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2017-18 AC Milan Season Preview: The Defenders

Milan are stacked in the back of the pitch, but it’s not junk in the trunk!

AC Milan v KF Shkendija 79 - UEFA Europa League Qualifying Play-Offs Round: First Leg Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

The season is upon us and today we will start the season preview series for the club. Here we have the defenders of AC Milan, and likely the strongest part of a pretty decent squad!

Milan made their defense a priority this mercato for multiple reasons. Not only have they lacked a defense deserving of the red and black merit, but they needed leverage to sign Gianluigi Donnarumma to an extension, and they’ve done plenty to prove they’re not playing around.

Starting with player sales, Mattia De Sciglio was sold for €12 million to Juventus after coming up through the youth ranks, and both parties are surely satisfied. It isn’t necessarily that the fans hated De Sciglio, but once you announce that you’d like to play for Juve on the back of a below average season, fans will turn on you in an instant. We can reference the case of Donnarumma here, who had an amazing season and didn’t even mention Juventus as a potential destination. Next we look to Leonel Vangioni, who served as De Sciglio’s replacement in the time the Italian was injured. To his credit, Vangioni must’ve known for awhile he’d be getting sold off and had to play knowing so. He wasn’t the greatest of left backs, but he’d put a decent run and tackle in from time to time. He was always going to be a placeholder and I don’t think Milanisti will lose any sleep over this one. Vangioni was sold to Monterrey for €1.7 million, which is pretty good considering we landed him on a free transfer. Lastly, we have Rodrigo Ely, who was recently sold for €3.5 million to Spanish side Alaves. The youngster just didn’t do enough to impress in Mihalovic’s term and was loaned out and really forgotten about during Montella’s. Hopefully he does well in La Liga, because his opportunities were slim at Milan.




Ricardo Rodriguez

Albania v Switzerland - Group A: UEFA Euro 2016 Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

This one makes perfect sense as far as positioning needs and where he fits, and I’ve been jabbing Inter in every article talking about his ‘Serie A experience’ (he was rumored to have a deal done with Inter in January last window). De Sciglio was expected to leave with Vangioni as well, and Antonelli’s aging wasn’t helping our left back situation. Rodriguez is well known for his ability to get in on the attack from the left back position, leading all left backs among the Bundesliga in scoring with 6 goals to his name in 2015/2016. He played extraordinarily well, albeit his last year, despite consistently having a new partner on the left side to work with. One of the things that threw me personally off was his value. Before last year with today’s transfer market, Wolfsburg would probably have asked for €25-€30 million for the Swiss international. One poor season, which really was endured by the entire club, and he’s under €20 million, which based on his value appears to me as a steal. His player comparison matrix saw him neck and neck with David Alaba in most categories (passing accuracy, duels won %, etc.), even with an off year, only to be outshined by Jonas Hector. Rodriguez’s real threat comes from dead ball situations. Much like his curler to open his scoring account against CSU Craiova, Rodriguez is simply a beast from free kicks. Granted, these duties will likely be given to Calhanoglu, but having the both of them stand over the ball would edge me just a bit more if I were an opposing fan. With no real competition for the left back position, Rodriguez will be able to quickly get to work without worrying about any pressure at the beginning of the season.

Luca Antonelli

AC Milan v KF Shkendija 79 - UEFA Europa League Qualifying Play-Offs Round: First Leg Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

After an injury hampered season, the 30 year old Italian is likely to play second fiddle to Rodriguez or be shipped off in a player plus cash deal or just a regular transfer. Torino are said to be long time admirers of the Italian, and Mihajlovic was impressed with him in his short stint at the San Siro. Regardless, Antonelli should receive the consideration of being kept, due to the increased amount of games with Europa. Milan are going to need squad depth, and Antonelli is a man who has been playing left back in the Serie A his entire career. Sure he can be a bit injury prone, but the man can play. He rarely makes a massive glaring error and really consistent good play is all we need, and this is something Antonelli can definitely provide. Per Antonelli’s 2015/2016 numbers (only played 7 games in 2016/2017) he had more tackles in total and had less defensive errors than Alex Sandro, Faouzi Ghoulam, and Emerson (all were 2016/2017 numbers), and was just behind Emerson in total duels won %. Antonelli, when healthy, is a good right back to have in the arsenal, and I think he’s worth keeping.

