Things haven’t quite gone to plan for AC Milan in recent weeks. They have suffered three consecutive defeats in all competitions, which have resulted in them crashing out of the Coppa Italia and slipping to seventh place in Serie A.
In addition, Vincenzo Montella has lost Giacomo Bonaventura for the rest of the season due to injury, while Mattia De Sciglio will be sidelined for at least a month having also been forced off in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Udinese.
Having been unable to strengthen the squad significantly in January, the pressure is really on Montella to hold things together. It starts with this weekend’s encounter with Sampdoria, but is Milan’s season at risk of collapsing?
This year has promised a great deal, with Milan’s impressive form through the opening half of the campaign propelling them into the race for a top-three finish and qualification for the Champions League. Montella’s tactical improvements, coupled with the emergence of talented young players and a growing confidence within the squad, all led to an impressive run of results and a belief that things may be different.
However, they are now facing some real adversity and it will be a true test of what this team is made of as we wait and see whether or not they are able to come through and get back on track.
Losing Bonaventura is arguably the most hurtful setback. The 27-year-old has established himself as one of Milan’s top performers over the past two seasons and they are certainly a less effective side without him. Whether playing in a midfield three or on the left flank, his quality on the ball, vision, driving runs and eye for goal have made him an indispensable part of this team; Milan will have to show they can cover his absence effectively.
As for De Sciglio, the next month will prove his importance to detractors. Some will argue that his progress has been slow and he hasn’t kicked on to become the full-back most expected. However, with his teammates struggling in those positions, he has been solid if not extravagant and that will be a vulnerability in this side, particularly with Ignazio Abate not entirely convincing on the opposite side of the backline.
Unfortunately, injuries aren’t where the problems end, either. Guilty of making costly mistakes in the loss at Udinese, both Manuel Locatelli and Gianluigi Donnarumma have come under fire for recent performances. Errors have started to creep into their respective games, and not just little ones that can be swept under the rug. Locatelli was sent off against Juventus in the Coppa Italia and lost possession in the buildup to Udinese’s equaliser, while question marks have been raised over whether or not Donnarumma could have done better to prevent recent goals.
There is a case to be made against both, but the overriding factor in this is that they are still just teenagers. Locatelli, 19, and Donnarumma, 17, are bound to make mistakes along the way at this stage, as they are still gaining experience. As long as they learn from them, there has to be a degree of patience and time in this agreement to allow Montella to bring young players through the ranks. It isn’t always going to be perfect but if you’ve bought into the strategy, then it’s something that we have to accept.
Those mistakes aside, both Locatelli and Donnarumma played well on Sunday. The former is growing in confidence in terms of finding pockets of space, demanding the ball and spraying it around the pitch or making smart, intricate passes. In Donnarumma’s case, he made key saves at Udinese and has proven that he is able to pull out match-saving stops even when he makes mistakes.
In turn, it’s madness to be too harsh on these players. Yes, they must be held accountable and called out when they make mistakes, but let’s not get carried away at this point. They must be given time to improve and mature.
One thing that certainly won’t help the situation, though, is Donnarumma’s agent, Mino Raiola, who has sparked transfer speculation again this week by essentially threatening to take his client elsewhere.
It would be helpful if he said less, but that’s highly unlikely. As a result, we can only hope that the Rossoneri can match Donnarumma’s ambition and keep a life-long Milan fan at the club when he himself has never suggested that he would consider an exit.
The problems seem to be piling up around Montella. Is this Milan side experienced and mature enough to stay in the race for Europe? Sunday’s clash with Sampdoria is crucial, as three points will quickly rebuild confidence at Milanello and ease the anxiety that the setbacks detailed above have caused.
Sumeet Paul covers AC Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @SP_Calcio.