The team sheet for AC Milan’s starting lineup for their final match last season, a 2-1 loss away to Cagliari in front of 12,000 supporters, should be framed as an ode to an era. The side was filled with limited yet committed players like Juraj Kucka and Gabriel Paletta. Attacker Keisuke Honda and defender Leonel Vangioni left Serie A for Mexico in the following weeks. Matias Fernandez returned to Fiorentina. Kucka went to Trabzonspor. It was an appropriate, quiet ending to a side stuck in Europa League purgatory as they went the final five months of the season stuck between fifth and seventh place in the table, before splitting the difference and finishing in sixth place.
There are no such apathetic descriptions when looking at the Milan side today. Enter the 20-year-old Franck Kessie, 21-year-old striker Andre Silva, 23 year old right back Andrea Conti, 23-year-old attacking midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu, 24-year-old left back Ricardo Rodriguez, and 26-year-old center back Mateo Musacchio. Poaching the 30-year-old Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus was the crowning statement. Milan spent some $250 million in just over two months since that match in May, and the distance between that side and this new Milan side feel years apart.
Signed for $20 million, 31-year-old center midfielder Lucas Biglia was the oldest player amongst the group. That seems a high price for a player seemingly on the downside of his career arc, especially within the context of Milan’s other signings, Bonucci notwithstanding. Although trailing in name recognition, the addition of Biglia from a functional standpoint is as vital as Bonucci’s. Montella stated the captaincy next season would be decided between the two veterans.
Biglia was the center of Lazio’s counter attacking style since he made the move in 2013 for just under $10 million from Anderlecht. Under manager Stefano Pioli, Lazio gained a reputation as a effective counter attacking side. They made the Champions League in 2015 before losing to Bayern Leverkusen in the qualification rounds, the 3-0 loss in the second leg coming when Biglia was injured. Once linked to Rafa Benitez’s Real Madrid and Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United, he is the type of player each tactician would see as an essential piece at the base of midfield. Disciplined, technical, and never making a mistake, Biglia’s versatility and intelligence was highlighted in moments of possession when he would drop back into the defense and form a back three to open up space for Lazio’s dangerous wingers. One could imagine a similar setup this season under Vincenzo Montella.
For this combination, Pioli called him “irreplaceable” to Lazio. When statistics fail, his importance to a side is highlighted in the matches he doesn’t play. In a 5-0 loss to Napoli during the early 2015 season, for example, Lazio continuously gave up the ball in venerable areas due to Napoli’s counterpress (the result was also pivotal in jump starting Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri’s era). Biglia’s calm and ability to play out of an opponent’s press has already gone semi-viral on Twitter with this example versus Bayern in a preseason match. The dominant high press style used by top European clubs makes a deep lying midfielder’s ability to break pressure with a calm touch, turn, and accurate pass an essential in a coherent buildup play.
Biglia’s defensive discipline also augments his teammates attacking strength. Kessie can move forward in a box to box role with the Argentine putting out opposing counter attacks. One could imagine the offensive potential of Milan’s wing play with Rodriguez and Conti, but it will be Biglia responsible for the intricate details of positioning and timing.
Montella’s side played in a 4-3-3 formation last year, and he said he would continue the formation “with variations”. Of that final Cagliari match, only winger Suso and goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma will start this season. The 18-year-old Manuel Locatelli played in Biglia’s position early in the season as Milan overachieved, culminating in scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 win against Juventus in December. Yet Montella’s side didn’t have the depth to compete the rest of the season, particularly lacking a replacement to the playmaking role of Bonaventura in the middle of the field.
The youth approach with Locatelli, Donnarumma, and Romangnoli somehow turned into the veteran, journeyman lineup of the final day. And here we are today, with this supercharged lineup, all in a span of nine months. It will be up to the 43-year-old Montella, with an assist from his potential captain, to make sense of it all.
Biglia knows how to leave a club in style. He had two assists in a 7-3 win over Sampdoria that qualified Lazio into the Europa League last season. He won Anderlecht a league title in 2013 with a free kick goal before moving to Lazio that same summer.
It was at Anderlecht when he received comparisons to Redondo for his tactical intelligence and two footed ability. Desiring a higher profile, his move to Lazio and the bigger stage played dividends on an international level. His break came in the 2014 World Cup, where he started in the quarterfinals. He hasn’t relinquished his starting position since.
Yet Biglia also has the distinction of losing his last four finals matches. He started that World Cup finals loss against Germany, the 2015 Copa America finals loss against Chile, and the 2016 Centenario loss against versus Chile in which he joined Messi in brief retirement (Argentina have given up just one goal in open play in those 300 minutes of finals, only a scant consolation). The midfielder also started last season’s Coppa Italia finals loss against Juventus. Not that he needs another trophy to justify his importance to a side, but surely there must be some light at the end of losing matches in heartbreaking penalties.
Which brings up the matter of expectations this season for Milan. Montella especially will be under the spotlight, even more so if they struggle early in the season. The manager was celebrated for getting the most out of his side last season, but there are no soft sentiments now. Montella called the window the “summer of dreams” and pointed to a Champions League position as the main goal for his side. But those expectations can turn just as quickly. The pressure of this season isn’t just about winning for Milan, or justifying the high transfer fees paid to young players. It’s about a club regaining their place in European consciousness.