Why Always Milan?


Back in 2010, Silvio Berlusconi – a man never short of a few words on any subject – told reporters asking of his thoughts on Mario Balotelli that “[he] has a very friendly face; a Rossoneri face”. And while not literally the case (though knowing him, he may soon have rossoneri hair), it became somewhat more true today, as the Italian international signed a deal to return him to San Siro. Only now he will be playing for AC Milan, rather than his former side Inter.


Milan have paid €20million (around £18million) to bring him in, meaning Manchester City have made a loss of approximately £6million on the £24million they paid for him in the summer of 2010. On some level, City’s willingness to let him go for less encapsulates his his time in England, which will unfortunately be remembered more for his colourful off-pitch antics than his under-appreciated on-pitch contribution.


Whether he justified his transfer fee is a separate issue, but over his two and a half years in England – starting when he was 19 and ending at 22 – he managed 30 goals in 74 appearances. Of those 74, he started only 49 of those games and from there, he only completed the full 90 (or 120) minutes on 27 occasions. With this in mind, the 30 goals he did manage, varying from the simplest tap-ins to beautifully placed shot from distance, look somewhat more impressive.


He averaged a goal every 145.5 minutes in his time in England, but he never ‘exploded’ as many hoped and expected he would. The cloud of his as yet unreached possibilities will forever linger over his time in the Premier League; the hope is that this does not become the story of the rest of his career. Battling for playing time with Sergio Agüero, Carlos Tévez and Edin Džeko, he rarely got the chance to build momentum – it is no coincidence that arguably the best period of his career at City came while Tévez was in self-imposed exile and he was given a run of games.


Like many young players, he suffered from severe inconsistency issues, with which his less-than-structured playing time did not help, although he did not help himself at times. But unlike others, he brought a circus with him wherever he went. A suspect temper and a flair for the unconventional in his life outside football led to questions about his attitude. He became an easy target for the lazier factions of the English media who seemed to want to portray him as being at fault for everything from the whole City team’s appalling first hour in the most recent Manchester derby to Global Warming. His behaviour was not that of a degenerate in the slightest, just a child who had come into a very large amount of money.


The attitude questions remain with his move. Towards the end of his time in Manchester, when game time was especially scant, he looked unmotivated, as if he knew he was not long for the club. At Milan, it could and should be different. There can be no doubting his motivation to be there, with his having taken a paycut of around €1million (from €5million per year to €4million) to sign, which should hopefully see him play more like the Balotelli who plays for Italian National team than the one who has been at City thus far this season.


As for growing maturity, this lies solely with Balotelli. His off-field antics aside, in his short time in England he picked up 23 yellow cards and three reds: a quite exceptional record for a striker and something that desperately needs improving. However, he has recently become a father; when the same thing happened to Italy’s former favourite eccentric Antonio Cassano,  it did wonders for his maturity. It is up to him now. As James Horncastle pointed out on Twitter, at Inter he had Massimo Moratti and, his final year excepted, Roberto Mancini to protect him from the press, while the latter was there throughout his Manchester City career. Only he (or perhaps gross misfortune) can stop himself from fulfilling his promise.


Potentially the most significant factor in how he will approach this change will be the effect of being close to his adoptive parents again. It is said in this fantastic piece on Balotelli that his mother is the only person who was capable of getting through to him, but their physical distance meant that her influence was hindered. He is not without allies and support back in Italy, but within the game itself, they are diminished, while outside it, they have grown tenfold overnight.


His arrival will act as a lift for Milan before he has even played a game. Since 2009, they have seen Paolo Maldini, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, Filippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Nesta – all club legends – leave, as well as having Kaká, Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimović taken from them, with the only ‘ready-made big player’ being bought in that time being the subsequently-sold Ibrahimović. Buying a player of Balotelli’s calibre and standing will go some way to stemming the sadness that has surrounded the club, and also show, to a degree, that they are still willing and able to buy big players as once they did so lavishly.


He will fit well with Milan’s current style of play. Massimiliano Allegri favours a 4-3-3, in which Balotelli is likely to play as the focal point of the attack – a role that suits him, but will require him to improve his hold-up play. He could also be deployed on the wings from time to time, if Allegri so wishes, with Giampaolo Pazzini taking the central striking role. It could also be the first signs of a shift to the 4-3-1-2 which Cesare Prandelli uses with the Italian national team, and was the main system used in the more glorious days under Carlo Ancelotti. This would allow Balotelli to combine with Stephan El Shaarawy up front; the striking partnership that Prandelli wishes to carry La Nazionale forward in the years ahead.


While he is very much a welcome addition, it is another option for their relatively stocked attack… well, ‘stocked’ in comparison to their player-thin midfield (even more so since Nigel De Jong’s season-ending injury) and their quality-lacking defence. They are only 6 points from third place, but either or both defensive and midfield upgrades are of the essence now, if they can make any at this late stage of the window. If Balotelli can re-adapt to Serie A quickly, qualification for the Champions League football becomes an even more realistic possibility. The forward roles were not the priority this January, but it was a fantastic chance to get a wonderful, if complex, talent at a price that could prove to be a bargain, in time. A chance that could not be missed, in the eyes of the Milan hierarchy.


