It was September 2nd, 2013, and one of Milan’s favorite sons had just come home. Kaka sat in the trophy room at A.C. Milan’s former Via Turati headquarters, signing a contract that sealed his return to the Rossoneri from Real Madrid. Not a half-an-hour later, the Brazilian appeared on the balcony outside, beaming as he pulled on the famed striped shirt of the club. Below, some 400 Milan fans serenaded him with an enthusiastic rendition of siam venuti fin qua per vedere segnare Kaka – ‘we came this far to see Kaka score’ – which had been chanted from the sloping stands of the Giuseppe Meazza as he brought them glory years before. Later on, the one-time Ballon d’Or winner bounced up and down with his admirers outside Da Giannino to the tune of chi non salta nerazzurro e’ – ‘whoever isn’t jumping is an Inter fan’.
For an embattled core of supporters, it looked to be a cathartic moment. Seeing Kaka back in shadow of the Duomo brought on a rush of uninhibited joy. But from outside of the masses deliriously celebrating the return of the man that cost Real Madrid €65 million to sign in the summer of 2009, there was something wrong. Kaka wasn’t the same player who had left for the Santiago Bernabeu four years earlier after winning an inordinate amount of silverware in northern Italy – instead, he had become a symbol of a club that had lost its way.
Jump back to July of 2012. For a combined €62 million, president Silvio Berlusconi sold Milan’s two best players – Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva – to nouveu-riche Paris Saint-Germain. The reason? The club wanted to balance the books. From that day forward, the Rossoneri’s presence as a financial juggernaut faded away. No longer would Berlusconi pour the vast sums of money into the squad that had built the superb teams of yesteryear. In the 2010-11 season, Milan had reclaimed the Scudetto after stumbling through bitter rivals Inter’s dominant period in the wake of Calciopoli. In Ibrahimovic and Silva’s last campaign at San Siro, they missed out on a second straight title to Juventus by just four points.
But the line had been drawn in the sand. There was to be a new approach at Milan, one where developing youth would be relied upon for results rather than expensive stars. Instead of switching gears quickly, however, what’s ensued is a hard fall for a club that in the decade prior had twice won the Champions League. Two plus years on, Milan find themselves looking up the table in Serie A, more fit to fight for a place in the Europa League than even qualifying for Europe’s elite competition in the first place. Meanwhile, Juventus have painfully risen from the ashes to take a stranglehold on the Italian football – fueled in large part by a certain Andrea Pirlo, who Milan gifted to the Bianconeri for free, thinking his days of brilliance were behind him.
The burning question is how – or if – Milan can chart a similar path back to prominence. On the matter, the bitter truth is that there’s no concrete answer. But this being said, there are steps the Rossoneri can take to help reverse their terrible fortunes of late.
It starts with continuity. If Milan are to undertake a fruitful youth project, as the club hierarchy have claimed to be in the past two years, they need to act like it. Recent transfer business suggests that sustaining marketability has become the chief concern, rather than breeding a generation of talented player at home. Just take a look at the squad – it’s littered with former stars well past their best that have been recently been brought in. Michael Essien and Fernando Torres are the two most obvious cases. Signing them reeked of an executive team eager to cash in on the former Premier League duo’s name recognition worldwide – on the pitch, they’ve done nearly nothing of note. Then there’s Kaka, who had a productive, yet unspectacular, swan song at Milan – admittedly to placate dissatisfied supporters – before calling it quits in Europe.
Such players have been handed minutes while promising young players like M’Baye Niang and Riccardo Saponara have looked on from the bench. And then there’s the inexplicable deadline day sale of 19-year-old Bryan Cristante – touted by scouts as a star of the future – to consider. The teenage midfielder was shipped off to Portugal even at a time in which Milan have grave problems in midfield. A 30-year-old Sulley Muntari continues to start in the center of the park despite his clear limitations in frustrating performances, leaving fans to wonder what Cristante could’ve achieved if given a chance in the Ghanaian’s place.
Yet, there is hope. Mattia De Sciglio and Stephan El Shaarawy are regulars in the side, and if granted time and patience should develop into fine players. The key is allowing them to find their way through youthful mistakes and resisting the urge to cash in on them before they can reach their potential.
