The January transfer window closed on Tuesday night with AC Milan having done no notable business for the second straight year.
In the end 24-year-old goalkeeper Devis Vasquez was the only player to arrive, signing from Club Guarani in the Paraguayan league to be either the eventual second, current third or possibly even fourth choice behind Mike Maignan, we’re not really sure yet.
Sometimes it is important to revisit previous statements made by people that are attached to the club, particularly when they pertain to offering a clear vision for Milan moving forward, and especially when they come from someone like the technical director Paolo Maldini.
He gave an interview to La Gazzetta dello Sport back in May to discuss his emotions after seeing the Rossoneri hoist the Scudetto for the 19th time, and for the first time we really saw Maldini on the front foot trying to fight his corner.
“Our deals are about to expire and we have not renewed. I must say that for our path and for what has happened in the past even during the period of crisis with Rangnick, I find it disrespectful that to date the CEO and Elliott have not even sat down to talk to us,” he said.
“I’m just saying to talk. Because they might also tell us ‘your work was not good enough to continue’. Or it may be that I say ‘I don’t like your strategy’. As I said at the time, I like to be a sort of guarantee for the AC Milan fans.
“I’m not the right person to do a project that doesn’t have a winning idea. I could never do that. The reality is that the owners have never sat down at the table and this is not good.”
Picking apart the first few comments from the interview, it was clear that Maldini wanted to send a message to those higher up that he felt he deserved clarity over his own future, also acknowledging that while ever he is in some kind of operational role at Milan supporters should rest easy knowing the project is a good one.
Then, he went on to talk about the decision not to sign a new centre-back in the 2022 January window after injuries decimated that department, with Marko Lazetic being the only signing in the end.
“I would like to add that the enthusiasm we registered in the fans was also due to the game that the team showed and the courage we showed. Even in the market choices. This winter we had Kjaer out with an injury and Tomori injured his meniscus,” Maldini said.
“There was no budget. We could have loaned a player to plug the hole. Instead we trusted our young people. Because we know they can guarantee us a lot.”
The next passage seemed to be aimed at reminding everyone – especially those in the leadership – that he has been able to construct a talented young squad with a lower net spend.
“The 21 players that under my direct management we have signed outright have resulted in a net expenditure of 75 million between signings and sales. When I decided to stay after Leonardo’s farewell, I had a higher budget in mind.
“Then the idea of doing things, but of doing them not necessarily but because you are convinced must prevail over that of spending what you have. If I can save the club money I will. And this has meant that my vision has completely changed.
“I understood that young players must be given opportunities. But it is necessary to make them feel trust especially in difficult moments. Something that never happened to me as a boy.”
Going into the 2022 summer mercato, fans and the media knew it was a big one given the next step for the club is not only to defend the title but also to go further in the Champions League, and Maldini also spoke then about the ambition that the club must have.
“Today Milan with a high-level strategic vision can go on to compete next year with the biggest clubs. If, on the other hand, we chose a vision of maintenance, without investments, without a Milan-worthy idea we would remain in limbo among the best six or seven teams in Italy to try to win back the Scudetto and qualify for the Champions League,” he said.
“This is why it is time for the owners, Elliott or the one that might arrive, to close the three-year period and understand what strategy they want for the future. With two or three important signings and the consolidation of the players we have, we can compete for something bigger in the Champions League.”
So there we have it. Back in May we saw a driven and almost combative version of Paolo Maldini; one who was determined to remind those above him of the work he has done so far and how that laid the foundations for the Scudetto and that in order for him to perform in his role as technical director he needs guarantees, just as supporters get guarantees by his mere presence.
However, we also saw a call to action. Maldini knew that through careful and targeted recruitment the platform had been built for something special, and that ‘two or three important signings’ could push the club not only forward in their project but also back into the upper echelons of Europe’s top sides again.
Going into the January transfer window not everything was perfect, but it certainly had not been a disastrous first part of the season for Milan either. The team sat second in Serie A behind only Napoli who were (and still are) on record-breaking pace, while qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League had been secured for the first time in nine years.
What was worrying though was the lack of contribution from the summer market, one which saw a net spend below €50m – the highest in the league but low for a champion side and not helped by a lack of sales – and so far had produced little yield.
Charles De Ketelaere was the flagship signing and he was struggling with no goals to his name, Divock Origi had only one, Sergino Dest had more bad than good games while Malick Thiaw, Aster Vranckx and Yacine Adli barely saw the field.
Three worrying friendly results also preceded the new year, namely the defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool’s second teams in Dubai and the 3-0 loss against PSV in Eindhoven.
This was compounded by gradually worsening results upon returning to competitive action. A 2-1 win over Salernitana was followed by a 2-2 draw against Roma that featured a late collapse from two goals up, a Coppa Italia defeat to 10-man Torino, a 2-2 draw with Lecce after an awful first half, a 3-0 defeat to Inter in the Supercoppa, a 4-0 loss to Lazio and most recently a 5-2 hammering by Sassuolo just prior to the window closing.
