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The Caldara Issue: Exposing Lack of Depth in the Backline

Addressing a Growing Hole in the Central Defense

Everyone jumped for literal joy - myself included - on or around August 1st, when it looked like AC Milan returned much maligned captain and one of the best center backs in the world to Juventus in exchange for goal-scorer extraordinaire Gonzalo Higuain AND one of the most promising defenders on the peninsula in Mattia Caldara. It was seen very much as a win-win, and with all due respect, it still is.

On or around August 1, it was surmised that Caldara will form an incredible partnership with current captain and defensive cornerstone, Alessio Romagnoli, and would hearken to the days of Baresi and Costacurta. What a great move, for NOW and the FUTURE.

Today is November 1 (or at least it as I start writing this), and I had a hard time even sourcing an image that had Caldara in a Milan jersey from a performance. To date, he has only made one appearance, for a total of 90 minutes.

If this were for problems transitioning into a new club, lack of form, or issues with the coaching, it would be a bit more transparent. But, such is not the case. He is constantly haunted by a recurring back problem. New injuries, such as a calf strain and slight rupture/strain of his achilles tendon are piling on as of late, with newest reports indicating he will be out for at least another month (on the optimistic side).

So what does that leave the defense in his absence? Gattuso has seemingly been married to the notion that his players best fit a 4-3-3 - we can debate that all we want, and we have. He does have the horses for it, with Calabria, Rodriguez, Laxalt, and maybe if Abate had a time machine, on the flank. We are still waiting the debuts of Andrea Conti and Ivan Strinic, who are also both sidelined with injuries/conditions. But while the 4-3-3 has led to some explosive goal scoring, our disorganization in the back line has ensured that we still dropped many points. (As an aside, I am fully aware that we are in fourth place in the table, and in that coveted Champions League position. But we could be second or near second with some separation if we don’t drop 8 points to Napoli, Empoli, Atalanta and Cagliari, and another 1 in what should’ve been a draw with Inter.)

Mateo Musacchio has filled in that spot as the incumbent, while Caldara was supposed to take the required time to assimilate into the first team. We also have Christian Zapata who has made a total of 3 appearances this season for 270 minutes - I don’t know if this speaks more to his ability, the lack of trust Ringhio has in him, or the fact that it’s not a very well kept secret that he will be ushered out in one of the next two transfer windows. After that, it’s slim pickings.

As recently as yesterday against Genoa, Gattuso has tried a 3-5-2 with the back three being a combination of Musacchio, Romagnoli and Rodriguez. But as Genoa rained down in waves, the backline was heavily reliant on the outside flanks of Kessie and Laxalt to come back, as we seemed to find ourselves under pressure once the ball broke the plane of the central midfield. Also, for a team that likes to start with possession out of the back, I’m not sure this was a particularly convincing systemic display.

So that brings me to the next point - reinforcements. With the transfer window two months away, and with a star midfielder in Paqueta already in line to join, we should be shifting focus to reinforce the central defense.

I always wondered why teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, et al, would sign every player under the sun. And the point is that if you want to win titles, Europa Leagues, and Champions League, you need not just depth, but elite depth. I mean Juventus can play any two of Bonucci, Chiellini, Barzagli, Benatia, or Rugani, and have one of the best backlines in the world.

So what are the options available to us? I mean just on a Bosman in 2019, you’ll find the likes of David Luiz, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, or Diego Godin. We know Leonardo and Maldini are very much into investing for both the now and future, as the Caldara signing demonstrates. And we also know they will empty their pockets for the right player, in their estimation of course, like the signings of Castillejo and Higuain. Would they be more apt to target young stars like Dayot Upamecano from RB Leipzig or Panagiotis Retsos from Bayer Leverkusen? Or stay local and poach Nikola Milenkovic (maybe we can get two guys with the same name) from Fiorentina? Or will Milan, as rumors suggest, storm the throne of Ajax and pluck their crown jewel in Matthias de Ligt? Please, the last one.

Either way, we seem to have a center back depth issue worth addressing before we get in line for the player we all know will be joining in two months whether we want them to or not: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.