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Youth vs Experience

We have this never ending discussion as Milan fans about age and experience versus youth and pace. In fact it is the underlying thread in almost all our discussions and comments. I myself constantly think about as a fan and as a coach as well. Obviously both age and youth bring something to the table, but the question really becomes what is the best way to go?

Youth is obviously very nice, first and foremost it is cost effective; ask Arsene Wenger and his young guns at Arsenal. Wenger is constantly lowering the age of his squad, buying talent based on potential and parting ways with players that have peaked for a nice profit. His young squad’s are fun to watch, they play with pace, they play with speed, and they play with heart. However, they lack that special something to take them from fun to watch to contenders in each and every competition that they play for, that something is experience. Now you can value and quantify experience however you see fit, but it has to do with playing at the highest level on the biggest stage. That stage can be a European night, a derby, or just meaningful matches for your National team, no matter how you look at it; it is a trait worth having.

On the flipside, you can create a squad filled with 30+ players who have seen just about everything they can see in their careers. Big wins, big losses, big nights, and small, with these players in the lineup you can rest assured that whatever is thrown at them they have not only seen it, but they have dealt with it firsthand. This is the formula that Milan employed in their Champions League run of 2007, with their youngest player being Kaka, who even at that age had lost a CL, won a scudetto, and a World Cup. The underlying idea here being that it is not the age but more or less the road traveled to that magic number.

As our Rossoneri get older, by the minute it seems, we all begin to struggle with the notion of maintaining this strong experience factor while beginning to integrate youth and pace into the lineup of veterans. Historically Milan has always been one of the most efficient breeding grounds of young players, with Maldini, Baresi, Albertini, Ambrosini, Gattuso, Abbiati, Costacurta, and so many more coming up through the ranks and earning their place in some of the greatest squads to ever step on the pitch. Arrigo Sacchi found a way to harness the value of players like Maldini and Albertini at young ages while blending and integrating in foreign talent and game tried talent such as Cafu, Weah, Savijevic, Desailly, and Jaap Staam. However, as these players have aged and moved on the trend at the San Siro has taken a alarming turn towards the wrong side of thirty. Looking at the current starting lineup Kaka, Rino, and Ambro were the only players raised in the system to really break into the side and cement their places in the starting eleven, with Pato being the newest model. The rest of the lineup was brought in at more advanced stages of the career, say 25+ ie Bonera, Pirlo, Seedorf, and even Flamini as an example. There was a time when Milan only bought veterans as compliments to their core of youth system players, and it is the straying away from this system that I find the most difficult to come to grips to with.

First of all the world of football youth systems has changed. Teams are no longer in the business of developing players, sure Arsenal and Barcelona are moving players through the ranks, but when you have teams like ManUnited, Milan, Inter, Chelsea and Real Madrid scouring the pitches of Africa, Portugal, and Brazil for youngsters to bring into the fold the shift from development to purchasing is easy to see and understand. This is not necessarily a negative as it has brought us the likes of Kaka, CRon and Messi but it is a shift that needs to be discussed and understood as we bring this discussion forward.

Also, the idea of “European football” and the money that it brings to the table makes team lean more towards the notion of battle tested players, sure Wenger is the stubborn mule in this bunch, but if you look at the last teams to win the CL, most of them are experienced based teams with a very strong core of aged players and youth mixed it here and there, the exception to this was Porto, but the Special One had a lot to do with this. But Milan, Pool, ManU and Barca all triumphed in Europe with average ages closer to thirty than twenty. It doesn’t take much to look back at CL failures in the past few years such as Roma, Inter, and Arsenal to see that their lack of big game experience may have been their undoing. Inter is funny in the regard as their team was older, but many of those players never saw the later rounds of the CL tourney. The bottom line here is that with experience comes success both domestically and in Europe.

The difference however between a ManU model and the model that we are familiar with at Milan is that Milan has somewhat lost he plan of breeding and adding youth into the squad. Sir Alex has done well with the inclusion of Anderson, Nani, and Tevez, while Milan has failed with the likes of Gourcuff, Gilardino, and most recently Flamini. For all that credit that Sir Alex gets for all his years at ManU, Carletto has done much more in much less time at Milan and doesn’t get nearly the accolades his ManU counterpart receives. Their systems are very similar and their styles are as well, but where does Carletto falter where Sir Alex? For me it is quite simple, and boils down to one simple thing trust.
Let’s take a look at Kaka and Ambrosini as an example, both of these players were groomed and integrated into the squad at an early age. Kaka was groomed by the likes of Rui Costa while Ambrosini was worked alongside the likes of Albertini. The players were taught by some of the best in the business, but given a longer leash to play come in and make mistakes. They were also brought in with little to no fanfare and worked into the squad. Now you look at Gilardino and Gourcuff who were brought in as “big transfers,” with this come expectations and pressure and you know have a system in which a player has a much more difficult time succeeding. Gila was put directly into the mixer, staring eleven and expected to do what he did so many times before at Chievo and Parma, that was to score goals in bunches. We all forget that Gila was not raised in the Milan system, he was not familiar with the club or its ways and traditions instead he was put in the deep end and asked to swim. This is partly due to the media but also the pressure surrounding the new globalized win now world of football. Gourcuff was not all that different, and now that the games are less intense and the spotlight is less critical he has found a way to thrive.

I am big believer in earning your keep and accolades as a player and I don’t believe in just sticking a guy in there and asking him to make magic. Don't try to tell me a player is elite after one good year in Serie A. A player needs to be nurtured and given a chance a to succeed so when in hindsight Gilardino and Gourcuff were failures, and the trend at Milan, outside of Pato may continue this way unless the system is altered. My biggest example for this is going to be Antonini. Antonini is a product of the Milan system that has produced arguably some of the best defenders in the World, that has to count for something. Instead of giving him his chance and working him into matches be it against Lecce or Juvenuts, he is given junk minutes and put into to situations where he makes little to no impact or has little to no chance to prove his worth. Sure Milan has the pleasure of Zambro and Janks, but as these players advance in age their reliance on them should be lowered and the inclusion and blending of Antonini should be started. This is especially true when Carletto instills trust in a player like Favalli who at 37 has very little upside to this team in the future, understand that Favalli has value and has proved his worth as a good soldier but doesn’t it make more sense to blend Antonini than give minutes to Favalli? It is this loss of trust in a youngster that negatively impacts his development but also makes another young player think twice when they are in the Milan ranks. Pato has proven as the shining exemption to the norm, but as this team moves forward, be it with Carletto or not, this idea of trust that gave us players like Rino, Maldini, and Ambrosini needs to return or Milan will continue this battle against the clock.