Mateo Musacchio

AC Milan v CSU Craiova - UEFA Europa League Third Qualifying Round: Second Leg Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Let’s start the first of 7 center backs (surely some will leave), with one of the newest. The former Villareal and River Plate center back arrived as the first transfer of the new Milan era the day the mercato opened, though the deal was done long before that. The Argentine international was linked with Milan last summer but a move fell through because a fee couldn’t be agreed upon. When the report came out that Milan had been purchased, Musacchio rumors flared almost instantaneously. Romagnoli badly needed a defensive partner for the next campaign, and Musacchio provides excellent tackling ability, as well as the positioning and poise to boot. At the age of 26, Musacchio will get consistent play time to develop a strong long-term partnership with Romagnoli, while the both of them will also learn from the likes of Bonucci. As evident in his preseason showings as well as his Europa performances, Musacchio has excellent instinct on the ball and can act as a provider from the back while maintaining a rugged style when need be. Per the player comparison matrix, Musacchio averaged more tackles per game and posted a better overall defense performance score in La Liga than Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, and Samuel Umtiti. Musaccho has stated his comfortability playing potentially in a 3-man backline, and he’s shown plenty fine to play well in a 4-man system. It’s expected that both will be used throughout the season, and it will be interesting to see who’s more preferred in the 4-back system between Musacchio and Romagnoli.

Cristian Zapata

FC Bayern v AC Milan - 2017 International Champions Cup China Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

One of the few center backs I think we should keep. Zapata hasn’t always been the consistent performer he has been for his own national team, but who could be with the lack of confidence and shifting attitude around the player. There’s been nothing but turmoil and turnover with our center backs in the last few years, and I can’t imagine it’s easy to go to work every day with the likelihood that you could very well be told that you were no longer part of the clubs plans for the future. Let’s look at the facts though, last season Zapata had a better passing accuracy and won more duels on average than both Gabriel Paletta, Gustavo Gomez, and Davide Astori (former Milan transfer target). Granted Paletta made fewer defensive errors that showed up in the stat box…because red cards don’t count in that regard. At the very least, Zapata stays on the field and is capable of putting in impressive performances. I can recall a game where Zapata shut Higuain down when he was still with Napoli, it’s obvious he has the talent, but he needs to work on his positioning and confidence which is something Montella can work with. I can understand a sale being made with Zapata involved, but losing Paletta appears more as a priority.

Leonardo Bonucci

AC Milan v KF Shkendija 79 - UEFA Europa League Qualifying Play-Offs Round: First Leg Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

How much really needs to be said here? I won’t pull up any statistics on him because he’s top in almost all of them over the least 3 years, with competition only from his compatriots and former teammates in Chiellini and Barzagli. Bonucci joined in a shock €42 million deal from the Old Lady in late July, and it was straight out of left field. While it first appeared to be a joke just to stir up supporters, it later came as a reality when he was unveiled as the newest Milan center back. Bonucci will likely be handed the captain’s band in the coming year (though consideration should really be given to Jack), and will look to be the anchor of a defense that has truly entered a new era. The 31 year old had a bust up with former Rossoneri manager Max Allegri as well as a few teammates (Barzagli notably), which allowed Milan to swoop in and sign the Italian, making him the best center back we’ve had since Thiago Silva and Nesta departed for their own respective endeavors. In a defense where the leader has been anyone but someone on the defense, this transfer means the world for the coming year. We have someone who knows how not only to operate in a 3 man back system, but run the 3 man back system. Montella is great with tactics, but how often will you see a player leave one of the greatest defenses of the last decade with this type of experience in order to help a rival club? He will serve as a perfect teacher to the younger defenders, which is perfect for a potential long term partnership between Musacchio and Romagnoli, and with Matteo Gabbia coming up from the youth ranks. There’s a lot to be said and expected of with Bonucci at this point, but we’ll leave it at this. The man would be the best center back at almost every club in the world, and if that doesn’t get you excited I don’t know what does.

Gustavo Gomez

Bayern Muenchen v AC Milan - Audi Football Summit Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Not the greatest of seasons from the Paraguayan international, but he definitely showed enough to warrant a second season as a rotational player with the first team. Milan need depth going into the year, and Gomez made 0 defensive errors per Squawka, while maintaining pretty solid passing accuracy (87%). He’ll have trouble garnering starts as Milan have a host of center backs that readily deserve the appearances, but in games against lower sides or games where we need a center back substitute, Gomez is worthy of looking to. He came on against Bayern and player himself a good game, really impressing with his passing. He’s a bit more consistent than Zapata and Paletta I’d say, but he still is working on finding his feet and figuring out the Serie A. I’m sure being eased in through the year in games where we have the lead or against lower sides will be exactly what he, as well as Milan, needs.

