Well with Christmas behind us and the New Year on the horizon, it is time for the mid season report. Robinho is done unwrapping his better finishing boots, Pato hopefully a new pair of running shoes, Allegri is charging Cassano, and Antonini some DVDs of the soccer play he was last season. But all kidding aside Milan sit atop the table at the winter break for the first time in a few seasons and while the lead could surely be bigger without a recent loss the fact that this team actually resembles a team with some tactical direction and organization is a far better place than we were last season.
I want to tackle this in three parts, with the first being Allegri and the goalkeepers, the defense and the midfield and then the strikers and bench. They will post in the course of three days leading us into the New Year, and feel free to add your thoughts and opinions on the half season that was.
Defense and Midfield
I think the secret is out; our best CB pairing is Nesta and Silva. Anything after that is like playing a slot machine at the Casino; the odds simply aren’t in your favor. Sokratis blew his chances early and has fallen down the pecking order; Yepes performed admirably but is only probably a tenth of second faster than Gooch who runs like molasses. This leaves Daniel Bonera, a RB who can’t play RB and a CB who can’t play CB. Not a good mix, but his mix of speed and ability to pressure the ball higher up the pitch from his RB back days make him the logical choice, but not necessarily the best. Poor Bonera has been on the pitch for ALL of Milan’s dropped points and poor omen, but one Allegri is stuck with unless a change is made in January. Silva will be back sooner rather than later, but having three first team worthy CB’s is a priority for any team, and while Silvio and Fester seem to prefer 5 first team strikers before 3 first team CBs this will always be a bit of an issue.
At least the RB spot has been solidified by the presence of Ignazio Abate. Inconsistent last season, he worked hard with Tassotti over the summer to hone his defense skills and his mix of pace and toughness have turned him into a serviceable RB. This couldn’t have happened any quicker because the thought of Zambro putzing up and down the RB is not good, but cover in the position is still a bit of an issue. Not to mention we are not Zambro free quite yet because every step Abate has taken to getter better Antonini has regressed and taken one backwards. It really doesn’t help that Ants is being asked to play LB, as a naturally right footed player. His runs forward are often very decisive but he is constantly put into positions to use his left foot by smart defenders and is exposed time and time again. This was not a problem last season with Ronaldinho’s feet firmly cemented in the area of the pitch between the touch and line and 18 yard box, but without the static figure there it is Antonini often in that space.
I like him as a player, and I like that he makes the most out of his opportunities on the pitch, but his performances are often inconsistent making Zambro the safer choice. Even worse, when Seedorf is played ahead of him he is required to defend even more and often caught in no man’s land to high up the pitch, this was evident against Roma, giving Menez the space to create the goal in a 1 v 1 situation, whereas a pressure cover from the midfielder would have stopped the attack before it even started. Much like the CB problem, the LB is a spot that needs to be addressed, but at this point if it isn’t you have to wonder if letting DeVito get an Abate style learning curve is not the best move.
The rebirth of the midfield has been two-fold. The first being Allegri’s choice to employ three DM style midfielders behind an attacking midfielder. This has allowed players like Gattuso and Ambro to play a more controlled style not being forced to run all over the pitch as they did in Leonardo’s circus of attacks style football. They are now covering, holding their ground, and getting forward only when the play dictates. It is has also helped that Ambrosini has seemingly reinvented himself for the cause once again, collecting the ball from the defense and playing simple high percentage passes to keep possession and making the other team chase foolishly.
Allegri has also found a way to create space for Pirlo in wider position and watching him interchange with KPB was really special. An injury derailed that partnership, but I expect variations of that lineup will be seen time and time again by Allegri. Getting a healthy Flamini back will better this team as well, but adding another body into the rotation either with a January signing, or a slowly introduced Rodney Strasser will keep those players fresh and continue to allow Allegri to get the balance so desperately needed to challenge for a title.
The addition of Cassano will make the attacking midfielder role a bit more interesting and while I don’t see Cassano taking hold of the position in every match, it gives Allegri both flexibility and versatility to put out a lineup to match the opponents work rate and tactical formation. Seedorf has done well when needed but his play his often to slow to match the quickness of Zlatan and Robinho. Robinho also worked very hard when asked to play that role, but it was KPB who had the most success in three consecutive matches, scoring in his first two, and if not for poor finishing would have probably put Roma to the sword as well. With Cassano, Allegri simply has choices in how to deploy him, Pirlo, and KPB to best earn a result.