AC Milan directors Paolo Maldini and Zvonomir Boban deserve a lot of credit for what they managed to do in January, but only if it is a precursor to something bigger.
The Rossoneri leadership managed to ship out six players, including a number of high earners, and brought in five players to essentially plug the gaps until the end of the season.
As is well documented, through operations they hope will end favourably it is possible that Maldini, Boban and sporting director Ricky Massara could have built up a kitty of up to €80million for the summer.
Fabio Borini’s €4.3m gross salary is off the books, as is half of Pepe Reina’s €2.6m and Mattia Caldara has joined Atalanta for 18 months, which will save around €6m – and there is an option to buy.
Ricardo Rodriguez left for PSV Eindhoven until the end of the season, saving half of his €3.7m salary, but perhaps most importantly Suso and Krzysztof Piatek have departed for Sevilla and Hertha Berlin respectively. An almost pure capital gain on the Spaniard is added to by the €22m base fee received for the Pole.
Replacements did arrive in some forms. Alexis Saelemaekers was signed as cover for Samu Castillejo on the right but it now seems like the management have realised he is a better right-back. Diego Laxalt was recalled, Simon Kjaer will replace Caldara until at least the summer and the same with Begovic in goal covering Reina.
However, something that Maldini and Boban must be pulled up on is the fact that they failed to address a critical lack of depth in two positions, which perhaps they thought they could get away with until June. They couldn’t, and it was exposed after one game.
As news filtered out that Zlatan Ibrahimovic would miss Sunday’s game against Hellas Verona with a combination of flu and muscle fatigue, the prospect of a strike pairing of Rafael Leao and Ante Rebic seemed to slip under the radar as a formality.
What we saw was what should have been obvious: the 4-4-2 does not work without a target man and/or a natural No.9 – both of which Milan do not possess when Ibrahimovic doesn’t play.
So much of the emphasis is on getting the ball out wide and putting it into dangerous areas and hoping the overload will generate scoring chances, and with two players up front in Leao and Rebic would could be described as support strikers at best, Stefano Pioli’s side looked toothless and pedestrian. It took a deflected free-kick to earn an undeserved point, after all, but Verona are a good side it must be said.
Had Piatek stayed he would have played and, who knows, Milan may have won, but he was allowed to leave so close to the deadline with no replacement ready. The situation is so desperate that journalist Carlo Pellegatti even called on the club to re-sign free agent Alessandro Matri.
Barring the surprise signing of any free agent target men, the situation is unsalvageable. We just have to hope that Ibrahimovic’s 38-year-old body holds up under the ever-increasing pressure and responsibility.
The only other solution is to reinvent the way the team plays; to have a back up plan, perhaps the 4-3-3 with a false nine as last seen when Jeremy Menez donned the Rossonero back in 2014-15. Given the pace and technical quality the team possesses, it might just work.
That would however throw up a question regarding another area criminally ignored by the Milan hierarchy in January: the midfield.
The switch to a 4-4-2 formation over the last few weeks has been a positive one in terms of the creation of chances and increase in goals, and the two banks of four actually appear to have had a positive impact on the defensive record too. However, there is reason to believe that was due to simply – with respect – the quality of opponents faced so far with the new system rather than a magical fix.
With Ismael Bennacer suspended for last weekend’s game and Rade Krunic supposedly injury, Hakan Calhanoglu was asked to occupy an unfamiliar role by anchoring the midfield alongside the inconsistent Franck Kessie. It didn’t work: Verona overran Milan in most departments, and it exposed a fundamental flaw in squad depth.
A central midfielder was needed even before swapping to a 4-4-2 where the middle duo are so important, but none arrived. There were talks with Florentino Luis, but Benfica took him off the market. That’s the nature of the beast in the final few days of the window, and maybe it would be naive to assume a 19-year-old from a different league without much game time this season would have done a better job on Sunday.
The main point is about preparation though. Cutting salary and clearing the decks is ok as long as you can name a functional squad on a matchday. On Sunday, Milan couldn’t. With players returning for the Derby della Madonnina this coming weekend things look healthier, but knowing we are only an injury or suspension away from being plunged into another crisis – one that this time may fall against Lazio, Roma or Juventus – is inexcusable.
If top four has been given up on, as the lack of investment suggests, then that’s fair enough – but it really should not end up costing Milan a Europa League place. Although a competition that divides opinion, it is important for attracting players, and in 2018-19 it earned the club almost €15million – that from a campaign that resulted in group stage elimination.
As mentioned at the very start, it could be that the plan is to clear the decks ahead of the summer, but that is putting a lot of eggs in a basket that may not be big enough to hold them.