When AC Milan beat Inter Milan in the Derby della Madonnina at the end of January, people sat up and took notice. It had been two years since Milan beat Inter, and their 3-0 drubbing of their archrivals was as impressive as it was shocking. It gave fans of the rossoneri new hope that their long-beleaguered club was about to find relevance again and become the competitive side they crave. In order for that to happen, however, Milan still have an awful lot of work to do to change their fortunes.
It's been three and a half years since Milan's finances forced them to sell off Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a day widely regarded as the end of Milan's most recent era as a power club. They have not won Serie A since that day in 2012 -- their last title came in 2011 -- and their only two ventures in the Champions League since then both ended in the first knockout round. Their last two seasons in Serie A saw them finish in eighth and 10th place, and they currently sit in sixth place in the league -- all very unacceptable positions by Milan's lofty standards.
In terms of stature in Serie A, Milan have taken some pretty big knocks. They got passed by Juventus. They got passed by Roma. Those two are understandable -- they were already solid clubs who were on an upswing when Milan started to fall off. But then it grew worse. Napoli passed them. Then Lazio. Then Fiorentina. Inter, despite their own struggles, have generally stayed a notch above their rivals. Now Milan's standing in terms of a Serie A "power" is somewhere around the level of Sassuolo or Torino -- hardly an ideal position.
Despite the failing results and the constant discontent of the fan base, however, Milan keep on carrying on as though little has changed. They kept buying experienced veterans to fill their squad with, but now that they can't afford the best veterans. Instead, they're splashing the cash of the guys they once would have bought to back up Ibrahimovic and Silva. And instead of buying someone like Nigel De Jong in his prime years, they have him for the declining phase of his career.
It's a plan that clearly isn't working, and has cost a number of managers their jobs over the last few years. They need to do something else -- anything else, perhaps, in order to turn things around and start to actually, consistently challenge their rivals in Serie A again.
The biggest issue that they face is that they really need to be smarter about how they spend their money. They make around €40 million ($44.56 million US) per season from their kits from long-term sponsorship deals with Adidas and Emirates Airlines, which represented good money when the deals were signed. However, that has been far surpassed by newer deals with big teams all around Europe, including by Italian rivals Juventus.
They also make good money from stadium revenues and merchandise sales, so while they can't spend money like it's going out of style like they once did, Milan are hardly paupers. They can pay good wages and spend decent money on transfer fees -- they just need to be choosier about how they do it.
That means not spending €38 million ($42.3 million US) on two 28-year-old strikers -- Carlos Bacca and Luiz Adriano -- paying them handsomely, and then trying and failing to jettison one of them six months later -- Adriano -- after hardly playing him. That means not blowing all other offers out of the water on a pair of younger players -- Alessio Romagnoli and Andrea Bertolacci, especially Bertolacci -- and then only playing one of them sporadically despite him being arguably your best midfielder, that being Bertolacci.
All of that is just from last summer, and illustrates just how bad Milan have been at utilizing their resources. Just buying one of Bacca or Adriano probably would have been fine, especially with Mario Balotelli coming back from Liverpool on loan and M'Baye Niang coming into his own. Spending a little extra of Romagnoli is fine in the end, as Milan needed to upgrade their back line and he looks like a future star.However, spending extra on Bertolacci is questionable when they already had a number of midfielders in his same mold as a player.
That's not to say that Milan aren't entirely without good signings. Getting Jose Mauri for free from financially destroyed Parma was a stroke of genius. Juraj Kucka was a fantastic value at €3 million. The Balotelli loan was a smart move. Signing Giacomo Bonaventura for €7 million two summers ago has wound up being a smart move. Milan need more transfers like those, value buys with upside and less spending-for-the-sake-of-spending moves. They can splash the cash periodically on a Bacca or a Romagnoli when it's needed and appropriate, but they can't keep blindly doing that like they have been.
Milan have an old squad, with 11 players who are at least 28 and have played at least eight matches, and a couple other players over 30 who likely would be over that mark if not for injuries. That's a significant chunk of players who just aren't going to get better, many of whom are either currently getting worse or soon will. There's certainly value to having a veteran core with experience, but for a team that needs to spend smarter and get better, that's just not the way to go.
Does all this mean that Milan are a terrible team bound for relegation? No, not at all. We saw against Inter Milan that they can be very good when everything is clicking and working together. But this isn't a team built for any kind of long-term success, or even really sustainable success in the current season. We've already seen some pretty wild swings in Milan's form this season, and until they figure out how to better assemble a squad there will be little in the way of consistent quality in this team.
Milan have a long ways to go before they return to being a powerful club in Serie A. It's probably going to take a few years to get things back on track, and there will be more bumps in the road. But they can do it, as long as they start being smarter about how they approach the transfer market and plan things out well ahead of time -- instead of panic-buying or getting distracted by shiny things.
With time and patience and strategy, they can be a powerhouse again -- or they can keep doing the same old thing and keep sinking further into irrelevance. Only one of those options is at all a good one, and the other could spell disaster for one of the most historic clubs in the world.