Max Allegri might be a “handsome man” with the looks of a “film star” according to Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi, but aside from his penchant for dressing so elegantly on the sidelines in a suit designed by club sponsors Dolce & Gabbana, he claims not to be a dedicated follower of fashion, at least, that is when it comes to football.
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Fashion statement: Allegri has made subtle changes to AC Milan’s style of play. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Fads pass. Trends come and go. The game, in essence, remains familiar. “You still play on a pitch that’s 65m by 105m like a century ago,” he told Il Corriere della Sera. “Some things have changed: the training methods, the physique of the players because 14-year-old boys are taller today than they were 20 years ago, but in the end football is always the same. The No 10 is coming back, the deep-lying playmaker is back and wingers are back too.”
Old hat. Out of date. Allegri is neither of those things. His style is deliberately understated. Take for example the way he has made Milan evolve this season. The champions still play the same system, a 4-3-1-2, with more or less the same personnel, but Allegri has made a number of subtle alterations to it.
La Gazzetta dello Sport has even gone so far as to claim that he is the Giorgio Armani of football, recalling how the designer made his name in the fashion industry in the 1970s by deconstructing the jacket. Armani either discarded or modified elements that had once been considered fundamental to its assembly from the shoulder pads and lapels to the lining and the buttons. In doing so, he created a “relaxed, informal, less fitted” garment.
This is what Allegri has set out to achieve at Milan, a less functional outfit with more flow to their play. Odd then that with this in mind he allowed Andrea Pirlo to leave for Juventus in the summer. Or is it?
Throughout pre-season, Allegri had hinted at the new direction in which he wanted to take Milan. “I don’t want to give our opponents reference points,” he said. When placed in that context, Pirlo’s exit makes sense.
Pirlo had been a reference point for Milan, not necessarily under Allegri, who left him on the bench when he wasn’t in the treatment room, but certainly under his predecessors. For years, he had been the originator of the team’s play. It seemed as though everything had to go through his feet. Whenever Pirlo was on the pitch it was second nature for his teammates to look and then pass to him either to start a move or create a chance.
It was a big part of Milan’s success, but Allegri realized early on in his tenure that, while Pirlo was probably the best player in the world in his position, it also made his team predictable. There was a strong sense among opposition scouts that if they shut down Pirlo then very often they shut down Milan too.
So Allegri cut his cloth accordingly and based his team around three hard-working, relatively unsophisticated midfielders capable of screening the defence and dominating possession.
Milan went on to win the Scudetto, and did so without what could be considered a natural playmaker.
Allegri has since developed this concept even further by “deconstructing the attack” bit by bit, piece by piece. He persists in asking players to perform roles that aren’t usually associated with their positions.
Kevin-Prince Boateng has florished in a new role at San Siro. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Last season, Allegri surprised many by using Kevin-Prince Boateng, a hitherto energetic and determined midfield player, as a No 10, not ostensibly to create but rather to press the opposition defence, recover the ball high up the pitch and to pull wide and provide width when necessary.
“I feel like a modern trequartista,” Boateng told Il Corriere dello Sport, “in the sense that, if in the past guys of small stature with great technique and speed played this position they didn’t participate in the defensive side of the game, whereas now there are other priorities that come with it like strength and power, for example.”
What at first seemed incongruous proved entirely logical. Boateng was a revelation and not just for the moonwalk that went with his Michael Jackson impression.
Thiago Silva has surprisingly taken over the role vacated by Andrea Pirlo. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
This season, Allegri has done it again. For example, in place of Pirlo, Milan’s deep-lying playmaker is actually their centre-back, Thiago Silva. He has made 806 passes this season, more than anyone else on the team, and his completion rate stands at an impressive 90.3%.
What’s particularly striking is the accuracy of his long balls. Of the 157 he has played out from the back 80.9% have reached their target. His stats are remarkably similar to Pirlo’s in this regard. So Milan get the best of both worlds: a deep-lying playmaker and a top class centre-back all in one.
Consider also the layers Zlatan Ibrahimovic has added to his game. Against Genoa last week, the Milan striker could have been mistaken for a midfielder. He made 47 touches in and around the centre-circle, bringing the ball down then laying it off to a teammate for them to then run into the space that he had vacated.
His link-play in general is excellent. The image put forward by parts of the media of a self-absorbed player couldn’t be any more far removed from the reality. To the 11 assists he provided his teammates with last season, he has added another three. That might not sound much but Ibrahimovic has also made 3.3 key passes per game. That’s more than anyone else on the team except the convalescing Antonio Cassano.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has brought new elements to his game under Allegri. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
And yet for all his altruism, his prowess in front of goal hasn’t diminished either. Ibrahimovic is Milan’s top scorer with 13 goals in 15 games this season. He is playing an exaggerated false nine role. Whereas last season, it was important for Ibrahimovic to stay in the box and be the focal point of the attack, the addition of players like Alberto Aquilani and Antonio Nocerino, who are capable of taking the ball on and making a more telling contribution in the final third than either Rino Gattuso or Massimo Ambrosini has brought another new dimension to Milan’s play. Aquilani has provided six assists. Nocerino has scored five goals.
Milan’s opponents now have to expect the unexpected. They are coming at them from all angles. The team is no longer as dependent on individuals as it once was in the past. The presence of 13 different names on the score-sheet, four of which are defenders, is evidence to that effect.
Since their loss to Juventus on October 2, a defeat which compounded an indifferent start to the season when they failed to win any of their opening three games, Milan have risen from 15th to second place with seven victories and a draw from their last eight matches in Serie A. They have scored 24 times in that run and are beginning to look ominous.
“What has surprised me,” said Juventus coach Antonio Conte, “is the way they have won: always at walking pace.” That’s not a slight on their work-rate, rather an observation that, while Juventus have to go through every gear to get a result, Milan give off the impression they can win games without shifting out of first.
If Carlos Tevez arrives from Manchester City in the January transfer window, as seems more than likely after talks were held between Adriano Galliani and his agent Kia Joorabchian, then, while there’s an obvious risk of flooding Milan’s finely-tuned engine, there’s also a chance it would become supercharged and uncatchable in Serie A.
Where Tevez would fit in at Milan and whether he is actually needed is the subject of great debate.
Robinho seems to get the best out of Ibrahimovic but is profligate in front of goal. Alexandre Pato is prolific when he plays but is frequently hamstrung by muscle injuries. Tevez, by contrast, perhaps makes up for both of their shortcomings. A regular and robust goalscorer, with 21 in 31 games last season, his qualities are beyond discussion even though his personality and the baggage he would bring with him to San Siro isn’t.
Anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, it’s worth acknowledging just how much Milan have come on under Allegri and the margins by which they continue to improve. Not that he will take any of the credit for it of course. “I have never seen a coach win a game because a coach can’t score goals,” he said. “A good coach is one who doesn’t make you lose games.”
Like Armani, who once modestly told Vanity Fair: “I do the work of a tailor,” Allegri plays everything down. That, however, shouldn’t stop his reputation as a superb tactician from going up and up and up.