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A Moment of Pause

International breaks are a funny little thing. For some teams they are a welcomed break, a chance to recharge, sort out some tactical issues and get the team back running on all cylinders. For others it is a momentum killer, a rhythm breaker, and a fatigue inducer. This couldn’t be more evident in the upcoming Derby. Milan need this break far more than Inter and hopefully we end up with a bit of an Inter derailing and Milan team getting back on track. There will be plenty to discuss about this epic Derby next week, but for now I want to focus a bit on AC Milan and give my take on all the noise I have been hearing this week.

For much of the summer I endured a surreal experience listening to fans and management complain about strikers not scoring goals. KJH was an indisputable bust and was sent packing as soon as a suitable buyer was found. Borriello was also vilified by many for missing chances and was deemed surplus to need and sent to Roma where he has asserted himself rather well under Ranieri, but may not get the same vote of confidence from Montella, who knows maybe Carletto will keep him on board upon his Roman arrival. Out with the old and in with the new in the shape of Zlatan and Robinho, but oddly to borrow a phrase from some of my favorite Juventini, “the more things change the more things stay the same.”

Allegri has been fortunate, some of the glaring depth issues have been sorted, and while we still lack a proper third CB, CAM, and true LB, he was fortunate to gain a true star in the making with Abate, and a solid pool of players in the three man midfield. He has taken the hand that he was dealt and built a very well balanced team that has conceded the fewest goals in Serie A, a far cry from last season. While some will claim it matters little how many you concede as long as you score one more, this is not the mark of a Champion and Allegri has done well to solidify the defense. The problem is what good does a clean sheet do for you when you don’t score goals? Or worse concede silly goals on set pieces that cost you valuable points…

I won’t go to deep into the set pieces, as it was covered in a tactics piece a while back, but the striker issue is perplexing. The majority of the transfer kitty was spent on strikers but I can’t really sit here and convince myself that this team is fixed knowing full well that we have only a single goal from strikers in the last 360 minutes of open play! I mean a team with Pato, Zlatan, Cassano, and Robinho and we can’t score goals?! While a majority of the blame rests with those players, there a few contributing factors to this as well.

The first being injuries to Pirlo and Ambrosini. Even though both players have experienced a bit of decline from their peak, they are integral to the way Milan plays football and linking play to the attack. Take nothing away from the contribution of Van Bommel of late, as well as Rino and Flamini, but with these sort of one-trick DMs you never really get that killer pass or incisive run forward that pressures a defense. Instead the ball is often hoofed forward to the strike force, or occasionally played to feet and everyone else waits for something to happen, this system of play can’t be sustained because defenses have started to crack the code and no longer give space or time for these players operate. In essence they are keying in on the attackers and with no one else making their presence felt or making them pay, opponents are consistently winning the battle.

For me this is a tricky little problem, Allegri doesn’t really have a player to remedy this problem and the strikers have not been clinical enough (ironic considering last season’s gripes) to make up for it. So what happens? Well maybe Pirlo comes back healthy soon and provides some of that help, but otherwise a collective step-up in team shape and movement needs to be instituted to force defenders to take notice of wide players and midfielders, this is not impossible and hopefully the International Break resolves this to some extent. What it won’t resolve is having a player like Flamini with a point blank chance skied over the net because he can’t finish to save his life, not really a key point on his resume.

In the end it is a frustrating pattern Milan have fallen into and while strikers are key, it only reinforces my long standing point that they are players just like everyone else and they have off days or off games, and that even the best striker in the World, doesn’t always provide the goals a team needs exactly when they need them. Allegri has done well to institute step one in the form of balance, but the rest now has to come together and fast to make sure this title doesn’t slip away. At the start of the season, even after the arrival of Zlatan, I figured this would be his first season without a title in something like eight years. But as the team gelled and the wins starting piling up I started to believe, and there is no reason to give up hope, but instead to take a moment of pause and deep breath, both team and fans, that WE can in fact do this, and they are going to do this, maybe not in the simplest fashion, but know one ever said it would be easy. It all starts by winning the Derby, but there will be plenty to talk about that as the match gets closer. As we mentioned in the Podcast, this one is special, the story lines are epic and the Scudetto is on the line. So enjoy this tiny little breather, because in a few days it will be all hands on deck until the last minute of the season.