Not many people would relish a phone call from their boss at midnight. When Massimiliano Allegri’s handset buzzed at around that time on Sunday he had cause to be concerned. Earlier that day his Milan team had been comprehensively beaten at home by Fiorentina; he will have been well aware that the club’s typically talkative vice-president Adriano Galliani had declined to speak to the press after the game.
Galliani, as Allegri will doubtless have also known, was due to meet with Silvio Berlusconi later that evening following the Milan owner’s return from a vacation in Kenya. No magnifying glass was required to read between these lines. Galliani had defended the manager in the wake of defeats several times already this season, but after this latest setback plainly did not feel comfortable doing so until he had spoken with his employer.
Allegri, then, could have been excused for fearing the worst when the number of a Berlusconi residence flashed up on his caller-ID. Anti-social hours are an occupational hazard for football managers and administrators, but clearly this was a discussion that could not wait until morning. He was requested to come over immediately for a face-to-face conversation about his future.
Much to Allegri’s relief, that future still involves him as the club’s manager. In fact, Berlusconi wanted to not only re-affirm his support, but also discuss potential January signings. With Robinho expected to be sold to Santos during the winter window, funds may be available for a new forward and defender.
If such long-view conversations would suggest that the manager’s position is stable, then the reality is that it remains highly precarious. “We are certainly not happy,” Galliani told reporters as he recounted the meeting on Monday. “We assessed everything and by changing manager we would not have any certainty that things would be different. And Allegri has done well in the previous two years, which also informs the decision.”
Whilst Allegri’s 2011 Scudetto is undoubtedly part of the overall picture, it was the first part of that comment which was more revealing. After six defeats in the opening 12 games of the Serie A season, Galliani and Berlusconi share the commonly held perception that their manager is under-performing. The problem they have is there is no ready alternative who is more appealing.
Milan have been linked with Pep Guardiola, with various outlets reporting that Galliani—despite his protestations to the contrary on the club website—had held private meetings with the former Barcelona manager’s brother Pere. But regardless of whether those claims had any truth to them, the fact remains that Guardiola is still in the middle of his planned season-long sabbatical and won’t be available until the summer.
Likewise, when Galliani hinted at another potential target last week, praising the Fiorentina manager Vincenzo Montella for playing “the kind of football that our president likes” before Sunday’s game, there was no suggestion of an instant approach. The Viola would not easily give up a man who they only appointed this summer, and who has already transformed their team’s fortunes to such an extent that they are being considered dark horses for a Champions League berth.
Instead, Milan’s short-term options are relatively few. In the market for a cheap, readily available interim appointment, their most likely choices would be either Allegri’s assistant Mauro Tassotti or the out-of-work Delio Rossi. The former has been a great servant to the club, but having worked so closely with Allegri could hardly be expected to provide a drastic change of tack. Rossi has been out of work since punching his own player, Adem Ljajic, in the dug-out while in charge of Fiorentina last year.
Many supporters might still prefer one of those two to the incumbent, but all should be clear that these are the alternatives. Pippo Inzaghi, a popular choice, is still considered too inexperienced, having only begun coaching this year.
Nevertheless, Allegri is entering into a critical period. The club’s next four games are away to Napoli, away to Anderlecht, at home to Juventus and away to Catania. All three domestic fixtures look daunting, with the credentials of the Partenopei and Bianconeri well established, and the Sicilian side imposing on their own turf. In their most recent home game, Catania beat Lazio 4-0.
But the fixture against Anderlecht might be the most critical, with the club relying on the additional income that qualifying from the Champions League group stage would bring. A desire to give their team with the best chance of progress in that competition is understood to have been at the heart of Galliani’s conversation with Berlusconi on Sunday before the call to Allegri was eventually made.
Rather than change manager in pursuit of the short-term lift such moves can sometimes bring, Berlusconi instead resolved that he himself would drop in on training to rouse the troops. Galliani confirmed on Monday that the owner was planning to visit Milanello on Friday.
Whether or not such visits actually help the team is another question, of course. Kevin-Prince Boateng recently rated Berlusconi’s pep talks as an “11 out of 10” in an interview with Sportweek magazine, but then what else could he be expected to say about his employer in a national magazine? Berlusconi’s most recent visit came on 1 October 2011, as the team was preparing itself for an important early season away game against Juventus. The Rossoneri lost, 2-0.
Berlusconi will also be dropping by so that he can see for himself whether the players are still responding to their manager. In an explosive half-time rant heard loud and clear by all those standing in the tunnel near the Milan dressing room at San Siro on Sunday, Allegri is reported by Gazzetta dello Sport to have told his team: “If you wanted to show that you are against me, you have succeeded”.
The Rossoneri, 2-0 down at that stage, offered some response in the second-half, scoring once and coming back into the game before a combination of ineffective substitutions—Robinho had no impact after replacing Massimo Ambrosini—and bad luck—Daniele Bonera left the game injured after all three changes had been made—allowed Fiorentina to wrest back control and add a third.
Allegri is not the only one who believes he has been let down by some players, with the goalkeeper Christian Abbiati incandescent after Sunday’s game. “You don’t wear the Milan shirt just to go out on the pitch,” he said. “Here you need to win. It’s easy to understand the fans right now if they prefer to stay at home sat on the couch rather than coming to watch us at the stadium.”
The manager has had some misfortune with injuries, too, his defence now shorn not only of Bonera but also Ignazio Abate, Luca Antonini and Djamel Mesbah (OK, that last one might be a blessing). But he has not helped himself either, a constant re-shuffling of his formation and relentless tinkering with the starting XI creating the impression that he has lost control of the situation.
For a manager who defined himself in the early days of his tenure by standing up to Berlusconi’s demands for a three-man attack and sticking with the 4-3-1-2 that eventually brought him a title, it is a sorry place to be. So is 13th place in the table, and a gap of just five points to the relegation zone, compared with 12 to the Champions League places.
The reality is that Allegri still has his job mostly because of a perceived lack of alternatives. But further defeats in the next fortnight could shift those perceptions yet.