Tottenham Hotspur began their summer down to one solitary rightback ahead of their upcoming season, whom they want out for a reshuffle. Barcelona imploded last month with their day of reckoning a long time coming, and are staring at Financial Fair Play trouble. These two teams have something in common, and it is not just the ignominy at the feet of Bayern Munich in this past Champions League season. Nope, both teams were rumored to hold the answer for Milan’s rightback problem at various points this summer.
Yes, y’all, Milan was on a self-inflicted log jam again, chasing after the last piece on one team’s entire depth chart in his position, while the other’s is halfway through a two-year loan at a third team, needing a four-way agreement in a short off-season. If indeed true, interest in the latter is baffling, amateurish and downright criminal, but it seems Milan haven’t learned from attempting to do business with Barcelona in January, a team mired in an impeding financial near ruin of their own, on top of scrutiny from UEFA’s Financial Control Body. Jean-Clair Todibo, with all of just 330 minutes of football with the Catalan club this year, was acquired for €1 million just one year prior, with the new asking price of €20 million, today! Give me a break.
Meanwhile, 20 miles due east of Milano, Atalanta of Bergamo, on their maiden campaign in Europe’s premier tournament having secured another qualification for next season, just offloaded Timothy Castagne, a Belgian rightback, to Leicester City for €25 million. If you are now harboring suspicion of this player being the solution for Milan, you are missing the point.
Castagne arrived from Belgium for €7 million in the summer of 2017 to replace Andrea Conti, who left Atalanta to join (you guessed it) Milan. Through no wrongdoing of his own, Conti suffered two knee ligament injuries that robbed him of both the pace and confidence to zip up and down the flank he once boasted at Atalanta en route to 8 goals in his last season there—playing from a wide position no less! I am not sure he scored once in three full seasons at Milan, and if he did already, he’d have to finish his career there just to have 8 overall.
Here is the twist; the Belgian was mostly deployed as a back-up, missing only sixty days to injury and 6 games in total. One player he played behind logged 10,300 minutes to the back-up’s 6,800 in three full seasons together. There is a third fullback I won’t name, who arrived that same summer for €900 thousand, with 7,500 minutes on the opposite flank. Across the two spots he played relief in, Timothy had 3,300 minutes on the right and 3000 on the left. The two starters arrived for a combined €2 million, and with Timothy’s €7 million fee, Atalanta essentially acquired an entire fullback corps for €9 million, money spent to replace Conti and another fullback.
Meanwhile, Milan were at one point undecided on which rightback to dump off, but look set on keeping the experienced, oft-injured Conti, who’s played more minutes in two years at Atalanta (3,500) than in three with Milan (2,400). We’re not sure who’s the starter, and for a bit, neither did the coaches. It will be a matter of whom an offer arrives for first. Milan will accept a lowball offer, especially now in a depressed market post-Corona, as the team that thumped them 5-0 in December, in effect upending their entire recruitment plan, is laughing all the way to the bank, back and back again.
Yet, worldwide, fans rejoiced at the news of all-time boogeyman—former coach Marco Giampaolo for only seven games and Torino’s problem next season—freeing up a bloated wage bill by €8 million pre-tax between himself and leftback Ricardo Rodriguez. A Swiss international and Milan’s starting leftback for two full seasons, his contract was sold for a paltry €3 million. These savings are peanuts compared to €100 million in losses to cut but €10 million of those savings will go to a 39-year old Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He finally re-signed after a month-long negotiation in a short and cramped off-season by Covid-19, when no serious team was willing to offer him the exposure of a swan song at the top except Milan. So long as you robbed Peter to pay Paul. But one step forward, two steps back.
The point of this rant is to not highlight a particular recruitment plan, but to show that a succession plan, carried out like clockwork, can soften any disruption caused by talent poaching. This is a team that, five years ago, was battling to stay in the division when Milan continues to struggle—almost on purpose—to trim and purge its roster each time they realize they brought a bunch of the wrong players.
Five years ago, this team was miles behind Milan, and are, now, well ahead. And there’s no proof quite like having three of their formers players on the squad stagnating since the clubs’ fortunes inverted. This juxtaposition is to show that every player has a shelf life, prolonged only if their team are in a title window. That half-life is never indefinite, because even winning teams need to recycle.
When survival in the top division is the only expectation, the margin between success and failure is much broader than for teams with a singular objective. It is much difficult to redefine what success means the first time it is stumbled on. It is far more challenging to hone in on what success is, next. Naysayers make it out like Atalanta went through the motions or just happened by accident—that everything since was a bonus. But when all you have is one goal, one job, and still commit to the same erroneous quick fix hoping that something will finally give, because it is breaking with tradition to do otherwise, what is that? To replicate a past of spending on the biggest names, with no regard for when the credit card bill, a time before Financial Fair Play came in to stop teams from digging their own graves?
And now even the neutral pundits have had enough of rationalizing the bizarre shortsightedness and sudden U-turns on podcasts and Twitter feeds. They’ve had enough of Milan’s revolving door of owners, managements, coaches from rookies to interims getting extensions, and a rag tag squad made up in part by holdovers from previous staff and for clashing coaching philosophies. A team is more than just eleven players assembled at random. And the two cents thrown in by neutrals are useless, so might as well go along with the old party line reiterated ad infinitum. They’re are now chiming in to say get to the Champions League and worry about the rest later—that being the succession plan. Exactly the same tune of the last seven seasons. So much for the Elliott vision.