The Price of Nostalgia

Milan’s transfer market began and ended in identical fashion—a position of need was identified then chased in a protracted case of the blue balls, as established first when re-signing Zlatan. Except a defender never arrived on deadline day, with the club having exhausted both options and avenues in going after the 7th and 8th names on their shortlist. The ceremonial ‘courtship’ for Zlatan’s signature, though a foregone conclusion, was dragged on by the player’s camp to coincide its announcement with the tenth anniversary of his first stint here. And it was too much of a refrain for this management to, as always, relinquish their leverage and do business on everybody’s terms but theirs.

How was the rest planned next? More of the same, it felt, over the following ten weeks and through six games played across 18 days. Instead of those games being a showcase for departing players (Krunic, Laxalt and Paqueta), they instead exposed our desperation. Due to injuries to three defenders, Milan would field the same pair (its best and second worst) anyhow. Devil may care, indeed.

The gamble paid off, except the €15M gained didn’t bear one reinforcement. Having secured Europa League football in a grueling overtime game in Portugal, Milan has a game every four days beginning in two weeks’ time through Christmas. Better that than one every three days. How was the new season planned? A better question is, how did it get to this, that Milan would hedge all bets pending qualifications via preliminary rounds? Simple. A new company line designed to curb expectations. One of expedience for the longer term over urgency. One of conservatism as opposed to proaction. Deals will occur if advantageous instead of necessary.

In all honesty, was any weakness rectified? One must consult the transactions made for the answer; a patchwork of moves with no incoming starters and just one of coach Pioli’s express requests (back-up center back and two center midfielders). The only highlight was ‘snatching’ Sandro Tonali from Inter, or so the narrative went, a player who agreed terms with city rivals during lockdown despite being a lifelong Milan fan. One must credit the shortsightedness across town, first, and Elliott for the uncharacteristic splurge.

And with more holes than in an orgy, a couple of dry loans were thrown in to, at best, help from the bench, while Tiemoue Bakayoko was penciled in all summer only to be allowed to join Napoli, a direct rival for 4th place, on a lower offer than ours. Nacho of Real Madrid was in the team’s grasps but that track suddenly turned cold while the right side of the field remains the weakest link—ironically enough—despite Suso being dumped to pluck oranges beyond an Andalusian highway.

This is but one of the main deficiencies in a squad that saw only minor improvement of its bench and no leap in quality in its starters. The theme being that of frugality when, last summer, a staggering €60M was spent to replace bench players on expiring contracts. Yes, players that left for free were replaced by two thirds of the 2019 budget. At least this summer’s net spend of €20M is consistent with the continued downsizing but you don’t go into a new season with zero new starters, knowing your line-up is incomplete.

Instead, Milan fans and management busted a couple of collective nuts, one prematurely and one belatedly, on their own stomachs despite what circle-jerk the media decided to spin anyway about keeping the Italian manager or landing the brightest Italian prospect. Make no mistake about it, a transfer market without a single upgrade in the starting lineup is a mockery of the work done by Pioli despite justifiable reservations about becoming the first idiots to give a career journeyman a war chest.

The old company line of half of sales being allocated to new recruits was just that, a mirage that came and went with the Rangnick fiasco. Indeed, there was no certainty of the German’s immediate—nor future—viability in ten weeks of off-season and a cramped calendar but the feeling is that Maldini is again being punished by Elliott for the Paqueta, Giampaolo and Boban blunders.

And the greater affront than the laughable figure of €30M allegedly put aside for transfers is not that it went partially unspent, or put away for the winter. It is that it was taken seriously in the first place. It is that no work was done earlier to bring players in on loan. It is that to save €15M, the team could have risked €15M. It is that by winter the packed half of the schedule is long past, with no need for reinforcements if all is hunky-dory. It is that Maldini continues to cosign this mediocrity without putting up a fight unless his seat is under threat. It is that lesser legends walked away, egos and wallets bruised, yes, but with dignities intact.

There is quite a bit at stake financially from having sent essentially the same line-up, minus Bonaventura. From the €25M in lost gate receipts, €30M in missing UCL prize money, €65M of unrealized windfall on Donnarumma’s true value (he could go for €35M while valued at €100M), the €10M plus commissions for Zlatan’s one year rental, and the €40M between fee and salary for his replacement next season, was €30M too much to spend? Better yet, of the 100+ players linked to the club, was no one available on loan? The fallout from a poorly handled market is then the true cost of nostalgia.

Yet, somehow, the team is undefeated in spite of tiring out at the 70th minute of each game, with Pioli visibly struggling to stem the tide with second half adjustments. The goals conceded so far were all in Europe, and to substandard competition, yet in every game, the reality is undeniable: once a goal up, Milan lets up and invites the pressure, needing the midfield to stay flawless if the attack can not deliver at the opposite end. And next game up is the Derby which could threaten to derail all the good work done by Pioli when, in the grand scheme, it is just three points with Inter being two points back of Milan.

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