Vincenzo Montella meandered across the San Siro turf, his brow noticeably furrowed, and glanced around lost in contemplation. He magnanimously shook the hands of Roma players and consoled his own. Despite losing 2-0, Milan had given a decent account of themselves, but Montella knows that decent isn’t enough when more than €200 million has been invested by the club’s new Chinese owners.
With Serie A regaining a fourth Champions League spot, a top four finish is the minimum requirement for Milan given their transfer outlay. Sunday’s reversal made it back-to-back league defeats and the Rossoneri lie seventh in the table, already behind the eight ball. Montella was philosophical in his post-game press conference and refused to panic.
“It was our best match in terms of showing continuity, and our attitude was right.”
Despite finishing sixth in his first season, Montella was largely absolved of any pressure with the club in takeover limbo. Still, he scored some impressive wins over Juventus and blooded academy prospects like Manuel Locatelli, Davide Calabria and Patrick Crutone into the first team. Under the circumstances, he probably felt he’d achieved as much as could be expected with the resources at his disposal.
When the takeover of the club was finally confirmed in April, the hope was that cash would finally be spent in order to restore Milan to former glories. The board were good on their word and brought in a host of glamorous new faces including Portuguese hotshot striker Andre Silva, free-kick master Hakan Chalhanoglu, Nikola Kalinic, Lazio captain Lucas Biglia, Ricardo Rodriguez, Atalanta pair Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti and, most significantly, talismanic Juventus central defender Leonardo Bonucci.
Given that they’ve essentially signed a new team, it was inevitable that they’d encounter a few teething problems. Nine of their 11 signings started against Roma and there was very much a sense that many of the side were still figuring out combinations and partnerships. Montella began their opening games deploying four at the back, but has subsequently changed to three centre-halves in recent weeks to suit Bonucci, who was used to playing in such a system for Juve and the national team. Of course, the subtle difference there was the presence of Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli alongside him.
With the way Milan’s takeover is structured, qualification for Europe’s elite competition for 2018/19 is imperative. Of course, they could earn that by winning the Europa League (they’ve won their initial two group games), but the league is where they need to excel. Defeats against Roma and Lazio were hardly unexpected, but new chief-executive Marco Fassone suggested that losing to the likes of Sampdoria wasn’t what they’d envisioned in the summer.
Fassone’s comments coupled with reports in many of the daily newspapers including Gazetta Dello Sport have fuelled the line of argument that Montella is living on borrowed time and Carlo Ancelotti’s sudden availability has only increased such chatter. Certainly a section of Milan’s supporters group would welcome a return for the man who served them with such distinction as both a player and a manager, and should results continue to deteriorate, the clamber for Carlo will grow.
A look at Ancelotti’s CV would draw you closer to a consensus that he’d be the ideal figure to rekindle the good old days. He’s brought sides to league titles in Italy, England, France and Germany, and is tied with Bob Paisley for the most European Cup’s won by a manager. He has undeniable pedigree, but when further evaluating Milan’s current position, it doesn’t appear to be a perfect fit.
Milan are currently less than their composite parts and they require a tactician to mould them into a cohesive unit. For all his strengths, Ancelotti is not a hands on coach. Frank Lampard described the Italian as “a player’s manager”, attributing his success at Chelsea to conversing with senior members of the dressing room and allowing them more input, switching from his a diamond formation to the 4-3-3 preferred by his squad.
That approach of course is entirely contextual. Real Madrid’s stars were liberated by Ancelotti’s methods after Mourinho’s stifling reign and few had a negative word to say when he was sacked by Florentino Perez. Cristiano Ronaldo even went out of his way to thank his manager in a rare non-sponsorship related Instagram post. Contrast that with Bayern Munich’s key players, many of whom thrived in the highly evolved sessions of Pep Guardiola. Arjen Robben disparagingly claimed that he’d seen more innovative coaching at his son’s youth team and the wider contempt for Ancelotti towards the end was striking.
Take from that what you will, but the structural issues within the Milan team need a coach of forensic detail. Montella is obviously a smart tactician and it will take time to mesh all that talent together into a functioning collective. “Let’s not forget that nine of the 11 players are new,” he told Sky Italia. “They are the present and future of Milan.”
For what it’s worth, Ancelotti intimated that his plan was to take a ten month sabbatical and not coach a team until next season. Whether Milan or another club can convince him to reconsider before then is another matter, but the 58 year-old probably isn’t in a rush. There’s also the argument that you should never go back to a place where you’ve previously succeeded in the event of tarnishing what went before. Either way, now is not the opportune moment for Milan to cut the cord. Montella trophy cabinet may not stack up against his more senior contemporary, but he’s their best option right now.