Silvio Berlusconi’s tactical beliefs have not evolved a great deal over the last decade. As Milan prepared for their Champions League clash with Barcelona this week, the owner explained to Radio Rtl how he would contain Leo Messi. “I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this Messi guy,” Berlusconi quipped, “but he needs to be man-marked.”
It was exactly same approach he had prescribed for dealing with Zinedine Zidane 13 years ago. Or rather, the one he would have prescribed had he spoken a little sooner. Instead Berlusconi, then the leader of the opposition in the Italian parliament, waited until immediately after his nation’s golden goal defeat to France in the final of Euro 2000 before sticking the boot into its much-loved manager, and former World Cup-winning goalkeeper, Dino Zoff.
“We could and should have won,” said Berlusconi at the time. “The problem lies with the management of the team. You can’t leave Zidane, the main source of your opponents’ play, alone the whole time. Even a beginner would have spotted that.”
Zoff promptly resigned, telling reporters: “I don’t think I should have to take lessons in dignity from Mr Berlusconi.” The fall-out dragged on for weeks, Berlusconi defending his right to hold an opinion while critics chastised him for choosing to express it at a moment when the country was still in mourning. Italy’s defeat had been a deeply painful one, the team leading right up to the 94th minute before Sylvain Wiltord’s equaliser forced extra-time.
These days Berlusconi prefers to speak his mind before the event, though not everybody would consider that a good thing. The Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri has had the luxury of knowing exactly what his owner’s preferences are as he prepares for the first leg against Barcelona. But that has also obliged him to consider whether or not to implement them.
“I won’t tell the manager what formation to pick, I’ve never done that,” said Berlusconi this week, expanding on his Messi comments. “I know what the role of the president is and what the role of the manager is. I respect that distinction.”
The sting, as usual, was in the tail. “If a president doesn’t agree with the manager,” he continued, “then he simply fires him.”
Berlusconi, in other words, is not ordering Allegri to do as he says, but he certainly expects his opinions to be taken on board. That is nothing new. The tone of this relationship was set right at the outset of the manager’s tenure. “He is a teacher,” said Berlusconi shortly after the appointment was confirmed. “But I am a professor”.
The owner has many times ‘advised’ Allegri—often through the press—of his tactical preferences over the last three years, and only sometimes have those suggestions been implemented. Early in his tenure Allegri declined to continue using an out-of-shape Ronaldinho despite repeated encouragement to do so. Milan finished that campaign as champions. Independent thinking can be tolerated as long as it leads to success on the field.
Allegri’s relationship with Berlusconi has never been an altogether comfortable one. In past years the owner had often preferred to promote his managers from within as he did with Cesare Maldini, Fabio Capello and Leonardo, or failing that, appoint men with strong connections to the club. Allegri arrived as an outsider, one who had not played, coached or worked for the Rossoneri in any capacity before.
He had, indeed, only ever managed one team in the top-flight, enjoying two seasons of modest success at Cagliari. If Berlusconi hoped such inexperience might make the manager more malleable, he was wrong. Not only did Allegri stick to his tactical guns, he also declined the club’s initial offer of a contract extension in 2012, deeming €2m-per-year plus bonuses to be an insufficient salary.
That Berlusconi, and perhaps more importantly the team’s vice-president Adriano Galliani, respect Allegri’s work was clear from the fact the club eventually raised its offer to €2.5m, making him the joint-highest paid manager in the league. Yet in public the owner has rarely seemed enthusiastic. Earlier this month he was heard at a political rally telling a colleague that Allegri “doesn’t know shit”.
Attempts to laugh off such comments were less than convincing. Berlusconi claimed to have been simply playing a game with his colleague, where they were obliged to say that phrase about any person whose name came up in the conversation. “He mentioned Allegri’s name and so I repeated the phrase,” said Berlusconi. “Then like usual the papers [got hold of it].”
Such incidents, though, are easily forgotten when the team is performing as well as it has lately. Milan took just 15 points from their first 13 games this season, sliding so far down the table that even a Europa League berth had begun to seem a distant prospect. In the 12 games since they have collected 29 points, rising from 12th in the table all the way up to joint-third. The Juventus manager Antonio Conte expressed the belief this week that Milan could still challenge for the title.
That might be a bridge too far—Milan remain 11 points behind Juve, though the league leaders’ loss of form since the turn of the year has been noteworthy. What is truly encouraging for the Rossoneri is that they have achieved such a turnaround with their most youthful side in years.
The arrival of Mario Balotelli up front is already being heralded as a stroke of genius, after the striker racked up four goals in his first three games for the club. But more exciting still has been to see him start two of those games alongside Stephan El Shaarawy and M’Baye Niang—ages 20 and 18 respectively—up front.
Throw in the emergence of the 20-year-old Mattia De Sciglio at full-back, and it is easy to see why the club is feeling good about its future. Milan’s present squad list is the fourth-youngest they have entered to the Champions League since it was rebranded as such in 1992, with an average age of 27.76, and that is without the cup-tied Balotelli.
Whether such optimism will translate into success against Barcelona, though, remains to be seen. Balotelli’s absence is significant, while El Shaarawy only rejoined training on Monday after missing the weekend’s game against Parma due to tendinitis in his left knee. Even before suffering that injury, his form had dipped. After scoring 15 goals in the first four months of the campaign, El Shaarawy has just three in the last two months.
Milan’s greater concerns are at the other end of the field. A defence which has conceded 31 goals in 25 league games will have its hands full against Messi et al. An expected starting centre-back combination of Philippe Mexes plus Cristián Zapata is unlikely to fill fans with confidence.
It was perhaps that concern which prompted Berlusconi’s musings on the man-marking of Messi, but the practicality of such a plan is highly questionable. Which player in Milan’s starting XI would even be up to such a task? Assuming the player in question would need to be a midfielder, the most likely candidates are Mathieu Flamini and Antonio Nocerino. Given that neither player has a particular history of taking on such assignments, this would be a tall order indeed.
That was certainly the verdict of the former Milan midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, who told reporters that any player trying to man-mark Messi would “risk getting sent off within 10 minutes”. The Juventus manager Antonio Conte empathised. “To slow down Messi you don’t need man-marking,” he said. “You need a rifle.”
The greater risk in making Messi such a focus of the game plan would be that of overlooking the many other ways in which Barcelona can hurt you. Messi has rarely shown his best against Italian opposition in the past, scoring just three times in eight games and always from the penalty spot. That might be nothing more than an anomaly, but the fact he has lost just one of those fixtures is not. Barcelona cannot be stopped simply by slowing down No10.
Allegri will know all this, though that does not necessarily mean he can find a solution. One or two observers have even asked whether it is in the team’s best interests to do so. Milan have critical league games coming up against Inter and Lazio in the next two weeks, and there is an argument which says they would be better off sacrificing the Champions League in order to focus all energies on making sure they get back into the competition next year.
That is not a position which Berlusconi is likely to sympathise with. The owner has long emphasised the importance of Milan’s European heritage. Any suggestion of Allegri taking his eye off the ball for this most high-profile of fixtures would darken the owner’s mood far more swiftly than a mere disagreement over the merits of man-marking.