Late Sunday night, Massimiliano Allegri appeared in front of the cameras of La Domenica Sportiva, Italy’s Match of the Day. He was told of a statement made by Barbara Berlusconi, the daughter of Milan’s owner, recently elevated within the club to vice-president and chief executive, the same rank as Adriano Galliani.
It had been “a disappointing evening, like the others, which confirms how, with the contribution of everybody, it’s both necessary and urgent to change,” she had explained to ANSA, the Italian news agency. “It’s no longer tolerable that our fans assist in unacceptable performances like these.”
Your heart would have to be made of stone not to feel sympathy for Allegri while watching him listen to that, biting his lip, not knowing where to look, an anguished expression on his face. He was hearing, second-hand, live on national TV that he’d essentially been sacked. Whatever you make of Allegri’s time at Milan - and it divides opinion - and regardless of whether his dismissal was by then imminent and had attained a sense of inevitability, he didn’t deserve that. It was horrible, a reminder of how cruel this profession can be at times.
Milan had just lost 4-3 to Sassuolo. They had been 2-0 up after barely more than 10 minutes only for Domenico Berardi, a teenager co-owned by Juventus, to become the youngest player to score a poker (four goals) since Silvio Piola and also the first to do so against Milan. Their defending had been appalling. Sassuolo had lost their last five games in all competitions. They hadn’t scored in that time and their coach Eusebio di Francesco was in more jeopardy of losing his job than Allegri. Their situation going into Sunday night made the end result all the more damaging for Milan.
There was a touch of irony too. Sassuolo, a club from a small-town with a population half the size of San Siro, are owned by a Milan fan, the tiles and ceramics empresario and head of Italy’s employers’ union Giorgio Squinzi. Close to Berlusconi, he claimed in May that “every now and again” the Milan president calls him to complain how “[Allegri] doesn’t understand anything [about football].” That’s not Squinzi’s experience.
It was under him at Sassuolo where Allegri first established himself as a bright young coach, setting them on this run to the top flight by achieving promotion from the third to the second division in 2008. So for Allegri to be relieved of his duties after a game against them was, from a certain perspective, to come full circle.
Though the end of his time at Milan felt nigh, he could have survived Sunday night but only if the club had put on a united front. Even though Galliani has insisted that the issues between himself and Barbara Berlusconi have been “resolved” after she challenged his authority by asking her father for a change in direction following a defeat to Fiorentina in early November, the weekend’s events and its fallout would indicate that they haven’t, which was fairly predictable.
The right thing to do, if there was consensus on the decision to sack Allegri, would have been to issue a joint statement. Instead, while Galliani [portrayed almost as though he were distracted] spoke on the phone to Berlusconi senior, Barbara gave one of her own to ANSA that made the coach’s position untenable. It has been presented as quite Machiavellian. Wasn’t Galliani supposed to be the one who made the football-related decisions?
That was a condition on which he’d apparently decided to stay after offering his resignation in late November following Barbara’s initial outburst. She would instead look after the commercial side of things, Milan’s brand management and marketing strategy. Barbara’s actions on Sunday indicate she still doesn’t intend to limit herself to just that. An uneasy compromise just got more awkward.
If Allegri has gone, it’s in part because of results, but also a Game of Thrones, which, Galliani, his chief sponsor and protector, appears to have lost. “I am sorry for Allegri and for how it’s turned out,” he said, “above all on a human level.”
I too have some sympathy for him. If you listened to some supporters, you’d think Allegri had presided over the worst period in Milan’s history. He hasn’t. As Inter’s former director Peppino Prisco liked to remind his rivals, Milan didn’t win a Scudetto between 1907 and 1951. What about the worst of the Berlusconi era then? Well, Milan placed 10th in 1997 and 11th in 1998. Berlusconi was able to spend then in a way he isn’t prepared to now, though. That shouldn’t be forgotten when judging Allegri.
While he leaves them down in 11th, his record over three full seasons really isn’t all that bad: 1st, 2nd and 3rd. The job Allegri did last season, ‘Year Zero’ for Milan after the “painful but necessary” sales of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva and goodbyes waved to Alessandro Nesta, Rino Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf and Pippo Inzaghi, was more impressive than when he ended a seven-year wait for the Scudetto in his first season.
For that he merits immense credit and can count on the respect not only of the Curva Sud, who issued a statement thanking him on Monday night, but also illustrious peers like Cesare Prandelli, Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello and the FIGC who are expected to strongly consider him for the Italy job if the post becomes available after the World Cup.
Of course Allegri made mistakes too, principal among them his decision not to accept an offer to join Roma in the summer and leave Milan with his dignity intact. A close second to that and arguably what he has never been able to live down would be consenting to the exit of Andrea Pirlo as part of the club’s cost-cutting measures, which swung the balance of power to Juventus in 2011.
Third would be rushing Thiago Silva back from injury in spring 2012 only for him to suffer a relapse, a decision more costly in their failed title defence than the referee and linesman’s choice not to allow Sulley Muntari’s goal in the decider that season with Juve.
Granted, his team selections were perplexing at times and - looking at the squad available to him in particular this season, a lack of depth at the full-back position aside - he could have played more expansive football than he did, providing, that is, everyone was fit which hasn’t always been the case. After the improvement in the second half of last season, further evolution was expected in this. Instead Milan struggled.
They’re now in a chaos of their own making. The plan had been for Allegri to see out the final year of his contract and then leave at the end of this season amid the expectation that Clarence Seedorf would take over. Now they have to throw someone in at the deep end. Rather than bring their plans forward, it would in my opinion be better to leave the team in Mauro Tassotti’s temporary charge until the summer. Why? Because that way they won’t burn anyone.
Imagine the situation: Milan, as anticipated, extricate Seedorf from his playing contract with Botofogo, he takes charge of the team [with special dispensation: he doesn’t have a UEFA Pro license] without having a pre-season, the coaching staff he desires [Jaap Stam and Hernan Crespo apparently] and the time to implement his ideas and Milan continue to do badly. Were that to happen it might become hard to make a case for him remaining in charge for the following season.
The same goes for Pippo Inzaghi if Milan were to promote him from his post as coach of their senior youth team, the Primavera. What if he were to do well? What then of their plans for Seedorf? They wouldn’t be able to tell Inzaghi to go back to the youth team - his job would have been taken. And as someone with aspirations to be a first team coach in his own right rather than an assistant, it’s improbable to think of him accepting a role on Seedorf’s staff.
The whole thing’s a mess. Milan should have resisted the temptation to sack Allegri, got to the end of the season, then reviewed things: for then Prandelli might have emerged as an alternative to Seedorf and offered the promise to rebuild Milan like he has done Italy since 2010. Berlusconi, however, has an intuition about Seedorf as he did about Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello. He was right then. Milan fans can only hope he is now.