State of the Union: Milan [Part 2 of 2]

Welcome to the second part of State of the Union: Milan. We’re joined once again by  MilanObsession’s Elaine, TalkingBaws assistant editor Gino De Blasio, and Football Italia’s David Swan.

Part one can be found here.

Front page of Gazzetta dello Sport showing Mario Balotelli with a red mohawk

Does Mario Balotelli’s signing signify a turning of the corner on Milan transfer policy? Was his signing a luxury or a necessity? 

Elaine: 

Balotelli’s signing was a signature Milan move: a star striker who is down on his form available on the cheap. That he was only 22 is different, but the liabilities he brings with his psychological issues makes him every bit as much of a risk as some of the older strikers we’ve signed before. The signing may seem a luxury to fans, who were told we couldn’t afford Ibra and Silva last summer, the former sold for the same transfer fee as Balotelli was purchased. But it was Balotelli’s willingness to cut his salary to within the new €4m ceiling that was the difference in the long run. For Berlusconi and Galliani, though, it was a necessity. They don’t seem to have anticipated the drop in income that comes with a drop in quality of squad: ticket sales, shirt sales, and continued Champions League qualification. After the exodus of players last season, they were left threadbare in the money generating department, and a star like Balotelli absolutely guarantees an increase in ticket and shirt sales, while doing a lot to finish 3rd place, too, for next year’s Champions League competition and its accompanying cash.

Gino: 

I wouldn’t say that it was a turning point, I think management understood that if they wanted him for quality/technical reasons they had to pay that price, but only if they had the cash. They now do. For me it was a necessity. The board worked this one very well. €20million, when apparently there isn’t any money. However it turns out that Milan spent all their time getting their accounts in order – they’ve been trying to do this since they sold Kaka. Look at the names that have gone, the names which have come in, Milan were lacking quality in certain areas and they are looking at the long term; Saponara and Salamon (total €10.5 million) will eventually replace Boateng and De Jong/Flamini. With wages now under control, with the club moving in the right direction with business development and re-structuring of its business model, this signing was the fruit of those sacrifices. Lets not forget, the personal financial trouble Berlusconi is in, Milan has been affected by it, no doubt whatsoever. But Berlusconi knows better than most, if Milan are successful on the pitch, gain the cup and TV money by having a competitive squad, in a re-organised business model, the club could pay for itself. Milan are looking at a long term future, I think we will see more “big name” signings, but not as frequently as other clubs, Milan is treating the deal like a credit card that you can pay back within a year, get your money and pay off the debt. This isn’t some Harry Redknapp deal going south any time soon.

David: 

Both. He wasn’t needed right at this very moment, but a forward of his ability would definitely be needed at some point, and you can’t turn down a player of Mario’s ability for €20m. You have to be deluded to believe that Pazzini or Bojan are legitimate options for the central striker position for next season and beyond. Bojan is only on loan and might not even be here next season, so then the club would be looking for someone in the summer.

I get the impression the Balotelli signing is pre-emptive of Bojan leaving. There’s no way he’s done enough to justify buying him for €13m or whatever it is, so they’ve avoided the problem of him leaving in the summer by buying his replacement in January.

Ideally Milan would have spent the €20m on a creative midfielder or central defender – but who was available for €20m? I can’t think of anyone, for either position, that could have been acquired for that price, let alone a defender or midfielder who has the ability that Balotelli possesses.

Pete:

