Mark van Bommel at the heart of a new, harder Milan


They are two markedly different periods in AC Milan’s history but owner Silvio Berlusconi is having to show the same level of faith he did to legendary coach, Arrigo Sacchi, as he is to incumbent manager, Massimiliano Allegri. Berlusconi took over the club in 1986 and after a  nervy start, which drew heavy criticism from star striker, Marco van Basten, he kept his trust in Sacchi. That show of confidence was rewarded as it saw Milan experience their most successful spell in their hostory, winning three European Cups in ten years and five league titles. “It was to become a magnificent Milan team, probably unrepeatable, but I was grateful to Silvio Berlusconi,” said Sacchi. “Because he always placed trust in me, especially at the beginning when the losses first came.  The board always supported me. Always. The board trusted me and said follow your way, it is the right way.”

And while Massimo Allegri has begun in winning fashion – securing the championship in his debut season – the exuberant spending that once characterised Serie A club owners is no more and that means a different type of trust has to be placed on Allegri. And it is a different type of team too.  “You can’t always dine on lobster and caviar,” said Allegri dismissively when asked about the way his Milan side are playing. “Every now and again you have to be satisfied with a ham sandwich.” His team is a side in transition – not necessarily in terms of age which it seems Milan have forever been stuck in anyway (as Arsenal are in youth); even Sacchi himself has recently belittled the squad’s age – but in terms of philosophy where graft has replaced craft. Berlusconi is willing to accept it due to the financial constraints hampering their attempts to bring in a “fantasia” or a “regista” but also because some argue it’s a step towards the modern era. And it’s because of that ideological shift that Milan stand the greatest chance of overcoming their “English taboo” in the Champions League.

A new Milan emerges

In the library of Coverciano, the Italian Football Federation’s legendary technical centre, sits Carlo Ancelotti’s thesis, ‘Il Futuro del Calcio: Piu Dinamicita’ – ‘The Future of Football: More Dynamism’ and though he preferred to err on romanticism when in charge of Milan, it seems Allegri’s team at the closest end of that extreme.

Functionality pervades Allegri’s Milan. Michael Cox of writes of how boring their midfield has become, which is “now based around physical attributes” and indeed, the statistics show that their midfield four is creating less on average, at only 0.85 key passes a game (that means in some matches, they even fail to create any chances). To be fair on Milan, though, they have missed their main creative outlet in midfield, Alberto Aquilani while fantastically intelligent as he may be, Clarence Seerdorf’s heavy legs deem him a liability in the defensive phase. They’ve added energy to their game which was once their kryptonite (they were so impressed by Mathieu Flamini’s astronomical fitness levels in one game, that they signed him a year later) and now they depend highly on individual quality upfront rather than intelligent play from midfield to create chances.

In a sense, Mark van Bommel personifies the new Milan. He makes just as many passes as the celestial Andrea Pirlo did in the red-an-black but is seen as an antithesis of what their midfield was built around before. Pirlo was the conductor; the instigator of attacks while van Bommel is the retardant; he stops the opponents’ attacks. His role, however, cannot be understated because it’s just as important. In fact, he might as well be Milan because take him out and they’re a severely less efficient team. In that regards, van Bommel is just like Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, giving security to a system which was once deemed inefficient.

Milan, who play a 4-3-1-2 formation, have long been regarded as being weak on the flanks, both from a defensive capacity as well as an attacking one. The full-backs are expected to provide the width but as soon as they lose it, they’re just as quickly expected to filter back. Perhaps, it’s a tactic that works well in Serie A where matches are less intense because in the league, the midfield three have done well to get back into position and double up in wide areas but with the pace of Arsenal, Milan might be exposed. Indeed, this is where Mark van Bommel has been superb since his move in January last season – a move which Allegri admits was a gamble, the opposite of Arteta – because he marshals his troops so expertly. “As for Van Bommel, what to say,” said Allegri. “This is a very intelligent player who has already figured out Italian football and gives a sense of security needed in defensive line.”

Against Napoli, in the 0-0 draw a fortnight ago, van Bommel was the coach on the pitch, shouting and ordering his team-mates to position like a general and covered any gaps that emerged. Indeed, theirin may lie a weakness because there’s often an overwhelming reliance on him to paper over the cracks tactically. This can be highlighted by a moment in the Napoli game where, after reading an unsuccessful through-pass, he was ushered into the full-back position and when pressed, rather than get it safe, he played a dangerous ball across his own box which fortunately for his side, went unharmed. Simply, he’s doing too much. And with a booking away from suspension, he’s certainly walking a thin line.

Van Bommel’s success is that he alleviates any weakness that Milan has, especially on the flanks, and shifts the tactical battle in the middle of the pitch – where Milan are strongest. They might draw courage from the way Benfica compressed play towards the middle of the pitch against Arsenal in pre-season in a similar diamond formation although when they did score, it came from expected fashion; a quick attack down the flank saw Kieran Gibbs free Robin van Persie. The fear is that it might happen again. Milan will need Mark van Bommel to be his typical self for that not to happen and the referee to talk groceries with the Dutch midfielder