The January transfer window found AC Milan top of Serie A, well above the target set by the board for the 2020-21 season. Having only lost just the last two games prior to the New Year, the Club had also qualified out of their Europa League group with SK Brann, Zenit St. Petersburg and GNK Dinamo. Two draws against an indomitable SK Brann, an away draw and home win against GNK Dinamo and two victories against Zenit were enough to see the team progress after having already beaten Icelandic side Knattspyrnufélagið Valur, Dimamo Brest of Belarus and Glasgow Rangers in the qualifiers.
There were no immediate plans to act in order to improve the first team, with the squad playing well in a wide 4-1-2-2-1/4-3-3. Nevertheless, the scouting team had been busy identifying potential targets for the Summer window and looking to find players for the Primavera side to boost the quality of the U19s on a more immediate time frame.
Signings in the off-season transfer window have been receiving minutes, with new-boy Sandro Tonali alternating with the excellent Bennacer as a single pivot in the deep-lying play-maker role. Rodrigo de Paul was rotating in and out of the team with Ante Rebic in the IF – A role on the left of the front three, with Piatek (CF – A) and one of Suso or Buendia, the last of the new signings, playing down the right-hand side (IW – S).
When reading below what transpired during the January transfer window, it’s worth remembering that AC Milan’s standing within Europe is well below what the club should be aspiring to – ranked the 80th club in European coefficients. This, combined with the Serie A success of this season, led to a number of players being wanted by bigger clubs in Europe. The level of change that has taken place has clearly been significant over the last fifteen or so years, a negative change from the viewpoint of the Rossonerri fans. All the first team players that were traded on were looking to move on to their new clubs rather than stay and play at the San Siro. It is hoped that, over time, AC Milan can raise its standing again such that players value playing for this Club and do not see it as a stepping stone onto the next stage of their careers.
The first significant sale, not counting that of Pepe Reina going to Leganés, was that of Ismaël Bennacer. Wanted by a number of clubs after an impressive start to the season, it was the Premier League’s Liverpool which entered into negotiations with the power brokers at Casa Milan. An initial offer was negotiated up to £50m, with two instalments as part of the deal. From the point of view of the Club directors, having signed the player from Empoli for only £14.25m, this represented a good deal, despite the fact that he was one of, if not the, most promising prospects in the AC side. Yet, his desire to play Champions League football, which he so clearly deserved, could not be denied and so it was agreed to let him leave, with Liverpool almost doubling his wages.
It was not considered necessary to replace Bennacer, with Tonali able to stand up to first team football on a more regularly to aid his development and Kessié able to fill into the defensive midfielder slot if required. More minutes could also be given to Bonnaventura, if necessary, as the elder statesman in the Milan creativity department had been seeing less action after the arrival of the young pretender, Tonali.
Ricardo Rodriguez had been playing second fiddle to Theo Hernández in the first half of the 2021-22 season. Understandably, he was therefore keen to move to China’s DL Yifang and receive an incredible 197% increase in gross salary. A fee of £28m, with potential for it to rise to £33.5m, for a back-up 28 year-old left back was seen as a good deal, even if it did leave the side temporarily light in the left wing back position.
Joining Rodriguez on the plane to Dalian was Rade Krunic. Krunic had only managed five starts with six appearances off the bench. Despite his four goals and two assists, he was not able to break past Kessié in the box-to-box role. Considered back-up, the club were happy to receive £10.75m for a player who was also taking up a non-EU player slot. Krunic was also delighted to receive a near doubling of his wages.
After the sale of Krunic and, more importantly, Bennacer, the scouts put forward the idea of signing Bruno Guimarães from Brazilian club, Athletico Paranaense. The player was reportedly unsettled and wanting to leave to join a bigger club. Well-liked by the scouting department, Director Franco Baresi was sent to Curitiba to negotiate a deal for the central midfielder who had provided twelve assists and four goals in the Brasileirão. A £17m deal was seen as an incredible bargain for such a well-rounded player, who is able to play across all three of the roles within the central midfield positions in the Rossoneri side. Paquetá was tasked with welcoming his compatriot to the Club and helping settle into life at Milan, with the two looking forward to playing together.
