AC Milan enjoyed a whirlwind summer of constant progress off the pitch. The new owners brought with them experienced new directors, who in turn made exciting new signings. The transfer activity was eye-wateringly lavish – their £146.3million net spend was, incredibly, higher than that of their main rivals, Juventus, Roma, Napoli, Lazio and Inter Milan, combined.
For the first time in years, the Rossoneri appeared a serious force to be reckoned with. The expectation was that they would secure, at the very least, a top-four finish in Serie A while mounting a challenge in the Europa League. With a highly promising crop of youngsters now complemented by an expensive cast of additions, those aims looked well within reach.
However, just seven games into the league campaign and the wheels are threatening to fall off. The Milan dream is fast turning into a nightmare. Or perhaps a more apt analogy is that the club has simply woken up after a glorious summer-long party.
A 4-1 thrashing away to Lazio, as well as 2-0 defeats to both Sampdoria and Roma, have restored a sense of reality at the San Siro. Whispers of a title push have been utterly silenced and replaced with ominous chatter regarding head coach Vincenzo Montella’s future. The former Fiorentina boss is under mounting pressure, a situation that has not been helped by rumours concerning other big-name Italian managers.
Carlo Ancelotti is a Milan icon due not only to his time as a player during the Arrigo Sacchi era, but to his success as the club’s coach in the 2000s. While he was in the dugout, the club won two Champions Leagues and one Scudetto, cementing their place among Europe’s finest once again.
His dismissal by Bayern Munich has led to speculation that a Rossoneri return could be on the cards. And, if not him, then perhaps Antonio Conte, who could be tempted to leave Chelsea come next summer.
Montella did well in his first campaign with Milan, cobbling a coherent unit out of a previously dysfunctional squad. Sixth place might not sound positive, but it was for a club that had become worryingly used to mid-table finishes. He maximised what was at his disposal and placed faith in youth to revive an ailing giant, garnering the respect of the fans in the process.
There were great moments, including teenage sensation Manuel Locatelli’s thundering winner at home to Juventus, and Cristián Zapata’s last-touch equaliser against Inter Milan. But those memories are fading fast, and the coach now has to prove he is the correct man to guide a fresh group of players forward.
Amid the unhelpful managerial rumours, the new signings have struggled to form a cohesive unit along with the pre-existing players. Part of the problem has been Montella’s desire to alter tactics on a constant basis, something he was renowned for with Fiorentina.
Rather than sticking to one shape and allowing his players to grow into it, he has alternated between 4-3-3, 3-4-2-1 and 3-5-2. And this lack of strategic consistency has been married, painfully, with the slow settling-in of several new arrivals.
Leonardo Bonucci, widely regarded as one of the finest centre-backs in the world, has been caught out on multiple occasions, leading some to suggest Juventus may have been wise to sell him. The Italian will almost certainly improve in time, but he is undoubtedly having difficulty adjusting to being the leader of the pack.
At Juventus, he could look to either side and see older, wiser heads in Andrea Barzagli or Giorgio Chiellini; at Milan, he sees fellow newbie Mateo Musacchio or 22-year-old Alessio Romagnoli. Furthermore, he has had to adapt to playing in a back four, when his preferred role is at the heart of a three-man defensive line.
Other summer captures yet to make their mark are attack-minded left-back Ricardo Rodríguez, whose propensity to come inside onto his right foot is as frustrating as it is ineffective, and Hakan Çalhanoğlu, whose creativity has only been witnessed in short spurts.
Montella may not have helped himself with his frequent switching of shapes and a failure to blend the old with the new, but he has also been hampered by external factors.
It may be cliché, but the Europa League has been more of a hindrance than a help for Milan. Playing, and beating, teams from Austria, Croatia, Macedonia and Romania only facilitated an inflation of expectation, while the midweek visits to foreign lands and the subsequent precautionary rotation of players has only led to further disorganisation.
Giacomo Bonaventura and Suso, the stars of recent seasons, have struggled to find full fitness and form. The former only recently returned from a long layoff and has looked far from the nimble creator fans loved to watch, while the latter’s outstanding dribbling and crossing has not been utilised within several of the new systems.
Furthermore, the notion of internal disharmony cropped up when fitness coach Emanuele Marra was surprisingly sacked. Montella did his best not to associate Marra with the recent poor performances, saying, “He's not the scapegoat…Marra was not the problem,” but the decision did little to ease concerns over the direction of travel at Casa Milan.
Staff changes, individual underperformance, a loaded fixture list and an abundance of new players are all sound reasons for the team’s lack of cohesion, but this may not be the case for much longer. At some point in the near future, the Rossoneri are going to have to look like a unit. Otherwise, the remaining confidence among the supporters could be eroded.
Milan looked good in a 4-3-3 against Crotone in their Serie A opener. The full-backs pushed high and the front three looked dangerous; the defence played penetrative passes and the movement off the ball was positive. But they have looked less certain by the week since that match, culminating in the dispiriting home defeat to Roma last weekend.
Up against a fellow contender for a top-four spot and Champions League qualification, they looked panicky at the back. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma made uncharacteristic mistakes on the ball, while none of the three chosen centre-backs appeared confident playing out. The end result was a succession of aimless long punts to the two strikers, André Silva and Nikola Kalinić, who were given the difficult-to-impossible task of making something out of nothing.
Milan need confidence and coherence, but that takes time and wins. And the Derby della Madonnina with Inter Milan is next. The upcoming international break couldn’t have come at a better moment for Montella and his new-look side.