As of this weekend, the city of Milan can once again lay claim to being the axis around which Italian football spins, as for the sixth year running, the Lombard capital has secured possession of the Serie A trophy.
While it was until recently in the custody of Inter Milan, who proudly displayed it for five seasons on the trot, it is great rivals AC Milan who, following their draw with Roma on Saturday, have now earned the right to show off the coveted prize, a feat that they had previously achieved on 17 occasions.
Football historians will doubtless note that I Rossoneri’s march to an 18th Italian title was founded on the old guard of Clarence Seedorf and Mark Van Bommel, who can now boast 19 and 20 career honours respectively, as well as on the individual brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But in reality, this triumph primarily comes down to the tight-knit nature of a squad that has been ably marshalled by their low-profile coach, Massimiliano Allegri.
Just like Jose Mourinho at Inter last season, but with a markedly different style, the 44-year-old Allegri has played a pivotal role in the success enjoyed by Milan, whose last league title came back in 2004. Not that he has always been a universally popular figure. Indeed, when announcing the name of the new coach to replace the departing Leonardo last summer, Italian Prime Minister and long-time club owner Silvio Berlusconi surprised fans and media alike with his choice.
Stalwarts on side
Yet despite a lack of experience coaching at top European clubs, Allegri went on to demonstrate impressive diplomatic skills throughout this campaign, both with his players and his employers. “I quickly learned that, in order to work in an atmosphere of calm in Milan, you have to show consideration and respect to everybody,” explained the former Cagliari coach.
In the early stages of his tenure, he was forced to temper the clamour for an ultra-attacking 4-3-3 formation featuring Ibrahimovic, Ronaldinho and Robinho up front, with Alexandre Pato slotting in just behind them. But without making waves, Allegri gradually began to impose his own style of play. He won the all-important dressing room battle by boosting the confidence of his side’s veterans, earning their trust without relinquishing control.
With experienced names in the team such as Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta, Massimo Ambrosini and Christian Abbiati, all of whom were either in or approaching their mid-thirties, this was no easy task. At the same time, Allegri was quick to open the door to the crop of younger players at the club, making it clear to them that during the long season ahead, everyone would be given a chance.
Won over by his approach, these contrasting age groups combined well on the pitch, rallying behind their new leader. “In practice, I simply made myself available to my players,” said the Livorno native. “I tried to get through to every one of them, while remaining true to myself, and without indulging in any dishonesty.”
A perfect illustration of this generational balance can be found in the Italian giants’ centre-back pairing of Thiago Silva, 26, and Alessandro Nesta, 35, who have marshalled a defence that has not conceded a goal for 371 minutes, and that has been breached just 23 times this season, representing the best record in the league.
While his team was still gelling, Allegri put his faith in the commanding figure of Ibrahimovic, who at 29 years of age was one of the few players on AC Milan’s books who could be described as straddling both generations.
“For the first six months, Ibrahimovic was key for us. He really carried the team on his shoulders,” said Allegri, referring to the Swede’s goal tally of 14, which included some spectacular strikes that had Rossoneri fans rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
With the spine of his team in place, the new man at the helm confirmed his authority by engineering the departure of Ronaldinho, notwithstanding Berlusconi’s admiration for the Brazilian, and the arrival of both Mark Van Bommel, a combative player cast in the same mould as Gattuso, and Antonio Cassano.
“From January onwards, our play improved, especially from a defensive point of view. And when you’ve got the best defence, generally you win the title,” explained Allegri, an exponent of 4-4-2 with a diamond-shaped midfield, a formation that enables his charges to play to best of their ability without taking any undue risks.
While performances did not always live up to expectations, Allegri’s tactics and team selection were vindicated by results. “We weren’t given the slightest chance. People said I was finished. But now look at us – we’re the champions of Italy,” said midfield general Gattuso this weekend.
“Allegri deserves a ten out of ten. He was the architect of this success; he managed to keep the squad united. I knew we were going to win the league when he began to make very important decisions and no-one questioned him,” continued the Italian international, with trademark honesty.
Berlusconi also appears to have fallen under the charm of the former Pescara midfielder. “Massimiliano is the latest in a long line of great coaches that the club has had, such as Fabio Capello, Arrigo Sacchi and Carlo Ancelotti. He has the right personal and professional qualities to achieve great things here,” he said.
Allegri, for his part, realises that fresh challenges lie in wait. “We need to keep working hard to build on what we’ve accomplished. The chairman told me that he was going to be able to offer us a ‘gift’ that would enable us to compete in Europe next season,” said the wily coach, who is anxious to reduce the average age of his side. Andrea Pirlo has been linked with a move to Juventus, while France international Philippe Mexes, powerful Nigerian defender Taye Taiwo and the latest Brazilian prodigy, Paulo Henrique Chagas de Lima, commonly known as Ganso, are all reportedly being pursued.
Berlusconi recently announced: “Dear tifosi, I plan to offer you some expensive presents.” Like his coach, the Milan owner now his sights already firmly set on a successful UEFA Champions League campaign in 2011/12.