In what was a predictably mellow summer transfer window, AC Milan bucked the general trend around Europe by making a number of high-profile acquisitions. The arrivals at the San Siro of Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Manchester City and Barcelona respectively have provided Milan with what is, at least on paper, one of the finest attacking units on the continent.
Having begun the new Serie A season with a comfortable 4-0 victory over Lecce on Sunday, the Massimo Allegri era is off to a good start, but the new signings will pose the coach an interesting tactical conundrum. After deploying a 4-3-3 system last weekend, questions will be asked as to whether Allegri will continue with that formation for the forthcoming tie against Cesena or change to a different set-up entirely.
The 4-3-3 Allegri adopted last week involved a deep-lying central bank of three incorporating Massimo Ambrosini, Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf providing cover for the offensive line of Alexandre Pato, Marco Borriello and Ronaldinho. The plan appeared to work well against Lecce, whether such a system is sustainable for the length of the campaign or against Italy’s stronger sides is highly questionable.
The front three against Lecce was a collection of players bereft of anything resembling defensive nous and, with the departure of Borriello – arguably the most willing to track back of the three – to Roma, Allegri will likely have to rely very heavily on his central midfielders for insurance when without possession this season.
Indeed, the arrivals of Ibrahimovic and Robinho – two players hardly famed for their work ethic – could well necessitate the use of three defensive midfield players in order to simply give the team enough cover not to get annihilated on the counter attack. That said, the midfield three which started on Saturday have a combined age of 98 and will doubtless need regular rotation with the likes of Gennaro Gattuso, Mathieu Flamini and Kevin-Prince Boateng.
If Allegri does persist with the 4-3-3 then the most likely forward combination would probably be Pato and Robinho in the wide positions with Ibrahimovic as the team’s centre forward. Such a selection would leave Ronaldinho discarded to take his place on the San Siro bench, but Milan’s new coach may have his hand forced through the sheer weight of offensive resources available to him.
If the former Cagliari manager was feeling particularly brave there is scope for him to opt to use an ultra-attacking system and utilise the full quartet of world-class forwards (not to mention Filippo Inzaghi being available should he be required). Milan briefly experimented with a 4-2-1-3 formation under Leonardo last winter and, should Allegri feel compelled to do so, implementing the same system would give him the opportunity to field the majority of his attacking options.
The 4-2-1-3 would likely see Pirlo and captain Ambrosini in the deeper holding roles with Ronaldinho as the playmaker behind that forward trio of Pato, Ibrahimovic and Robinho.
The system would undoubtedly prove devastating in attack, but whether Allegri would be able to convince the likes of Robinho and Ronaldinho to track back is another question altogether.
Such an offensive bias could prove effective against some of the division’s weaker teams (we may even see it against Cesena), but it would be extremely surprising if Allegri was to throw caution to the wind in such a radical fashion against any of Milan’s rivals towards the summit of Serie A.
A more sensible option for Allegri could be to adopt a more compact 4-2-3-1, perhaps with Ambrosini and Seedorf/Flamini/Gattuso holding and Pato, Pirlo and Robinho in the “three” behind Ibrahimovic. If the coach is able to instil in his players a greater level of defensive responsibility then the 4-2-3-1, a formation which can transform into the more cautious 4-5-1 relatively easily.
Indeed, simply bringing Boateng on for one of Pato or Robinho would significantly alter the team’s shape and ethos.
The 4-2-3-1 would appear to give Allegri the most flexibility, but whether he would be open to the possibility of consistently leaving Ronaldinho out of the side is not clear.
Although attacking selections will prove the most difficult balancing act for Milan’s experienced coach, he also has big decisions to make at the back. The centre-back partnership of Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva is (injury permitting) relatively clear-cut, but the full-back situation is far more convoluted.
With Ignazio Abate, Luca Antonini, Daniele Bonera and Gianluca Zambrotta all battling for two positions in what will almost certainly be a flat back four throughout the season, Allegri needs to settle on a favoured duo sooner rather than later.
While the 28 year-old Antonini appears to have emerged as the left-back of choice, the right-back berth is very much up for grabs. Daniele Bonera was selected against Lecce and did a tidy job despite not being under the greatest of pressure. Although Bonera did little to diminish his chances of a regular place in the starting eleven, Ignazio Abate is still thought to be the player most likely to make the right-back position his own.
Still just 23 and equally as comfortable on the right side of midfield, Abate would arguably provide a more dynamic threat in attack as well as being an accomplished defender. However, it is still possible that Allegri will be swayed by the greater experience and defensive discipline offered by the veteran Zambrotta.
Whichever system(s) Allegri chooses to use this season, Milan will undoubtedly be one of the most exciting teams Europe has to offer. The key for the San Siro outfit is not to get carried away with the wealth of attacking riches at their disposal and to striker the right balance between defensive intelligence and attacking flair.
If the coach gets it right then Milan have every chance of achieving great things this season. If not, then there could be seeing an awful lot of defensive ineptitude and internal turmoil in Italy’s second city this season. Keep you eyes on the Rossoneri, it could be fascinating.