella to give him a second chance at Milan; the Spaniard, playing on the right wing, scored both of the Rossoneri’s goals.
His first was an opportunistic right-footed finish after winning possession just outside the French team’s penalty area, while the second was a well-struck left-footed shot into the bottom-left corner. And, aside from his clinical touches, he showed a good work ethic and a willingness to track back when required.
Last season, Milan often found it hard to prize open staunch, defensive opposition. In such circumstances, the decision to let Suso leave on loan only seemed more bizarre. Now, with a coach who will appreciate and utilise his technical gifts, he should receive more game time.