Italian Serie A

The battle for Milan: Inter vs A.C.

Two historical giants of European football, under Chinese ownership, with squads full of expensive talents, big egos and even bigger expectations. Welcome to the battle for Milan...
By Charlie Dawson

Mauro Icardi, once hated by the Inter Milan ultras, now loved by the Nerrazzurri. On Sunday 15 October, Icardi singlehandedly beat AC Milan 3-2, after a brilliant hat-trick from the Inter man, including a calmly slotted penalty and a brilliantly inventive half volley, in a Milan derby that fully lived up to the hype.

Inter currently sit second in Serie A, two points behind the domestically undefeated Napoli, and three ahead of the surprise-package team, Lazio, and ever-present defending champions, Juventus. AC Milan on the other hand reach the dizzying heights of tenth after their defeat by the more established half of Milan.

AC Milan spent over £162m this summer on 11 players. Among these were the likes of Italy and Juventus’s creator from the back, Leonardo Bonucci, Portugal’s new hope, Andre Silva, Wolfsburg’s set-piece taker and ever-present left back, Ricardo Rodriguez, the Turkish free-kick wonder, Hakan Calhanoglu, Villarreal’s defensive general, Mateo Musacchio, Antonio Conte’s former favourite wing back, Andrea Conti and Lazio’s former defensive screen, Lucas Biglia. Incoming on-loan were Franck Kessie of Atalanta, Nikola Kalinic of Fiorentina and Fabio Borini of Sunderland – all with a view to buy.

All these acquisitions have been given to AC Milan manager, Vincenzo Montella, to mould and fit together in the puzzle that is a cohesive and effective Milan team. A hard task by any stretch, especially when considering the pressure on Montella to lead AC Milan to the UEFA Champions League, to offset their spending. AC are of course competing with the other sleeping giant of Italian football, Inter, for Champions League football this season.

Vincenzo_montella
AC Milan’s struggling manager, Vincenzo Montella.

Inter Milan conversely have spent £72m on the likes of the Spanish playmaker Borja Valero, Nice’s high flying fullback Dalbert, Italian centre back Alessandro Bastoni and former Sampdoria man, Milan Skriniar. Inter manager, Luciano Spalletti has reinforced an already powerful squad with frugal options, giving Inter depth in almost all positions. Inter have a squad of high potential, settled players, with a few new additions to supplement the squad in multiple competitions. Compare that with AC Milan’s newly assembled squad, with a new player in almost every position. It is clear which is more likely to have consistent success in the near future; and that logic is proving to be accurate when considering each team’s league position eight games in.

Both Milan clubs are fighting for a position in the top four of Serie A, a position which is already tightly congested between the likes of Napoli, Juventus, Lazio and possibly Roma. The first three are performing as expected and have taken a position in the top four, with third spot being taken by Inter at present. Assuming Juventus and Napoli continue their dominance of the Italian league, then that leaves two spots for guaranteed UEFA Champions League qualification for the like so Inter/AC Milan, Roma and Lazio, with a surprise run from Sampdoria, Torino or Bologna also possible.

With both Milan clubs so experienced in the Champions League, and used to European and domestic success, the pressure is truly on for them to reach the top four. Stakes are higher still, when considering both clubs are owned by Chinese Investors, the Suning Holdings Group (Inter), and Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux (AC Milan) which is owned by Li Yonghong, who brought a 99.9% stake in AC for €740m this summer.

Li Yonghong (worth around €500m, €6.5 billion less than previous owner Silvio Berlusconi) bought the club with help from an US hedge fund Elliot, who loaned around €300m to Li for the purchase of AC Milan. All of which must be paid back by October 2018, along with an 11% interest rate and a €15m arrangement fee on top. Yet, as it stands, AC Milan have been losing around €70-80m a year on average, and lost over €180m in 2014-15.

han-li-yonghong-li-fassone-milan-ifa
AC Milan’s new owner, Li Yonghong.

