As Milan returned for pre-season training on Monday, coach Massimiliano Allegri could allow himself to make a joke.
“Look how many people are here,” he said as he walked into his press conference. “Is a new coach to be unveiled?”
You need a sense of humour in this job. Allegri appeared on the brink of losing his job in November last year after defeat to Fiorentina at San Siro. That was a nadir.
At the time, owner Silvio Berlusconi told reporters that if there was a chance to appoint Pep Guardiola then Milan would take it. Allegri had been told of this, he claimed.
Milan were 13th in the table. They were 13 points behind rivals Inter. As for Juventus, well, they were ever further out of sight.
While a shock, Milan’s position wasn’t a surprise. They had sold Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva in the summer. They had chosen not to renew the contracts of Alessandro Nesta, Rino Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf and Pippo Inzaghi to name but a few.
What did Berlusconi really expect? To Allegri’s great credit, however, he managed to turn things around. From close to the back of the grid, Milan finished on the podium. No one picked up more points than they did in Serie A in the second half of the season, not even champions Juventus.
It made Allegri a candidate for Coach of the Year and very difficult to sack. Berlusconi, though, was still apparently inclined to do just that.
Even as Milan caught fire and began to climb the table like mercury in a thermometer, he was doing his level best to undermine Allegri.
“He doesn’t understand shit” was a comment Berlusconi made on more than one occasion and denied making on more than one occasion.
And yet, it was abundantly clear that Allegri did know a thing or two about coaching, certainly more than the unqualified and still playing Seedorf, the man Berlusconi supposedly wanted to replace him with.
“More respect for our mister, Allegri,” was a banner unfurled by the ultras stood in San Siro’s Curva Sud as Milan played Catania in late April. Still, a month later the end seemed nigh for him.
A letter supposedly written by Berlusconi was read out on the TV show La Processo di Biscardi, which announced a “complete rearrangement” of the coaching staff and “if need be, a complete reorganisation of the club.”
Milan issued a denial. But the battle lines appeared to have been drawn with Berlusconi on one side and chief executive Adriano Galliani and Allegri on the other.
For a fortnight after the end of the season, a stand-off appeared to take place. Meetings with Berlusconi were scheduled then postponed at the last minute. Galliani and Allegri went for coffee one day and dinner the next. Watching this play out was quite fascinating.
In standing by Allegri, Galliani was placing himself at odds with Berlusconi. The relationship between them, so strong during their 27 years at the club, was interpreted by some to be at breaking point. Galliani, though, is a consummate diplomat.
He knew that, with time, he could make Berlusconi see sense. And so, on June 2, a summit was held at his Arcore estate and over salad, tortellini and ice cream it was decided Allegri would stay.
“There was a clarification on some things,” a statement read. “Agreement was found on the rights and obligations of the club to the coach and of the coach to the club.”
One of them was that Milan should return to play with a proper number-10. Not a Kevin-Prince Boateng who, in a memorable joint interview before one of last year’s derbies, Wesley Sneijder jokingly referred to as “a mezz’ala - a shuttling midfielder- who pretends to be a number-10.”
The expectation is that Riccardo Saponara, the exciting Italy Under-21 international signed from Empoli, will be given the role.
Should Milan manage to sell Boateng, though, the thinking is they’d buy Keisuke Honda from CSKA Moscow rather than wait until his contract expires in the winter and pick him up then on a free.
He’d be Milan’s fantasista while Saponara, who is as comfortable on the left as he is in the middle, learns the ropes and gets game-time either playing out-wide or in alternation with the more experienced Japan international.
Boateng’s departure isn’t a foregone conclusion. As Sneijder alluded to, he has his uses elsewhere on the pitch and, judging by how happy he is in Milan with girlfriend Melissa Satta and their dog MJ, he isn’t thought to be seeking a move away.
No, Milan’s main priority at the moment is another: it’s getting Santos to meet their valuation for Robinho and do a deal for him before Brazil’s transfer market closes later this month.
That would bring in the money for Honda. The other target mentioned in the same breath as Milan is said to be Adem Ljajic. Rather than a case of selling one and not the other, both Boateng and Robinho would probably have to go to finance a move for him.
Outstanding in 2013, Ljajic’s valuation has shot up and even though his contract expires at the end of next season it’s thought that the fee Fiorentina would demand is just out of reach at the moment.
Were Milan to raise the cash, Fiorentina might be prepared to sell so as not to risk losing the player on a free in a year’s time. It depends on the vibes they get from Ljajic.
Just as Mario Gomez will presumably fill the hole Stevan Jovetic is expected to leave, they do have a replacement ready to step in for him in Joaquin. But enough with the fantacalcio.
The summary of Milan’s transfer strategy is a simple one: they need to sell to buy. Rest assured, though, it’s not like last year. The club’s financial situation has improved considerably. The wage bill has been slashed. They were only 7m euro away from breaking even in no small part because of that.
This is a Milan trying to live within its means. As such more young players are either being promoted from the academy or bought at low cost with high potential.
Look at it this way: Mario Yepes, the veteran centre-back, has been replaced by Jherson Vergara, a fellow Colombian 18 years his junior. Mathieu Flamini’s place has been taken by Andrea Poli, the Samp midfielder close to breaking into the Italy team with whom there’s a five-year difference. Bojan makes way for Saponara, though he’s only a year younger.
Then there’s captain Massimo Ambrosini, who, on not being given a renewal, hands the armband to Riccardo Montolivo and steps aside for Bryan Cristante, the teenager likened to Andrea Pirlo. And finally, while Giampaolo Pazzini is out injured, another kid from the Primavera, Andrea Petagna, has been given the responsibility of standing in for him.
The average age of Milan’s squad has fallen from 29.91 two years ago to 25.8 today. Much to the delight of national team coach Cesare Prandelli, it’s composition has become more and more Italian too. But the question is: can they contend for the title?
Flying in via helicopter as is his custom on a relatively low key visit to Milanello on Monday, Berlusconi insisted that Milan can.
“We’re all already convinced that like this we’ll be able to win the league,” he told the club’s official TV channel.
Allegri was more measured. “Next season will be difficult,” he said. “To win the league, you’ll need more than 80 points. For second 78 and for third more than 70.”
While there’s a lot to be positive about at Milan from the team’s young and fresh complexion to the general assumption that the players will be better for the experience of last season, there is a sense that the competition is getting fiercer in Serie A.
Looking to win three consecutive Scudetti for the first time since the 1930s, Juventus have added Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente to an already strong squad.
Napoli, meanwhile, have acquired a coach in Rafa Benitez who has won leagues, cups and European trophies. Profitable and with Champions League revenue to spend, not to mention the windfall due from Edinson Cavani’s sale they have the resources to match his ambition.
Then there’s Fiorentina who have made a statement of intent by signing Gomez and Joaquin. They can count on a fit again Giuseppe Rossi too. Lazio and Udinese will once again be in the mix while a lot more is expected of Inter and Roma.
A lot of course can change between now and the end of the transfer window. Milan, as Galliani pointed out this week, are the only team to have finished on the Serie A podium in each of the last five seasons.
Slow starters under Allegri, he acknowledges though that they’ll have to be quicker out the blocks if they are to be there again this time next year.
James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.