AC Milan Part 2: The Future is the Present

The summer of 2016 was a strange one for the Milanista faithful. While the promise of Chinese investment hinted at a promising future and hints of the club moving away from mediocrity, there was no decision made till the conclusion of the window. The ongoing exclusivity Bee Taechuebol had gotten now expired. No new ownership, no investment, and no substantial money available for the manager to play with and boost the squad. And that’s without mentioning the arrival of Vincenzo Montella, who was successful at Fiorentina but had his reputation tarnished at Sampdoria. New manager, new era, except that there was no new ownership (yet). Montella was left to deal with scraps.

The summer saw the departures of the deadwood: goalkeepers Abbiati and Agazzi, defenders Alex and Mexès, and forwards Matri and Ménez. Diego Lopez moved out on loan to Espanyol. Fernardo Torres permanently joined Atletico Madrid, while two of the controversial characters in recent football, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli, left for pastures new. It is interesting to see that both players are thriving at their new clubs, Las Palmas and Nice respectively: the star men, the leaders at smaller clubs.

Two departures that may hurt most were Stephan El Shaarawy and Simone Verdi. Il Faraone broke through in 2012 but struggled to hit such heights again after several injuries. His move to rivals Roma was the best for all parties - a new start for a mercurial talent - but it is likely Montella would have worked well with him. They received €13million for El Shaarawy, and only €1.5million euros for Simone Verdi, who has scored some great goals this season for Bologna. He has four goals and an assist from 866 minutes this season, amounting to a WhoScored average match rating of 7.27. Verdi came through the Milan academy but never did get a league start; he may show Milan what they missed. But apart from these two sales, there was nothing much to lament.

Though I said there was no money available for Montella, they did spend €26.8million in the summer. But scraps they were. Three new permanent signings arrived: Gianluca Lapadula, Gustavo Gómez and José Sosa, all of whom have been nothing more than squad players. Sosa was expected to be a creative outlet in midfield, however he has not been much of an option and with just 234 minutes of gametime so far (and a WhoScored rating of 6.37) he is expected to leave in the summer. An expensive mistake, for €7.5million spent on a 31-year-old from Besiktas.

Gustavo Gómez has promise about him; only 23, he was signed from Lanús in Argentina. A solid, if inexperienced centre-back option, he is in every manner one for the future and a better option to the Zapata’s and Alex’s Milan have been used to. It is difficult for him to break into the established pairing of Romagnoli and Paletta, but with time, he could replace Paletta.

Gianluca Lapadula on the other hand is an intriguing story: he spent most of his career so far plundering goals for lower division teams in San Marino, Gorica and Teramo. Firing Pescara into the Serie A this season with 27 goals from 40 games, he earned a move to giants Milan for €9million. Could he be the answer, the Jamie Vardy? Carlos Bacca is the incumbent striker, but his target man style and inability to contribute in build up play means Lapadula is actually a better fit for Montella’s Milan. In only 249 minutes of action, he has three goals - with growing rumours of Bacca’s departure in the winter, Lapadula could step up. He certainly is pushing for a starting role and it may not be long before he does.

The present-day Milan line up in a 4-3-3, with which they have racked up nine wins. At the back, the symbol of the reborn Milan is in between the sticks. Gianluigi Donnarumma. Buffon’s regen. At just 17 years of age, he has already ousted Diego Lopez, an experienced custodian himself. He was actually given his chance by former manager Siniša Mihajlović, who set the base for Montella. He has now played 44 games for Milan and two for Italy - and he only turns 18 next February!

In front of him, the marriage of youth and experience is one that is still finding its feet. For the first time in a while, the back five (including keeper) are all Italian. Abate and Paletta find themselves as the older players in the back line. Abate has been permanently at Milan his entire career, while Paletta was purchased from the disbanded Parma in 2015 and was shifted out to Atalanta. This season though, he has formed a partnership with the talented Alessio Romagnoli to the extent that Gomez, Zapata or Rodrigo Ely have found limited to no game time. Romagnoli was a big signing from Roma in 2015 - for the fee of €25million, he was not cheap, but taking into account he’s Italian and only 20 at the time, it was an astute signing. In a time where transfer prices are skyrocketing, Milan may have found themselves a bargain and a defensive rock for the next decade, if he stays.

