If AC Milan fans were expecting a drastic improvement in Clarence Seedorf's first game in the dugout, they'd have been left disappointed. It's perhaps fitting that against a side nicknamed the Mastiffs, the rossoneri delivered a performance of much bark and little bite; dominating possession but relying on a late penalty from Mario Balotelli to squeeze past a Hellas Verona team intent on keeping their sheet clean.
If anything, Seedorf's first game in charge revealed the full extent of the damage Milan have taken over the last few years. Their problems lie not just with their weak centre-backs, but also in the balance of their personnel up top.
Of course, there was never going to be a quick fix for a side which has steadily slipped down the table since their scudetto win back in 2010. Massimiliano Allegri tried and failed to fathom the Milan mess for the last two years, and so expecting a rookie coach to come in and turn the tide in three days was unrealistic.
The Dutchman promised attacking football from his very first match, though not even a switch to Leonardo's famed ‘4-2-fantasia' formation could break a dogged Verona down. Keisuke Honda was handed his first start alongside a trio of other attacking players -- namely Kaká, Robinho and Mario Balotelli -- though they still struggled to create any clear-cut chances.
Nominally a 4-2-3-1, the grafting in midfield was left to Riccardo Montolivo and Nigel de Jong, with the front four given the freedom to duck and weave their way through the massed ranks of yellow shirts. Kaká, Robinho and Honda drifted freely across Milan's attacking midfield band, occasionally darting towards goal and looking to disrupt a back line which was sometimes six strong.
This new-found fluidity was refreshing break from the more regimented strategy of Seedorf's predecessor, whose constant tinkering with formations didn't help his side develop any kind of identity on the field. Allegri was fundamentally a pragmatist; a capable coach, but one who was never able to inspire or excite. His teams lacked flair and imagination, and were markedly more rigid than the new Milan.
Clearly, the best coaches are both ideologues and pragmatists; they can inspire while adjusting and tweaking their teams. Time will tell how adept Seedorf is as a tactician. But from day one, he at least set his team out to attack.
And yet, for all their creativity and possession in the attacking third, Milan rarely made Verona look uncomfortable. Save for the occasional foray forward from young fullback Mattia De Sciglio, the rossoneri lacked any real penetration. Playing a couple of central playmakers alongside the perpetually ineffectual Robinho meant that Milan were badly lacking in width, allowing Verona to sit narrow and deep.
Rather than his usual hotheaded self, the Verona coach Andrea Mandorlini was described by a pitchside reporter as being "unusually calm." With his side soaking up pressure so well, it's little wonder he didn't have to panic.
Milan's problem certainly isn't a new one. Similar issues have afflicted some of Serie A's top teams so far this season too. In their heavy defeat to Juventus, Roma wingers Adem Ljajić and Gervinho failed to stretch the bianconeri out wide, coming inside and being gobbled up by the bianconeri back three. The giallorossi had similar problems in their bizarre drawing streak, dropping points against defensive sides in a similar fashion.
However, Roma's wide variety of attacking options has combined with Rudi Garcia's tactical inventiveness to ensure they've gotten back on track. This current Milan side are short on players like Ljajić and Gervinho, whose pace and directness can crush teams on the counter-attack. Kaká and Honda may be great at creating space and picking a pass, but Milan lack more explosive players who can make the most of their invention.
It's a conundrum which they've recognised, but haven't yet solved. Allegri's was forced into a brief experiment with youngster M'Baye Niang in his search for width on the right, though the French teenager may have been thrust into the first team too early. The signing of Genoa's Valter Birsa in the summer looked like another half-hearted attempt at solving the problem, though the Slovenian hasn't shown himself to be anything more than a reasonable rotation player.
Fortunately, Milan will find pretty much exactly the sort of player they're looking for in their own squad -- albeit one currently on the physio's table rather than the field.
Quick, a good dribbler and an excellent crosser; by happy coincidence Stephan El Shaarawy is just about the best player Seedorf could hope to have to slot into his attacking midfield spot, as a contrasting complement to Kaká and Honda. Allegri struggled to fit il Faraone into Milan's starting 11, though in the new system he could well flourish.
Having said that, pinning expectations on a pretty inconsistent, injury-prone 21-year-old is clearly far from ideal. On top form, El Shaarawy would make a match-winning difference in Milan's games. In the meantime, a like-for-like reinforcement up top wouldn't go amiss.
For Milan, it's all about striking the right balance in attack. Kaká and Honda are undeniably excellent players, though Clarence Seedorf may need to look at different attacking partnerships for Milan to truly flourish, and to rekindle the fantasy in their fantasisti. The new coach has already set out to play with a fluency and attacking intent -- he now needs the personnel to make his vision a reality.