The notion of ‘sustainability’ was already already explicitly and implicitly announced in the early part of the January mercato, with Maldini even confirming that there would be no new signings, unless opportunities emerged that were too good to turn down.
Before the game against Torino he was asked about the idea of signing a new back-up goalkeeper or strengthening other areas of the pitch.
“We have faith in Tatarusanu who has played excellent games, we have Mirante and we have signed Vasquez. There is no other operation in sight. We won’t make large investments and we won’t do anything in the winter transfer market,” he said.
Then, Maldini faced the cameras after the 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico to clarify that such a sharp dip in form would not see any intervention come from the market.
“Origi has a four-year contract, De Ketealere five, we don’t judge them after the first few months. Joining a team that works perfectly is easier than a team that isn’t working. Charles is young, he has great skills, it’s a matter of time. Massara has said everything about Zaniolo, we evaluate the opportunities, we don’t hide and we don’t deviate from our plans,” he said.
“We are not the Milan of the nineties that signs the great champions already established, but we need to follow a strategy that has led us to settle the club’s accounts and to be protagonists. We will certainly not deviate from that.”
Admittedly, it can be hard to do efficient business during the January window and it is one where Milan have not had much luck in recent years (see Paqueta, Piatek, Meite and Mandzukic among others), but it did feel like there were some areas of the squad to be addressed where opportunities could have been sought.
A reliable deputy to Mike Maignan could have served, a right winger to upgrade on Junior Messias and Alexis Saelemaekers would have been a huge boost, and a midfielder to help Sandro Tonali and Ismael Bennacer catch their breath would have been ideal, especially now the Algerian is injured.
Moreover, the squad is missing an experienced central defender more physically reliable than Simon Kjaer, as well as a deputy to Theo Hernandez and a centre-forward who guarantees goals but above all appearances.
One of the opportunities could have been Nicolò Zaniolo, for whom the Rossoneri went as far as a loan with option to buy deal, but Roma were not willing to accept. A move was also made late in the window for Dario Osorio of Club Universidad de Chile as a signing for the future, but again a deal did not get over the line.
With the presence of 31 players in the squad, this does not allow for large movements and there were never likely to be any big sales, so in the end Stefano Pioli must stick with what he has.
Multiple sources reported that the call was made by Maldini to Gerry Cardinale about securing extra funds for the January window, an idea that was rejected by the owner as he believed the summer budget for 2022-23 was enough for the entire season.
Even if there was not any up-front funding, were there not still the margins for loan deals to be pursued? Any loan with option to buy or even obligation to buy would mean expenses incurred in the 2023 summer window and therefore counting towards next year’s budget.
Yes there would have been the added salary costs but while there is an offer on the table for Rafael Leao to go from €1.5m net per season to a potential €7.7m net per season – along with the other key renewals completed last year – it would be fair to presume there is a common acceptance that the wage bill must increase.
Who exactly could have fit the bill? Hakim Ziyech – a player long courted by Milan – was heading for Paris Saint-Germain on a dry loan until the end of the season. That would have been fine. Even Keylor Navas was allowed to leave PSG for Nottingham Forest on a loan, another player that would have served well.
Instead, another January window passes with basically no meaningful move from Milan. Everybody expected it after the rather bleak statements from Maldini, and while it is clear there was no budget made available and rivals didn’t really strengthen that much either, it does not help an environment that is already on a knife edge.
There is yet more understandable frustration too about Milan’s inability to sell or offload fringe players. Tiemoue Bakayoko’s €2.5m gross will have to be paid as he has stayed, no players departed on loan to free squad spots while the idea of getting another cashflow-boosting sale like Paqueta to Lyon for €20m or Hauge to Eintracht Frankfurt for €12m seems a long way off.
A reminder of what Maldini said in May compared to what he became the preacher of earlier last month.
“I like to be a sort of guarantee for the AC Milan fans. I’m not the right person to do a project that doesn’t have a winning idea. I could never do that.
“If we chose a vision of maintenance, without investments, without a Milan-worthy idea we would remain in limbo among the best six or seven teams in Italy to try to win back the Scudetto and qualify for the Champions League.
“With two or three important signings and the consolidation of the players we have, we can compete for something bigger in the Champions League.”
The man with the fire in his belly who was ready to demand the best for a club he sees as his own, and one who was supposed to offer assurances to fans regarding the ambition of the project, has for some reason become accepting.
To Maldini’s defence, it may be that he is aware of plans for a 2023 summer window where the pursestrings will be loosened more and further flexibility will be allowed. It might also be that he applied all of his judgement together with Massara and decided there really was nothing worth doing in January. After all, the best deals can sometimes be the ones you opt not to pursue.
However, to give the squad no help in such a delicate moment is rightly a decision that will be scrutinised in the coming months. Top four – and therefore tens of millions of revenue – is what the team are currently fighting for.
Sometimes you have to speculate to accumulate, to bring planned expenses forward to not jeopardise the immediate. Was it the right call? Will the project ever take that ‘next step’? Time will tell.