Italy has been a land of defenders. Ever since its inception, Calcio has produced some of the best tactical defenders ever to grace the Beautiful Game. It goes without saying every team in Italy primarily focuses on a sound defense and then from that foundation, builds the rest of the team. From Facchetti of La Grande Inter to Milan’s very own Paolo Maldini, defenders have ruled the roost for many years. Among the mentioned players, both have been fullbacks and more importantly, they have been left fullbacks.

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Maldini - The Legend

 

Maldini was a youth product from Milan and stayed at Milan throughout his entire career. But at that time, Milan youth structure was among the best ones around ai??i?? producing the likes of Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Demetrio Albertini et al. The back-to-back European Cup winning team of Ariggo Sacchi had Maldini and Baresi at the heart of their defense ai??i?? two of the best readers of the game to have come out from Italy.

Whereas Baresi was the captain, Maldini was the silent learner. It was the 12th of September 1978 when Maldini first came for a tryout at Milan and since then has never looked back. Fabio Capello was the Primavera coach at that time and the young Maldini had the perfect environment where he could grow both as a player and as a human being.

Under the leadership of Baresi and Costacurta, Maldini slowly and steadily developed into a fullback, marauding up and down the left flank, even scoring astonishing goals. But his main aim was not to score goals; it was to stop opposition players from scoring. From Hristo Stoichkov to Wayne Rooney, all superstars who have come up against il Capitano, will testify to the fact that no one can pass Maldini even on his worst day.

Such was the aura and invincibility of Maldini that he owned the left-back position for almost two decades. Both in attack and defense, Maldini was omnipotent. Later in his career, he moved to center back position, which prolonged his career and allowed him to play as many as 29 years in the topmost tier of Italian football.

When Maldini finally hung up his boots in 2009, the most obvious question arose as to who his successor will be. Names have come and gone and till date, even after 3 years, there has not been a single player who can fill in those huge shoes left empty by the departure of the legend. Taking a look at his replacements, there are only a handful of players ai??i?? Antonini, Zambrotta and more recently, Taiwo.

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Antonini - not setting the bar high enough!

 

Among these three, Antonini is a Milan youth product but has failed to blossom in the senior team. Zambrotta, a World Cup winner came from Barcelona in the year 2008. Initially he was used as a right back, with Antonini, who had just come in, at left back position. However, the emergence of Abate changed the entire landscape. Abate soon consolidated the right back position as his own and Zambrotta was forced to move to left back or he was shuffled as a cover for either of the center backs or Abate.

Among them, Zambrotta was now seen as more of a utility player, who can be slotted almost anywhere. Antonini has had more chances to consolidate the left back position as his own but down the years, has failed to do so. Antoniniai??i??s best qualities are his speed and stamina, that allow him to play both as a winger and as a full back. But then, if a player is playing as a full back, he needs to both defend and attack with equal zeal. Sadly in case of Antonini, the defending part is missing. He can be thought of as an attacking winger who sometimes does some defensive work. For a long time, Milan have played four at the back with two wingbacks on either side.

The center backs usually spread out and hold their positions whereas the wingbacks move up, creating more of a 5-man midfield. Antonini played that role to perfection, but only when Milan was attacking. In defense he was made to look pedestrian even by Primavera players. Looking beyond Antonini, Zambrotta can be thought of as a temporary solution, but sadly age has caught up with the Italian great. Apart from one or two good performances throughout the season, Zambrotta has played more as a defender than as a fullback.

That brings us to the January transfer window from last year, when Urby Emanuelson came in. Mainly touted as an attacking player capable of playing anywhere on the left side of the pitch, Emanuelson was rarely used by Allegri last season. Apart from a couple of cameo appearances, no one caught a glimpse of his talent. A school of thought suggested playing Emanuelson as a left back to solve the problem plaguing Milan since 2009.

But then, that will mean sacrificing a midfield player to play as a fullback in the absence of a regular fullback. It can be a temporary solution, but by no stretch of imagination, a permanent one.

