Devil’s Advocate: Milan’s German-inspired machine could have a Portuguese-flavoured spine

By Oliver Fisher -

AC Milan look set to embark on yet another revolution this summer, with a number of reports suggesting Ralf Rangnick is set to accept an omnipotent role at the club.

‘Der Professor’ – as he is known in Germany – appears to be the man Milan wants at all costs due to his ability to build a young team and get them playing his brand of intense, fast-paced football.

Rangnick’s style can be summer up in two words in German: ‘Ballorientierte Raumdeckung’, or ball-oriented field coverage. In simpler terms, the ball must played as quickly and vertically as possible, and winning the ball back through systematic aggression once possession is lost is absolutely key.

The former Schalke and Hoffenheim boss does not like prolonged possession and encourages his sides to play through the lines and get a shot away as quickly as possible, also encouraging risks to try and win the ball back.

Rangnick has always been a great admirer of the legendary Milan boss Arrigo Sacchi, and his methods are inspiring by the Italian. In training Rangnick uses two stopwatches, one with a countdown set at 8 seconds (the maximum time to win the ball back) and one at 10 seconds, the time for using possession.

What does this mean for the future of the Milan squad? Well, Rangnick will have obviously already made some assessments on the current squad if he is serious about accepting the role, and subsequently will probably have a list of targets to improve various areas.

However there are two players in the current squad who are in dire need of a change in course to turn around their so far disappointing starts to life as Milan players.

The first is Lucas Paqueta, who arrived in January 2019 from Flamengo for a fee believed to be €45m including bonuses (via MilanNews).

It has not been the easiest period for Paqueta over the last few months, with the Brazil international having struggled for game time under Stefano Pioli. He started promisingly after his arrival from Flamengo last January but since Gennaro Gattuso left, things have gone downhill amid reports he is struggling with life away from football.

However, the arrival of Rangnick could give him a new lease of life. The 61-year-old tends to prefer a 4-4-2 system with the wide midfielders being encouraged to drift inside and create chances, almost like a 4-2-2-2, and it is natural to think that the attacking midfield role is one where Paqueta could flourish.

As aforementioned, Rangnick likes players who are quick and direct in their play and are willing to work hard both on and off the ball. We have already seen in glimpses under Pioli that Paqueta can press aggressively and get stuck in, and in terms of playmakers he still remains Milan’s most incisive option.

There has to be an economic aspect to this too. Paqueta represents exactly the kind of purchase Elliott Management believe they wish to make: a young, talented player who they anticipate will develop to a high valuation in order to record capital gains on their balance sheet.

After 17 months Paqueta’s valuation has gone down, so the American fund are left with a difficult crossroads: abandon the 22-year-old and admit an early failure in their plans by selling for a loss, or reject offer to stick by Paqueta and give him another season.

There is a similar albeit not quite so immediate quandary in the future of Rafael Leao. The Portuguese starlet arrived from Lille last summer for a fee widely reported to be over €28million, but he has just two goals to his name.

Leao has struggled to break through, spending a lot of time on the bench in his first season, and although it seemed he had struck a partnership with Zlatan Ibrahimovic after the Swede’s arrival he was quickly discarded in favour of the red-hot Ante Rebic.

Nonetheless, there are no concrete suggestions that Milan plan to end the 20-year-old’s time at the San Siro early. In fact, a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 system is one which could really help Leao flourish just as with his fellow Portuguese-speaking team-mate Paqueta.

In Rangnick’s system, he likes the front two to consist of balanced forwards who are ready to press as high up the pitch as the can as quickly as possible, always supported by the midfielders. Leao can do exactly that: he is fast, we have seen he is willing to drift wide and he will cover as much ground as required.

In addition to this, so much of the German’s game is about building through the lines with speed. During a dreadful start to the season under Marco Giampaolo and before Christmas under Pioli the former Sporting CP forward showed that he can do exactly that: he can drive attacks forward, breaking the lines with speed and skill, plus he isn’t afraid to beat a man and shoot.

Versatility and tactical flexibility will also be the order of the day for Rangnick, and there is certainly the opportunity for Leao to play further wide as the left prong of the attack or as the out-and-out target man if he finds his scoring boots.

Again, the economics alone suggests that selling would not generate any yield, so it will be up to the club and the new head coach to try and get Leao’s stock back in the green.

Then there is of course Leo Duarte, who joined last July from Flamengo in a deal worth €10million (as per Wikipedia). The centre-back – like the aforementioned duo – has shown flashes of his ability in his first season but faded into the background following an achilles tendon problem before Christmas which kept him out for three months after surgery.

Duarte’s versatility has already been seen as the 23-year-old has played both centre-back and right-back for the Rossoneri, and that is something that Rangnick would surely appreciate especially given the problems in the latter position.

Another thing we have seen is that Duarte is physical, quick to the ball and aggressive in the tackle, which fits into Rangnick’s pressing philosophy perfectly, and he is not afraid to play with the ball at his feet.

It is of course unlikely that he would be thrown straight into a starting spot, but having him as a depth option could be vital as seen with the injuries sustained by Mateo Musacchio and Simon Kjaer this year which resulted in Matteo Gabbia getting his chance.

Finally, we look at possible additions which could further infuse the Portuguese flavour that the team could take on.

Firstly there is Florentino Luis of Benfica, a player who Milan were heavily linked with during the January transfer window. Speculation persists that the Rossoneri want to partner the talented young Portuguese starlet with Ismael Bennacer in the engine room for next season.

The 20-year-old has seen his playing time decrease due to Julian Weigl’s arrival, but he still has the potential to become a quality midfielder and an anchor in the spine of the national team for years to come.

Naturally a defensive midfielder/regista, Florentino is very much a tenacious midfielder like Bennacer; tough-tackling player who is small in stature but packs a punch to protect the defence. He is also comfortable and tidy in possession, something which fits Rangnick’s win-ball-give-ball approach.

He may cost a pretty penny but his price will likely be lower due to lack of game time and, as mentioned, he could be Bennacer’s partner for years to come. He seems more suited to ‘Ballorientierte Raumdeckung’ than Kessie, who could even be sold to make way.

A bit further up the field, Milan could consider rekindling interest in Gremio forward Everton Soares, who has 36 goals and 14 assists in 138 league games.

He has been persistently linked with a move to the Rossoneri since last summer, and he could be a perfect support striker in the formation previously mentioned, or could even play on the left allowing Rebic to move closer to goal.

Then at the back, the influence could be added to by bringing Thiago Silva back as a free agent if the parameters of the deal were right, adding some much needed experience and leadership in the process.

Or if the route of young talent must absolutely be adhered to, then recent links with Bruno Fuchs of Internacionale could have some credence, and he would add to a promising defensive core as the Brazilian has a bright future.

There are plenty of options, and Rangnick will likely take his own route in proceedings, but if Elliott have a say then it might just be in their best interests financially and from a project point of view that Milan’s Portuguese-speaking influence continues.

Tags AC Milan Leo Duarte Lucas Paqueta Rafael Leao Ralf Rangnick