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In Defense of our Defense

For many Milan fans, first priority in the mercato in January is to reinforce our defense. Which is an obvious reaction to our poor record so far this season. But it might not be the most necessary place to reinforce. Is it possible, after all, that our defense has been hindered by factors beyond their control? Or that maybe our expectations are higher based on past performances? Personally, I am not sure that our defense is our weakest spot. And I think that if given the opportunity to show what they are truly capable of, we might have a much better back line than our stats show.

Yepes and De Sciglio react to being included in the starting lineup again

The first defense of our back line should be obvious. We were never going to replace two of the best center backs in the world. And anyone that we did try to replace them with would always look inferior. Not only were they individually talented, they played together for three years, they knew how to work together and knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They even knew how to cover for backup defenders like Bonera, in times of injuries or suspension. They had talent and time on their side. But they are now gone. Anyone trying to fill their shoes was going to look amateur, and even adding new talent would not solve that problem quickly, because talent without time is simply not enough.

Veterans Yepes Mexes, and Bonera had only ever been backups. Given their time to shine, they had time on their side, they had worked together, even if mostly in training. But still, they were never going to be at the level of Thiago Silva and Nesta. If they had, then they would have been starters. So Milan brought in the young Acerbi, whose experience had been mostly in Serie B. Again, he was never going to replace our former stars. And finally, they added Zapata. Zapata was more experienced but had been played more as a fullback during his time in La Liga, which was not his strongest position. Simply looking at our options on paper, there wasn’t anyone to step up and take the place of our star center backs.

While we all miss them, this is Budget Milan™. They won't be replaced

But even if we could have afforded some of the other world class center backs, they would still need time to play together. Even the best defenders in the world need that. Not just as a pairing, but also as an entire back line, complete with keeper. So imagine the delay in the development of our defense when Allegri changed one or more players in our back line for at least 15 matches straight. How could any backline find any kind of form when they were playing with strangers every match? If there had been any talent left, it was significantly hampered by Allegri not giving anyone a chance to work together and develop any kind of consistency. And that’s not to mention the 3 man backline trials, either. He was also inconsistent in his formations. Of the 26 goals we have conceded in the league this season, 15 of them came in our first 11 matches, several matches before Allegri began lining up more consistently. Even the best center backs in the world would struggle in these conditions.

And still, they have all managed to improve. Yepes, up until the Roma match, has been our most solid center back, which Allegri has finally recognized. Only, much like Mexes, he is prone to bad games here and there – really bad games sometimes. Even Bonera, who was only ever prone to the occasional good game, prior to his injury was also actually quite solid. Having put in some of his best performances ever against Barcelona last year, this year he increased his repertoire and showed that he was anxious to at least help fill the defensive void left this summer. Acerbi, while often accused as slow and flat-footed, has very quickly shown improvement and has potential that is worth waiting for. Zapata had a couple of questionable appearances, but has shown that with the right partner and understanding, his speed and tackling abilities are also most valuable. Do we have a world class defense? No. But we don’t have a world class team, either.

Acerbi is a good defender now, can be great if given time

Consider the midfield. While we’ve averaged 58% possessions in our matches, many goals conceded have been a direct result of individual error, many of them made in the midfield. I would venture to guess that we miss van Bommel as much or more as we do as our center backs. Ambrosini and De Jong have fantastic passing accuracy, and do okay with the tackling, but Ambrosini is oft injured and showing his age, while De Jong took time to settle in and then was injured for the season. The rest of our midfield are also still learning the 4-3-3, and also not benefiting from Allegri’s constant shuffling of lineups. Personally, I would look to the midfield first as the spot that needs reinforcements. And perhaps a lineup that suits them better, like the 4-2-3-1, which is our best and strongest lineup for the long run, in my humble opinion.

He defends, he's fast, he can pass and cross... BOSS.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all of the chaos, we managed to find our fullbacks, even if it was mostly by accident. De Sciglio has proven himself to be twice the player Abate is, and last year, we considered Abate to be a starter on a much better team. Constant has surprised everyone by being the left back of our dreams when we least expected it. His speed and power and passing abilities are quickly erasing all of those times Antonini and others featured in that position. While we are strong at right back with Abate to reinforce, we do still suffer on the left, with the same poor options should Constant not be available. But with Mesbah and Didac Vila rumored to leave, there is a possibility or reinforcing that position properly at some point.

The final piece of the equation is our keeper. Whatever drama has given Amelia the starting spot ahead of Abbiati, perhaps conceding four goals to Roma with the former in the nets, as well as a long hard look at the stat sheets over the break will help resolve this issue and Abbiati will regain the starting position. This is crucial, as Abbiati is by far our best keeper, despite injuries and the occasional “what was he thinking” goals. Having played a fraction of the matches. Amelia’s goal conceded rate  per minute played is more than twice that of Abbiati’s. And a consistent keeper will also improve the communication between the center backs and increase the effectiveness of the entire defense.

The key to a great defense is a great keeper. 

Let’s stop fooling ourselves, we no longer have the world class defense that Milan is renowned for. We cannot afford it, and will not be able to for a long time. But look at Juve. They have the best defensive record in the league. Yet none of their back three would make anyone’s top 10 defender list that I know of. They have even said it themselves. Yet anything they lack in talent they have in time – working together, playing together consistently, and having an exceptional midfield in front of them with world class players, as well as a world class keeper. Together, they are virtually unbeatable. While Abbiati and his injuries have always played second fiddle to Buffon, remember it was he who stepped in for Buffon at one point, and held his own. Therefore, I give you that we should look to improve the midfield first before we fret the defense. Give them time, they may just surprise us. The entire team will take some patience, as has been said by so many. But with consistency of playing together, our defense is not as bad as some think. Nor is our team. With the faith of everyone and the support of the fans, they just may surprise everyone. Even on defense.


This post inspired by the music of the Lord of the Rings Soundtracks