The recent history of AC Milan and AS Roma, who met last Friday night, is intertwined on several points (Friday's match was a 2-1 away win for Milan). Just think back to the finale of their January game: the then defending champions let go of a 2-0 'win' - or you could look at it as José Mourinho's side coming back from 2 goals down in the break - to start a stunning slide. It's not as if Roma got wings from that 2-2 and did something huge this spring: looking at the 21-match post-round, season-ending provisional table, they are only mid-table with 33 (Milan) and 32 (Roma) points.
In the Italian Cup, just days after the January showdown, Milan were unimaginatively eliminated by Torino, while Mourinho's side were eliminated by Cremonese in early February. After that, in the European Cups, their consolation league, Milan ran out of steam in the city derby, while Mourinho failed to win a Europa League tie against the substitute Mendilibar's Sevilla at Puskas. Parallels can even be found in the final stretch of the league, as Rafael Leão's side struggled to a fourth Champions League qualifying place thanks to Juventus' European elimination, while Paulo Dybala's 90th-minute goal against Spezia sent his side Roma into the El - again at Juventus' expense. There was a shared sense of disappointment, so it is no surprise that major changes had to be made at both clubs as the season approached.
Knowing the diminishing attractiveness of the Italian league's elite teams in the transfer market, both teams have had to reshuffle their squads as their financial options are severely limited. The first part of that sentence is not necessarily a criticism, but rather a reflection of last year's reality, as even Bournemouth or Nottingham Forest, promoted to the English top flight, can offer much better conditions than a top team from Milan or Rome. Oh, and we haven't even counted this year's Saudi factor (let's be diplomatic), which is so attractive that Italian football captain Roberto Mancini has suddenly found a reason worth $40 million a year (that's $120 million over three years) to step down from the bench of the defending European champions ten months before a potential European Championship title to lead the Saudi national eleven.
The extent to which the framing and economic realities of the two teams are determined by these brutal takeover markets is perhaps best illustrated by the cashing in of former Milan man Sandro Tonali and the substantial €70 million raised to put them on a new footing.
The Mourinho machine is stalling
Roma couldn't say no to the €30 million Saudi bid for Roger Ibañez, who has excellent statistics and a hair-raising defensive record, because the club has not been doing well economically in recent years. In the 2021-22 financial year alone, their financial losses increased by €35 million, from €184 million to €219 million, while fourth-year owner Dan Friedkin and co. have to put €25 million a month into the coffers, having made roughly €330 million in player transfers between 2019-22, and last season was mostly free transfers and loans. Zeki Çelik, who was rather disappointing at right wing-back, took seven million of the nine spent on transfers in 2022 on his own, but the real breakthrough was the free acquisition of Dybala. Meanwhile, on the sell-side, €74 million was received, largely through the sale of Nicolò Zaniolo to Galatasaray and the trio of Jordan Veretout, Pau López and Cengiz Ünder to Marseille.
In the summer of 2023, they at least managed to resell and clear out some stock - in addition to the aforementioned sale of Ibañez, they also got rid of the previous management's signings (Justin Kluivert, Gonzalo Villar, Carles Pérez) and a couple of youngsters (Benjamin Tahirović and Cristian Volpato), so 75 million came in again. Meanwhile, salaries have risen by 18%, mostly due to the loan of Romelu Lukaku, who at Chelsea's net salary of €7.5 million a year earns almost double that of Roma's top scorer last season, Dybala. But the longer-term investments of Evan Ndicka and Houssem Aouar (5-5 years at a combined salary of 35 million), as well as the performance-based compensation contracts of Leandro Paredes and Renato Sanches, also carry a greater risk. This is how Mourinho described this cruel reality in Rome:
"Is it a surprise that Renato can't play against Milan? No, it's not a surprise given how things have gone for him over the last two seasons. If Renato had played to a high standard and been injury-free, he would have been a starter for sure at PSG and would never have been loaned to Roma. It's the same as Dybala's situation last season - a lot of clubs had doubts about his fitness and that's how we managed to sign him. This is our reality."
There is a good deal of partial truth in this - as in all Mourinho statements - as it raises the question of whether it was a prudent decision to loan Lukaku, who struggled at Inter last season, for so much money, and we can add that Davide Frattesi and Gianluca Scamacca, who were also considered by Roma but ended up transferring elsewhere, would have been a financially impossible venture for Roma. And besides the partial justification, there is obviously self-exoneration in Mourinho's sentences, since his team is in the top three at Italian level, alongside Juventus and Inter, and in the top 20 in Europe in terms of salaries. However, Napoli, for example, won the league last season on roughly 75% of the Roma squad's wages, while eternal rivals Lazio finished 11 points ahead of them on even less.
In any case, they did not prepare for the game against Milan with the best of omens. In their two games before Friday, for example, they were first fooled by the brilliance of Antonio Candreva, who had been strengthening Salernitana, and then by Verona. Candreva picked on Chris Smalling and Verona picked on Diego Llorente to give Roma four goals in two games.