The task of developing these talents is in the hands of head coach Pippo Inzaghi. And the former striker has progress to make himself on the bench, this term his first in charge of a top flight club. The premature dismissal of predecessor and former Rossoneri team-mate Clarence Seedorf left many confused. Like Inzaghi, Seedorf was a club legend and a novice coach, sent away after just a few months in the dugout in favour of the Italian. But what’s important now is that Seedorf is out, and Inzaghi is in. If the 41-year-old is to be the man to lead the club forward, he must be given license to learn along the way. Inzaghi cannot live under threat of the axe from Berlusconi – he should be left to leave his mark on the team and pick up the tricks of the coaching trade through his experiences.
Beyond this, the club’s transfer policy needs to reflect what Inzaghi is trying to accomplish. Milan must be willing to back him financially even at a minimal level. The capture of Giacomo Bonaventura in the summer was an example of a step in the right direction in this regard. The 25-year-old cost €7 million to sign from Atalanta, a reasonable sum – and he fits the type of football Inzaghi is attempting to implement at Milan. Versatile, technical and hard-working, Bonaventura is a real asset for Inzaghi as he looks to create a side capable of successfully playing a free-form, attacking game predicated on intelligent movement and a high work-rate. Milan need more of this modern-style player that matches skill with athleticism.
Even looking just in Serie A, there are transfer targets to be had that fit this mold. Atalanta youngster Daniele Baselli, a central midfielder linked with Milan this fall, would be an excellent addition who has plenty of room to grow. His Orobici team-mate, right-back Davide Zappacosta, boasts incredible pace and considerable crossing ability at just 22 years of age. Milan desperately need help at full-back, having long had problems there. Also in need of a striker, the Rossoneri would do well to test Palermo’s resolve in hunting 20-year-old Andrea Belotti, a cheaper alternative to Paulo Dybala. None of the proposed targets would come at too great a cost for this iteration of Milan to afford, and boast youth along with the characteristics to succeed in Inzaghi’s system.
Casting the eye abroad, there are others that could also benefit Milan. River Plate center-back Eder Alvarez Balanta is a fantastic prospect, carrying a reported price tag of €7 million. Croatian striker Andrej Kramaric, said to already be a target for Milan, has impressed for HNK Rijeka in his homeland and would be a welcome addition. Over in the Netherlands, young midfielders Jordy Clasie and Adam Maher look set for bright futures and Milan would be a great home for either.
None of the players mentioned are over 22. The point is that if Milan want to execute a youth project under Inzaghi, commitment needs to be reflected in the acquisitions made. The current squad boasts both experience and youth – adding to the latter category and developing those present while maintaining a veteran core is the direction the board needs to be going in.
The precedent for returning to success after a period in the doldrums already exists. Galling as it may be, Milan would do well to examine how Juventus have reemerged from the low of lows – demotion to Serie B due to Calciopoli sanctions – as they look to return to relevance. When the Bianconeri returned to Serie A in 2007, the leadership initially spent heavily to hit the highs once again. For years, it didn’t quite work and results were disappointing. Only when investment became more measured did the club rocket back to the pinnacle of Serie A. The heart of the current Juventus side – a midfield core highlighted by Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba – came at a combined cost of €12.5 million in transfer fees. Pirlo joined for free from Milan, while Pogba was snapped up on a Bosman from Manchester United as a 19-year-old. Marchisio is product of Juventus’ academy. The entire €12.5 million expenditure came in purchasing Vidal from Bayer Leverkusen in 2011.
Juventus’ project is still in progress. For all their domestic success, the Old Lady has suffered in European competition over the past three seasons – a measuring stick by which the continent’s true elite are judged. What can be learned by Milan from this is that the road back to relevance not only in Serie A but in Europe will be a long one, even if the proper steps are taken to secure the club’s future via a comprehensive transfer strategy and faith in Inzaghi. The Rossoneri faded from the upper echelons of the game in only a few years’ time, but rebuilding their kingdom under a new model not based on funding massive moves on the transfer market will take exponentially longer. Milan must revise the way they do things from top to bottom in their organization, moving forward with clear goals on a united front.
The Rossoneri have been plagued by a seeming lack of acceptance that an era has come to a close, despite the fact that the owner of the club himself made the choice to scale back operations financially. A proposed stadium project to hopefully be completed by 2020 will help the club recover and modernize in the proper way, as Juventus did with their privately-owned ground, but in the intervening years there’s plenty of work to be done. To reclaim their place alongside fellow giants of Europe, a holistic revolution must take place at Casa Milan. Trials and tribulations are sure to serve as roadblocks along the way. Nothing will be guaranteed. But never count out a club with the pedigree of Milan. They have gone to hell and back before – prior to Berlusconi’s purchase of the club in 1986 – and with shrewd strategy, a new attitude and the desire to take on a great undertaking, can do it once again.
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