Last but not the least, Mattia de Sciglio, the full-back who can play on either flank, puts in a day’s work on the left side. Though used as a right-back in previous seasons, he has slotted into the left with ease. De Sciglio has failed to live up to his hype in previous years, but he may now finally get back into his old groove.

The best midfield three that has emerged in the past few months consists of Juraj Kucka, Giacomo Bonaventura and new Milan poster-boy, Manuel Locatelli. Kucka provides the industrial grit, with his strengths including aerial duels and tackling. He’s an example of a modest, underrated signing - from Genoa for €3million. Giacomo Bonaventura, another signing made from an Italian club (Atalanta for €7million), has been the star of the side, the creative spark. With an average WhoScored match rating of 7.53, he has been running the Milan side. And lastly, of course, Locatelli. Scoring a couple of stunners versus Sassuolo and Juventus, he tends to drop deep to provide the link between defense and midfield. With plenty of room for growth, he’s living the dream at the moment. He’s taken the pressure with aplomb. A star to look out for in the coming years.

Lastly, up front. I spoke about the Bacca-Lapadula tussle already. The two wingers flanking them are young talents too. Suso, formely of Liverpool, has been a real breakthrough this season. Under the guidance of Gasperini, he scored six goals in 19 appearances for Genoa last year. This year, he’s upped the ante. Five goals and six assists for the Spanish dynamite from 1155 minutes/14 appearances, including Man of the Match awards in his last 3 games versus Palermo (a goal and an assist), Inter in the Derby (2 goals) and Empoli (1 goal and 2 assists). With an overall WhoScored match rating of 7.44 this season, he’s one of the integral reasons for the Milan renaissance. M’Baye Niang, two years his junior, has been less consistent on the right flank, but has still racked up 849 minutes of game time, with three goals and two assists. If you take the side as a whole, there are options aplenty.

Those who have fallen out of favour include Honda, Adriano, Bertolacci, Sosa, Fernandez, Zapata, Antonelli and Poli, whether through injury or not. Most of them do not belong to Montella’s iteration of Milan. Montolivo, a much-derided player by the fans, is out injured, which paved the way for Locatelli. Leonel Vangioni, signed in the summer, isn’t playing either. Expect them to leave in a few windows.

Looking forward, apart from the players discussed so far, Davide Calabria is one for the future. An attacking right-back, injury curtailed his season. His speed and directness against Juventus in the Coppa Italia hinted at a prospect for the future, one to take over from Abate. Patrick Cutrone, a centre-forward, scored 14 in 19 appearances for the Under-19s last season. Fast and physical, he could emerge as an option this season.

Luca Vido, Ivan de Santis and Gian Filippo Felicioli also belong to the crème de la crop of the Rossoneri academy, and would look to break through in the coming months. Jose Mauri, on loan at Empoli, is another prospect to look out for, as is Mario Pasalic, who has been impressive in his short spell at Milan so far. On loan from Chelsea, continued showings could finally earn him a permanent deal. Lastly, Hachim Mastour, highly hyped but having a wasted loan at Malaga last year, is now at Zwolle. Tricky and skillful, he needs the right conditions to flourish. He hasn’t received it in Netherlands yet, but hopefully he will in the coming months. A talent who shouldn’t go to waste.

Tactically, Montella puts an emphasis on possession football, with a 4-3-3 formation. His approach is dependent on the opposition and game, though. Against Empoli, his side were reliant on wing-play, while against Inter they sat back and afforded space to Inter that was unable to be utilised. The savvy technician that he is, with time, Montella could work wonders with this side. It’s only been six months, but the signs are promising. Whether Milan challenge for the Scudetto this year or not, football needs them to return to the old days. The short-term future looks promising, the long-term even more so if they can hold on to their assets. Under Montella, the sky is the limit. A new era may have well been born.