The Chinese calendar marks 2011 as the year of the rabbit. In the Milan Calcio parlance, that would veer towards the three excellent prospects, Alexander Merkel, Rodney Strasser & Giacomo Beretta, who made their debut for the senior side after consistent performances in the Primavera side. All three have already played for their countries at different age levels with Strasser, already a full international. All three were also part of the Milan Primavera team that had won the Coppa Italia Primavera in 2010. It was a marked change in fortunes for the Milan youth team who had won their previous title in 1984-85 when Paolo Maldini was still part of the Primavera team!
This turnaround in fortunes and the graduation of 3 starlets into the senior team bears testimony to the fact that Milan’s youth system has been doing it right. However in the midst of this came the news in 10th June, that Milan had fired the manager of the Primavera team – Giovanni Stroppa. A few days back, there was a bigger change in the Primavera setup when the Director of Sport of Milan Primavera, Mauro Pederzoli was recruited by newly promoted Novara (at that point still in the Serie B play offs), to be their new DS. It seems that youth football in Milan and indeed in whole of Italy is at a crossroad.
The Milan “System”
The great Milan sides of Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello were built on a superb base of players who came up from the Milan academy and became club legends – names like Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Demetrio Albertini to name a few. But somewhere around after the millennium, this production declined markedly. Some of the better names to come out since the millennium from the Milan academy are Marco Borriello, Alessandro Matri, Luca Antonini, Luca Antonelli, Ignazio Abate – all good players but short of being a Milan or Azzurri starter on a regular basis. Abate should go on to carve a definite future but it’s quite a meager success ratio. The fallout of this effect has been that Milan has tended to buy expensive young starlets (Pato, Gilardino or El Shaarawy) or old warhorses on the cheap (from Emerson to van Bommel). This has resulted in increasing the average age of the team or put huge pressure on young shoulders to justify their price tags, which many have failed.
With President Silvio Berlusconi funding the moves, Milan had bought well to remain successful under Carlo Ancellotti. However, with the unfavorable tax rates, and lack of transfer funds owing to Berlusconi being the Italian premier pushed Milan’s ability to attract top stars well behind the clubs from Spain and England and influenced a serious look into the system. Back in 2008, Galliani started speaking about the need to replenish the youth setup. For years, the Milan Primavera was an appointment made to a former Milan player who would not have much of a coaching background.
The last five Primavera managers have been Mauro Tassotti (1997-2002), Baresi (2002-2006), Filippo Galli ( 2006-2008), Alberigo Evani (2008-2009) and Giovanni Stroppa (2009-2011). The common thread binding all of them were that they were part of Arrigo Sacchi’s all conquering Milan side. Of them Tassotti may be a very respected and renowned assistant manager but none of them actually had a stint as a manager anywhere. The efforts of having players come through the academy didn’t bear much fruit under them and hence when Galliani thought about restructuring the youth structure, he sought to change this aspect of player development.
Catch ‘em Young
Once it was seen that the players who were coming through the various age level teams and onto the final Primavera, were not of sufficient quality, emphasis was given on actually scouting them young and buying 17-18 year olds who were thought to be promising. For this purpose, Galliani recruited Mauro Pederzoli, once the right hand man of Rafa Benitez, as the DS of the Milan Primavera in 2009. Since being entrusted with the job, Pederzoli has gone ahead with clever signings like Gianmarco Zigoni from Treviso, Giacomo Beretta from Albinoleffe, Michaelangelo Albertazzi from Bologna, Simone Calvano from Atalanta, Marco Ezio Fossati from Inter (whom he had joined from Milan at 15 years). These signings were preceded by acquisition of Alexander Merkel from VFB Stuttgart and Rodney Strasser from a Sierra Leonean club. Add in a couple of academy grown talents like Simone Verdi and Alberto Paloschi and suddenly we see a whole new generation of 18-21 year olds who are ready to challenge the first team members from the Primavera.