According to Barbara Berlusconi, this is not a turning of the corner, as Milan “..can still invest substantial amounts in top players.” After the austerity measures taken by the club with the sales of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, as well as a reshuffling of the wage budget, and the continual cuts (that will happen into the summer and probably into next season) Milan are in a strong financial position, that has allowed them to make a large transfer like this. In that aspect, it is the turning of a corner, as it has been some years since the club’s last foray into larger transfers (Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho, before them Ronaldinho), and it can be argued, all of those signings, bar Zlatan – who is magical, period – were attempts at grasping past glory, but Balotelli represents a future potential that none of those three previous transfers had. It’s not only about their age, but what they still had to offer as footballers. Was this a luxury signing? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that a striker wasn’t the most necessary addition to the squad. Giampolo Pazzini may lack many skills, but looking at the one thing strikers are judged on (by some) the goals: his 10 goals are not too terrible. More importantly, Balotelli represents a significant upgrade in almost all aspects over Pazzini. Sooner or later, the attack would need to be retooled, as it was becoming more and more clear that Stephan El Shaarawy couldn’t shoulder the entire attack as he had for the whole first half of the season. To help the Pharaoh, this move was absolutely a necessity – Balotelli is an Italian international striker, aged 22 years, and a lifelong fan of the club, who was available for the same wages as a player who appeared in less than a handful of matches over the past year.

Does the Balotelli transfer give a psychological boost to the squad? What do you think the effect will be of his transfer 6 months or a year down the road?

Elaine:

I really don’t know about the squad. I like to believe it will be a boost, but I can’t say what is going on in the heads of the squad members, particularly Pazzini, whose playing time is most likely to be impacted by Balotelli’s arrival. But everyone likes to win, and if Balotelli on the pitch means more wins, then of course. However to the board and to the fans, it is a huge psychological boost, like someone who has been through a trauma and receives some sort of reassuring safety net that everything is going to be okay, normalcy will be restored sooner rather than later.

Six months or a year down the road is so very unpredictable, but even more so in this situation. With Balotelli’s penchant for trouble on and off the pitch, it is hard to guess what the temperament of the squad towards him will be. Milan has always been known as such a family, and he is such a devout lifetime fan, I would like to think that his impact will still be positive. But it will also depend a lot on any new arrivals and any changes in coaching staff, too.

Gino:

Any signing as enigmatic as Balotelli will give confidence, let’s be honest. Why? Because when push comes to shove, he has all the technical ability one can be blessed with, so that will force players to raise their standards to get into the team. But, with Balotelli there is always a but… Being an enigma also means, he can cause trouble, disrupt balance of the team. If the team isn’t playing well, is he the right man to step up and encourage or will he influence some of the younger squad members to be a little impetuous? Short term I think he will give a psychological and technical boost to the team to get that third place spot; at least aim for it. Long term, if supported properly on and off the field, then I would expect a greater performance return then he has done at previous clubs; this isn’t his last chance but if he fluffs it up big style, then it could be. If I was the Milan board, I would do everything to keep the press away from him, even the satirical programs like Striscia and Le Iene, let him get composed as a human, let him develop in peace, keep him out of the spotlight – everyone who loves the Italian game has this responsibility, it’s about time we took it.

David:

It shows the club are willing to buy top players, and that will boost the better members of the team who are at risk of becoming disillusioned with the place. Guys like El Shaarawy and Montolivo need to see that there’s potential for things to get better, and players like Balotelli arriving show that it’s possible.

It should mean the attack is now settled, so in the summer they can concentrate on midfielders. Financially it works fine – they’ve spent money they would expect to receive from Pato’s sale, and the wages aren’t any different to what Pato was receiving.

Pete:

The Balotelli transfer gives a massive psychological boost to every single person in the squad that is not Giampolo Pazzini. It may even spur on Pazzini, who knows? Pazzini arrived 6 months after Mario departed Inter Milan, so these two have never had the opportunity to play together (and we know how Silvio loves his two striker formations..). If you need proof of Balotelli’s impact, look no further than the face of Stephan El Shaarawy and M’Baye Niang among his presentation. Ear to ear smiles. Mario too; I haven’t seen him this happy since he was pretending that the corner flag was his penis. Mario also represents the largest investment by Milan in the winter transfer window.. ever. There hasn’t been this sort of press surrounding a Milan signing since Zlatan replaced Marco Borriello (the upgrade of the century). Milan broadcast Balotelli’s presentation live on YouTube, but this was only the formality, as hundreds of fans showed up to Malpensa airport to welcome Balotelli, and continued mobbing him through the streets as he arrived for his medicals, and as he signed the contract at Giannino. The excitement is in the air, and this is something that was palpably missing since the departures of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva.  This effect will no doubt fade, but providing Balotelli remains happy (which I believe to be the most important part of keeping his behavior in check) then Milan will reap the benefits of his transfer for a long time. I don’t expect Pazzini to remain for too long, as Mario represents the first choice, but if he’s willing to play backup (and I don’t know why Pazzini would – he moved every time he lost his first-choice status) then it’s possible he stays. But Pazzini is a confidence striker. If he’s not dissuaded by Mario’s arrival, and takes it as extra motivation, than Milan will indeed have the most potent strike force in Serie A (with due respect to Napoli and Roma).

