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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Results arrive, identity remains absent

As style issues continue to exist, Gareth Southgate knows what his England side currently are, but not what they may become. Charlie Dawson gives his view on the situation.

By Charlie Dawson

It’s soon to be a World Cup year, and next summer England will find themselves on unfamiliar ground at Russia 2018. England qualified with a game to spare, and have now managed 39 matches unbeaten in qualifying since a defeat to Ukraine in 2009. In that time England have managed an embarrassing five managers including the likes of Fabio Capello, Stuart Pearce, Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce and the ever-inspiring pinnacle of charisma that is Gareth Southgate.

From the mildly attacking style of Capello, to the defensive bore of Hodgson, with a stop-gap of counter attacking power in Allardyce, England have changed their style of play (or attempted to), with every manager that has taken over. Now Southgate is in charge, the ex-Middlesbrough manager has a problem from the offset. In almost all of Southgate’s qualifying games up until Lithuania, England played a mixture of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, formations England have played on and off for the past decade, with little to no real success at international tournaments, despite continuous successful qualifying campaigns.

England are a team without a style, or any real method of play, the question ‘how do England play?’ is replied with either expletives, or a general consensus of uncertainty. England don’t have a style, how England play is part and parcel of who manages them. England are not a total football passing side (Spain, retro Holland), neither are they are skilful, overpowering team (Brazil, Germany). Though England are capable of a passing move, and often score a goal through, as the football clichés go ‘a moment of brilliance/magic’, England often look lacklustre in attack, and clueless when presented with a modicum of defensive organisation in front of them. It’s more than likely that this is due to a lack of continuity in the FA’s plan for football in England as a whole.

The Premier League is arguably the most competitive and lucrative league in the world, and is made up of a wide variety of playing styles. The most successful teams in England, and in fact the world, almost always consist of either great individual players, or brilliant teamwork, combined with a clear style of play and consistent organisation at an administrative level. England are lacking this, they need a style of play, and need to be pragmatic in their structure and team selection. Antonio Conte took a less than mediocre Italy side and managed only four losses in 25 games, and took his side to the quarter finals, losing to the reigning world champions on penalties in Germany, after beating the European Champions Spain in the previous round, a feat England fans can only dream of. Conte achieved this with a truly pragmatic approach to team selection, and a consistent three at the back, utilising the best players at his disposal, in the form of the Juventus back three, focusing on using players that worked in his chosen formation, rather than ‘fitting’ them in.

England have an extremely capable striker in Harry Kane, and a brilliant alternative in Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford, a wide variety of central defenders, including a risky but ultimately high potential ball-playing centre back in John Stones. A wide choice of attacking players, from out and out wingers, to creative midfielders, and secondary strikers. Southgate tried three at the back in friendlies and a meaningless qualifying game against Lithuania, with minimum success, but needs to find England a set formation and a style of play. Three at the back has been successfully used by premier league teams, with a large amount of England players exposed to the formation with the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Arsenal all playing a three man defence at some point, with great success, when the formation is used consistently. Should England decide on three at the back (mimicking the formation of their clubs), then the England players can find themselves in a familiar position and create some consistency in their play, finally begging to find the national team a style.

Often England managers have been guilty of trying to squeeze big names in to the team, fulfilling the old cliché of round pegs in square holes. This time round, Southgate needs to identify his formation, ideally three at the back, decide on a midfield formation, of either a holder in the form of Eric Dier (Defensive) or Jordan Henderson/Nathaniel Chalobah (Two way midfielder) not both, and a ball-playing midfielder capable of spreading the play or carrying the ball from midfield. The likes of Harry Winks, Danny Drinkwater, Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey would be ideal partners to a more defensive midfield partner, allowing England’s attackers to push up the pitch and find space, while they drive the ball up the pitch and dictate the play. The rest of England’s attackers are a matter of personal preference of Southgate’s preferred tactics, using either wingers/inside forwards or attacking midfielders and primary/secondary strikers to unlock the defence with clever interplay, pace and power. England should play a game consisting of counter attacking football, using the pace they possess, and hardworking, efficient pressing, to make the most of their physical gifts, providing the players with an international style of play, consistent with what they experience week in week out in the Premier League.