Along came the latest addition to Milan fullback ai??i?? Taiwo. Already a hit at Marseille, where he was deployed as a left back, Taiwo had a booming shot, superb long distance shooting abilities and is pretty good at dead balls too. Sadly, Milan fans have not seen even a single one of the aforementioned skills till now.

The best thing about the Taiwo deal was that he came for free. But then, he has been used much less due to Allegriai??i??s insistence to play either of Antonini or Zambrotta. It will be incorrect to say that Taiwo will be a flop at Milan, because given a certain number of games to play; he is bound to return to the form, which was on display during his time at Marseille. Playing him only 4 times in the entire first half of the season, Allegri has sent out mixed signals so far.

That brings us to the current transfer window and the imminent rumors of the arrival of Djamel Mesbah from Lecce. Mesbah usually plays as a left midfielder and sometimes also as a wingback. Adding another player akin to Emanuelson is questionable for two reasons. One, how many chances will he get to showcase his talent, knowing Allegriai??i??s reluctance to blood anyone under 30 and two, why is Milan going after a player who can only be looked upon as a makeshift defender-cum-midfielder. If the top brass in Milan is thinking that Mesbah will solve their problems at left back, then they could not be more wrong. The arrival of Mesbah will not only create confusion regarding the left-back position, but also grow more seeds of doubt in the mind of Taiwo, who clearly has his mind set at a long-term with the Rossoneri.

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Christian Maldini - continuing the great lineage from Cesar

 

From Maldini to Taiwo, we have come a long way, but no one so far has been able to stand out like the legend. Maldiniai??i??s claim as one of the all-time greats cannot be denied, and with Christian Maldini coming up the Milan Primavera ranks, one is only hoping with crossed fingers for the day when he will emerge from San Siro locker room wearing the coveted number 3 jersey.

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17 Responses to “AC Milan’s Corner : From Maldini To Taiwo – The Decline In The Left Back Position”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. redNblack_blood says:

    Paolo <3
    :)

  2. Thanks for your hard work.

    Maldini is one of the historical legends of football. He’s just on another level compared to anyone. Thus, I wont compare him to any of the current left backs. But, I’d rather comment on the current situation.

    I can not agree about Mesbah’s move conflicting things at Milan. With the current injury crises in Milan’s midfield, we’ll most probably see Mesbah playing in left midfield of Milan for the next 4 weeks. We must stay focused that Allegri has only chose starting Zambrotta & Antonini before Taiwo for his bad performances, not because he’s stubborn (Allegri I mean).

    Although I still have some faith that Taiwo might turn this around in the remaining of the season, but cashing in for him (probably around 4m) is not a bad move at all.

    Keep in mind that Milan has a great promising talent waiting to come back in Summer, Didac Vila.

    In my humble opinion, & after a few matches, Mesbah will get the starting node for the left back with his hard work, dedication & Serie A (& B) experience. After saying so, I think keeping both (Taiwo & Mesbah) is the best solution, to let go of the retiring Zambrotta & bad performing Antonini.

    • Amlan Chaudhury says:

      Yes, but then Mesbah will end up playing in Midfield and not as Left Back. There were talks of putting Antonini on sale, but that never materialized eventually. Zambrotta is in the twilight zone of his career and he is likely to see out the rest of his career in Milan itself.

      But yes, waiting for more appearances from Taiwo.

  3. jake says:

    unfortunately this club is short sighted as much of the rest of the league is, there isn’t the patience and willingness to allow a fullback to fill in defence because of the pressure heaved upon him when he would make a mistake. This something you would see riddled across the entire milan defence and team we preferred oddo to montelongo we preferred bonera to sokrates we preferred zambrotta to mattioni we preferred seedorf to gourcuff and inzaghi to gilardino. It is just the way of the club and unfortunately many of posters on the milan forums the obsession stars names has clouded the judgement of the club and the only players which seem to get a chance are south american. It is as much of the way of serie a as firing coaches a couple months into their contract hence why the youth academy only produces striker i.e. matri miccoli borriello paloschi in comparison to great defensive players like albertini maldini baresi billy costa and reasonable players in coco oddo panucci.

    BTW I think you are missing out the likes of jankulovski kaladze coco helveg from that list if we are to mention the conversation and progression of left backs at ac milan.

