Devil’s Advocate: Why Milan keep winning battles against the top four, but never the war

By Oliver Fisher -

Sunday was the latest disappointing thread in what has been a familiar tapestry for Milan fans to try and take in this season, extending beyond that into recent years.

After 45 minutes, the team were in complete control of the Derby della Madonnina thanks to goals from Ante Rebic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Stefano Pioli’s side were pressing smartly, creating chances with free-flowing football and had in theory scored twice at the best possible time – right before the break.

Inter were utterly shellshocked, and heading into the second half it appeared that all that was needed from the Rossoneri was smart game management and concentration. The further the minutes wound down, the more the panic would set in for Antonio Conte and the majority of the over 70,000 in attendance, and the great the chances of a counter-attack.

The correct words for what actually happened have not been found yet, or if they have it certainly hasn’t come from the Milan side of the story. The team didn’t just crack under pressure; they folded like a deck of cards, conceding four times to eventually lose 4-2.

Perhaps the derby is a game known for freak results and indescribable passages of play, but this one actually bears somewhat of a resemblance to Milan’s season so far.

Against the current top four sides in Serie A the record makes for grim reading: six games, six defeats, 16 goals conceded and only four scored – with two of course coming on Sunday.

This team can put together good moments within games, as was seen away at Juventus, at home against Lazio and in the game against the Nerazzurri, but the better and more consistent teams always seem to find a weakness and to find a way to get the job done.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic made the headlines not just for what he did during the game – amassing a goal and an assist – but also for the clarity with which he picked out Milan’s problem after it.

“We said the first 15 [minutes of the second half] were important and they scored two goals, then everything went wrong. Experience also counts, if you win 2-0 you have to know how to manage, especially against a team like Inter.”

It is an alarm that follows previous warnings. The first was fired by Gennaro Gattuso at the end of last season: “For the type of team that it is, you need experienced players, who take responsibility.”

Marco Giampaolo admitted after the 2-0 defeat earlier in the season that Inter “have something more in terms of experience, than what has been in the experience of important players.”

Club CEO Ivan Gazidis spoke during a members meeting last October and proclaimed: “We have a clear strategy, that of investing in young players who can improve over the years, who spend their best years among our ranks, becoming top players with us. We are the youngest team in Serie A.”

This is the situation that the management have in many ways put upon themselves. This Milan side can battle with the top teams in the league, the ones who are battling for Champions League qualification and – in the case of Lazio, Inter and Juventus – the Scudetto, but they will not win the war.

Time and time again a lack of experience has let this side down. Now experience, granted, is a broad and generic term, so some may question what exactly it means and how it could help the current group.

Well, experience means exactly what it says: players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic have been in the big games, they have dealt with adversity before, they know how to win against the top sides, they know when to calm games down, they know what leadership means both vocally and in terms of leading by example through performances.

They know about accountability, they understand the importance of concentration and that simply having more youthful legs is not always an advantage, they recognise how crucial it is to rally the troops at the first sign of hardship. Of course, experience doesn’t just mean age, but it does generally mean a lack of naivety.

In many ways, it does feel as though Paolo Maldini, Zvonomir Boban and Ricky Massara have had their hands tied by CEO Ivan Gazidis and those higher up at the club. The recruitment strategy that Elliott Management are insisting on is purely to look after the finances by buying assets cheaper that become more valuable with time on the balance sheet.

Yes the financial situation of the club is precarious, but it seems as though – based on recent examinations of the club’s accounts – the best way for Milan to get out of the red is through achieving sporting objectives on the field.

That means qualifying for the Champions League once again, being able to attract better players, being able to get the top sponsors back again and then growing sustainably as our means increase. What is the alternative? To accept a 10th place finish as Milan are on course for at present?

A lot of the blame gets passed on to Silvio Berlusconi for his handling of the club towards the end of his three decades in charge, but in reality it is that combined with the instability that has since come from having three owners in three years.

The problem is, you never realise how damaging or costly the mistakes are until after they have been made. There should be a genuine fear that we are currently experiencing the most damaging mistakes that Milan have made since the 1980s at present.

The gap will continue to widen until some serious positive change is made. What that may entail is not for us as fans to decide because, after all, it is not what we get paid for.

Tags AC Milan