With the rising cost of young talents once they have exploded (Stephen el Shaarawy according to some reports would cost Milan 26m€), the scouting of youth is one of the most important aspects for clubs to sustain a steady inflow of talents. On the flip side, getting them young also would mean a few duds where the player would not be able to reach the potential. Dominic Adiyiah, Tabare Viudez and Mathias Cardacio would spring to mind. However the advantage of buying them unproven and young, based on promise alone, means the loss on the transaction would be less too and more often than not, these players would move on to another club for a net profit.
Initiation into the senior squad
The biggest problem that Milan and most of Italy’s clubs have is that the club’s trust on youth is far less than in other big leagues. Most of the youngsters would have a good season in the Primavera, then have a few first team appearances and then get moved on to a feeder club in Serie B or even lower down, and then maybe return after 2-3 years and then asked to fight for his place. Indeed this is one of the reasons why there is a widespread clamor for the lack of good young players coming up for the Azzurri.
Demetrio Albertini, a Milan Primavera graduate and now the Italian football federation vice president, is mulling several steps to counter this including: lowering the age of Primavera to 19, asking the Italy U21 team to be part of Serie B, having a reserve league for Serie A clubs. Each has its merits but till the clubs themselves are not confident enough to blood the youngsters from their youth setup and pursue with them instead of buying from outside, the state of youth football in Italy won’t improve.
Milan especially has been majorly guilty in this aspect. The biggest slap in the face came when Yoann Gourcuff who had joined the club as a 20 year old, chose to stay back at Bordeaux instead of returning to a Milan team with whom he had won a European Cup. The careers of Marco Borriello, Alessandro Matri, Luca Antonelli, Nicola Pozzi, Lino Marzorati have shined brighter when away from the Via Turati. We may never have had the greatest left back in Milan history, if he was sent out to farm for 3-4 years in some obscure Serie B club when he was 16. Around 2008, Milan realized this and has since then recalled Borriello, Antonini and Abate. Of them at least Abate has shown he can be a real Milan material with some faith and proper guidance.
The Portents of Future
The sacking of Stroppa signalled that Galliani and Allegri (who both watched the Primavera quarter finals) were not happy with the quality of growth of the existing batch. Their talent and promise notwithstanding, it was felt that there was a lack in the guidance. For this reason, Aldo Docetti was appointed in January 2011 as a special advisor to the Youth from the nurseries to the Primavera. Appointing him, a former Juventino with no connection to Milan as a player, as the successor to Stroppa marks a turning point in how Milan thinks its youth squad should perform. The last such Primavera manager who didnt have a Milan background was Maurizio Viscidi way back in 93-94 who had started his coaching career at 24 itself.
The idea mooted on the sacking was Milan wants its youth team to be a mirror image of the Senior team in terms of tactics a la Barcelona or Ajax. However those Barcelona and Ajax teams actually blooded more academy graduates than Milan has done yet. The sudden buying of 18 year old el Shaarawy for 19 year old Alexander Merkel and forfeiting the remaining half of the only academy graduate who is current member of Azzurri – Davide Astori for a meagre 4.5m€ showed some perceptions will take longer to change. While sometime away from the club and regular action would benefit a player like Strasser, learning directly from the masters, Inzaghi for Paloschi and Nesta for Astori, would have been hugely beneficial.
The new DS of Milan Primavera is Riccardo Pecini, once the chief scout of Sampdoria and Milan expect him to unearth more gems for the future like Pederzoli did. Along with Dolcetti, one hopes they would make the Primavera a steady supply chain for the senior team. The club management too would have some rethink on how they view youth and the likes of Verdi (now even more marginalised with El Shaarawy’s arrival) and Fossati and Calvano gets their chances in the senior team at the right time.
Milan fans worldwide should rejoice that Milan won the Campionato Allievi Nazionali in June 2011 (for a better understanding of the youth structure in Italy) from which Kingsley Boateng is a promising name. Even further down, the Pulcini 2001 have won the ‘Campioni a San Siro’ trophy, a charity tournament in its second year. One of the goal scorers in the match Milan beat Juventus 2-0 is a certain Maldini.
– Debopam Roy
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