AC Milan's poor form is showing no signs of improvement, with defeat to Inter Milan on Sunday continuing their slump. The rossoneri have won just four times in their opening 17 games, and are as many points adrift of the Champions League places. Coach Massimiliano Allegri could -- and almost definitely should -- have lost his job long ago, but so oddly stubborn has the Milan board been, it's hard to see him being fired for anything short of getting Milan relegated.
With there being little chance of seeing a new face in the dugout before the season is out, Milan fans have turned in increasing desperation to the signing of CSKA Moscow's Keisuke Honda as a potential catalyst for improvement. The impending arrival of the Japanese international on a free transfer has been confirmed by CEO Adriano Galliani, though Milan fans should be sceptical about how much he'll really be able to turn their fortunes.
There's no doubt that Honda is a classy player. At both domestic and international level, he has demonstrated a talent worthy of more than just a starring role in the Russian Premier League. A move to one of Europe's big clubs has been on the cards for a while, and thus Milan's mere capture of the playmaker isn't an unimpressive feat. What, then, is the problem?
Well, Milan's first headache is just trying to fit him into the team. Max Allegri's preferred 4-3-1-2 only leaves space for one attacking midfielder, and given that dropping Kaká is a nigh-on sacrilegious act in Milan, it's hard to see the Brazilian being forced out of the team. Considering Kaká has probably been the rossoneri's best player this season, it wouldn't make much sense either.
If a formation change is in order, then cramming them both into a festive Christmas tree is a likely option. Allegri has already tried it with Valter Birsa sitting alongside Kaká, and suffice to say, Honda is an upgrade on him. Kaká excelled in a 4-3-2-1 in his previous spell at Milan under Carlo Ancelotti, and there's the possibility that he could do the same alongside Honda.
Unlike Kaká, whose trademark is driving runs from deep and perfect penetrative passes, Honda's is his intricate ability to link in tight spaces high up the field, drifting wide across an attacking midfield band to bring his teammates into play. As a combination, it could have potential and be preferable to shoving either player out wide or deeper in midfield in an ill-suited role.
However, selecting a formation and picking a lineup is just the easy part. Alas no amount of Hondas will still be able to resolve Milan's biggest problem: Allegri himself. Sure, Milan's squad isn't great, but it's not the 13th worst in Serie A either. The simple fact is that they're hugely underperforming and will continue to do so while they have a coach who has shown a distinct inability to imprint a footballing identity on his team.
It's especially frustrating given that this Milan side is far from a bunch of no-hopers. Mario Balotelli hasn't been on top form recently, though when at his best he's undoubtedly one of the best forwards in the league. Midfielders Riccardo Montolivo and Nigel De Jong are international regulars for Italy and the Netherlands. Stephan El Shaarawy, Bryan Cristante and Mattia De Sciglio all look exceptional talents. Defensively they need reinforcing, but going forward they are pretty well set, or at least they would be if they had a better coach.
When Balotelli is at his best, the 'give the ball to Mario' approach to tactics just about got Allegri through. Now that Super Mario isn't playing so well, the rossoneri look completely lost. Constant tinkering with formations and personnel have led to a team completely devoid of a coherent gameplan -- a fundamental flaw that simply throwing new players into the starting 11 won't be able to fix.
What they really need is the appointment of a Rudi Garcia-style pragmatist -- someone who can rapidly turn their fortunes with a clear tactical vision. The signing of Honda has further strengthened a side which boasts a more than impressive attack, and one which could be devastating with the right guidance. Sadly, that guidance won't come until Allegri is replaced.