If he can settle down off the pitch, his increased playing time in a system that suits him in a place where he wants to be, and most crucially, who want him there, and will rely on him, will allow him to grow into a more consistent form of the player who shone at Euro 2012 and in all too brief spurts with Manchester City. Until now, with the exception of time with Prandelli’s Azzuri, where he thrived, he has never been entrusted with the responsibility of carrying a team’s forward line. He may find that trust was what he needed to push him on. He is still only 22 years old. With the attributes, ability and time that he has, he could still become one of, if not the best striker in the world.

Barcelona’s Undercover Genius


On July 1st 2012, Sergio Busquets completed a rather remarkable feat. At just 23 years old, he added a European Championships medal to his phenomenal collection, which also consists one World Cup, three La Liga titles and two Copa del Reys, Champions Leagues, UEFA Super Cups and Club World Cups. He has won everything he could possibly have won – in most cases, twice. And he has had a major role in every one of his triumphs. The results of five seasons of professional football.


The very definition of homegrown, he was fast-tracked into Barcelona’s first team in 2008. Born in the city, son of former Barça goalkeeper Carles Busquets, he joined the club’s youth setup in 2005, and since his progress has been as great a reflection of his supreme talent as his trophy collection. His understated but extremely important performances pushed him further up the pecking order as the season went on.


“He’s the best defensive central midfielder in the world. Barcelona have a priceless player.” – Pep Guardiola.


In-part due to their shortage of defenders, which saw Yaya Touré play at centre back, he started in their 2-0 win over Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final, the night on which Barcelona completed their famous and unprecedented treble. This came just one year since achieving promotion to the Spanish Third Division with Barcelona B. In none of his 41 appearances in the 2008/09 did he look phased or out of his depth: a trend that has remained.


Touré had been their primary defensive midfielder until this point, but there was no stopping Busquets from here. He continued improving, his understanding with the magnificent pair of Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta growing. He had shrugged off the challenges of Touré and Seydou Keita for the first choice spot. After the unhappy former’s sale to Manchester City in the summer of 2010, Javier Mascherano arrived as his new backup, or challenger.


“Xavi and Iniesta are the most creative midfielders in the world, but, above all, there is Busquets. He has the talent to play for any team anywhere in the world, but he’s made to play for this team. Literally, he’s the perfect guy. He robs the ball, he has superb technical skills and brings tactical order. I watch him and try to learn from him.” – Javier Mascherano


The Argentine struggled greatly with the off-the-ball movement and speed of thought the job required. Although he was renowned as a fine holding midfielder before his move, he has since been converted into a centre back. The difficulty Barcelona have found in trying to find a well-fitting backup option for Busquets highlights the specialist nature of his job, and with it just how important he is to the team.


Busquets has averaged 82.1 passes per game since the start of the 2010/11 season, with an average success rate of 91.9%. To see him make a misstep is noteworthy. For this season he has managed an impressive average of three tackles per game (0.5 more than his closest follower, Dani Alves) and 1.8 interceptions. In the ‘pivote’ role he is not only the link between the defence and the midfield, but the midfield and attack, too.


“If I could be any player in the world, I would like to be Busquets. He does everything; he always helps the team, he is generous, and he is the first to get the team moving. When he plays, the football is more fluid. With Busquets in the team, our football is better.” – Vicente del Bosqué


Some lazily and misguidedly choose to use his more nefarious antics as sticks with which to beat him. His penchant for diving was always overstated and even then it has grown less and less prominent in his game over time. The world as a whole collectively gave him the ‘diver’ label for getting Thiago Motta sent off in the 2010 Champions League semi final second leg; reputations can be made and broken in a second. But if someone looks at Busquets and sees nothing but a ‘cheat’, they are simply not looking hard enough.


The word ‘genius’ is very much overused in modern football coverage. Barcelona are blessed to have five of them: Xavi, Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Cesc Fàbregas and Busquets himself. He is the only player capable of playing the most important position in perhaps the best club side of all time. His positioning is perennially perfect: always in the perfect position to receive the ball, and often protecting the open wings, left exposed by Dani Alves’ and Jordi Alba’s forays forward. His technique and passing are sublime. To watch Busquets is to watch brilliance incarnate.


“He is a gift for any coach. The speed of his passing is perfect and he is the kind of player you don’t need to explain anything to. You just put him in his position and he performs… Positionally, he seems like a veteran with or without the ball. With the ball he makes what is difficult look easy: he disposes of the ball with one or two touches. Without the ball, he gives us a lesson: that of being in the right place to intercept and running just to recover the ball.” – Johan Cruijff.