Five years ago, AC Milan boasted a mind-numbingly gorgeous midfield of Kaka, , and . It was the linchpin of a team that was the most dominant of its time. By the time they beat Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Liverpool in succession en route to the Champions League title in 2007, Milan were the envy of Europe and leading the list of the world's best clubs.
Now the Rossoneri are managed by Massimiliano Allegri.
There is no greater representation of Milan's fall than Allegri, a capable manager, but one who is woefully out of his depth at the San Siro.
Allegri's tactics consist of establishing a system that best suits his players and playing that way consistently, match after match. There may be player changes, but none are ever dramatic or controversial. It is a simplicity over all approach that makes him no more than the Italian Harry Redknapp, suited to rescuing clubs from the drop, but debilitating for a team with any ambition.
On Tuesday, Milan welcomed Anderlecht to the San Siro. Unsurprisingly, Allegri sent his team out with a dour midfield, as he regularly does. Nigel de Jong,and all started against a team that counted as its most defensive midfielder. Nothing in the team selection or Allegri's tactics showed any desire to attack a midfield that the Rossoneri should have outclassed with ease.
Milan was forced to lean upon Emanuelson's Wikipedia page sums up the oddity of this selection perfectly.in the attack, a left wingback that only Allegri has thought a palatable option as a central attacking player. The opening paragraph of
"He plays as either a left midfielder or left back. He spent most of his career at Ajax playing as a left back, before being played more as a left midfielder by manager Martin Jol, but used by Massimiliano Allegri as an attacking midfielder."
When Kljestan committed himself to man marking Emanuelson, Milan proved incapable of exploiting the open space in the midfield. They were out of options easily and quickly.
Even Allegri's substitutions failed to inspire. It took an hour for Allegri to make a change and three relatively like-for-like substitutions later, the team was still playing largely the same. They were without ingenuity or inspiration. When the final whistle blew, Milan had a deserved scoreless draw. This at home, against a Belgian side, and Allegri managed like he was content with the result, failing to show any urgency or imagination.
But anything bordering on urgency or imagination has never been Allegri's forte.
On paper, Allegri may stack up just fine. He won a Serie A title in his first season at Milan, but that was almost by default. Internazionale imploded in their first post-year and had still not fully recovered from Calciopoli, leaving a thoroughly mediocre Milan side as the only team standing in a league short on quality.
No one has benefited more from the crash of Italian football than Milan and Allegri, who was managing Serie C1 club Sassuolo just four years ago. As other teams have found itself in the center of match-fixing scandals, short on funding or spiraling down the drain, Milan stood resolute.
Rival teams sold off their best players and Milan kept theirs. As other teams fell off the pace, the Rossoneri just had to stick in neutral and all was well. That usually describes a relegation battle, where bad teams survive just be being mediocre, but Serie A's downfall made that the scenario at the top of the table.
This summer, Milan finally relented. They sold Zlatan Ibrahimovic and, turning them into the same weakened club that their rivals became years ago.
No longer is circumstance smiling upon Milan. Now they are in a real competition and that does not bode well for Allegri, who showed on Tuesday that he has no business at a top club. It was a match similar to their defeat at the hands of Barcelona a year ago and Tottenham Hotspur two years ago.
Allegri's predictability and lack of imagination doomed the Rossoneri in their last two forays into Europe, as it has done early in this Serie A season, where talent alone can no longer carry them.
This isn't to say that Allegri has no business managing a decent club, because there is talent required to guide clubs in danger, but he has no business leading Milan or any other truly big club.
Then again, are Milan still a big club?
They're nowhere near the standard that they set five-plus years ago. Those brilliant players aged and their replacements have been sold off. But Milan still fancy themselves a big club, and their participation in the Champions League indicates a modicum of relevancy.
Being led by Massimiliano Allegri doesn't.