When Milan won the 2007 UEFA Champions League in Athens, they were one of the oldest teams to swing aloft the famous “Big-Eared” trophy, recording an average age of 31. Ten years on, though, and the Rossoneri have finally embraced the winds of change. Featuring as the youngest team in Serie A last term, Vincenzo Montella not only put his trust in youth, but several academy products, and this year he has unleashed yet another exciting prodigy in the shape of Patrick Cutrone – a striker who lives to put the ball into the back of the net. Rossella Marrai-Ricco takes a look at his pre-season form…
It should be Andre Silva creating the headlines; instead, it’s a Primavera graduate who is yet to play 90 minutes of a top-flight fixture in Europe. Don’t know him? Well, you soon will!
The Portuguese’s arrival to Milanello was met with much enthusiasm. Courted by most of Europe’s top clubs, the 21-year-old was swooped up by Marco Fassone and Massmiliano Mirabelli as the Rossoneri’s fourth arrival of the summer. It was an unexpected move that surprised all, but one, which left the club’s fans, overjoyed.
Silva had scored 22 goals in 44 appearances across all competitions for Porto – the combined total Carlos Bacca and Gianluca Lapadula notched up for the Rossoneri last term – while he has also bagged eight goals for his country in just 13 outings.
In the last two years, Andre Silva has proven himself a dynamic and pacey striker with a natural eye for goal, leaving little room to question why he has been dubbed Cristiano Ronaldo’s heir to the Selecção. Yet, his arrival has been somewhat overshadowed by an equally incredible and younger prospect, Cutrone...
With the Portuguese star having reported to pre-season camp later than most due to his country’s participation in the FIFA Confederations Cup, and with Bacca’s future still up in the air, Cutrone saw an opportunity to impress Vincenzo Montella, and he grabbed it with both hands.
Selected in Milan’s starting XI in the Diavoli’s first pre-season friendly ahead of the 2017/18 Serie A campaign, Cutrone wasted no time in putting his name on the scoresheet. With only 98 seconds on the clock, Cutrone latched onto a defence-splitting through-ball to casually slice the ball into the back of the net from eight yards out.
His goal was the start of a four-goal onslaught by Montella’s men, but what was crucial to note is how he played a major role in creating the goalscoring opportunity. As the Rossoneri pushed forward, the teenager combined well with Andrea Bertolacci and Franck Kessie to pull off fluid and swift moving triangular play, before then poking the ball over the line.
It was his first goal of the “campaign”, and he hasn’t stopped there. Against Dortmund, Cutrone showed equal hunger in front of goal, and he came agonizingly close to pulling one back for Milan…
Despite missing the one-on-one opportunity inside the box, Cutrone put out promising displays in China that caught the attention of onlookers. He showed relentless desire to win and chase down balls, drifted deeper into the midfield to carry the ball further up the park, combined well with Kessie once again, and showed aerial strength in challenges.
The latter element of his game proved crucial when he netted in the opening goal against Bayern Munich in the International Champions Cup, before then going to add a second strike to his name with toe-poking effort from a cross off the left flank. Once again, the teen was the one who had initiated the play on his goal, by passing the ball from the edge of the D to M’baye Niang, who then played it wide to Giacomo Bonaventura. The midfielder chased down the ball before crossing it into the box for Cutrone to poke home, making it three goals in three friendly matches for Milan.
Speaking after the game, he said: “It's a day I'll never forget, on the first goal I didn't even think I'd scored, while the second was a great team move.”
While it may be early days still, Cutrone has displayed classic goal poaching qualities worthy of Pippo Inzaghi’s approval, while he has proven himself equally dynamic, packed with pace, physically strong, hungry for goals, and can hold the ball up well. All necessary qualities to become a top striker, but he is no stranger to scoring…
Under the guidance of Stefano Nava, the centre-forward discovered some of his best form, and in 22 appearances with the Primavera side last term, he found the back of the net on 19 occasions, bagging three assists in the process. Those figures followed a campaign with the Primavera B side, where he scored 22 goals in 31 outings to make the most prolific goal-scorer to come out Rossoneri academy.