Is there a project in the making at Milan?

Elaine:

Yes… No… Rotten apple… Wanted him all along… How can anyone believe that this was a project? What management in their right mind lets 17 players leave in 6 months? How can anyone believe an owner with a penchant for big name strikers could stick to a plan any better than a diabetic child sticks to a diet in a bakery? And despite deviating from “the plan” that was clearly developed after the first 14 players left, and was in and of itself a morphing, ever changing “plan,” I have to confess that I think they have accomplished something.

In the way that a dysfunctional family still speaks to one another at the end of the day, they set out to decrease the wage bill and create a sustainable squad. While this plan is in no way complete, they have managed to do a lot toward decreasing costs without sacrificing as much success as many of us expected in a very short time. Despite largely missing the mark in terms of quality in last summer’s mercato, they seem to have actually learned and I believe that time will show that they definitely purchased more carefully this mercato. They left themselves room to buy one champion per year, and this was important to the income portion of this “plan.” Their purchases of Saponara and Salamon fit in with the “growing champions” portion of the plan, too. The 31 year-old Zaccardo and his 4.5 year contract deviates sharply from this “plan” as well as their original plan of not giving 30+ year old players more than one year contracts. So they are still making the old mistakes of both buying a risky star striker when reinforcements were clearly needed elsewhere, and reinforcing with aging players with long contracts.

But everything else points to at least the attempt at a project. How much of it will stick is impossible to say, seeing as how they have already deviated from their self-proclaimed plans so early on. Some habits die hard, and it is frightening to think that Berlusconi’s impulse buying could derail the project in a single mercato after all of the sacrifices that have been made. But Milan are well on their way to FFP compliance, even without our own stadium, and won’t have to be relegated to do it. I would give this project a B so far. Which means yes, we do have a project.

Gino: 

A project for me means that something is sustained for a good period of years. So is Milan in the process of project making? Perhaps. I think you are starting to get an idea of their being a project, however take everything that is said by management with a pinch of salt. Ultimately the board know that too many young heads won’t win much, experience is needed in the right areas (not a player I like but Zaccardo is that line of thought). Therefore it shouldn’t be seen as an “under 23 project” but more of a “Sustainable Milan”. What’s interesting is the youth development scheme has come from Allegri. This has guided the other coaches towards one end goal, and Milan will reap its rewards from that area in a couple of years time, that’s the sustainability element answered. Projects change though. What if Milan become this force domestically but struggle abroad, will we turn to a different model? If so, which of our current crop of players will survive a “project change” halfway into their Milan career?

I would like to see this current plan of sustainability come through. Make it so that the team can finance itself, strengthen from within and spend when there is a short coming, but they need a plan B, and for me that can’t just be get the chequebook out. It may mean handing over the reigns to fresh board level blood, invest in new business ideas for financial generation with academy models, wider sponsorship markets, fan involvement at board level such as the Bayern business plan. If Milan can keep flexible in these areas, a lot will change, and for the better.

David:

Of course. The signings show this. Just because Balotelli cost more it doesn’t mean he’s not part of a project or that Milan are already moving away from it. Is he young? Yes. Can he become better? Yes. Is he earning more than our top earners now? No. So therefore he fits with the type of player Berlusconi described a couple of months ago. But because he didn’t cost a pittance we’re now meant to believe there’s no project? Berlusconi did say they would sign a champion each season, along with the best 18-22 year olds – so he’s killed two birds with one stone signing Mario.

