The Pro’s and Con’s of AC Milan’s 25-man squad revolution
“We have 25 players in the squad, and the squad for next season will consist of 25 players…” claimed AC Milan Vice-President Adriano Galliani when interviewed by Sky Sport Italia. He was not only clear on the ambitions he had for the club but also it’s delivery. The once great sanctuary for ageing champions has become a breeding ground for talented and ambitious youngsters once again. Fans find themselves taking a keen interest in the club’s youth prospects and rejoicing at the potential not seen since the likes of Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta showed the value of youth investment. Now, having taken the first steps toward a financially sustainable club model, the hierarchy has taken the decision to downsize the normally crowded dressing-room.
Here are the pro’s and con’s of a 25 man squad.
The concept means the squad will consist of three goalkeepers, nine defenders, eight midfielders and five attackers. Obviously this allocation may change dependent on who comes and who goes but the proportions remain more or less the same. This paring-down means the squad won’t have excessive amounts of players per position. At the start of the season, Milan had as many as five left-backs on their books, but with the sales of Andrea De Vito and Taye Taiwo, combined with the loaning of Didac Vila to Real Betis, the squad now has two definitive left-backs in Kevin Constant and Luca Antonini. By doing this, the club dramatically reduces the wage bill.
This has been the case for the past two seasons as the squad has gradually become smaller and high earners have left. The likes of Mathieu Flamini, who has since left the club, had his salary reduced from €4.5 million to €1.5 million to remain at the San Siro. The former Arsenal man was not a key figure in the Rossoneri team and was therefore earning extortionately high wages for someone with limited input. This careless overspending has forced widespread sales and rejuvenation within the squad, as the club could generally afford to pay youngsters less.
The club’s annual spending on wages for the 2011-12 season was €160 million according to Gazzetta dello Sport, but the following season the same publication claimed it had dropped to €120 million. Recent estimates are now pointing to a figure bellow €50 million. With the club tending to it’s finances more closely, this kind of reduction is a welcome relief for a team looking to clear it’s debts.
However, a possible drawback is that with a smaller squad the football player’s will want more money. If the club places greater responsibility on fewer players, then they expect to be rewarded more handsomely. This can be seen at FC Barcelona where they have a small squad but pay their first team players ludicrously high wages. In reality, Milan could still be spending way too much on player wages even if it wasn’t spread out amongst the team.
But where Barcelona lacked depth, they injected fresh new faces from their youth system. The famous La Masia training complex has produced some of greatest talents of recent years and is a boon to the club. It now comes as no surprise to see a teenager playing alongside Barcelona’s star players in both La Liga and the Champions League.
Last season saw a youngster named Gerard Deulofeo make his La Liga debut, and now he’s been loaned to Premier League side Everton. The speed in which these young players progress is quite remarkable and defies the usual conventions of football.
Fans have already had the chance to see both Bryan Cristante and Andrea Petagna play for the first team. Although the results seemed varied, the inclusion is nevertheless a positive. The chances of a youngster forcing his way into the first team a few years ago was virtually impossible. Milan revolved around it’s club icons and reinforced in areas that were weak, but with the legends now all departed, youth appears to be the only answer.
The two 18 year-old Italians aren’t the only youngsters to have appeared pre-season. Kingsley Boateng, who took part in the 2012 pre-season friendlies, made an impact coming on to score against Sao Paulo during the Audi Cup tournament. Other Primavera players include Mario Piccinocchi, Davide Pacifico, Marco Pinato and Luca Iotti, who all played a part. It’s signs like this that give fans hope for the future.
A potential flaw with this method is it can create a quality drought. The main benefit of having a squad with depth is that it allows the coach to draw on adequate replacements at any time. This is why you’ll see so many teams with over 30 players on their roster. Applying so much responsibility and pressure on a young man’s shoulders tends can have a negative impact, not only for the player but sometimes the result too. If there is no competition for the starting players within the team, then needn’t worry about being replaced, and this can lead to some poor performances under less pressure to perform.
Strength in depth means a player can replace a regular starter without a problem, but to throw a youth player into the mix can disrupt their development process and harm their confidence should the game end badly. It’s always important to nurture your young prospects, and some will take to the big stage like a duck to water, but even Mattia De Sciglio had nerves making senior appearances so rapidly. If the club feel the need to entrust their youngsters with competitive outings, then they need to be sure they’re mentally prepared.
On the plus side, shaping a closely knit squad can create an ethos of elitism, a very strongly motivated group of players who are comfortable with each other and with how they play. This is something easily understood having looked at football’s greatest sides. The average appearance for the Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ starting-elven during the 2003-04 season was 33 games. The story is similar with Milan’s 1991-92 side that went on a 58-match undefeated run. Even today, Barcelona’s starting-eleven has only changed minimally since the 2007-08 campaign that still has Victor Valdes, Carlos Puyol, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi running the show. Many football critics believe football works in cycles, with one generation of players following another, and Milan will be hoping their current crop can bring success to the San Siro once again.
A small squad comes with a high level of risk. As with any football club, losing your best players to injury is a blow to the team, but with limited replacements, it can be a nightmare. Some would argue that this gives opportunities for aspirational youngster to have their chance, but in the finals of a European competition, you want your best.
Last season, Barcelona suffered several injury set-backs as their Champions League campaign reached the semi-finals. Carlos Puyol and Javier Mascherano were both absent meaning Gerard Pique had to supervise the young Marc Bartra in defense and Lionel Messi was suffering from a hamstring injury. The game was disastrous, with Pique being stretched all over the field as Bayern Munich cruised to a 4-0 victory in the first leg. The match wasn’t so much a reflection of either defenders’ abilities, as the whole team was sapped of energy, but it still makes fans wonder how the Catalans would have fared with their first team intact.
Most of Barcelona starting-eleven had featured continuously during the season leaving them exhausted at the end of it. The Milan team will need to be in prime condition to undertake such a task with a limited squad. Any injury can harm the performance drastically and any replacements will need to be of a caliber fitting of such a club. Continuity is vital and the standard of football needs to be the very best for the operation to succeed.
Even now, the Rossoneri have had to address the injury to Daniele Bonera by bringing in Matias Silvestre from Inter. Rather than experimenting with players they already have, such as Jherson Vergara, Milan feel the need to reinforce. It remains to be seen whether il Diavolo can go through with their plan, but while they may suffer during the seasons ahead, the future results could be worth the laboured process. A smaller, ‘elite’ squad can offer a financially sustainable future, but the risk of injuries and a drop in quality can only be partially mitigated by the injection of young, precocious talents.
Follow Louis Gibberd-Thomas on Twitter: @mercutio156