Gabriel Paletta

AC Milan v Borussia Dortmund - 2017 International Champions Cup China Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Everyone who’s read the pieces I’ve written that include Paletta will know my stance on him. As a center back, you’d be surprised to find he actually created 9 chances from the back last season. It makes you wonder if he was going forward and then had to get back quickly multiple times which contributed to his many many red cards. When he’s on his game, Paletta is actually pretty solid, but it can’t be denied that he is a ticking time bomb in defense. He broke the record for most reds in a Serie A campaign and by a Serie A player in total (9 red cards). In a campaign where we need to return to the Champions League and every game is crucial, we can’t have a player who has that kind of temper and control. Paletta, you served us well (at times) but it’s time to go. But, in the event he’s here for another season, his poise and discipline need to be controlled (much like Kessie’s, just to a greater extent). If that can be controlled then he may yet serve as a good backup. Otherwise, if we can use him as leverage to get a striker, let’s do so.

Alessio Romagnoli

AC Milan v Bologna FC - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Even while injured for a decent chunk of the season, Romagnoli posted better defensive numbers than everyone in the Milan side (not surprising). When his name originally came up in a potential move for Bonucci, I was mortified (thankfully that wasn’t so). Romagnoli has been the most consistent performer when on the field for us and will look to do so again this season, as he finally has a true supporting cast in the defense around him and the midfield in front of him. Whether he’s partnered with Bonucci, Musacchio, both of them, or a squad player he’s bound to be poised and controlled on the ball. He’ll take to learning under Bonucci while developing his partnership with Musacchio (I know I’ve said that more than a few times now), and it’ll truly be an experience to watch. Expect 2017/2018 to be big year for Romagnoli with the World Cup on its way, you know provided he stays healthy.

Matteo Gabbia

Italy U19 v Serbia U19 - International Friendly Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

17 years old and he’s earned a call up to a team bloated with center backs, but management is smarter than that aren’t they? Take it how you see it but to me this shows that they’re ready to sell off some of the deadweight and take a chance on the development of the youngster. He showed good composure and ability to sniff out the ball from the backline, which is something we could always use more of. Unfortunately, I was not able to dig up stats on him, but the bit of film watched was indicative of a special player in the Milan bench. Game time will be scarce, but maybe he’ll have himself a breakout season in the few games he does get his chance in, much like Locatelli.

Ignazio Abate

AC Milan v Real Betis Balompè - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

Another player who has a big question mark over his consistency coming into the year, and his preseason showings didn’t warrant much. Even his comparison matrix with new boy Andrea Conti aren’t much in his favor. Conti had him beat in defensive performance, chances created, goals scored, defensive errors, and tackles won. It should be noted that in 10 less games Abate only had 8 less chances created and a much higher successful take on %. Abate may lose his footing at times, but he’ll make for a good depth back this term, and will definitely get a chance to win his spot back throughout this if Conti starts shaking.

Andrea Conti

AC Milan v KF Shkendija 79 - UEFA Europa League Qualifying Play-Offs Round: First Leg Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

We’ve really landed ourselves a true wingback here. After a stellar performance in which he created 28 chances and scored 8 goals as a right back for Atalanta, Conti joined the Rossoneri for €25 million in July. Though the transfer saga took longer than most would’ve liked. Conti constantly voiced his want to move to the San Siro, which you love to hear. Some of the most successful sides recently have employed the wingback system, such as Premier League champions Chelsea…and Serie A champions Juventus. Conti, a player sought after by Chelsea, Man U, Napoli, and Juve seemed to have red and black on the mind since his name came out of the Milan scouting report. He’s not without his faults though. Conti comes in with improvement needed in the defensive part of his game, mainly with aerial duels. He’s not the biggest of players, so his aggression just needs to be turned up a bit. In 10 more games he made less defensive errors than Abate last term and should be the man marched out in the start XI on day 1 of the Serie A campaign. He’s already shown to be able to work well with Suso, as evident with their pestering of the CSU Craiova defense on a multitude of occasions. It’ll be an exciting year for Conti, as it could truly put him into the lime light of top flight right backs in the world.

Davide Calabria

FC Crotone v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

It wasn’t the season we were hoping for from Calabria to say the least. When Abate went down, it was hoped he’d be able to step in a prove himself. That’s not to say he had an awful season, but in a push for Europe Milan had to go with the more experienced player in Vangioni. When De Sciglio finally went down, Calabria had to step in and he played decently, but not well enough to get starting consideration over Abate and Conti. Calabria will likely serve as a rotational player this term who is put in at times best suited for his development. His positioning and tackling could use some work, but that’s the case with most young defenders. This will serve as a developmental year for Calabria as he looks to one day move up the pecking order for the reigns on the right flank.

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