Goalkeeper Rui Patrício was not at his best either, conceding four goals from 1.2 xG, although this was not a big surprise given his form last season. Even then he was a weak point as he is useless with his feet, his save efficiency last year was -6.6 PsxG, so knowing the final goal of the shot he conceded six and a half goals more than the average goalkeeper, putting him 193rd out of 208 goalkeepers in the top 5 leagues, but also by far the worst in the Italian aggregate.
The centre of midfield has also weakened, with the departure of Serbian from the already unimpressive Bryan Cristante and Nemanja Matić duo, replaced by Paredes, who returned to Roma and who was a standout(in a negative sense) in Massimiliano Allegri's Juventus last season, especially defensively. It's no wonder that in the spring he was almost exclusively put in against lower league teams.
However, Aouar and Lorenzo Pellegrini, who play alongside them and are known mainly for their creativity and pressure, are much needed in a team whose attacking play depends on the brilliant but injury-prone Dybala. With Tammy Abraham's cruciate ligament rupture and the absence of strikers (Scamacca, Álvaro Morata, Duván Zapata), Andrea Belotti, who scored twice in the opening game but was scoreless last season, has suddenly become a bombastic starter. Lukaku, who arrives in Rome the day before the game, could soon change that. And his partner in attack is the 'Pharaoh' Stephan El Shaarawy, who was retrained as a winger by Mourinho last season, and is a perfect transfer for Milan.
The new Milan is under construction again
The not so strong end to the season seemed to continue in the summer at Milan, where a rather difficult period to manage from a PR point of view took place in a matter of days, with two big stages. The first came at the beginning of June, when the coaching duo of Paolo Maldini, Frederic Massara, who took the team from the banter era through the revival to the league title and the semi-finals of the CL, were relieved of their duties. Then came the sale of Sandro Tonali, a young Italian crowd favourite who combined the features of Andrea Pirlo with the grittiness of Gennaro Gattuso, to the Saudi kingdom's Newcastle-based sports laundry.
Clearly, there was no question who the public would side with when the two sides were a living Milan legend and a gargantuan American owner. In the case of the latter, the silly American stereotype that is often mentioned about Todd Boehly, who bought Chelsea, was usually applied, but this does not entirely cover the reality. The feud between owner and coaches deepened behind the scenes during last year's austerity year, with the Maldinis insinuating that there was no money with loan signings and cheap justifications.
Charles De Ketelaere, bought for €35 million in 2022 but on loan to Atalanta for this season, is to blame for the failure of the Maldinis, as is the fact that they would have done anything to acquire Nicolò Zaniolo in early 2023, who has since become persona non grata even at Galatasaray with his terrible attitude. (There were other problems in the background, too.)
Meanwhile, it has emerged that Gerry Cardinale, who has a stake in one of the world's most valuable sports teams, the New York Yankees, and 20 years of business experience at the financially inescapable Goldman Sachs, and who joined Milan as the new owner in 2022, and Redbird are not completely clueless. For example, they have brought in Billy Beane, a legend in the baseball world who has been helping Milan with signings since the summer and who was the subject of the film Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt. The signing of Tijjani Reijnders was made even better by the fact that Beane is an investor in Dutch club Alkmaar.
Indeed, the analysts, scouts and recruitment department led by Geoffrey Moncada, who has long been familiar with the Eredivisie and has already been promoted to sporting director, has been working at world-class level for years, and they are also responsible for the acquisition of Pierre Kalulu (from Lyon's second team in 2020) and Malick Thiaw (from Schalke in 2022).
Like the strategically astute clubs, they have realistically assessed that 23-year-old Tonali is their easiest non-key man to move - an excellent player, but his strengths are mainly in transitions, on the ball and set pieces, but these can be replaced either by one man (Yunus Musah) or by a lower overall value. The same cannot be said of the unique trio of Mike Maignan, Théo Hernandez and Leão, who are in the immediate elite of the world in their position (only Ismaël Bennacer's cruciate ligament tear means that this list is not currently a quartet), and whose sale would leave Milan with little chance of breaking into the top 6. As we have seen, the Moncadas have perfectly found - either on the stock market or on the foreign exchange market - undervalued resources:
- Christian Pulisic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were on their way to a career worth hundreds of millions 3 years ago, but unfortunately for them, they got lost in the Chelsea footballing shuffle, but it's not too late for them.
- They slammed Noah Okafor after he humiliated the Milan midfield with Red Bull Salzburg, just as Manchester United took Cristano Ronaldo from that ominous friendly, now 20 years old.
- Samuel Chukwueze, on the verge of stardom with 2-3 good seasons at Villarreal, is a huge upgrade on Junior Messias on the right wing, but Luka Romero, acquired from Lazio, could also bring something to the attacking midfield in place of the Brahim Díaz-Alexis Saelemaekers axis.
- Argentine centre-back Marco Pellegrino, 21, Jan-Carlo Simić, signed from Stuttgart last season and currently still excelling in the U19 championship at the age of 18, and Pierre Kalulu, who was not released by head coach Stefano Pioli to Bayern, are a low-paid and low-risky investment of just under 3 million, and a kind of insurance behind/next Simon Kjær in defence.
