Just a personal opinion…
There’s been a lot of talk about Milan’s January transfer market, with more than a few fans somewhat disappointed in Adriano Galliani’s dealings this winter.
Indeed the Milan fans are still salivating over last year’s genius winter campaign that proved so pivotal in the Scudetto challenge, when the Rossoneri brought Antonio Cassano, Mark Van Bommel, Urby Emmanuelson, and Didac Vila.
The former two were instrumental in sealing the Scudetto, Emmanuelson proved useful in patches, while Vila did not feature. All in all though, Milan’s transfer guru was again lauded for his keen instincts in improving the squad while doing so at minimal costs.
This year is completely different however, as Milan have acquired the services of Algerian left-back Djamel Mesbah, brought back Rodney Strasser and Alexander Merkel from their respective loans, and finally acquired the services of Maxi Lopez and Sulley Muntari on loans from Catania and Inter respectively. Although none of these seem very impressive, they do answer the main issue they have had, which has been their lack of depth following a persistent injury crisis in attack and midfield. Consequently, it is the signings of Maxi Lopez and Muntari that have aroused the most discussion among Milan fans.
The question on all Milanisti’s lips is: what could either of these players possibly bring to the team? Firstly, and most obviously, they are extra bodies. With Cassano’s heart issues, Filippo Inzaghi not being in Massimiliano Allegri’s plans, and Alexander Pato often injured, Milan needed a striker. In midfield, with Mathieu Flamini having been out since the start of the season, Gennaro Gattuso’s health issues, and the creaking legs of Van Bommel and Massimo Ambrosini, Muntari once again becomes an extra body to come in.
However I don’t believe that Galliani signed just for the sake of signing. I believe that Allegri has also [to some extent] sanctioned these signings as he sees some use for them beyond just adding squad depth. On a tactical level, both players offer things that Allegri finds useful and that has to do with the way he has tweaked the way Milan have played this season.
I have often lauded Allegri’s flexibility at having come to Milan as a 4-3-3 merchant – a system that was so successful for him during his Cagliari days – and adapting to the lack of dynamism of Milan’s older legs by switching to a Calcio classic in the 4-3-1-2. Allegri still plays the 4-3-1-2 today but he has tweaked it ever so slightly and very cleverly in order to mimic his old 4-3-3. The key difference this year has been the role of Zlatan Ibrahimovic who drops much deeper into a playmaker role.
Much of the issue last year has been that the big Swede verticalized the Rossoneri’s play too much and made the team too predictable when he played as the target striker. Allegri has gotten rid of the reference point [that was Ibrahimovic] this year however and allowed the Swede to find more space and utilize his fantastic vision, passing and ability to run at defenders.
What is most interesting, is the movement of the rest of the team in relation to Ibrahimovic dropping deeper. When he does, the other two front men fan out and occupy the wide spaces as either of Alberto Aquilani or Antonio Nocerino bomb forward into the space vacated by Ibrahimovic. In essence the formation therefore morphs into a 4-3-3 – in the offensive phase of the game when Milan try to break down a team sitting deep – and provides ‘artificial’ width that did not exist last season.
Here is where our two new recruits prove their usefulness. The former Catania striker is very mobile and loves to drift into wider areas to escape marking before ghosting in on unsuspecting defenders. This ability to work the channels is very important to Allegri who looked this season to not play in vertical spaces as much and instead widen the pitch. In other words Maxi Lopez could very conceivably be seen playing alongside Ibrahimovic. He also offers decent workrate, which is always something that Allegri looks for as he seeks to press all over the pitch.
As for Muntari, he offers energy, dynamism, and versatility. When the Ghanaian still plied his trade at Udinese (2002-2007), Muntari was one of the best mezzala in Serie A and he returned to the peninsula in 2008 under Jose Mourinho to confirm that fact.
Allegri’s system suffers today however due to an imbalance created by the unavailability of both Aquilani and Flamini. Indeed both absentees are forcing Allegri to play with two holding midfielders – in Van Bommel and Ambrosini – as opposed to two mezzala flanking a mediano. Clarence Seedorf has played that role in the absence of Aquilani but the Dutchman’s advancing years are an issue and creating a long-term strategy based on his presence would be counter-intuitive.
Furthermore, Muntari is a very similar player to Andrea Lazzari, who played at Cagliari under Allegri and was very much sought out by his ex-coach during last winter’s market. Muntari will give the extra bite and aggressiveness in midfield Allegri craves so much, the ability to press and close spaces quickly in order to win the ball high up the pitch. Indeed, and not simply due to their nationality, Muntari could serve as a replacement for Kevin Prince Boateng should he be unavailable.
The two Ghanaians boast of similar enough attributes [in terms of physique and athleticism] that Allegri might attempt a repeat of the experiment we have known to be so successful. Finally, Muntari offers versatility and a new option in that he can play not simply in midfield but up top as well as a wide forward. In that instance, Allegri would be able to more genuinely replicate the 4-3-3 he was so attached to before.
Of course by no means am I saying that these players will be a success and that Milanisti are lacking foresight in their cries discontent. But both Maxi Lopez and Muntari deserve a bit more credit than to simply be thought of as extra depth to the squad when they can make a genuine contribution to the squad. Certainly Maxi Lopez has lost much of that pace he once had that made him dangerous when he moved out wide. However he still remains a decent poacher – even if one that I don’t personally rate – who can nick a goal here and there.
As for Muntari, it is evident that the Ghanaian has lost some of that sparkle that once made him the engine and uncompromising midfielder he once was, but his versatility and venomous long-range shot are sure to bear some fruits even in this short six-month stint. Only hindsight will be the judge here, lest we remember how perplexed the Milan fans looked when Galliani unveiled Van Bommel to the San Siro faithful.