Professor Seedorf needs time for right chemistry at Milan
When the axe fell on Massimiliano Allegri, it did so swiftly and cleanly.
The former AC Milan coach barely had time to clear his desk at the club’s plush Milanello training complex before Clarence Seedorf’s name was the door, after defeat to Sassuolo sealed his inevitable fate. In fact, 30 minutes after news broke at 11am last Monday, all signs that Allegri had ever been at the club - including his name from the now-vacant parking space - had been removed.
There was a short message of thanks on the club’s website, before it was showtime again in the world of Silvio Berlusconi with the return of charismatic Seedorf after his 18-month stint at Botafogo in Brazil.
Milan aren't usually a club to dispense with their coach in mid-season: in the Berlusconi era, only four tacticians before Allegri have been sent packing during a campaign. And on each occasion the club have turned to someone they know and trust.
In 1987, after sacking San Siro legend Nils Liedholm, Milan appointed former player Fabio Capello to see the season out (qualifying for the UEFA Cup), before Arrigo Sacchi took over in summer to start the era of dominance Capello continued. Sacchi was parachuted back into the post during the 1996/97 season after Capello's successor Oscar Tabarez lasted just 22 matches including a 6-1 home defeat to Juventus.
When Alberto Zaccheroni's team went out of the Champions League in spring 2001, Milan replaced him with Cesare Maldini and Mauro Tassotti, who got the club into the UEFA Cup. And when subsequent appointment Fatih Terim lasted only 13 matches, Carlo Ancelotti brought some much-needed stability - not to mention the Champions League in 2002/03, the season in which Seedorf happened to have moved across town from Inter.
Having again turned to someone Milan know well, Berlusconi will be hoping history repeats itself with another former player re-igniting the ailing club’s fortunes.
There is no doubt that the Dutch ace has the personality to handle the pressure, and brings with him the aura of a truly world-class star. In his 10 years at the Rossoneri he won as many trophies; two Serie A titles, two Champions League trophies, one Coppa Italia, two Supercoppa Italias, two UEFA Super Cups and the Club World Cup.
The obvious question already being raised is whether he can transfer that on-pitch genius to the training ground, and the sidelines on a matchday.
He had been coaching the youth players at Botafogo, but that is a long way from the high-pressured world of Serie A. He will have perennial right-hand man Tassotti alongside him for the rest of the season, but there are strong reports that Jaap Stam, Hernan Crespo, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert will be back at the club in supporting roles.
Changes upstairs are also afoot as Berlusconi’s daughter Barbara takes a more active role in off-field matters. Adriano Galliani’s expected departure, meanwhile, will leave the door open for Paolo Maldini to make his long-awaited return alongside current Hellas Verona sporting director Sean Sogiliano. Claudio Fenucci will step into the director general role when he leaves AS Roma in the summer.
Seedorf, however, is the main draw. The returning hero was mobbed by fans and reporters on his arrival in Milan last Thursday, before being whisked off to the San Siro to catch the final minutes of his new team’s 3-1 win over Spezia in the Italian Cup, which set up another home tie against Udinese in the quarter-finals.
He won't be under too much pressure to deliver instant success, but the route to Europe is certainly open through a favourable draw in the domestic cup, where Fiorentina or Siena await should Milan progress to the next round.
For now, though, 'The Professor' will be left to find the formula needed to spark Milan into life, just as Sacchi did on his arrival when he introduced a high-paced, pressing game. Seedorf does not have the star quality of that era at his disposal, however, and will have to work within a new club-imposed wage ceiling of €4.5m.
The team had, at times, been downright pedestrian under Allegri. So it was no surprise to see Seedorf inject some energy into his first line-up against Hellas Verona at the San Siro, fielding Robinho, Kakà and Keisuke Honda in support of lone striker Mario Balotelli. Nigel De Jong and Riccardo Montolivo were given the task of protecting the back four and setting the tempo from the centre of midfield by winning the ball further up the pitch.
However, for all their enthusiasm and desire to please their new coach, the team lacks the essential element of pace to crack open the deep-lying defences that nearly all Serie A teams outside the top five employ away from home. Despite being pinned back in their own half, Verona had no problems keeping the home side at bay, Milan boasting no player with the burst of swiftness to take him into gaps inside the penalty area.
The Professor's problem
Kakà and Robinho have lost that all-important burst of speed, although it seems Honda does have that weapon in his armoury. His future may be better suited in a more withdrawn role on the left where he can link play without having to take on an opponent directly.
That is, however, where Kakà likes to operate, and there will come a time when Seedorf will have to make a decision. It may be that the Brazilian drops back into a central midfield position over the next few seasons – something Allegri had mooted upon the 2007 Ballon d'Or winner's return from Real Madrid at the start of the season.
Verona, for their part, had the turbo-charged Juan Iturbi and equally rapid Romulo to lead ever more dangerous counter-attacks as the game wore on. There were a few glimpses of what Seedorf is trying to impart, especially when the ball was moved quickly towards Balotelli. The Italian often turns so well to open up opposition backlines, but here there was no one making telling runs into the space beyond him.
It seemed as if Seedorf was set for a frustrating start as the team fell into their old failings of Allegri’s time, where individual players would try to win the game on their own. But with eight minutes remaining, visiting defender Alvaro Gonzalez lost his concentration near the byline on the right of the area and slid into a poor challenge on Kakà when the ball was rolling out harmlessly for a goal-kick.
Balotelli stepped up to score the penalty, having missed his previous two, to make the Rossoneri camp all smiles once more. Overall the team worked hard to start their new era on the front foot, but The Professor has a lot of experimenting ahead to lift Milan back to their former heights.