    • Amlan Chaudhury says:

      Players will make mistakes but then what makes one different from the other is their ability to come back. All the mentioned players have got preferential decisions going for them. Worst was Gourcuff staying back and not returning to Milanello.

  4. Debbie says:

    To try to compare present-day backs to the great Maldini is to compare apples to oranges. Until the coaching staff realizes what it takes to “build” a great player from the start the way Maldini was built, they will fail. Trying to take another club’s protege or another country’s star will only result in more of the same. If you want to have a dedicated Captain who can lead his team by example, you have to teach it from the beginning, as they are now doing with Christian, Maldini’s son. Let us hope that the greatness of skill, leadership, and love of the game will ever be present as long as there is a Maldini son on the field at Milan! FORZA MILAN!

    • Amlan Chaudhury says:

      Yes Debbie, i could not agree more with your comment – “Let us hope that the greatness of skill, leadership, and love of the game will ever be present as long as there is a Maldini son on the field at Milan” :)

  5. ROMAN says:

    JANKULOVSKI WAS THE BEST LEFT BACK SINCE THE AMAZING CAPITANO BECAME A CENTRAL DEFENDER.

    • Amlan Chaudhury says:

      Yes, Marek was an amazing defender to say the least. The pairing of Capitano and Marek in the 2007 UCL Final was amazing. But then, he did not consolidate his position.

  6. Mark says:

    Great article! Unfortunately as jake also said we supporters at Milan are historically “spoiled”. We are used to Berlusconi spending billions and billions to buy all the best possible there is at the moment, so we’re not very keen and we don’t have the patience to wait for youngsters to become full fledged players and/or stars.

    Problem is this kept us at the top (or near) of the world until 5-6 years ago, when other big millionaires started to think that if he did that, they of course could too (see all the new club acquisitions, starting from Chelsea, to Man City, to PSG etc.etc.). This combined with the fact Berlusconi had some financial problems as well and can’t spend 100 millions on the Ronaldos or Messis as he used to do 10 years ago, would be a good signal to start stopping the “we want to win all, and we wan’t to win NOW buying al lthe best” mentality and start implementing a Barca style “let’s build from youths and keep producing internal solutions with just SOME external aimed acquisitions”. I reckon this change will not be an easy one though and i don’t even know if it’ll get even in motion in a near future.

    Considering where we were a couple of years ago though, i think we’re starting to rebuild finally a team that can at least challenge again for the UCL (also seeing the 2 wonderful games we had with barca, where we played nearly on par even if we drawed and lost), wich is where we belong, since a 7 time holder and second best all times team has the historical and prestige obligation to at least keep challenging for it if you don’t want your “spoiled” fanbase to start rumoring. And surely, finding finally a proper left fullback would be another much needed small piece to reach the big eared cup once again.

    • Amlan Chaudhury says:

      Exactly, we need to focus more on the Primavera side. There has been some amazing youth players coming up. But sadly they are played more and more in Serie B or are loaned to some feeder clubs to “gain experience”. Milan has been reluctant to blood youngsters and that is not a good sign at all.

      If Milan truly wants to build a team with an Italian heart, they need to induct the superbly talented youngsters in the senior team rather than loaning them out.

  7. legendary says:

    ARE YOU CRAZY ?? WAIT A MINUTE. DID YOU FORGET SERGINHO ?

  8. Sudi says:

    Where did Jankulovsky go? And why was Oddo sold anyway? If you saw the Milan Derby last weekend, you will surely agree with me that Abate’s silly mistakes will cause great harm to the team!

    • Amlan Chaudhury says:

      Abate has been brilliant so far apart from one or two slip ups. Yes, he has his own failings, but he is still in the “growing phase”. Mark my words, 2-3 years down the line, there will not a better right back in Italy.

  9. Sudi says:

    Where did Jankulovsky go? And why was Oddo sold anyway? If you saw the Milan Derby last weekend, you will surely agree with me that Abate’s silly mistakes will cause great harm to the team!
    The other worrying thing is that Milan is reluctant in terms of spending on players, they tend to go for free transfer players soo much and yet they sell quality players.