The interest from China has come as a result of the Chinese government wanting football to establish itself in China and to be part of, and eventually win, a FIFA World Cup in the near future. This desire for footballing success alongside the expansion of the Chinese Super League, has led to Chinese businesses investing in football clubs, with a view to establishing themselves in a positive of favour with their nation’s government. However, the over-spending of clubs in the Chinese Super League and by Chinese investors has led to government officials taking a dim view on over spending and risky investment. This puts the success of both Milan clubs at paramount importance, to ensure the reputations of their owners and key shareholders in their native countries remain intact.

Considering the debt Sport Investment Lux now owe for the purchase of the club, the yearly losses, exuberant spending and lack Champions League income, AC Milan desperately need to re-establish themselves as regular contenders in the UEFA Champions League, and as domestic contenders, to ensure the financial state of the club.

Rather conversely to AC, Inter Milan were taken over by Suning Holdings Group, a group that brought a 68.55% share in the club in 2016; sharing the club with Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir, who remained as the Club’s President. Inter have reinforced well, and brought high potential young players, while supplementing their spending with loans, and the sale of high wage and ageing players. Inter’s success so far, may be down to luck to an extent, with the likes of Ivan Perisic, Icardi, Joao Mario, Antonio Candreva and Samir Handanovic all improving and performing at a consistently higher level compared to recent seasons.

erikh-thoir
Inter Milan’s majority shareholder, Erick Thohir.

Unfortunately for AC Milan, after all their spending, it is their youngsters and cheaper purchases that have had the most success on the pitch. Young Italian striker and AC youth system product, Patrick Cutrone, is the club’s top scorer with seven goals in all competitions, one more than €38m summer signing, Andre Silva. Vincenzo Montella has managed to successfully integrate youth prospects into his expensively assembled squad, and would arguably have been better off without the added pressure of the clubs desperately needed success, had all this money not been spent. Alessio Romagnoli and Gianluigi Donnarumma have both become key players in the Montella’s team, and are a credit to the Milan academy, and should be their main source of squad reinforcement.

Quite why AC Milan have seemingly failed to establish themselves this season can be argued for a multitude of reasons. Whether it be the large purchases and pressure to succeed, weighing down on both the players and the manager, combined with inexperiences and inconsistency expected with a young team. Or possibly as a result of the Leonardo Bonucci signing seemingly forcing Montella to abandon his favoured 4-3-3, and opting for the Bonnibauer’s favoured three at the back formation. In the matches where AC Milan have managed to score, they often score from set pieces and concede irrespective of their performance, which would indicate a lack of cohesiveness on the pitch when all the clubs new signings and ideas are being used.

Inter’s success and more gradual rise up the Italian table, may be as a result of their manager, Luciano Spalletti, who has instilled his footballing philosophy and formation onto his Inter team. Spalletti has years of experience managing the likes of Roma, Udinese, Sampdoria and Zenit St. Petersburg. The Inter man is used to big personalities, adversity, overachieving and high quality players. Montella on the other hand has had a relatively short managerial career, managing the likes of Catania, Fiorentina and Sampdoria since 2011. Montella’s top-flight managerial career stands at only six years, 16 less than that of Spalletti, and the pressure and demands of this AC Milan side may be have come too early in Montella’s career.

Luciano_Spaletti
Inter Milan manager, Luciano Spalletti.

Milan is a city of intense competition throughout the years, and hopefully that intensity will continue with a close fought battle between the two Milanese clubs. Inter are ahead in the race for domination of the city, and look likely to continue their run in Serie A and find themselves back in the Champions League before long. Yet, the quest for success is a long one, and AC Milan could yet find themselves competing should they find a run of form and play with a pragmatic approach that suits the squad and their resources.

However, only time will tell if it’s better to approach the task of resurrecting a European giant by following the example of the tortoise or the hare.

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