Just because something is much better than it used to be, doesn’t mean it is perfect. Just because it isn’t perfect, doesn’t make it bad either. The problem with things that work and could be better, is that there is normally something more pressing to deal with and thus it gets ignored.
As Milan and Inter continue with their strong starts to the season, they share a similar issue: the centre-backs. There is no doubt that they are better than they have been for some time, but they may still be the hidden Achilles Heel if these sides are to develop into serious title contenders.
If at first glance you look and note that Leonardo Bonucci and Milan Skriniar both arrived this summer, it is fair to say that (especially in Milan’s case) they have upgraded with their options. The season has started well for both teams, the Nerazzurri are unbeaten with four wins out of five and Milan have only lost once, albeit heavily. With the black and blue half of the city worried about whether Andrea Pinamonti or Eder can really step up if Mauro Icardi gets injured and the red and black side worried about what they would do without the indomitable Franck Kessie, why worry about centre-backs?
Let’s start with Inter. Jeison Murillo divided opinion, it is true, but he was liked by most and was a credible and developing player before he was allowed to depart for Valencia. The return of Andrea Ranocchia perhaps did not divide opinion, as his personal battle of talent versus confidence was well known by Inter fans, and the nerves always win. That left Joao Miranda, a veteran in today’s game but still superbly capable, his decision making and positioning would allow him to get in any Serie A team in the early 1990s. The second is the aforementioned Skriniar, a youngster who is hard, quick and intelligent, a real find.
The first point here is who do Inter turn to if either of these have a poor run of form or get injured? After discussing the fallibility of Ranocchia, who is there? Zinho Vanheusder? Fedrico Valietti? In Inter’s last two games, they have looked like another option may well be needed. Skriniar is talented but (as we saw with Murillo) he leans so heavily on Miranda for guidance that when the Brazilian has an off day, so does his younger partner. Look at the match against Bologna when both players struggled to cope with long balls down the middle - confidence from one spreads to the other.
Milan in comparison looked like they were in much better shape when it came to centre-backs. After all they have Bonucci, Alessio Romagnoli and Mateo Musacchio. Even if they are stuck, they can call upon Gabriel Paletta and Cristian Zapata, albeit the last two would be in desperation. This was fine until Lazio destroyed them at the Stadio Olimpico 4-1. In that match, the full-backs also didn’t help, but Musacchio and Bonucci were culpable too and this made Vincenzo Montella switch his formation for the next game to a back three.
If you dismiss what was almost a practice match against Austria Vienna, the next challenge against Udinese saw Bonucci, Musacchio and Romagnoli form the base of the defence in the three. Despite Romagnoli’s terrible back pass that allowed Kevin Lasagna to score, he was perhaps one of the best players on the day. Both he and Bonucci were especially good at making space to receive Gigi Donnarumma’s nervous passing, but despite the fact they are new as a three, they also have little cover.
Against SPAL too there were mistakes and there are still questions about Musacchio, as whilst he has settled quickly, he often gets caught out of position. Paletta and Zapata perhaps can cover, but is this enough?
There is no taking away from Milan and Inter’s progress, you can feel it in the stands, you can feel it in the city, but the question perhaps is how to move this excitement into credible ambition. If they want to challenge beautiful Napoli and ruthless Juventus then these are the details, however marginal, that they need to address. The centre-backs will not stop either team from having decent seasons, but they will need more if they are to truly challenge.