Allegri’s midfield does not resemble that of old, but of football’s tactical demands
A.C. Milan travel to somewhat-minnows A.C. Cesena on Sunday to do battle with a team who sit second-from-bottom in the Serie A. With there still being around fifteen to sixteen games left to play, accumulating a whopping forty-five points to play for, their need to grab all three points away from home at Stadio Dino Manuzzi cannot be stressed enough. It is imperative that Max’s men get the points needed to increase their gap over The Old Lady – Juventus – even further.
But Cesena probably needs the points more than Milan. Sitting in nineteenth, they are now seven points from safety, have the second worst home record in the league which stands at two wins, three draws and five defeats, and have lost four games from their last six. The last time the two met, Rossoneri won 1-0 with the only goal coming from their midfield in Clarence Seedorf. A game that they dominated with over 60% of the possession within their favour, shots came left, right and centre from both sides. Both goalkeepers were on form but only one would succumb to the loss of their clean sheet. All in all, whilst Juventus host Catania at their new home of Juventus Arena (the default name of their stadium in the meantime that they try to select a new one), the title race is looking hot.
This time around seven years ago, however, Juventus were on top of the league, under the stewardship of Fabio Capello. After losing twice in a row and coming back to win in their next game 2-1 at home to Udinese, ironically the team Milan had just faced recently but away from home after going down 1-0, Milan on the other hand were winning three on the bounce with an away win at Reggina to put them one point behind Juventus at the top of the league table. Milan would go on to win another five games before drawing at home to Brescia, who would also be subsequently relegated, and then losing 2-1 away from home at Siena. Juventus also went on their own run of form which included a 5-2 win over Lazio at Stadio delle Alpi (their old ground before it was demolished) but lost the game following that at home to Inter 1-0. At the end of the season, while Milan were involved in the infamous 2005 UEFA Champions League final against Liverpool where they surrendered a 3-goal advantage going into half-time, Juventus were found guilty of match-fixing the following season and were stripped of their title. Milan was found of similar charges, which meant that they could not inherit the title after Bianconeri. Eventually, Inter were given the title on the grounds of several clubs being involved in one of football’s biggest scandals in 2006, which led to Juventus being deducted nine points and relegated to Serie B. They avoided the punishment of being relegated even further to Serie C1, the third tier of Italian football, and fined a huge £31million. The president was fined £200,000.
That was probably a season Milan fans would rather forget than remember. Something they did not forget, however, was the midfield that Carlo Ancelotti and their beloved team had throughout that season; the likes of Gattuso, Kaka, Rui Costa, Seedorf, Ambrosini and Pirlo. One of the lasting remnants in arguably one of their greatest midfields of the 2000’s, when they won the UEFA Champions League at Old Trafford against, funnily enough, Juventus. A dire affair, yes, but a midfield that encapsulated Milan’s dominance in the centre of the park.
But looking back to the present, that midfield of 2004-ish is long gone, or at least, most of it is. No longer does Milan have Kaka, Rui Costa or Andrea Pirlo. All three of them have left for Real Madrid C.F. in Spain to the tune of £64million, the other to rivals Juventus on a free transfer after being released from his contract, and the last retiring after a short spell in his native country of Portugal, with S.L. Benfica more than three and a half years ago – now, the Director of Football at the club.
That midfield of 2004-05 consisted of four midfielders who were essentially all playmakers – Pirlo as the regista, the ‘director’ as they say, Rui Costa and Seedorf sitting above him in tandem as the two, deeper lying playmakers that distribute the ball two and from the defence to the attack, and then Kaka, the advanced midfielder who sat in the hole in-behind Shevchenko and Filippo Inzaghi, would connect the midfield and the front together with his almost artistic technique, first touch, skill and ability to manipulate the ball as if it were a puppet.
When you look at Milan’s midfield now, it still has Seedorf, Gattuso and Ambrosini, but only two of them have played over ten games for the club. Seedorf has not had the greatest of seasons in the 4-3-1-2 Allegri had devised for the upcoming campaign, and is looking like he may be catching on a little bit at the age of 35. Meanwhile Ambrosini, one year younger than the Dutchman, has had a decent one. Sitting third and second with the most tackles and interceptions in the entire squad, but also the third most fouls per game, he too may see the reserve team or the bench more with others stepping in to do the job.
Recently I stumbled across an article on WhoScored.com about Milan’s midfield as being, statistically, one of the most “boring” since its change of personnel. Over the course of the 2011-12 season, the new midfield combining Mark Van Bommel, Alberto Aquilani, Antonio Nocerino and Kevin-Prince Boateng has averaged more appearances and more goals and assists, but a lower average passes rate and a poorer average key passes percentage. The Milanese midfield of 2003-2009 averaged 1.87, whilst this one with 0.85.
But maybe this is because Allegri is trying to maintain the standards of modern football’s demands? Nowadays, playing a midfield full of playmakers puts you at risk of being countered easily because the holding midfield sitting above the backline is not a natural ball-winner and therefore is not a reliable figure when it comes to depleting enemy attacks. This is even more reason why F.C. Barcelona play Sergio Busquets at the back: (a) because he is tall and strong, which allows him the ability to combat strong attackers (b) he is a competent passer, who can distribute the ball across the backline as well as into the feet of Xavi and Iniesta when needed. The reason why Rossoneri’s midfield of now is averaging a lower key passes percentage is probably because of their usage of Mark Van Bommel. Most people know that he is nowhere near capable of the things that Pirlo did in his time at San Siro, but he has been pivotal to the success of the Allegri’s central dominance. In his eighteen appearances for the club, he has averaged 2.2 tackles per game, 1.9 interceptions, but also 62.5 passes per game with 87.8% of them reaching their intended target. Only four players in the squad have higher – Philippe Mexes, Alessandro Nesta, Mario Yepes and Thiago Silva, all of whom are central defenders.
Only some clubs in the world have been able to play without a ball-winner in their midfield and still be able to win games with comfort, but that is because the majority of their games are based around the dominance of possession and confidence in their ability to pass the ball without interruption, linking up play between the midfield and the attack, to then be finished off with sensational shots, crosses and even tap-ins. But for everyone else in general, modern football has shaped the way in which the tactical side of it forces coaches and managers to play a certain way, so that the risks are not as high as it would be reverting back to playing styles of old.
Allegri has integrated a contemporary style of the narrow four-man midfield into his own, with the use of a ball-winner instead of a regista, and it has paid dividends so far. The only real question remains whether or not he will try to sign Aquilani on a permanent transfer after having such a stellar season of late, or will he turn his head to someone else? He has done very well so far, with the 4-0 win over Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League proving to be very flattering for a side that looked as if they could have had a game on their hands – the football of today is forever changing, and no longer are teams able to just play the standard 4-4-2 and expect an easy game – today, it looks like the 4-3-3 and the 4-2-3-1 are just too strong for the ordinary teams.
* Just a video of Rui Costa’s goal against Brescia at home for 1-0. Unbelievable goal. Shows why he is one of the greatest ever midfielders.