Milan might not have been the best football team during the middle of the last decade, but they were probably the most sophisticated. Think back to the successful sides of 2004-06 – Greece, Porto, Liverpool (and at a stretch, Italy). They were all great stories, but extremely functional, largely defensive sides. Even the Barcelona side that won the Champions League in 2006 had Mark van Bommel and Edmilson as part of its midfield trio, which hardly represents tiki-taka.
Central midfield zones then were about power, force and physicality, but Milan were different. They went completely the other way – they had Andrea Pirlo at the base of midfield, and Kaka at the top. Clarence Seedorf fitted on the side of the diamond, and sometimes they brought in Rui Costa to play a Christmas Tree, and managed to fit four playmakers in the same side. Granted, they had Rino Gattuso sweeping up behind, but it was still a magnificently technical side.
Pep Guardiola, who complained his career as a deep-lying playmaker ended prematurely because of the focus on physique rather than technique, pinpointed Milan as the only ideologues of that period. “They play a completely different brand of football,” he said. “But they’re not trendsetters, they’re the exception.”
They still are. But whereas Guardiola has gone onto make technical football THE way to play football, Milan have bucked the trend again. Pirlo has departed, with Mark van Bommel in his place, but Pirlo remains the most gifted, and the most prolific, passer in the league. He attempts 81.2 passes per game at Juventus, a figure the Milan midfield can only dream of. Their top passer is actually a centre-back, Thiago Silva, with 64.1. Granted, van Bommel is not far behind on 62.5, but the style of passing is completely different to Pirlo. Whereas Pirlo plays 2.7 key passes per game, van Bommel’s figure is just 0.2. That’s not the Dutchman’s fault – he’s a different player and asked to play a different role, but it reflects what Max Allegri wants from his team. The artistry of Pirlo was deemed surplus to requirements.
The situation in that position is a microcosm of how Milan have changed; their midfield is now based around physical attributes. Antonio Nocerino has been a success, but his game is basically about running a lot. At Ajax, Urby Emanuelson was one of those weird players that didn’t really have a set position, but had good stamina and was left-footed, so could play anywhere up and down the left touchline. It seemed a sensible signing – Milan needed width, but he’s often been deployed at the top of the diamond, when he simply doesn’t have the qualities to be a trequartista.
Kevin-Prince Boateng is another fielded in that role, and another odd case. He has certainly performed well at Milan, but mainly because he’s so energetic. With a defensive-minded midfield and often a static front two, Milan need a shuttler in that position to prevent the side becoming ‘broken’, to prevent the gap between midfield and attack becoming too large. Boateng fits the bill brilliantly, but again, he’s not remotely creative. He averages just 1.3 key passes per game, a figure that puts him lower than Chievo’s Michael Bradley – the definition of a box-to-box midfielder, who relies on his energy, not his skill.
Milan’s leader in terms of ‘key passes’ is Zlatan Ibrahimovic on 2.9, then Robinho on 1.7. They depend highly upon individual quality upfront rather than intelligent play from midfield for chance creation. Amazingly, the player with most assists – seven – is Antonio Cassano, who hasn’t played since October, demonstrating their creative weaknesses.
Just behind Cassano on that count is Alberto Aquilani, clearly a much more intelligent, thoughtful player than many of the other Milan options in midfield. His average rating of 7.57 is considerably higher than any other Milan player in one of the two ‘outside’ points of the diamond, but he hasn’t yet appeared in 2012 through injury – and besides, he’s only on loan. Reports this week that Milan have agreed a deal with Fiorentina captain Riccardo Montolivo, out of contract in the summer, certainly makes sense. He is a proper regista – only Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi complete more passes per game than him in Serie A.
Statistically, the major factor Milan lead the way in is their aerial duel success rate, 58%. In that respect, they are the Italian equivalent of Stoke. Well, not really – they are in the top three in pass completion rate and average percentage of possession. But it demonstrates what they’re good at, and is representative of their incredible U-turn in recent years.
They are essentially now the opposite of Barcelona. Guardiola’s side is clearly a better team than Real Madrid in head-to-head matches, but look likely to lose the league based upon inferior performances against the other 18. Milan don’t have the intelligence to break down good sides, but they can easily blast past minnows. Against top clubs, Milan struggle; they haven’t beaten any of the top six in Serie A this season.
So whereas Milan’s style in the mid-2000s was good for Europe (one league title but three European Cup finals), now they’re well in the title running, but very much outsiders in the Champions League.