There was a discernible shift in the tone adopted by Milan’s new directors after Sunday’s defeat by Roma. The language was softer, more sympathetic than it had been a week ago when the team lost to Sampdoria. Massimiliano Mirabelli, Milan’s sporting director, said: “We’re only seven games in. We have a new team. Montella doesn’t have a magic wand. Nor does any other manager. We’ve made a lot of changes.”
The team Montella selected for Roma’s visit to San Siro was indicative of that. The only remnants of last season were goalkeeper Gigio Donnarumma and centre-back Alessio Romagnoli. The other nine players were all recruited in the summer, offering a reminder that this is Year Zero for Milan. Montella can’t build on last season. There is no continuity. He is having to start afresh, something which can’t be said of Milan’s rivals for a Champions League spot.
Milan’s commitments in the Europa League and the injuries which led to the dismissal of their fitness coach Emanuele Marra last week highlight two other problems. The number of training sessions Montella has to work with the team on tactics are limited and not all Milan’s first-choice players are fit to participate. Romagnoli’s injuries, for instance, were responsible for the delay in the adoption of the 3-5-2 between the second leg against Shkendija, when Milan first experimented with it, and its first appearance in the league against Udinese, a month later.
And it’s not like Montella will get to work on it over the international break either. He lost a club record 17 players to international duty in September and will be without 15 over the next fortnight. Critics will argue that he had more than enough time to get his ideas across in pre-season. Milan were praised for doing a lot of their recruitment before training camp started on July 5. What this line of argument ignores, though, is how the Bonucci deal changed Milan’s plans entirely.
Signing Bonucci was not on Milan’s agenda when the market opened. It was an opportunity that presented itself unexpectedly. Up until mid-July, Milan’s window had the intention of recruiting for the 4-3-3 Montella played last season.
Regardless of whether or not there was any pressure from within to switch to 3-5-2 and play to Bonucci’s strengths, his status as the new face of the club, a player whose arrival forced Riccardo Montolivo to give up the captaincy and Franck Kessie to choose another shirt number, served to make it hard for the media to imagine Milan lining up in anything other than the 3-5-2. And that's irrespective of the fact the system didn’t foresee a place for Suso and Giacomo Bonaventura, Milan’s best performers in recent years.
Then there's Matteo Musacchio. Milan's first summer signing was bought to do what Bonucci does, which is why, more often than not Cristian Zapata - a centre-back with different characteristics - has been brought back into the fold now Milan have adopted a back three. While it’s true Milan did the vast majority of their shopping early, the spine of the team actually didn’t arrive until late in the summer. The deals for Bonucci and Lucas Biglia didn’t happen until late July. Nikola Kalinic signed just 10 days before the end of the window.
These are the experienced players who, more than any other, were expected to change the culture and instil a winning mentality at Milanello, which reminds us that, of all the players Milan signed, Bonucci is the only one to have won the Scudetto. The rest are either young (Kessie, Andre Silva, Andrea Conti, Hakan Calhanoglu) and/or from other countries (Silva, Ricardo Rodriguez, Musacchio, Calhanoglu) and need time to adapt to Europe’s most tactical league. We didn’t see Biglia start in the league until matchday three. Kalinic didn’t kick off a game in Serie A until Matchday 4. Is it any wonder that Milan have looked like strangers and less than the sum of their parts against well-organised teams, who have been together longer, and have a consolidated identity?
It’s going to take time for this group of players to get to know each (and, in some cases, Serie A). Right now, the understanding and chemistry is lacking, not to mention fitness. Milan went into Sunday’s game 17th for ground covered and 18th in winning the ball back. The two are connected and can be explained, in part, by the lack of cohesion, condition and comprehension. Of course, if Montella didn’t rotate all the time maybe this wouldn’t be as big of an issue. But then again maybe he's had no choice but to rotate given the shortcomings in his players' stamina.
Sunday’s loss - Milan’s second in a row in the league - was considered progress of sorts by Montella and his paymasters. The attitude was better than against Samp, Silva started - as he should have after scoring six goals in the Europa League - and it was unfortunate Roma scored during Milan’s best spell of the match. “It was our best interpretation of this formation,” Montella said, the change to which, incidentally, has coincided with the downturn in results.
Nevertheless, his position remains delicate. For all Montella says the criticism is overblown - Milan have won 10 of 13 matches this season - the fact their defeats have come against rivals for a place in the Champions League has been damaging, particularly given the stakes involved. Qualifying for Europe’s elite club competition is fundamental to the project’s sustainability and growth.
At the moment, Milan are just four points adrift of fourth spot. Hardly a disaster you might say. But if Roma win their game in hand against Samp, the gap widens to six with a head-to-head in the Giallorossi's favour. Maybe winning the Europa League will come to represent their best route into the Champions League, just as it eventually did for Manchester United last season.
Either way, Milan have to come together as a team and quick. On paper the defence looks like the best in the league - the future of the national team - but Conti is now out with an ACL tear, Bonucci keeps making calamitous errors and Fabio Borini is learning to play wing-back. There has been talk of a clash between young and old with Bonucci at the heart of it again as was the case towards the end of his time at Juventus. Mino Raiola has openly questioned why Bonucci got the captain’s armband when certain promises were made to Donnarumma during his contract negotiations. Manuel Locatelli says it was an accident that he liked a tweet by a Milan fan with a picture of Bonucci and the hashtags “words, words, words” and “you were better where you were.”
Another problem has been scoring against the better teams, with Milan drawing blanks against Sampdoria and Roma, and scoring just the once in their 4-1 defeat to Lazio. The shot Bonucci attempted in the 62nd minute of Sunday’s game was Milan’s first on target in three hours. Overall, Montella deserves the benefit of the doubt. He won the club its first trophy in four years last Christmas, brought through more youth, which has continued with Patrick Cutrone, and to a lesser extent Niccolò Zanellato and Matteo Gabbia, and left the impression, after finishing sixth last year and getting the club back into Europe, of having overachieved.
Expectations are understandably higher this season given the scale of investment and with them the pressure too, which was brought back into focus again last week with Reuters reporting Li Yonghong is already seeking new investors. Try to imagine what might happen if Milan lose the Derby della Madonnina when Serie A resumes in a fortnight. With both Milanesi now under Chinese ownership, neither will want to lose face and a defeat would test Milan's board's desire to be seen as the first Serie A club to sack their manager this season.
To whom would they turn? Carlo Ancelotti has ruled himself out of taking another job this season and there aren't many candidates on the market who represent an obvious upgrade on what they got. For now Montella has Milan's "utmost confidence." The question is: for how long?
These are turbulent times for the Little Airplane.