Saponara, Salamon, their attempts to get Jorginho – everything is pointing towards them carrying out the project. Cristante will join them next year from the Primavera, and Allegri is playing Niang over Robinho, even though the latter was making a difference before the winter break and is probably a better player, because Niang offers more long-term guarantees.

We just need to be patient and see whether these new guys have the ability to perform at the top level.

Pete:

There is a project at Milan. Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani know how to build a club. The pair have created sides that have won 5 Champions League titles. These men are intelligent enough to assemble world-class talent (or build it – as they like to say) however, people to this day doubt these men. The arguments usually include: 1. They aren’t capable of doing it again – they simply can’t compete in today’s football landscape. 2. Silvio isn’t willing to “spend” the money to win the titles. 3. Galliani doesn’t make the right decisions when it comes to transfer matters – he doesn’t understand the needs of the team. 4. There is no plan, and B&G are just winging it, making it up as they go along. I don’t buy any of these excuses. No one in football history has done perfect transfers. There is no Director who has chosen perfectly every time. That being said, rather than focusing on the mistakes that Galliani has made in the last several years (yes there are many: Ronaldinho, letting Pirlo go to Juventus, some would say Zaccardo etc) look at the positives he’s brought in. 6 months after the departure of ZI+TS, Milan now are rebuilding with Balotelli, El Shaarawy, De Sciglio, Saponara, Niang, and Saloman, all of whom are under 23 years of age. These aren’t the world-class signings that some were hoping for, but they will develop into the world-class players that have defined Milan class through the ages. The project has parameters: cut wages, lower average ages, and sign young talents while nurturing and promoting from within. Players like Bryan Cristante are ready to make the jump to the first team, and the Milan youth teams, beginning with the Allievi Nazionale I/II are some of the best teams that have come through the Milan youth ranks in over a decade. The foundations are being laid, it’s time to see what structure B&G plan to build.

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About Pete Acquaviva

Pete writes about Milan on this blog. Occasionally other things. You would know which of them it is if you've gotten this far.

3 Thoughts on “State of the Union: Milan [Part 2 of 2]

  1. RossoneriFido on February 5, 2013 at 10:39 AM said:

    Signing Balotelli was certainly a necessity.
    Yes we could have used a world class defender/midfielder more than Balotelli due to our problems at the back.and in the midfield. But we all know we need a striker since we cant rely on Stephan every time to score as many goals as he did in the first half. If you notice Stephan is being marked closely now by defenders. Signing a young world class striker for 20M is great. If we waited for summer to bring Balotelli he would have cost us much more because of competition and him not being cup tied anymore…
    Not to forget that Bojan will return to Barca imho & Robinho will be sold by the end of season who lost his place to a much better player now in Niang.

    Balotelli have certainly given a boost to our squad and it was obvious to everyone. Even Allegri is more confident now. Like Pete said this signing will give a boost to everyone but Pazzini.Although Pazzini knows he has at least 2 more top games against Barca. If Pazzini plays well I think Allegri might switch back to his beloved 4-3-1-2 with ElShaarawy behind Balotelli and Pazzini. Who knows ???

    Definitely there is a project in the making, even with Zaccardo’s arrival. You can rely on youngsters in all positions in football except 2 if you ask me; the defense and the GK. These positions are critical and you need experienced players with the youngsters thus the arrival of Salamon and Zaccardo. The midfield also fits the young project with Saponara and Crsitante next season. So yes there is a project and it doesn’t look bad at all.

    Thank you all for a great read and Forza Milan.

  2. “Ideally Milan would have spent the €20m on a creative midfielder or central defender – but who was available for €20m? I can’t think of anyone, for either position, that could have been acquired for that price, let alone a defender or midfielder who has the ability that Balotelli possesses.”

    Seriously, man? There’s Yanga-Mbiwa and Holtby, both was sold this winter for 8 and 1.7 million respectively. They’re not in Balo’s class but that’s not necessary.

  3. Mlisi39 on February 7, 2013 at 1:52 PM said:

    Job well done all… glad to see folks are believing in our direction after last summer’s melt down….

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