Devil’s Advocate: Maldini’s pursuit of Tonali, opportunism and the virtue of patience

By Oliver Fisher -

Those of you who are regular followers of this series may remember an extract from the great William Shakespeare play ‘Julius Caesar’ used back on August 18.

Rather than try to find a better one, it instead deserves to be repeated after a fortnight which perhaps perfectly encompasses the essence: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”

Back in last week’s press conference, technical director Paolo Maldini seemed to move to quash some of the growing restlessness amongst the fanbase about a perceived lack of signings.

“Last year we laid the foundations for an idea of Milan for the future. Nine players arrived between the summer and January,” he said.

“This year we will make some targeted signings. Maybe we won’t be able to make big signings like in the past, I don’t want to deceive the fans, but we are vigilant if any market opportunities arise.”

It seemed to be a management of expectations aimed at those who perhaps read a bit too much into the rumours that the club are about to spend big on a centre-back like Nikola Milenkovic, a striker like Luka Jovic or even more on Federico Chiesa.

The key word, of course, is ‘opportunities’. At the time this was construed to mean that the club were not embarking on a mission to get their business done early but rather to wait and see what potential bargains might be out there.

Less than 10 days later though, everything has changed. The Rossoneri have sealed a double deal for Sandro Tonali from Brescia and Brahim Diaz from Real Madrid, but it is the situation pertaining to the former which best encapsulates the narrative.

Opportunism is both a broad and a very concise term, both in football and in life. In this case though, it could be the sweetest word for Milan fans.

It seemed as though the boyhood Milanista was all set for a move to join city rivals Inter with personal terms having been agreed since March, but the Nerazzurri stalled while Maldini and co. moved into first.

Not only did the management pounce at the right time like a pack of hyenas waiting in the tall grass, but they did so with ruthless efficiency and left Inter a stranded carcus, walking away with Tonali in their jaws as the new prized jewel of the Elliott Management era.

The timing was exceptional but the execution was also crucial. Maldini and Massara secured the approval of Elliott to make the investment and tie up the deal once it became very tangible, then negotiated on two fronts simultaneously to agree a contract with the player and put forward a teasing offer that – because the player only wanted Milan – eventually became irrefutable.

It was the model transfer operation; the initial pursuit of a generational talent became a done deal in less than 72 hours, while you look around Europe and see much bigger and wealthier clubs haggling for weeks.

The end result is that the Diavolo could have an anchor of their midfield for the next decade plus if everything goes to plan. Brescia president Massimo Cellino’s words on Milan’s project are also reassuring and should not be ignored; after all this is a man who is not usually quick to praise other teams, especially those who ‘raid’ his own.

Although we haven’t seen Tonali hold up the famous red and black shirt he asked for as a child, the operation itself is done and dusted, and now Milan move on like a ruthless machine.

Opportunism though remains the buzz word, and there are plenty of reasons the excitement should not stop. Maldini’s words about Elliott Management making efforts to get the team back into the top four should not be skimmed over.

Firstly, There are a few things that may point towards more investment this summer in particular, regardless of the speculation about a very limited budget.

The first is that UEFA have essentially suspended Financial Fair Play due to COVID and its effects on revenues across football, which is coupled with the fact Milan have somehow slashed their losses by €46m, at least according to the prospective 2019/20 accounts.

The second is that Milan must negotiate a new Settlement Agreement with UEFA in 2021. While it would of course be helpful to have accounts as healthy as possible, it does in a roundabout way mean that the club have a year of leniency, especially with COVID and the losses being cut.

Thirdly, COVID hasn’t hit Elliott Management as a fund, in fact reports suggest they have grown stronger while other club owners such as Suning have been hit very hard.

The philosophy of Elliott as a whole is one of opportunism: they operate as a vulture fund, so maybe they have sensed a big chance to strengthen while other clubs stand still.

Looking at specific operations there are also signs that the cogs could start churning again very soon. If before there was urgency to close a deal for Tiemoue Bakayoko, the arrival of Tonali means Milan have a stronger negotiating position and can simply move onto other targets if they don’t feel the opportunity is right to bring the Frenchman back.

Then there are other potential ‘luxury’ targets, and while Milan’s wish list is probably like the ocean in the sense 90% remains unexplored and unearthed by the media, there is a potential axis developing with Fiorentina that could be significant.

Nikola Milenkovic and Federico Chiesa are two players who have been repeatedly linked. It is highly unlikely both arrive and probably still unlikely at this stage that either move west to Milan, but there are cards the management can play in their favour.

What is turning into a very undesirable situation for Fiorentina president Rocco Commisso could present Milan with a big chance. Milenkovic and Chiesa are both on deals running until 2022 with nothing to suggest either will extend.

If teasing offers are put in now – like with the Tonali deal – they will only become more and more attractive with the passage of time as Commisso grows increasingly worried about the possibility of keeping hold of two big assets whose value will simply diminish by summer 2021 due to their contract situation.

Once again, opportunism becomes key, and the Tonali deal could just be the marker on the barometer which shows that Maldini was not messing around when he said the club would seek out the right deals to take the club forward.

After all, he is a man who knew how to perfectly time a tackle, so we should trust him to perfectly time more transfer operations.

Tags AC Milan Sandro Tonali