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A brief conversation with Pete Schlenker of the AC Milan Offside

It’s always nice to get the inside scoop on an opponent, especially when it comes from someone as genuinely lovely as Pete.

Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

As Fiorentina wind up for a rare internationally televised match against Milan, we here at VN are winding up for some good-natured repartee with our sibling blog the AC Milan Offside, who, as you might guess from their name, have been around since the old Offside days. Site boss Pete Schlenker is really one of my favorite people on the internet and has been excellent about helping us out whenever possible, so I naturally threw a bunch of dumb questions at him, and he was gracious enough to respond. Here’s our conversation. I’ll also toss my usual idiocy back to Pete shortly and will link to his story shortly.

Viola Nation: For a club that’s in the Champions League places, it seems like everyone is awfully down on AC Milan right now. Is this a function of expectations that were seriously over-inflated after a busy summer market or a genuine reflection of the team’s performance? Given all the uncertainty (and some pretty bad recent results, not that a Viola fan knows anything about those), how warm is Gennaro Gattuso’s seat right now?

Pete Schlenker: A number of Milan fans often consider Champions League football their birthright, and so the expectation is always that this team should finish at least in the top four. I think the expectations came from the run that team went on under Gattuso after he took over the club in midseason. Milan barely finished out of the top four and after adding Gonzalo Higuain, of course Milan would make the top four easily, right? Well, the team hasn’t looked very good and while Milan are in the top four, the losses to Inter Milan, Juventus, and Napoli, not to mention the draw against Lazio, means that this team is looked at by many as being a paper tiger. It is possible to make the top four and lose both matches to Inter and Juventus, but don’t think that Milan fans are gonna be very happy about it.

Gattuso’s seat is warm because of the crash out of the Europa League and because when things go wrong for Milan, they go *very* wrong. The draw against Bologna is just the latest example of the malaise that takes over the team when things start going wrong. The strikers look frustrated, Gattuso makes some substitutions that don’t make sense, and everyone has to say “no, everything is great, of course people get upset when we’re not playing well” in press conferences.

VN: Speaking of which, what’s your take on the FFP imbroglio the club has found itself in? Like, I understand that getting popped for violations two years in a row is sub-optimal, but do you think this is going to result in another slap on the wrist? Or is this problem not going away quite so easily this time around?

PS: The biggest issue with UEFA FFP is the hole that Yonghong Li and his management group dug Milan into. The reason Milan were going to get tossed from the Europa League last summer was because UEFA literally thought that Li had no money and was going to bankrupt the club and walk away, and UEFA didn’t want to reward Li with European football to increase the price. As it turned out, the TAS was very sympathetic to Milan because Elliott Management had taken over and hand a real business plan and the ability to keep the club running, something Li could not do. Now UEFA has threatened more sanctions if Milan don’t hit the break-even point in 2021, which is the more serious problem. That, from what I understand, means that Milan has to not only balance the books in regards to that season’s profit-loss, but also whatever debt on transfer payments, etc, have been racked up that haven’t been paid yet. That’s gonna be an issue, because Milan have already committed a lot of future money from the spending in the summer of 2017. So while the withholding of €12 million in prize money is a problem, the real issue is the break-even point, which will limit the ability of the club to spend.

Every Milan fan will point to Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Monaco, PSG, etc., and wonder why they got off with a slap on the wrist or a very minimal penalty. The issue, of course, is what exactly FFP designed to do. If it’s to “level the playing field” then the relative ease to which two clubs which hadn’t been “super” clubs, Manchester City and PSG, were able to convert petrodollars into players doesn’t seem to really fit. If FFP is to keep clubs solvent and prevent situations like what happened to Leeds United, Parma, and even Fiorentina, then the penalty doesn’t really seem to fit Milan, as the current owners have deep enough pockets to absorb the damage done by Li while keeping the club funded. So there is a lot of bitterness towards UEFA from Milan fans right now, as they feel the club is being held to a different standard than everyone else, right or wrong.

VN: As far as you can tell, what’s the feeling amongst the players right now? Obviously, there’ll be some disappointment over getting dumped out of the Europa League after getting shelled by Olympiacos, but do you think there’ll be a hangover or will Gattuso get them up for this one with his usual frothing intensity?

PS: Gattuso’s ability as a manager is to take the players and make them understand what it means to bleed red and black. He isn’t a tactical guru, but he is a guy who can get more out of players because of who he is and how he played the game. Gattuso can get the team up for important games and get them ready to play, but that doesn’t always work 100% of the time and he can be out-coached by other managers.

VN: Part of the problem for the Rossoneri this year is injuries, particularly in the midfield. With Lucas Biglia, Franck Kessié, Tiémoué Bakayoko, and Giacomo Bonaventura, are there sufficient options on the bench to cover the middle, or will Milan basically cede the middle and focus on hitting down the wings and through the partnership up front?

PS: The midfield is a mess. Both Bakayoko and Kessie are suspended for the Fiorentina match, and Biglia and Bonaventura are both out injured for basically the entire season. That leaves Hakan Calhanoglu, Jose Mauri and Andrea Bertolacci to somehow form a coherent midfield, which they will not be able to do.

I expect to see some version of a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 with wingbacks to provide width and trying to avoid the middle of the pitch as much as possible. A central midfield paring of Mauri and Calhanoglu will be a disaster, and I’m not sure adding Bertolacci to the mix will make anything better.

VN: Who’s been the standout for Milan this year? Who do you think is best poised, through either current form or tactical advantage, to offer Fiorentina the greatest threat in this one? Conversely, are there any Rossoneri players you’re worried about in this one? Are there any Viola players you’re anxious about facing?

PS: Milan is basically a one-man team and has been for a couple years. Suso is absolutely the key to Milan right now. If he is able to get space to work his magic on the right wing, he’ll carve up the other team, and if he’s controlled, it will open up space for players like Patrick Cutrone to create something out of nothing.

That said, Suso has looked completely exhausted. Gattuso tried to rest him during some Europa League matches, only to throw him on in the second half to rescue the team. He was left out of the team that faced Olympiacos (the only match he didn’t play all year) and Milan got tonked. He looked like a shell of himself against Bologna, and Milan wouldn’t have scored, even if the match was still being played right now. If Suso has gotten enough rest and is able to play at his usual high level, he’s the danger man. If he’s not? Then hope Cutrone doesn’t get a half-chance in the box, because that’s all he needs to score.

Well, I am worried about what kind of an impact that Federico Chiesa and Giovanni Simeone are going to have in the match. Milan has only kept three clean sheets this season, and those were against Bologna, Udinese, and Torino. Alessio Romagnoli just came back from injury, and he’s not 100%, and Mateo Musacchio might also make a return, but he will also not be 100%. Cristian Zapata is decent at filling in, but against good forwards, and ones that are quick, this defense can be tore apart, as we saw on the opening match against Napoli. This will almost certainly not be a 0-0 snoozefest. Oh, and Milan are also terrible at set pieces as well. Milan hasn’t scored from a corner kick all season and has given up a number of goals from set pieces as well.

VN: And finally, prediction time: What do you think will be the final score, who gets the goals, and what’s the general pattern of the match?

PS: I think the game ends up as a 2-2 draw. I’m not sure about Milan’s ability to keep the ball out of the back of the net, and while Milan might be able to get a couple goals, I’m not sure this will be a match that Milan will be good enough to win. If this match was played in Florence, I would absolutely give Milan no chance to win, but since it’s being played at the San Siro, Milan might have enough in them to get a draw.

Thanks, Pete! Fully hope for a fun one on Saturday decided by a Riccardo Montolivo own goal.