Clarence Seedorf’s AC Milan have hit their best form of the season over recent weeks, capped by winning the Derby della Madonnina against Inter Milan on Sunday. They have won six of their last seven over their latest surge, and moved to within a point of the final Europa League spot and three of their old Milanese rivals. But while the team has been heating up on the pitch, the atmosphere between the coach and his management is as icy as ever. Described in the Italian media as "war," it seems Seedorf will be replaced at the end of the season, regardless of where the rossoneri finish.
Initially, the tension seemed to exist solely between Seedorf and Milan's veteran sporting director Adriano Galliani, who reportedly wanted to place the team's youth coach, Pippo Inzaghi, in charge of the club after sacking Massimiliano Allegri. However, he was overruled by president Silvio Berlusconi, leading to a fractious relationship between the affronted Galliani and the unloved Seedorf. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Berlusconi is now said to have shifted boardroom allegiances in favor of his old associate, leaving Seedorf isolated and his days numbered.
The reason behind Berlusconi’s shift is said to be technical, rather than political. The president -- a self-proclaimed expert on footballing matters -- apparently has seen no improvement in the handling of the squad since the rookie coach took over, and so will look to replace him in the summer. According to a report in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Seedorf -- who signed a two year contract when he was appointed in January -- is already preparing for a legal battle over a potentially messy departure. It’s a rather uncomfortable situation for all involved.
Uncomfortable, and entirely unnecessary. Milan brought Seedorf in when they were 11th in the Serie A table, ten points adrift of the final Europa League spot. They’re now eighth, with the European deficit down to just one point. Having had no transfer window to improve the squad, Milan could hardly have asked for more from the Dutchman. Certainly, results can be flattering when performances aren’t impressive. But under Allegri, Milan had neither performances, nor points.
Seedorf arrived at Milan with an ambitious vision to impose a possession-based, modern strategy -- a big departure from anything attempted under his predecessor. Clearly, the implementation of his vision is still in progress -- the squad still needs to be adjusted, and no doubt Seedorf will no doubt make tweaks to his system and style as time passes and he learns on the job. But from what we’ve seen so far, keeping him on is a risk worth taking. It would fit with the club’s need to shift to long-term development from desperate short-termism.
Most of all, Seedorf is showing promise as a coach. He has matched his ambitious vision with tactical pragmatism, shifting his approach depending on the opposition while still maintaining a focus on control. He dumped his 4-2-3-1 in favour of a diamond midfield against Inter, in an intelligent switch that negated the nerazzurri’s central threat. Milan’s full-backs and shuttling central midfielders created overloads against Inter’s wing-backs on the flanks, while Kaká and Adel Taarabt fortified the midfield when Inter looked to play through the middle. Defensively, the strategy worked perfectly.
Perhaps with an end-of-season departure in the back of his mind, Seedorf has already begun flirting with the very rivals he defeated on the weekend. "Me to Inter? It wouldn't be a scandal," he told Gazzetta, while the nerazzurri's Walter Mazzarri is coming under fire after his side's terrible derby display. It’s a worrisome development for Berlusconi and Galliani. The last thing they want is to sack Seedorf only to see him soaring at their bitterest rivals, especially with public opinion already against them. At the time of writing, a Gazzetta poll on whether or not Seedorf should keep his position is more than 80 percent in the Dutchman’s favour.
Milan would also do well to remember Vincenzo Montella’s short tenure as interim coach at AS Roma three years ago, when he was dispensed after 16 games. No one took him seriously as a replacement, perceiving him to be a short-term crowd pleaser -- the return of a club legend to boost morale amid underperformance. Three years on, he's in charge of Fiorentina, one of the most progressive and exciting clubs in the league, and an even bigger job surely awaits.
Certainly, we are still in the early days of Seedorf's coaching career, and it’s possible to argue that arriving in the middle of a disappointing season is the prime time to establish your coaching credentials -- the difficult part being when you’re tasked to shape a squad of your own. Unlike with Montella, we've not yet had a few seasons to make a complete assessment. But up to now, all the evidence available suggests Seedorf is a man who knows what he wants, and how to get it. If Milan doesn't offer him that opportunity, it may well be that their biggest rivals end up as the beneficiaries.