A YEAR and a half into Max Allegri’s tenure as Milan manager, he has revolutionized an aging squad and stamped his own style onto one of the most exiting teams on the continent today.
Last year’s Scudetto came on the back of the second best attack in the league (and, what many will consider equally if not more important: the best defense). Three new strikers in less than a year was the surefire way to re-invigorate an attacking department that in 2009/10 featured the always inert Marco Borriello, Ronaldinho’s overweight twin, and a horribly out-of-confidence Klass Jan Huntelaar. Sweeping changes brought about two players of greater finesse than the clumsy Hunteloriello, and the arrival of Antonio Cassano for Ronaldinho, a support striker to feed assists to the three league goal scorers, Ib(ra)Ro(binho)Pa(to).
While Cassano and Ibrahimovic are not known for being the most mobile players, they both provided significantly more options in the attacking third than Leonardo was able to get from his limited 09/10 options. In the 10/11 season, the IbRoPa attacking trio accounted for 53 goals (67% of the total goals scored) between them in all competitions. If you include goals scored by Inzaghi and Cassano, the total jumps up to 61 goals (77% of total). For comparison, the amount of goals scored by players playing in the midfield last year was 15 (19% of total).
The gamble to sign two players considered outcasts at their previous clubs paid off. But at the same time as this rapid face lift of the attack, the midfield was being prepared for it’s own metamorphosis. Kevin-Prince Boateng was the most important signing of the new midfield last summer, and he was played in the trequartista position with what most fans consider mixed results. Boateng didn’t deliver the goals in his first season. He didn’t deliver the kind of passing that Robinho displayed. What Boateng did contribute was more telling that looking at a goal/assist column will tell you. However, Milan has always been a club that prides itself on results, and as a result, for most fans to accept Boateng as a trequartista, he was going to have to develop either a goalscoring instinct, or take some passing lessons from Ibrahimovic.
Boateng discussed in interviews his work over the summer developing and practicing his finishing. For those unsure the results of his work, the results are in. Seven goals already this season in all competitions has Boateng listed on all of the opposition’s scouting reports. When my Arsenal friends ask for scouting on Milan, the player they mention in midfield is Kevin-Prince Boateng. He has taken his game a step up this season, and much of the reason is due to his hard-working industrious performances. Equally important to the renaissance in the midfield, was the man who designed the midfield, Allegri.
In the buildup surrounding the Barcelona matches, Allegri distanced his team from claims that they would try to emulate Barcelona. Rather, as he has reiterated of late, Allegri stated that Milan should set out to be the anti-Barcelona. The formula for how to do that is yet to be discovered. Some consider Mourinho the closest to solving the Barcelona riddle, but in reality, they are no closer than Milan are. Mourinho recognizes the need to play defensively and break on the counter, and as a result, his squad is built to be the best counterattacking side in Europe.
Allegri approaches with a strategy that is similar in some ways to Madrid but in many ways different. The similarity is the need for a fast paced counter, and the ability to move quickly about the pitch. In the match at the Camp Nou, Allegri’s squad scored early, then absorbed all of Barcelona’s pressure for 90 minutes, keeping as narrow and compact as possible. Partially due to the timing and the fact that it was an away leg, Allegri necessarily had to defend like he instructed the players to. However, in an open game of football, such as a final, or a home leg, Allegri would need to change what Milan did and be far more positive.
Tactically, what Allegri did was to pressure the ball as high on the pitch as often as possible, deny time, and eventually force mistakes. In order to do this, Allegri needs to have hardworking midfielders, in multiple positions on the pitch. He needs someone to pressure the deep lying playmaker. Boateng playing at the trequartista brings a physicality and an energy that traditional trequartistas are not known for having. This allowed him to pressure and have 9+ players in defense. He also needs players that can run for hours. Allegri has one such player in the form of Antonio Nocerino, our modern day version of a Gattusian ball-winner. Whereas Gattuso in the past had to recover the ball on his own, today, Nocerino has Mark Van Bommel to enforce and win the tackles. That leaves Nocerino’s role to clean up when possible, and to initiate attacks. Once the ball is won, Nocerino is often the first to pass, and most importantly, move after delivering the pass. This sort of movement forces the other team to shift multiple players, and to track the runs, thus freeing up more space in turn, and opening up passing options. Passing options lead to greater possession. Greater possession allows the players to (slightly) rest until the cycle begins again.
When it comes to the signature of Allegri’s 2011-2012 Milan, in my opinion, the most distinct consequence of his 4-1-2-1-2 formation is the amount of goals scored by the midfield. Kevin-Prince Boateng and Antonio Nocerino have combined for 13 goals already (through the Atalanta match). Seedorf has also demonstrated the ability to put the ball in the back of the net, and if Alberto Aquilani had not forgotten his shooting boots in Liverpool he would have put away some of the chances that have fallen his way. The goals will continue to come for those making runs into the box, as Boateng and Nocerino can attest to. With Ibrahimovic in absolutely deadly form, dishing out assists at the rate he’s scoring, Milan are cruising through the league with a style all their own.
In my next piece I will discuss the alternatives at the Attacking Midfield role and what each player brings to the squad.
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UPDATE: Part Two can be found here