Historically, AC Milan have prided themselves on their solid defensive partnerships. The end of the last century saw an abundance of defensive prowess assemble at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, to the point that the four players at the back were bordering on being infallible. Alessandro ‘Billy’ Costacurta brought a consistency as a virtual ever-present, while both Mauro Tassotti and Filippo Galli built on their own reputations as reliable, versatile defensive players.
During this period an almost telepathic understanding formed between the great Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, with the latter succeeding Baresi as captain at Milan. Maldini would carry the legacy of the great Milan teams under Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello into the 21st century, partnering Alessandro Nesta in the centre of defence in the 2003 UEFA Champions League final.
Nesta would soon be asked to continue the trend, finding himself next to Maldini in the 2005 Champions League final but partnering Jaap Stam in the centre of defence. Following the collapse in Istanbul, the 2003 Champions League final defensive partnership of Nesta and Maldini returned for the 2007 Champions League final to claim revenge against Liverpool.
As Maldini was slowly eased out of proceedings at the San Siro, the responsibility fell to Nesta to be the experienced figure at the back for Milan. In 2009 he was joined by a promising defender from Brazil named Thiago Silva, who would go on to develop an excellent understanding with the ageing Italian and establish himself as one of the best defenders in the world.
After Silva departed for Paris Saint-Germain and Nesta to Montreal Impact, Milan struggled to find a reliable pairing at the heart of the defence. The inconsistency of the likes of Cristian Zapata and Philippe Mexes left Milan fans demanding more from their defence. Francesco Acerbi was heralded as the ‘new Nesta’ upon his arrival, a dream that quickly turned into a nightmare with the player eventually settling at Sassuolo.
The consistency found in both Adil Rami and Brazilian defender Alex looked to offer a glimmer of hope, but Rami would only manage a single season before accepting a switch to Sevilla. Alex would find himself partnering a €25 million summer signing from Roma in Alessio Romagnoli, who featured in more matches than any other Milan defender in the 2015/16 season.
Romagnoli was soon in the same situation as his idol Nesta had been before him, needing to lay down a marker with consistent performances. While he would often be praised for his performances, he lacked an understanding with Zapata and new additions Gustavo Gomez and Gabriel Paletta. The arrival of Leonardo Bonucci would finally relieve some of the pressure on Romagnoli.
The pair appeared to gel well in the 2017/18 season, although Romagnoli would miss part of the season through injury. Toward the end of the season the performances of Romagnoli, in particular, caught the eye of fans for his passionate, astute work in defence. Bonucci, while still offering a level of consistency, appeared uncomfortable without the dependable cover he had in Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini at Juventus.
With Bonucci paving the way for the arrival of Mattia Caldara from the Old Lady, Milan fans the world over can finally allow themselves to be excited. It has felt like a lifetime of watching nervously defended corners and floundering at the back. Gianluigi Donnarumma and his agent Mino Raiola could buy into a fresh approach at Milan, placing greater emphasis on the development of a young team.
Caldara and Romagnoli have already featured prominently together for the national team at youth level, and with Andrea Conti coming back into the fold a reunion with former Atalanta teammate Caldara bodes well for the team. It remains to be seen whether Ricardo Rodriguez will remain with the Rossoneri beyond the summer transfer window, with Fiorentina left-back Cristiano Biraghi already seen as an ideal replacement should he depart, but Milan would certainly benefit from the Swiss’ experience.
For Milan fans, the prospect of losing either Caldara or Romagnoli to injury can be the only fear at present. The hierarchy are confident they have found an ideal partner for Romagnoli in defence, a partnership they hope can replicate those that have come before them. Long-term the Italian national stands to benefit from a more intimate relationship between Caldara and Romagnoli, one that could shine in the blue of Azzurri as well as the red and black jersey.
Rarely have all the pieces fallen into place so conveniently for AC Milan. Now it’s time to be successful again.