Regardless of what happens, or what style Southgate chooses, England need a style, and need an identity! Much like the lack of foresight at Crystal Palace, hiring and firing managers of contrasting styles. England need some continuity and consistency in both their management and on-pitch performances. Forgetting what England do at the World Cup, Southgate’s men would be better served cementing a style and creating a sense of reassurance in the team’s method of play. Should Southgate implement a style that plays to the English game’s strengths, choosing a pragmatic style of play and picking players on merit rather than reputation, then England could find themselves, pleasing their critics, playing entertaining football and creating a pathway for success, for future tournaments, and perhaps even generations. Giving England an identity once again can allow fans to fall in love with the national side again, start to believe in their team and create a togetherness between the squad and the rest of the country, fixing a seemingly broken relationship.

Auf wiedersehen, Carlo

Carlo Ancelotti has been unceremoniously fired by Bayern Munich, subsequently replaced by former kingpin, Jupp Heynckes. We look into the sacking story which engulfed Munich and what the future might hold for the German giants.

By Charlie Dawson

Imagine being the only manager in history to win three UEFA Champions Leagues, also having won the domestic league and cup in Italy, Spain, England, Germany and France. Yet, the one thing people remember about you most, is your eyebrows… and a non-speaking cameo in Star Trek.

Carlo Ancelotti, arguably one of the greatest managers of all time, has won everything there is to win in a managerial career spanning 23 years. He has managed eight clubs, from the great UEFA Champions League winning AC Milan sides of 2003 and 2007, to a Chelsea team which achieved a new points record in the Premier League, and was the mastermind behind Real Madrid’s famous La Decima achievement. But even after all that, a Bundesliga title and DFL Supercup win was not enough to keep Don Carlo on his Munich throne.

Carlo Ancelotti has been unceremoniously fired by Bayern Munich after finding themselves five points behind early Bundesliga pace-setters, Borussia Dortmund, and three points behind PSG after an embarrassing 3-0 rout at the hands of Dani Alves, Edison Cavani and the world’s most expensive player, Neymar.

Bayern Munich have high standards, higher expectations, and if Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben’s reaction to almost anything less than 100% success are to be believed, even larger egos. Former manager, Jupp Heynckes, has been confirmed as manager until the end of season, and this seemingly continues the intended plan that Ancelotti was to step down two years into his three-year contract, to be replaced by Julian Nagelsmann, as was recently discussed on 5Live’s Euro Leagues Podcast.

High-flying Hoffenheim manager, Julian Nagelsmann, clearly doesn’t understand the concept of subtlety, and has spoken out and admitted: “FC Bayern does play a big role in my dreams. I lived in Munich for many years and I am from Landsberg am Lech. ​That is my home. ​My wife and my kid will move to Munich soon, we’re building a house there. FC Bayern would make me even happier. It makes me happy, when someone like Uli Hoeness, who made FC Bayern so huge, thinks highly of me.”

Nagelsmann has made his intentions clear. And Carlo? Well, he doesn’t really seem to care. Ancelotti said: “Now I am on holiday and will be for about 10 months. I don’t want to come back earlier than that but inside I still want to coach every single day, therefore I don’t think I would join a national team. I respected all of them, but as a manager I have to make choices to put 11 on the pitch and seven on the bench. It is up to each player’s intelligence to accept my choices and up to the club to back its manager.”

Ever a man looking somewhat perplexed with one eyebrow always raised, Ancelotti doesn’t seem that surprised or that bothered about his sacking. Instead, he seems more focused on spending his time relaxing and enjoying life, than rushing back into football and exploring what went wrong in Munich.