If that isn’t an impressive enough return, Cutrone has also bagged a remarkable 33 goals for the six various youth national teams for Italy, turning out for his country a total of 57 times.
“We all played a great game [against Bayern Munich], from the first minute to the last. Compared to Borussia [Dortmund] something changed,” he added after the 4-0 win over the Bavarians. “It's a win which increases our confidence ahead of Craiova, and now we have to think only about that game because it's crucial for our season.”
So promising Cutrone’s form has been, he is likely to start for the San Siro outfit against the Romanian club in the first leg of the Europa League clash later this week, and it has even been reported that Bacca is likely to make way in order for him to remain at Milanello.
Donning the number 63 on his back to honour his father, Cutrone is so passionate about the game that he often requires alone time to reflect on the odd occasion things don’t go his way in front of goal. And while he may have a mature head on his shoulders, the striker is still young, has to learn to compete against other quality strikers at Milan, and has plenty to prove – a challenge he won’t shy away from.
It was just the other day when mayhem ensued outside of Milan’s headquarters of Casa Milan. A couple of hundred fans patiently stood waiting for the arrival of the most unexpected deal of the transfer window to be finalised… Yes, that would be Leonardo Bonucci! The expected heir to Gianluigi Buffon’s armband was crossing the great divide, exchanging his white stripes for red, and, what rubbed salt into the deep wounds was the promise that he would be named club captain. An unusual precedent for a player who had yet to step foot at Milanello, but one, which Rossella Marrai-Ricco feels, is crucial.
Echoes of a remixed version of “Sarà Perché Ti Amo” reverberated across the piazza, and when the Audi transporting Bonucci arrived at Also Rossi, fans let out the biggest screams of joy that had not been heard since 2007’s success in the UEFA Champions League final.
Not since the return of Kaka in 2013 had a player been that warmly welcomed by the Milanisti faithful, and the wide-eyed smile spread across the 30-year-old’s face said it all… Bonucci’s arrival immediately made him part of something much bigger than just a simple switch between rivals.
It was a new beginning for him, but in the same token, it was the start of a new and exciting chapter in the Rossoneri history books. And he was likely to be the author of it…
Even before the towering defender had been rumoured with a Juventus exit, Milan had already undergone a transfer market campaign worthy of Adriano Galliani in his prime, courtesy of the unrelenting work ethic from Massimiliano Mirabelli and Marco Fassone.
A total of eight players had already been snapped up, and it included some of Europe’s most impressive defenders last season, along with Cristiano Ronaldo’s heir, Andre Silva, the continent’s leading set-piece taker Hakan Calhanoglu, and Africa’s exciting prodigy Franck Kessie.
Their arrivals to Milanello was the start of a change in mentality amongst the fans, but when Bonucci greeted the mass of people at Casa Milan’s doors, and uttered the words: “Ci vediamo dopo” (We will see later), did the full crux of the paradigm shift take place.
The jubilant mood felt across the fashion capital had little to do with snatching away one of the best defenders in the world from their rivals. Instead, Bonucci’s signing provides Milan with a unique psychological boost that hasn’t been present since Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s transfer seven years ago.
It has created an element of belief that Milan can now compete with Europe’s heavyweights for the signature’s of in-demand players, and Fassone’s pursuit of a big-name striker is further proof of that. Moreover, the psychological impact Bonucci will bring to the changing room will ultimately spark a different mentality amongst his new colleagues…
For years Milan have awarded the armband to the player with the most Rossoneri appearances to his name, seeing it often switch between Ignazio Abate and Riccardo Montolivo depending on availability.
Sadly, the veteran midfielder hasn’t been able to fill the boots of Paolo Maldini and Massimo Ambrosini, and his quiet persona saw him become the equivalent of a soft voice in the boisterous Curva Sud. It is because of this, that Bonucci is likely to inherit the armband famously sported by Maldini and Franco Baresi, and there is little doubt that he will live up to their daunting legacy.
Rarely one to ever feel unnerved by responsibility, the Italian international spent the past seven years at Vinovo developing into one of the world’s most progressive defenders, and being molded into one of the game’s toughest hard-men.
