Off the back of a shocking 1-0 win against title holders Juventus, an unfamiliar aura is surrounding this Milan squad, one of positivity and hope.
This no longer felt like an outlying result in the grand scheme of another disappointing season, but rather a cherry on top of an impressive six-game unbeaten run which included an unforgettable comeback against Sassuolo before the international break. The results against the Old Lady and her subordinate team in green showcased the impressive spine of youth that Vincenzo Montella’s squad has been built upon, one that has reinvigorated an otherwise indifferent fan base and caught the eye of casual fans throughout the world.
Rewind the clocks back to 2012, a time when the club not only sold its star striker to PSG, but also sold the club’s best defender in the same summer, to the same team, after having the audacity to extend his contract just weeks prior to the sale.
The departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva left a bitter taste in the mouths of Milanisti, but it was spun as a turning point for the club, one which would lead to a revitalized squad built on a foundation of young up-and-comers. “Year Zero,” as it was dubbed, was supposed to be the start of a long-term project in which Milan cut out its investment in washed up free transfers, and began to focus on the younger talents in the game in order to secure a position amongst Europe’s elite over the coming years. What the fans got, however, was year after year of squads that were put together with some of the most bizarre sets of personnel, and the results which were yielded as expected, terrible.
Instead of focusing on signing talented players for fees that would not require breaking the bank, contracts were handed out to players that had no right to ever dawn the Milan jersey. Kevin Constant, Bakaye Traore, Sulley Muntari. Cristian Zaccardo, Matias Silvestre, Michael Essien, Alessandro Matri, Pablo Armero, Fernando Torres, and Salvatore Bocchetti, just to name few.
This represented a pattern of inconsistent and nonsensical transfer dealings by the Milan management, and one which costed the team dearly in terms of on-pitch results. It only worsened by the revolving door of managerial changes which ensued post-Allegri. These transfer issues do not just include the older players though, they also occurred when the club did try and sign younger players such as Bartosz Salamon and Jherson Vergara. While the 2012-2013 season was rescued by the shining stars of Stephan El Shaarawy, Mattia De Sciglio, and eventually Mario Balotelli, it is evident that these young players were merely anomalies and covering up the cracks of a broken Milan team.
Come January of 2013, Milan were supposed to have an attacking trident that would lead their line for years in the form of El Shaarawy, Balotelli, and Niang. However, due to El Shaarawy’s injury concerns and the raw immaturity of the Frenchman, that proved impossible when coupled with the glaring flaws of the side in midfield and defense. The club was a toxic environment for younger players, and for a club that had preached that it would focus on its youth. Its managerial choices decided to do things a different way. Midfields which consisted of Nocerino, Flamini, and Muntari were trodden out while the likes of Bryan Cristante and Riccardo Saponara sat on the bench, not being given any trust by whichever manager was in charge at the time.
What is most telling about how detrimental Milan has been to the development of younger players in recent years, is how so many have had to go out on loan only to instantly prove just how talented they really are. Niang was written off by so many fans, yet after his loan to Genoa was instantly used as a consistent starter under Sinisa Mihajlovic. Suso — never used under Mihajlovic — becomes a starter under Montella after his successful loan at Genoa. Saponara, chucked into the fire of derby against Inter but then never used again, succeeds at Empoli and is now being linked to sides like Juventus and Napoli.
It is a trend that, despite aiding Milan now, brought to light many glaring issues about the shape that the squad has been in since the summer of 2012. It was poorly put together, poorly managed, and had no desire to try and turn things around. The blame goes onto the shoulders of all involved, from the players up to Silvio Berlusconi. Now, with the sale of the club imminent and the team in the best shape it has been in in years, it can be attributed to one thing: a trust in talented, young players.
The Rossoneri have finally built a base of talented youngsters capable of winning games, and Montella has shown that he is not about to change what is working. While Mihajlovic started to turn things around by using Gianluigi Donnarumma, Alessio Romagnoli, and Niang consistently last season, he just never seemed to be able to build a competitive side. Now with Montella leading the team, he has further improved the core of young players and managed to create a side that actually wins games.
I will be the first to admit that I was skeptical of Montella and have never been overly impressed with him in the past, but what he is building in Milan could become truly special.
Donnarumma is playing out of his skin as he always has, Romagnoli finally has a consistent partner in Gabriel Paletta and is building a strong bond with him. Manuel Locatelli has come in for injured captain Riccardo Montolivo and proven that he is more than ready to take on Serie A. Niang is improving the flaws in his game while still keeping hold of the same work rate and skill that makes him such an interesting prospect, and Suso has respectfully gone about his business despite not looking completely at home on the right wing. These players have turned this season from one which fans thought would be another disappointment due to a poor transfer window, to one that oozes the potential to be the best since they last won the league in 2011.
This is a base of solid players that must be kept together and built upon in the coming seasons in order to keep this side on an upward trajectory. Mixing experienced players like Giacomo Bonaventura, Juraj Kucka, and Carlos Bacca with these players as well as other youngsters such as Davide Calabria and Jose Mauri (currently on loan with Empoli), is the formula to create a great team. Having a manager who trusts these players and is able to transmit confidence and belief to the entire squad has proven that signing countless marquee players is not necessary to create a winning team. What this team needs now is smart signings to reinforce the squad and improve its depth because if one aspect of this squad is truly worrying, it is its depth.
If they can hold onto their consistency over the length of the season and receive some help from other top teams dropping points, then this season could become one to remember.
***Written by Rhys Montanarello. You can follow him on Twitter @RhysOfM. ***