Carlo is an easy target to blame for Bayern’s perceived failure, but perhaps the lazy choice. Bayern Munich have had issues for quite some time, and continue to have the same problems that have pestered the club for a number of years. Robben and Ribery are yet to be replaced with viable alternatives despite a respectable season for Douglas Costa (currently on loan at Juventus with an option to buy), and promise in the form of Kingsley Coman. Bayern were a club looking to lower the age of their squad with Pep Guardiola at the helm of their preverbal ship, but the ex-Barcelona man continued his pattern of short tenancies, leaving Munich after just three seasons.

Bayern have attempted to replace the likes of Xabi Alonso, Phillp Lahm and an injured Manuel Neuer (out until 2018 with a broken foot). Ever the team looking to transfer windows seasons in advance. Bayern have attempted to bring through youngsters, and have success stories in the form of Joshua Kimmich, who emulates Lahm’s versatility if nothing else, and highly-rated Niklas Sule from Hoffenheim, but have still failed to find successors to big names in the squad.

This season Bayern have brought in the very promising Corentin Tolisso from Olympique Lyonnais, in a position they are already well-stocked in, with the former Lyon man finding himself competing against the likes of Arturo Vidal, Thiago Alcantara, Kimmich, Javi Martinez and even Thomas Muller at times. Bayern are team that need to transition, but don’t seem to know quite what it is they wish to become. Guardiola has his men well drilled and expertly informed going into games, focusing on dominating possession and pressuring the opposition. Ancelotti is very much the opposite of that, preferring his teams to be free in attack and express themselves on the pitch. Ironically, a complete juxtaposition to that of his Parma days, where the former Italian international rejected a chance to sign Roberto Baggio (a decision he would later regret), due to a belief the player would not fit into his rigid 4-4-2 formation.

Guardiola was always going to be a hard act to follow by any standard, and especially when replacing him with a manager that has such a different approach to leading a team. Bayern are a club that believe they are bigger than paying the ludicrous transfer fees required for today’s superstars (but may have to pay up to £70m should Renato Sanches reach his potential), and have made some odd choices both managerially, going from one extreme to another in the form of Pep’s micromanagement, to Carlo’s more relaxed, free flowing, organic style.

Former long-standing Die Roten right-back, Willy Sagnol, took over as interim manager for all of about ten days, after doubts remained over his ability to lead Bayern Munich at the top-level with his previous domestic management experience limited to spell at Ligue 1 side Bordeaux. He was in charge for the one match alone, a 2-2 draw at Hertha Berlin, and has now been replaced by Jupp Heynckes, who takes over for the fourth time in his career (Second as caretaker), and will likely be succeeded by Juliann Nagelsmann, or another in-fashion name (Thomas Tuchel). Regardless whoever takes over Bayern’s revolution, they will have a long haul ahead of them, and a lot of pressure. Nagelsmann is wanting and waiting, but for now Heynckes has the burden to bare.

Bayern are seemingly a team finding themselves increasingly in the headlines for various reasons. From their attitude to transfers, perceived failure to perform both domestically and internationally, and more recently due to lack of foresight with regards to management and some continuity in their style of play. Going from a ruthlessly drilled Van Gaal, to the brilliant performances of Heynckes, to a borderline anal attention to detail with Guardiola, then flipping to the relaxed almost laissez faire attitude of Ancelotti, and finding themselves once again with their first treble winning manager Heynckes. It could be argued that Heynckes should never have left Bayern in the first (second or third) place, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. The now four-time Bayern man will undoubtedly steer the unsteady Bayern ship out of it’s uncertain storm, into safer waters, so a new captain may succeed where others have been deemed ‘unsatisfactory’ in the eyes of the Bayern board and their ever expecting fans.

Either way the future will be interesting for Bayern Munich, and entertaining for the rest of us. The only person that doesn’t seemed too interested? Well that’s Carlo Ancelotti, with his eyebrow officially lowered.

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