Under the guidance of Antonio Conte and the incredible partnership alongside Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon, the Viterbo-born player learned the values of leadership, and, above all, the hunger to succeed.
During his time with The Old Lady, Bonucci went on to swing aloft an impressive 15 trophies, and despite winning all there is to attain in Italy, he has never once showed any sign of complacency. For him, it’s about “fighting with more hunger than ever,” as he declared in his latest Instagram post, and he is likely to carry that same mentality to Milanello.
Known for having his own personal mentor and motivator, Bonucci is well aware of what is needed to compete and succeed at the top. He consciously ensures that he is constantly placed in a stimulating environment and is surrounded by encouraging people who are guaranteed to fuel his unwavering passion and desire.
All these elements are required traits for a Milan captain, and with the Rossoneri having lacked that strong personality in the locker-room for several years, it comes as no surprise that Vincenzo Montella is tempted to hand him the ‘fascia’.
The ominous banner from two years ago, which read: “Game over. Insert coin and save AC Milan.” Seems like a long and distant memory now… And after a long and patient wait, the fans can now prepare to see a real leader head out of the San Siro tunnel, and he is likely to get an arousing welcome by the Curva Sud.
AC Milan are currently in the midst of a historical and stunning transfer campaign that will go down as the most expensive transfer window conducted by an Italian club, and with 10 new faces set to don the famous red and black strip, Vincenzo Montella must surely feel that Christmas has arrived early at Milanello this year. However, the money spent doesn’t guarantee success, Rossella Marrai-Ricco takes a look at why Montella is currently facing the toughest test of his career.
Things are happening at Milan. It seems an odd thing to say, but for several years the Rossoneri have passed through transfer markets signing free agents, taking weeks to secure a deal, and then signing up players largely considered “not Milan quality”.
Times have changed. Silvio Berlusconi’s 31-year spell as owner of the sleeping giants was brought to an end in April, and new owner Yonghong Li has taken over. His takeover has seen him welcome the arrival of Marco Fassone and Massimiliano Mirabelli, and with them, a blank check. Or so it seems.
No longer shackled by the financial constraints of Berlusconi’s inability to invest fresh money into the club he turned into greatness in the late 80s and 90s, the management duo have started to rebuild a competitive squad from scratch.
Well aware that the Rossoneri’s season would commence a month earlier than normal, due to Europa League commitments, Fassone and Mirabelli got to work fast…
Mateo Musacchio was the first to arrive before the Serie A season had even ended, Franck Kessie soon followed, along with Ricardo Rodriguez. Then a scoop out of nowhere for Portugal’s most promising talent, Andre Silva, was secured for a bargain fee of €35 million.
It didn’t end there though... Fabio Borini was snapped up on loan from Sunderland, and while he isn’t considered as glamorous a signing as the other new arrivals, he has a relationship with Montella and will provide necessary depth and versatility to the squad.
Every European club was then left in envy when the continent’s most lethal set-piece taker, Hakan Calhangolu, appeared at Malpensa airport ready to pen in a contract with the Diavoli. His arrival at Casa Milan saw him greeted by a mass group of fans, along with Andrea Conti, who missed his vacation in order to become the seventh signing of the new Milan era.
A brotherly affair soon followed, with Gianluigi Donnarumma deciding to go back on his original decision and pen in a new and improved contract with the team he grew up supporting. Upon pleading for the fans’ forgiveness, his older sibling Antonio was also re-signed to become the club’s third choice stopper. Queue quadruple handshake, and a ‘schiaffo’ from Mirabelli.
Many thought that was the end of Mirabelli’s magic, and with pre-season having officially begun, few were expecting the unthinkable to happen. Enter Leonardo Bonucci.
It took just 48 hours from when the first ‘rumour’ of him being linked to Milan turned into chaotic and joyous scenes at Casa Milan. There, he was greeted by a couple of hundred fans, was given a tour of the Milan Museum, before eventually putting pen-to-paper in a deal which cost Milan a mere €42 million in transfer fees – a steal for one of the world’s best centre-backs.
