From TheKop Curva CrossOver: Milan’s Search for a New Number 10

Milan urgently need a new playmaker to fill the vacant  No.10 position. With the calciomercato approaching its steadfast conclusion towards the end of August, Paolo Maldini and Frederic Massara undeniably face a race against time now to complete Stefano Pioli’s squad with a first choice “CAM” ahead of the 2021/22 Serie A season.

Maldini and Massara haven’t made an impulse buy during their tenure thus far and worked with a limited budget. The strategy has been to bide time and wait for the right opportunity, and the fans haven’t exactly complained as everybody understands the current reality under Elliott Management.

On this occasion though, there is unrest amongst the Milan tifosi as the new season is around the corner and Pioli doesn’t have a starting CAM, a critical position in the manager’s 4-2-3-1. Stefano Pioli has done an exceptional job with the Rossoneri, now Paolo Maldini must do his job and give the manager exactly what he needs, and that’s a new No.10.

Hakan Calhanoglu’s Departure

The Turkish midfielder left for cross town rivals Inter on a free earlier in the summer. Çalhanoğlu’s contract was about to expire and with a €4M renewal option on the table, he made a decision to reject the renewal and join Simone Inzaghi’s team. In all honesty, Milan’s renewal offer was quite generous considering the Turk’s inconsistent time at the club. He failed to convince the fans for the most part, often cutting a frustrating and polarizing figure on the pitch.

Most Milanisti were understandably pleased to see the back of him as €4M per season didn’t make financial sense, and quite honestly the team was long overdue for an upgrade anyway. Milan saved €4.6M gross on Çalhanoğlu’s wages and can seek a better replacement. Another player crossing the city divide, but mind you, he ain’t a Zlatan or Ronaldo.

Identikit for Pioli’s Number 10

Press Resistance – Main feature of Pioli’s system is to press the opponent to create overloads and also break the opposition press with quick passing on transitions. Pioli’s CAM must be press resistant, which means to control the ball under pressure, retain possession, and release at the correct time.

Spatial Awareness – Pioli’s system relies upon creating and finding space in the final third to disrupt the opposition’s defensive structure. Pioli’s CAM must be extremely skilled at playing between the lines to progress the ball forward effectively and support the Rossoneri forward line as much as possible.

Vision & Technique – The obvious qualities needed for a modern No.10. The ability to spot teammates’ movements and create chances is the bread and butter of every CAM. Especially in a tactical league like Serie A where spaces are congested and defenses tightly packed, a CAM with good vision could be a secret weapon.

Dynamism & Athleticism – This is what held back Çalhanoğlu. In Milan’s system, everything moves fast and intense. Pioli’s CAM must be very quick on the half turn, possess quick feet and enough speed to execute quick counters. It’s an understatement but slow and unathletic players don’t quite make a good fit for Pioli’s system.

Rumored Names on the Wishlist

Since Çalhanoğlu’s exit, several rumors have been doing the rounds in the Italian media. Basically, a new name has been linked every other day ever since the Turk’s departure. From the low cost yet experienced profiles like Papu Gómez, Josip Iličić, and Dušan Tadić to younger options like Federico Bernardeschi, Marcel Sabitzer, Luis Alberto, Matteo Pessina, Nikola Vlašić, Yusuf Yazıcı, Mikkel Damsgaard, Yacine Adli, Julian Brandt, and Mattia Zaccagni to a few high profile names such as Isco, Philippe Coutinho, James Rodriguez, and Hakim Ziyech.

Obviously, some of these are true and some merely rumors. It’s critical Maldini and Massara assess carefully and make the right choice. It’s safe to say that the Milan management has absolutely no margin for error since the need is urgent and the time is simply at a premium.

Let’s just put ourselves in Paolo Maldini’s shoes here, narrow down the transfer list, and analyze few “realistic and legitimate” candidates for Milan’s vacant No.10 role.

Low Cost – Josip Ilicic

Age: 33
Club: Atalanta
Nationality: Slovenia
Market Value: €6M

The most affordable operation to conclude for Maldini and Co. before the mercato closes. Iličić’s already a proven commodity in Serie A, and thus would represent a safe bet for the Rossoneri. During his time with the Bergamo outfit, Iličić has amassed 55 goals and 37 assists in 141 matches. It’s quite an impressive record as Pioli needs a more productive alternative to Alexis Saelemaekers on Milan’s right wing.

