James Horncastle reports on Max Allegri's latest tactical move, which could see Thiago Silva become the next Marcel Desailly
Jari Litmanen could barely breathe. The Finnish No 10 huffed and puffed, his hollow cheeks now red, the contours of his face wet with perspiration. Louis Van Gaal had no choice but to haul him off. It was the 69th minute of the 1995 Champions League Final and Ajax were playing Fabio Capello's all-consuming Milan. "I suffer from asthma," Litmanen sighed. When asked to explain what that had anything to do with it, he replied: "They put Desailly on me and Desailly is a tough marker."
For over an hour, one of the most talented playmakers in Europe had toiled away but to no avail. Litmanen simply couldn't find a way past the tentacles of Milan's No 8. No sooner had he got the ball than it was gone. At the time Desailly was known in Italy simply as the Octopus. It was a particularly fitting description. When told of his nickname during an interview with Il Corriere della Sera, the Frenchman smiled typically and said: "I like it. That's my role in the middle of the pitch, just like an Octopus."
Of course, Desailly hadn't started his career in a sentinel-like holding role, screening the defence. He was by trade a centre-back even if playing further forward wasn't completely unfamiliar. "It hasn't been that difficult changing position," Desailly explained. "As a youngster, I played an entire season in midfield for Nantes and it frequently happened to me at Marseille in case of emergency. On my first day at Milanello, Capello placed me there. He assigned me a definitive position and explained to me the movements that I'd have to make."
Desailly was a revelation. In his first season at the club Milan won the Scudetto and the Champions League. Philosophically speaking, he effectively became the point at which the Milan degli Olandesi ended and the Milan degli Italiani returned. Out went Total Football. In came Catenaccio. "Let's not forget the turning point," Capello said. "That is Desailly's signing."
Indeed, there is no greater indicator of this shift in emphasis than a comparison made between the amount of League goals Milan scored in the '92-93 season and the following campaign. Staggeringly, it declined by more than half from 75 to just 36. "Marcel replaced Frank Rijkaard who had more quality and would get forward more," recalled Stefano Eranio. "Now we had a guy who did a disproportionate amount of defensive work. This took some of the defensive pressure off the other players, who felt more free to push on."
Why then is this at all relevant today? Well, when Rino Gattuso pulled up with a muscle injury before Milan's match against Cesena on Sunday evening, Massimiliano Allegri went back to the future with his tactics. He decided to partner Mario Yepes with Alessandro Nesta in defence and then took a leaf out of Capello's book by moving Thiago Silva, the Brazil international centre-back, into midfield à la Desailly. It was an intriguing success and one that was borne out by the statistics.
Thiago Silva completed more passes than anyone else on the pitch , recovered more balls than anyone other than Yepes  and managed three shots on goal  as well in a precious 2-0 victory for the League leaders. Interviewed after the game, Milan Vice-President Adriano Galliani was moved to say: "He reminded me of the old Desailly." Il Corriere della Sera even went so far as to call Thiago Silva a "complete champion," such was the aptitude with which he performed the role.
Despite being a couple of inches shorter, there are similarities between Thiago Silva's style of play and that of Desailly. He is very fast and strong too, excellent in the air, as well as a fine tackler and a brilliant reader of the game. If anything the Brazilian is more elegant in possession than his French counterpart.
So the question is does he have a future in the position? Well, in the short-term, yes. Allegri has told reporters that Thiago Silva "will play again in the role that he occupied against Cesena" in tonight's Coppa Italia quarter-final away to Sampdoria as long as club captain Massimo Ambrosini doesn't pass a fitness test. New signings Urby Emanuelson and Mark Van Bommel are "90 per cent" likely to start and if they do, La Gazzetta delo Sport understands their positions will be either side of Thiago Silva in midfield. Even Alessandro Nesta's shoulder injury has yet to herald his return to the defence. Sokratis is mooted to partner Yepes, who was excellent against Cesena.
Inevitably, though, one expects that when all of Milan's midfielders are back available again, Thiago Silva would naturally reprise his old position. The context is slightly different to when Desailly played at San Siro. Capello's Milan was in possession of arguably the best defence of all time in Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Billy Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti. As of now, Allegri doesn't have the same luxury nor the same depth at the back perhaps to persist with the experiment he first tried during Milan's winter training camp in Dubai.
Still, it gives Allegri plenty of food for thought. Meanwhile, Thiago Silva is just happy to lend a hand. "I'd also play goalkeeper if it helps the team," he said. Hopefully it won't come to that.
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