MASSIMILIANO Allegri was heavily criticised at the beginning of the current campaign as AC Milan had one of their worst starts to a season in the entire Silvio Berlusconi era. Milan struggled in accumulating only seven points in their opening seven games including four league defeats. Director, Adriano Galliani, was forced to publicly voice his support for the under-fire coach on a weekly basis. Allegri faced a barrage of criticism. Now with six games left of the season, Milan are in third position and four points adrift from Napoli. Their resurgence has seen them unbeaten in 2013 with nine wins and five draws. Yet despite all the criticism received as Milan faltered at the beginning of the season, Allegri has yet to receive commensurate praise as Milan has experienced a significant upturn in form. Is Milan’s change in fortune this season due to Allegri’s tactical approach? Is he too inexperienced, out of his depth or tactically inept for such a prestigious club? Or is he underrated and the perfect mentor to take the club forward? Let’s try and distinguish which one of the previous statements about the Livorno born coach are correct by assessing his tactics employed this season.
Allegri took the job at Milanello two and half years ago, winning the Scudetto in his first season at Milan and finishing as runners-up in the following. This season the Rossoneri are currently in third place and with their strong form and Napoli’s indifferent form in 2013, they are worthy contenders for yet another second place finish, even if the recent 1-1 draw between the sides dented those hopes. One of Allegri’s predecessors, Carlo Ancelotti managed to build a successful side that was however more suited to European football. He won only one Serie A title in his eight years at the club. Allegri however has built a more consistent domestic side. As is customary at all major prestigious clubs who are not winning all the time though, the head coach still has his doubters.
As we look at the tactics employed by Allegri this season and how they have evolved, we simply have to begin with his trust in youth. Allegri began the season with the vast majority of his previous squad wiped out. The “Old Guard” including the likes of Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta were shipped out and big names such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were sold for financial reasons. Allegri understood that the only way forward, particularly in a time of austerity, was to turn to youth.
Allegri said the following in an interview on December 31 2012:
We are on the right track by focusing on youth. We are building a new Milan, so this is an achievement that takes time and passion. If 2012 hasn’t been a positive year? I’m satisfied, just as I was satisfied when I had a squad capable of winning. I’m calm during difficult moments and not clouded by anxiety
Even while languishing in mid-table during the first few months of the season, it was the Milanese youngsters that grabbed all the headlines. Players like Stephan El Shaarawy, Mattia De Sciglio and M’Baye Niang have revolutionized Milan. El Sharaawy in particular has been a revelation. The recently turned 20-year-old has nineteen goals this season (16 in the league) and single-handedly carried the team during the first half of the season. In fact the rise of El Shaarawy and De Sciglio (also 20 years old) has been so phenomenal that they have both now cemented a place in the Italian National team. It is not just this faith in youth which should be commended, but how Allegri has nurtured and mentored these young players should be praised as well.
In a recent interview Niang told the Milan channel: “Allegri? He is like a father to me, he gives me the right advice and makes me work a lot.” After making his International debut, De Sciglio told Italian TV: “I have to thank Allegri a lot for how things are going..”
In terms of a tactical setup, Allegri began the season with his usual 4-3-1-2 formation. This setup was used throughout the majority of last season and Allegri received widespread criticism for his tactical inflexibility and unwillingness to adapt within different game situations. Allegri employed Kevin-Prince Boateng in the trequartista role, alternated Ricardo Montolivo between a regista and a mezz’alla and promoted El Shaarawy and De Sciglio to the starting lineup. New signings Giampaolo Pazzini and Nigel De Jong were also thrust into the starting eleven.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, Milan’s campaign began disastrous. Boateng struggled to settle into his new role which proved fundamental as the formation hinges on the creativity and industry of the trequartista. The only width was provided by the full-backs but Milan’s focus on build-up play and penetration through the centre looked disjointed. Allegri attempted to change things opting for a 4-2-3-1 formation on the odd occasion in the opening months but also with no real success.
It’s worth mentioning that while Allegri received the lion share of the criticism for the poor start, Milan were fielding an almost entire new starting eleven to the previous campaign. Expecting immediate success from a team that had been so reliant on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and Alessandro Nesta in the previous season was grossly unfair.
As the season progressed, Allegri eventually switched to a 4-3-3 formation. In contrast to previous years, Milan possesses players who can play wide and then also do a holding job defensively. So often the 4-3-3 is criticised as it results in huge space in midfield which opponents can exploit. Allegri’s system however ensures that the two wide players in the front three track back, effectively forming a 4-5-1 on defense. Furthermore the system has benefited from deploying young players out wide (predominantly El Shaarawy and Boateng or Niang) who demonstrate immense stamina, discipline and work ethic in contributing to both attack and defense.