Rossoneri management hasn’t stopped there though, as Lucas Biglia is just hours away from completing his move to the red and black side of the city, and there are still reports that one of Andrea Belotti, Nikola Kalinic, Renato Sanches or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could join too.
On paper, the transfer window has been nothing short of impressive. Largely surreal for the loyal Milanista, but much needed for a club in desperate need of competing in Europe and for domestic glory again.
Last year, Montella managed to get his squad to punch above their weight… Securing their first piece of silverware back in December against Juventus was no pure fluke; he found a way to instil cohesion, unity, and a hunger amongst his players. Above all, was able to avoid any of the off-field problems with the takeover from filtering through into the squad.
The former Fiorentina tactician created a safe environment for his youngsters to develop and mature in, while he also liked to balance his squad out with experienced personnel across each department on the field.
What is most notable, though, is that most of his players had already worked alongside each other for at least one season, whereas, this year, he affectively has a brand new starting XI at his disposal.
This is where the tricky part comes in…
Out of the new arrivals, only Conti and Kessie have previously worked alongside each other at club level – at last season’s surprise package Atalanta. The Italian full-back did, however, spend the summer playing alongside his new teammates Donnarumma, Manuel Locatelli and Davide Calabria at the U21 Euros, and he is expected to form part of a completely new backline at Milan.
Last term, Montella stuck to his favoured 4-3-3 system, but with the arrival of Bonucci, Conti and Rodriguez, he now has the tactical flexibility to shift and change formations easily.
Conti and Rodriguez undoubtedly boast incredible skills going forward, and possess the pace to overlap and drop back when needed, making them available to play in the wing-back or full-back roles. Meanwhile, Bonucci will add some much-needed experience and know-how to the backline, and it is because of his proficiency and previous success that he is likely to compliment well alongside Alessio Romagnoli, and potentially Musacchio.
The much-improved depth and versatility to Milan’s defensive department will surely see the 43-year-old willingly alternate between a back four and a back three when needed. Montella is no stranger to adjusting his formation to a back three, having done so at Fiorentina.
The midfield dynamic will be an interesting one. Considering Milan spent over €50 million to refurbish that department, Montella will need to juggle the demands of each player carefully.
Kessie is raring to go, while Locatelli and Montolivo will want to compete for their place in the squad. Calhanoglu will feel he is deserving of a starting berth, despite spending the last four months of the 2016/7 campaign suspended. The same will apply for Lucas Biglia, as he will expect to be the conductor in the middle of the park, following another solid campaign with Lazio, while Suso was one of Milan’s best players last term. Although, that doesn’t mean he is guaranteed a starting spot either…
Gianluca Lapadula’s exit means Carlos Bacca and Patrick Cutrone will likely act as back-ups to Andre Silva up front. Some would say, all these options is a good headache to have.
The influx of players, different nationalities, personalities and languages will, however, mean that it will take some time for the squad of players to adapt to their surrounds, adjust to their new teammates and formations, and fully understand Montella’s coaching philosophy.
Last year, the Napoli-born coach led Milan to fifth place on the Serie A table and to their first trophy in six years. It was a good outcome considering the players he had at his disposal, and with latest investments having already generated massive hype, there is already talk of the Rossoneri being title contenders.
This year, the pressure to succeed almost immediately will be expected from both the media and fans – something last year’s squad didn’t have to worry about. Not to mention, the Rossoneri will also be participating in the Europa League, adding an extra competition that wasn't there before. This is what makes it Montella’s biggest test so far.
He will have to find a way to stave off the pressure, fina a way to equally utilize his squad between competitions, and man-manage his players in the same quiet and professional manner he conducted himself with last term. He, his players and club management must accept that it will take time for his squad to become a ‘well-oiled’ machine, but there is a delicate line… If it takes too much time, then he will start to feel the heat, and questions will be asked.
After 12 months of being able to go about things rather quietly, and with no severe weight of expectations on his shoulders, Montella will now be tested in a new manner. It will be interesting to see how he fares.