Friday, September 28, 2012
Growing pains for Milan pair
Adam Digby, Italy Correspondent
"Chaos in Milan. It's never this bad!" cried the front page of Corriere dello Sport last Monday, reacting to seeing the city's two clubs both lose the previous weekend. Indeed, before Milan's midweek win over Cagliari, the pair had combined to take just three points from seven home matches following three draws and four losses, with Milan themselves having already lost three league games this term.
The problem has found a convenient scapegoat with blame all too easily connected to the decision to install partially synthetic turf at San Siro over the summer. Both sides have clearly struggled to come to terms with the new surface after it became increasingly difficult to grow natural grass at the stadium.
Since the third tier was added ahead of the 1990 World Cup, sunlight rarely reaches the playing area and it made financial sense too as the two clubs had been paying to re-lay the pitch around six times a season. That meant spending almost €200,000 each time. The new turf was a one off charge of approximately €750,000. But the alarming rate at which it is currently costing them points is far more pressing than any financial loss. Mauro Tassotti was keen to highlight issues with the pitch, despite overseeing that win on Wednesday, expressing concern at the speed at which the ball travelled over the surface.
The Milan assistant coach - standing in for the suspended Massimiliano Allegri - told Sky Italia that "the pitch wasn't helping us tonight as we thought the rain would be enough to wet it, but it was very difficult to play the ball to feet." It has clearly helped smaller sides such as Atalanta, Sampdoria and Anderlecht to frustrate the Rossoneri, the reduced pace not allowing Milan to play their natural game.
However, it is the work each is doing off the field that is undoubtedly making far more impact than a 'cursed' pitch ever could. Both clubs had recorded huge losses as they spent money with abandon in pursuit of glory, bankrolled by two of Italy's most wealthy men; Silvio Berlusconi and Massimo Moratti, who are now desperately moving to bring down costs from their previous unsustainable levels.
The Inter owner in particular has been especially forthright in interviews over recent months, pointing out the need for both his own club and their city cousins to implement new strategies if they are to remain viable in the future. Speaking to reporters outside his offices last week, Moratti once again offered his insight into the problems facing the two clubs as he said: "Milan have sold some important players while we are gradually introducing youngsters. Neither Milan nor ourselves have a super squad anymore, even if we still hope that results arrive."
"Unfortunately, we can no longer allow ourselves to sign a super champion at a cost in excess of €20 million. It's not very pleasing to live through defeats, let's hope that the victories that will provide faith in the team arrive soon."
After years of signing countless high-profile players only to watch them flop, it is telling that even Moratti recognises the need for change. Perhaps the calamitous deal for Diego Forlan proved one too many for the president, having seen the Uruguayan go from being the best player at the 2010 World Cup to one who scored just twice in 20 appearances for the Nerazzurri . Signed despite being cup-tied in Europe - a huge oversight which many observers thought was typical of the club - his contract was terminated in the summer despite having over a year left to run.
Holding a reputation which has seen them dubbed 'Crazy Inter', it is they who appear to have the most well thought out project in place, moving on a number of highly paid veterans but blending others into a team alongside those young players Moratti spoke of. Gone are expensive older stars like Julio Cesar, Lucio and Forlan, replaced by much hungrier players such as Samir Handanovic, Juan Jesus and Ricky Alvarez.
In their most recent match (away to Chievo) Inter still fielded six players who were present during their spectacular 2009-10 campaign alongside five newcomers, a stark contrast to the Milan starting XI against Cagliari which contained just three players who featured in their title win just two seasons ago. The Rossoneri are struggling to not only overcome the loss of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic but also the departure of so many core players this past summer.
Now in charge of an incredibly depleted squad, Allegri appears to be unable to lift his players and find a game plan that can bring the best from them. He is not helped by the fragility of Alexandre Pato, a player who has all the tools to become a true great at the club but is simply unable to remain fit long enough to effectively contribute, or have the side built around him as it should be. He has been involved in an ugly spat with Filippo Inzaghi - now a coach in the club's youth system - and is constantly criticised by former players such as Alessandro Nesta and Gennaro Gattuso.
Across town, Andrea Stramaccioni is at the heart of the new look Inter and, at just 36-years-old, brings the same youthful exuberance and drive in the players brought in to rejuvenate his own playing staff. He has been bold enough to make some difficult decisions, from switching to a three-man defence to dropping captain Javier Zanetti for the first time since September 2008.
He has the backing of both the club and its players, all of whom regularly speak well of the coach and his ideas with Moratti telling Gazzetta dello Sport : "it didn't take a lot of courage to choose Stramaccioni." Going on to add his belief that he has "all the features to do the job." Evidence suggests that assessment is correct as Inter have lost just five games since he took charge of the club back in March.
He has joined the ever-increasing band of coaches opting to field three defenders - a resurgent trend in Italy - but, rather than a desire to copy the ideas of others, Stramaccioni maintains the switch was made in order to best take advantage of the attributes of his players. He told Sky Italia that the team must believe in the system and themselves, saying: "I think this could be the foundation on which to work. It's the best way to get the most out of the players I have available. It gives us a mixture of strength which, at the same time, allows us to be dangerous up front without losing our balance.
"I had asked the boys to have a little more courage in getting into the box. I think this is the way to cover the pitch better and my way of exploiting the weapons at my disposal."
That too offers a much different perspective than what we see with Allegri, who continually feels a sluggish midfield, most recently opting to pair Nigel De Jong and Massimo Ambrosini in front of the defence. He is perhaps being pragmatic in order to survive until next summer - when Milan should be far more active in the transfer market - having made such dramatic reductions in their wage bill this year.
Both projects clearly have the same aim in mind as they cut costs to fall in line with UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations while remaining competitive but are attempting to do so in very different ways. Inter look best placed to achieve those aims but the history of Galliani and Berlusconi means something unexpected could be just around the corner for Milan.
Their struggles so far this term mean both will be seeking to improve their form as tension builds towards the first encounter between the two this season. Like the Madonnina after whom the derby is named, we can only look on to see which club writes the headlines, hoping not to see the pitch declared the winner of next weekend's match.