Milan have subsequently looked a different outfit, devoid of the numerous problems that plagued them throughout the opening months of the season. In conjunction with the successful formation, Allegri has found a fairly consistent starting eleven while also adequately rotating his squad. Besides the crucial contribution of the front two wide players, central to the success of the formation has been the central midfielder, Montolivo. The Italian international has provided the creative drive but also been developed by Allegri into to a box-to-box midfielder who contributes on defense as well.
While Allegri’s 4-3-3 may not be as fluent and pleasing on the eye as Leonardo’s 4-3-3 or the various formations used by Carlo Ancelotti, it has been hugely effective. The Rossoneri have fielded a 4-3-3 formation on twenty one occasions this season, resulting in fourteen wins, five draws and only two losses. They are currently on a fourteen game unbeaten run in 2013. As testimony to Allegri’s more defensive-focused, solid and compact 4-3-3 system, Milan have only conceded three goals, two from the penalty spot, in their previous six league encounters. They have also scored 39 goals using this formation averaging 1.86 goals per game.
Lastly of significant importance to Milan’s turnaround in fortunes has been the impact of the enigmatic striker Mario Balotelli. So much has been written about the former Internazionale and Manchester City player; good or bad, true or false. However there is no doubting that at Milan “Super Mario” is now playing with the sort of form, for club and country, which makes him one of the most dangerous forwards in world football. If we consider that Balotelli has played under both José Mourinho and Roberto Mancini, many felt that while Milan might be the perfect environment for him, Allegri would not be the perfect coach for him. Ironically it has been Allegri’s nonchalant approach that has proved most effective on Balotelli. The former Cagliari coach has simply allowed Balotelli to play. He has employed Balotelli as a central striker, made him first choice and to a certain extent allowed him to be the focal point of the team. In return Balotelli has repaid the trust shown in him scoring seven goals in seven appearances and contributing effectively to Milan’s game plans with intelligent centre forward play. He is playing with a smile on his face for the first time in his career and we simply cannot shy away from the critical part Allegri has played on Balotelli’s rise to prominence.
Despite Allegri’s success in Serie A, a great source of frustration for all those concerned with Milan has been his failure in Europe. Under Allegri, Milan have been knocked out twice at the second round stage and once at the quarter-final stage of the Champions League. Despite two of those eliminations being at the hands of a great Barcelona side, the harsh reality is that seven-time Champions League winners have fallen a long way off some of the big clubs in Europe. Massive questions have been raised at Allegri and Milan’s inability to protect a two goal lead heading into the second leg against Barcelona this season.
Further criticism of Allegri is that he still struggles to alter the course of games when Milan have their backs to the wall and that his substitutions lack tactical awareness. Fortunately, the 4-3-3 system implemented has been so effective in Serie A thus far that the Rossoneri have very rarely found themselves on the back foot. Fingers will be pointed at their three toughest fixtures in 2013 which all ended in draws, against Inter, Fiorentina and Napoli. Allegri was perhaps out-managed by Andrea Stramaccioni and Vincenzo Montella and also perhaps lucky to escape with a point in two of those games. Ultimately Milan did not lose either game. Critics will further elude to the fact that Milan’s unbeaten run and Allegri’s system will only now in April be put through a stern test. A scrappy draw last weekend against Fiorentina was followed by an equally frustrating 1-1 result in the crucial fixture against Napoli. Juventus at home are up next, followed by a tricky trip to Catania. After the draw with Napoli, these encounters are decisive in Milan’s quest to to push Napoli for second place, and also to secure a Champions League position.
While legitimate questions regarding Allegri’s ability have been posed, we simply cannot take for granted the successful turnaround he has achieved this season. Allegri’s first Milan squad was blessed with stars like Ibrahimovic, Seedorf and Nesta who could carry the team. This season however, he has slowly molded a group together and while Milan may not play beautiful football, he has formulated a strategy to win games. Milan have invested time and effort into their current project and Allegri has done a more than adequate job in overseeing and implementing it. The connection and understanding between the young players and Allegri should not be overlooked when the Milan hierarchy assess the coaching role come the end of the season. In the current campaign Max Allegri has transformed a new generation at Milan who seem ready to challenge for top domestic and European honours in years to come.
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