In trying to find a replacement for Rodriguez to act as back up to Theo Hernández, the scouts hit upon Marc Cucurella from Barcelona. The left wing back found himself out of favour at the Nou Camp behind Jordi Alba and Lenglet, and so was available for an incredibly low initial price of £2.6m, rising to £3.4m. With Baresi on the flight back from Brazil with Guimarães, Frederic Massara, the Club’s Director of Football had been tasked to negotiate and structure the deal with both club and the player’s agent. Whilst no data was available on the player due to his lack of playing time, it is hoped that La Masia graduate would join the list of Olmo, Onana and Icardi (among others) to go onto prosperous careers beyond their brief time at the Spanish giants having never made a senior team appearance. Suso was happy to welcome his fellow countryman to the Club and would be training directly up against him in full squad games.
Having already completed more deals than anticipated in the January window, the Club’s directors had hoped not to have any more incoming bids to avoid unsettling the team any further. Unfortunately, bids were still coming in for their players, despite their public protestations. The Real Madrid had identified Franck Kessié’s seven goals in sixteen appearances and a further three goals in eleven starts in the Europa League as a good way to reduce the age of their midfield, whilst not forgoing quality. With Modric having already moved onto Milan’s Serie A rivals, Juventus, Kessié could offer an alternative to Kroos, Ceballos and Valverde. Kessié had only joined the club at the start of the prior season for £16.25m, but was extremely keen to join La Liga giants and Champions League regulars – the deal was therefore negotiate upwards to £70m, which Real Madrid had no hesitation in agreeing to – perhaps this deal was priced too low by AC?
With time running short in the transfer window, a replacement had to be found quickly. The scouting team had already identified Nicolás Domínguez sitting in Bologna’s team unable to be registered for I Rossoblù, having just returned from a loan at Velez. With Bologna having already utilised all their non-EU player slots, the player was set for six months of no football without a further loan. AC Milan had no intention to loan the player and, fortunately for I Rossoneri, the Serie A player rules are somewhat perverse. AC Milan were able to pick up the Argentine central midfielder with no registration difficulties as non-EU players transferring within Serie A do not count towards the limit. A £33m deal was struck – quite the mark-up for a player that never played for Bologna, but there was little doubt of the quality of player that had been brought in, if his attributes were to be believed. The deep-lying play-maker offered the perfect rotation option to Tonali, with his strong first touch, vision, passing and player trait of plays killer balls often. The board had some concern that this gave the squad an imbalance towards central midfield, but for the manager there was little concern about the spread of minutes. With Tonali, Domínguez, Guimarães, Paquetá and the experienced Bonaventura, these five players were able to rotate across the Serie A and Europa League fixtures without too much issue over player fatigue and danger of upsetting squad harmony.
On deadline day itself, the Club received a further bid from Man City for the first-choice left back, Theo Hernández. Hernández was understandably keen to move to the Premier League and a considerably higher ranked club, and whilst his fee of £30m looks cheap, the club felt there was little they could do but accept a locked in offer as Hernández was threatening to upset squad morale if he was not given the chance to negotiate his side of the deal. Having made fifteen starts and contributed three assists, his input would be hard to match, especially given that he fit the profile of player that new-look AC Milan were looking to build around being a high quality player aged 23 years.
In response, the Club had to act quickly to find a replacement. The scouting network had once again already identified Maximilian Wöber playing at RB Salzburg in the Champions League and Austria tipico-Bundesliga as a transfer target for the Club.
With a high recommended rating from the scouts, the player fits the Club vision of signing under-23 year old players for the first team. Cucurella will be thrust into becoming first choice left back, with Wöber given time to adjust to the requirements of the AC Milan system and the prospect of playing at left wing back rather than as a left-sided centre back. It is considered unlikely that Romagnoli will be vacating this latter role in the side soon, given his captaincy of the team.
Further deals were completed in the January transfer window for youth prospects, Bulgarian Stanislav Shopov (£3.4m) and Leonidas Stergiou (£5.75m). Both will be kept in the U23 team to learn Italian and adjust to the AC Milan playing style, acting as back up for the first team, with a view to loaning both players out to gain first team experience to aid their player development next season. The Club are particularly excited about the potential of wonderkid prospect, Stergiou as he appears to have the solid foundations and higher ceiling of the two. At 18, he already appears to be adept in the basic fundamentals of defending and is comfortable with the ball at his feet.
In what was a far busier transfer window than expected, and indeed hoped for, the AC Milan hierarchy hope that the new players can bed themselves in quickly to their new environment and the rigour of Europa League and Serie A football to continue their good form in both. An update on the full 2020-21 season will be the focus of the next post.
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