Another season, another bad start for AC Milan. What else is new? Their dream of the scudetto is more or less dead after just seven rounds. Milan fans will be quick to remind you of last season, saying the rossoneri reached the Champions League despite the poor start, but with all the other contenders being significantly stronger than last season, it's hard to believe in a repeat. What's to blame for AC Milan's woes? Is it fair to say the majority of that blame falls on Massimiliano Allegri?
Allegri came in from Cagliari, sacked in April of 2010 when the isolani were in 13th, and won the championship title with Milan in his first season. He won Serie A Coach of the Year in his first season with the rossoneri and managed to keep Milan in the Champions League places over the past three seasons, despite numerous problems. It would be unfair to say that he isn't good at his job. However, his team doesn't always seem like ... a team. And as he himself pointed out after a recent 3-0 loss to French second division team Caen, individual quality is not enough.
Even allowing for individual quality, it seems Milan just don't have enough of it. They have some players who are great, some who were great and some who are merely mediocre. This adds up to make Milan seem more like a mid-table team than a title challenger.
What Milan do possess is one outstanding individual. That Champions League spot was won primarily by Mario Balotelli, who came to the club in January. His arrival prompted a midseason revival, with Milan ultimately reaching third place on the back of Balotelli's 12 goals. The arrival of Super Mario did force Allegri to find a way to make his team more balanced, but Milan still lacked a clear plan in attack.
That lack of a coherent plan has continued into the current season. In contrast, Italy's scudetto contenders are on the ball, so to speak: Antonio Conte's Juventus plays an intensive pressing game with a lot of forward runs by midfielders, plus they have two registas in Andrea Pirlo and Leonardo Bonucci. Rivals Inter Milan, now under Walter Mazzarri, are built upon using wingbacks' runs and looking for space behind opponents. Vincenzo Montella and his Fiorentina are looking to create two-on-one situations whenever possible by maintaining possession. Even AS Roma and Napoli, who appointed new coaches just a few months ago, already have tighter systems in place than Milan. Rafa Benitez also loves high pressing and possession football and insists on his trademark 4-2-3-1 formation that maximizes his players' qualities, while Rudi Garcia uses a balanced and reactive approach and changes his team's tactics and mentality based on the opponent.
And Allegri's Milan? It seems like it all boils down to "give the ball to Balotelli."
Yet Allegri should not shoulder all the blame for Milan's poor performances. The coach has been working in almost impossible conditions, with the club's owner, Silvio Berlusconi, seemingly always looking for his replacement. Even if that is only a media construct, it cannot be an easy atmosphere to work in, and it always seems like Allegri's sacking/resignation is just around the corner.
Milan's questionable (to put it mildly) dealings in the transfer market aren't helping. Sure, some good players were brought in, like the aforementioned Balotelli. But, much like Milan lacks strategy on the pitch, they lack a coherent strategy in the transfer market. After letting most of the big earners go (some of which they probably regretting letting go, like, say, Andrea Pirlo), and reducing the salaries of those who stayed, the rossoneri have decided to put their trust in youngsters.
Or that was the theory. Reality is more complex. Stephan El Shaarawy has suffered since the arrival of Balotelli, and may be sold come January. M'baye Niang is seeing less and less of the pitch. Riccardo Saponara is still waiting on his debut, as is Colombian Jherson Vergara. With the signings of veterans Kaka and Valter Birsa, Niang and Saponara are even less likely to get much playing time. Mattia De Sciglio is the only youngster whose future seems guaranteed at Milan, but he is, like many others, injured at the moment. Then there's another young talent, Andrea Petagna, who had a great preseason but was loaned out to Sampdoria.
It seems Milan boss Adriano Galliani's only real strategy is to spend as little as possible. This results in limiting transfers to players whose contract with their previous clubs are expiring, or to players who have bad relationships with their current clubs, like Milan's latest signing, Adil Rami from Valencia. Their squad is full of mediocre players bought for free, or close to it. The strategy results in buying decent individual players, such as Kaka, who don't necessarily fit into the squad as a whole. With such limitations, is it reasonable to expect Milan to be a title contender?
Allegri is also forced to cope with a staggering number of injuries. A few years ago, Milan made a huge deal of their famous "Milan Lab," an exacting scientific research center that should put Milan far above any other team in the world. Yet today their injury list makes the club a running joke. Over the last couple seasons, nearly every match saw at least one and usually a few key players injured. In their last match, a 3-2 loss to Juventus, the rossoneri were without De Sciglio, Kaka, El Shaarawy, Riccardo Montolivo and Giampaolo Pazzini. They also missed the suspended Balotelli, but his lack of discipline is likely worth a post all on its own.
Let's not forget the case of Alexandre Pato, an enormous young talent whose career was seriously endangered by injuries picked up at Milan. In a recent interview, Pato, now with Corinthians, blamed Milan's medical team and the Milan Lab for his injury troubles, stating he's been completely healthy since he came back to Brazil. While that may not be completely true, the number of injuries plaguing Milan is a serious issue that is currently hindering their ability to compete.
Between a lack of influence in the transfer market, constant injuries and enormous pressure from both the president and the fans, it is not easy being Max Allegri. Yet he still must find a way for the rossoneri to play like Champions League contenders -- or he's likely out a job. But Allegri isn't Milan's only problem. Nor is he the biggest. Milan seems to be losing their identity, and with it, their cutting edge. A simple coaching change won't be enough to put the club back on track.