- Plus, on the last transfer day, they managed to get Luka Jović, who had been looking for himself since his Frankfurt days, for free.
De Ketelaere, Messias, Saelemaekers and Divock Origi, who was wanted by nobody during the whole transfer window, also left, and it was revealed that Nottingham, who took him on loan, will take over his entire contract, worth four million. And now the Milan fans will soon have no one to complain about...
Expenditure, which still exceeds the €45 million in sales revenue, and the deficit that remains, will be offset by the disappearance of Ante Rebić's wages, who has been transferred to Beşiktaş, and the retired Zlatan Ibrahimovic's wages from the accounting side. Milan will thus spend a total of 59m net to 89m gross on player salaries this year, according to Calcio e Finanza, with 16 players between four and two million behind the highest-earning Leão (5m net).
What is striking is how football style conscious the signings are. For a few years after a lengthy courtship with Ralf Rangnick, Milan have still not given up on building the Red Bull Milan project, as we discussed with Jon Mackenzie of Athletic a good year and a half ago during Milan's championship march. All this would involve high and proactive defending, relentless pressing, quick transitions and a young, vibrant team. Of the summer arrivals, the two dynamic Americans, Musah and Pulisic, as well as Okafor (Salzburg) and Jović (Fiorentina), certainly carry this style forward.
We haven't even mentioned Pioli, who has remained at Milan as a great survivor, and although he started the season with a lot of risk and uncertainty, which is somewhat self-evident after so many transfers, he is doing an excellent job so far. Milan, led by the big old 36 year old Olivier Giroud, the Theo-Leão duo and Pulisic and Reijnders, started easily with 6 points. Seeing that Pioli's unit has been cultivating intensity and organisation against the ball at a high level for the fourth year in a row, the challenge, especially without Bennacer and due to the safety play of Fikayo Tomori and Rade Krunić, is always in the other phase.
Tactically, however, there are some new ideas here, especially in the possession phase: we saw a 3-2-2-3 formation against Bologna, then a 3-1-3-3 against Torino, while they made a man advantage in the front line with the involvement of Maignan, still an excellent passing goalkeeper, and were able to play long forward to Leão or Giroud.
But the rotation of Calabria and Theo against midfielders, seen last year, is more systematic this year. The positional intelligence of Loftus-Cheek and Reijnders has led to better quality and the co-ordination of positional shifts has created a lot of space for the empty man.
But there were also the classic Pioli Milan goals that came from teamwork, such as the first goal against Torino from the transition and the third from the Theo-Leão magic.
We have a clear picture
In Friday night's game - which will be analysed more briefly than usual due to its clear outcome - Milan actually had almost the only will until Tomori's sending off. Then, a bouncing goal and a couple of missed Milan chances led to another dramatic ending: a chance from Roma midfielder Nicola Zalewski and then a 96th minute Maignan miss almost ended in a 2-2 draw in a game that Milan had completely controlled and then lost control.
As we have seen in the opening two games, and as expected from Mourinho with a shaky and half-hearted starting line-up, the home side defended with the two centre-backs more freely in a 5-3-2 central block.
Against this, Milan varied spectacularly the number and identity of the retreaters and ball-catchers, as well as the players manipulating the Roman midfield - positioning behind, turning in to create a four-on-three, Giroud's backs opening up space for the starters.
In addition, Thiaw's entries allowed them to constantly support the attacks, and the German defender's move on the first goal was the catalyst for the movement. Loftus-Cheek's ball-carrying and territorial awareness, as well as Giroud's combinative skills, have been a strength at Milan for quite some time. The Englishman missed a chance after the break-in, but then the Frenchman converted a penalty awarded after a lengthy video review for the Roma's goalkeeper sliding into the legs. After the goal, the home side continued their Mourinho style: they could not build under pressure and were left with only the long balls.
Spinazzola's 3 successful dribbles - the most by the home side in 28 minutes, which says a lot about the entrepreneurial spirit of Mourinho's team - and the more courageous give-and-goes in the man advantage brought Roma back into the game. El Shaarawy in the 69th minute, the substitute Lukaku 2 minutes later and the Italian inverted leftback Spinazzola in the 81st minute were in good positions, but the goal was long saved by the visitors - as were the home side's Leão counter-attacks.
For the time being, the lessons from the game can be, and hopefully will be, found in the much improved ball phase and the integration of new players for visiting Milan.
As for Mourinho's side, nothing is working for the moment, although there is no huge difference from their tactics and performance level of the last 2 years: they are +1.7 xG difference with minus 2 goals and 1 point. How the season, which has started with little risk and not optimally due to various reasons such as the aforementioned goalkeeping problems, injuries, offensive indecisiveness, etc.), will turn out is still open to question, but it is not the first time that José Mourinho has been haunted by Béla Guttmann's motto, which has become a catchphrase, that "the third season is fateful".
Jose Mourinho's third season syndrome has struck... pic.twitter.com/sjxuuxY7gy— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) December 18, 2018