Milan might have leverage in this case as his relationship with Atalanta manager Gian Piero Gasperini hasn’t been ideal for some time. Two red flags though, Iličić has suffered from physical problems in the past and Atalanta are demanding €6-8M, rather high for someone his age. Maldini has other targets, yet Iličić remains a possibility and kind of a security blanket for the Rossoneri to fall back onto just in case.

Pipe Dream – Hakim Ziyech

Age: 28
Club: Chelsea
Nationality: Morocco
Market Value: €38M

The most difficult operation to conclude. Numerous reports have indicated Ziyech remains Maldini’s number one choice. The main obstacle is the cost of this operation with Chelsea being notoriously difficult negotiators. Milan and Chelsea have already done business, with Fikayo Tomori joining Milan in this mercato. The rapport among the two clubs remains strong, but this particular operation might just be outside the budget. Chelsea spent €44M on Ziyech and are demanding more than €35M to recuperate most of their investment. It’s fair to say that’s quite steep for Milan at this moment, and for that reason, Ziyech to Milan remains an unlikely dream at this moment. Maldini wants a loan (option around €25-30M), and if Chelsea are prepared to negotiate on those terms, Ziyech to Milan might finally take off.

Best Fit – Marcel Sabitzer

Age: 27
Club: RB Leipzig
Nationality: Austria
Market Value: €42M

The Austrian attacking midfielder would be an ideal reinforcement for Pioli this mercato. Milan and Leipzig share a common football philosophy, that’s playing fast, intense, and high pressing football. Sabitzer has already been a successful component of the Leipzig system for years now, which is why he wouldn’t require much time to acclimatize to Pioli’s 4-2-3-1.

Sabitzer is athletic, dynamic, and versatile across the pitch. He’s a terrific presser of the ball and smooth on transitions. As an added bonus, he possesses excellent work-rate and a powerful drive from distance. Sabitzer is also a regular contributor with goals and assists, and that’s exactly what Milan need right now.

The rumors are Sabitzer prefers to stay in the Bundesliga and Bayern Munich are chasing his signature for a reunion with newly appointed manager Julian Nagelsmann. The Leipzig man would really be the perfect CAM for Pioli’s system, yet the chances of him making the switch to Milano are rather bleak.

Most Likely – Nikola Vlasic

Age: 23
Club: CSKA Moscow
Nationality: Croatia
Market Value: €30M

The former Everton man has managed to resurrect his career with Russian team CSKA Moscow. In his last 52 appearances across two seasons, Vlašić has managed 33 goal contributions, quite impressive numbers and exactly what Pioli requires from his CAM. Besides the obvious stats, Vlašić combines vision, technique, and passing range. He’s also comfortable in 1v1 situations and finding little pockets of spaces in the opposition half, a critical part of Pioli’s space oriented system. Being a regular contributor with goals, Vlašić could well be an important asset for Milan this season.

He’s already made his feelings known about wanting a move to Milan, yet CSKA continue to ask €35M, a figure deemed too high by Maldini, who prefers a loan with obligation deal at around €25M. A stalemate in negotiations, although things may unlock soon with Russian sources reporting Vlašić skipped training in an attempt to force a move. This could be the leverage that Maldini needs to finally seal the deal.

Must Avoid

Isco. The relations between Milan and Real Madrid are excellent after the Theo Hernandez and Brahim Diaz operations. Isco doesn’t feature in the plans of newly appointed Carlo Ancelotti and Madrid are keen to offload him for around €20M. Despite his talent, Isco has struggled for playing time under Zinedine Zidane due to personal and tactical problems. His wages are high and would represent an expensive gamble. It’s just not a wise move to invest in Isco at this point.

James Rodriguez. Rafa Benitez doesn’t fancy James. Everton are asking for €10M which is quite reasonable. The problem is James doesn’t fit Pioli’s system at all since he isn’t athletically gifted and possesses poor work-rate. His salary would be an obstacle again. It’s just not a gamble worth taking for Maldini at this stage.

Philippe Coutinho. It’s difficult to say no to such an opportunity, but Maldini should do just that. The same issues again with high salary, limited playing time, and recurring physical problems in recent years. Coutinho’s undoubtedly a marvelous player but just not the right profile for Milan.

Yacine Adli. The Frenchman plays a more central or deep lying midfield role (CM/DLP) for Bordeaux. Adli isn’t the right fit as he’s not a natural “CAM.”