Take a look at Milan’s starting XI in their 1-0 defeat to Juventus on Sunday, what do you notice? If you don’t have the time, or patience, to figure it out, it’s this: Hakan Calhanoglu and Andrea Conti were the only starters that were bought from Yonghong Li’s hedonistic summer spending spree of 2017. The sole survivors.
As they currently languish in the bottom half of Sere A, those heady days of July and August 2017 seem nothing but a distant memory to Rossoneri fans now, when Mr. Li’s mysterious Chinese money bankrolled a spending spree never before seen by an Italian side. Yes, there had been big spending before - Massimo Moratti and Sergio Cragnotti in the 1990s, even their own Silvio Berlusconi before that, for example - but this was an entirely different beast.
It felt like every single day in that two-month window, Milan were buying a new player. The first signing was Mateo Musacchio for €18m, then Franck Kessie (€28m) and Ricardo Rodriguez (€15m) arrived a week later. Andre Silva (€38m), Calhanoglu (€20m), Andrea Conti (€24m), Leonardo Bonucci (€42m), Fabio Borini (€5m), Lucas Biglia (€17m) and Nikola Kalinic (€25m) all came via Malpensa airport, ready to be part of the Diavolo’s new Chinese revolution.
Fast forward two years, and what has become of Milan’s €200m+ outlay? Silva, who was 22 when signed, had the biggest potential of all the new signings, and had been ordained by none other than Cristiano Ronaldo himself as his eventual heir in the Portuguese national side. He lasted a single season, struggling to adapt to Serie A as he scored just two goals, and left on loan, first to Sevilla and later to Eintracht Frankfurt.
Whilst it’s perhaps unfair to judge Silva that harshly given his age, the same cannot be said for the biggest signing, Bonucci, who arrived as a serial Scudetto winner with Juve and had just played in the Champions League Final.
Bonucci was a train wreck in his single season in red and black. His defensive frailties were badly exposed without Giorgio Chiellini to cover him, and indeed it was the actual signing of Bonucci that railroaded the strategic thinking of directors Marco Fassone and Massimiliano Mirabelli.
Fassone and Mirabelli have since said that the signing of Bonucci wasn’t planned, and in fact they had set money aside to buy an experienced striker, with Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang the first target. Yet the possibility emerged to sign Bonucci, who’d fallen out with Max Allegri before a Champions League game against Porto the previous season and their relationship never recovered, and so Fassone and Mirabelli felt signing Bonucci - a genuinely world-class player on paper - was an opportunity not to be missed.
This is the fork-in-the-road moment. How different would Milan’s current fortunes be had they went for Aubameyang and passed up Bonucci? Milan’s top scorer in 2017-18 was Patrick Cutrone with 10 goals, 18 in all competitions. Milan scored the fewest amount of goals from any side in the top seven, and it isn’t in the realm of fantasy to suggest that the signing of the current Arsenal striker could’ve propelled the Rossoneri back into the top four.
Kessie, Calhanoglu, Musacchio and Rodriguez have all flitted between decent and poor. Kessie, a mainstay under Rino Gattuso, clocked up more minutes than any other Milan player last season but overall has scarcely resembled the player who was so good for Atalanta. Andrea Conti has been dreadfully unfortunate, suffering two serious knee injuries, and pretty much missed the entire Li era.
Nikola Kalinic lasted a single season, scoring only three League goals, and was sent on loan to Atletico Madrid. Biglia and Borini have added next to nothing, with the former now firmly replaced by Ismael Bennacer as the midfield fulcrum since Stefano Pioli took charge. Rodriguez has also been dropped for Theo Fernandez. Calhanoglu is the last of the Mohicans, the last emblem of the chaotic and cryptic Li reign.
When all aspects are combined; the financial outlay on fees and wages, player performances and their inability to move players on, there is a very good case that Milan’s 2017 summer transfer business is the worst ever conducted by a club in Europe’s five biggest Leagues. Not a single signing has been an outright success.
The club recently posted record losses of €146m and, with Champions League football about as likely as a Yonghong Li return, that summer of 2017 - when expectations ran wild, when 65,000 fans turned up to see Milan play Universitatea Craiova in a Europa League qualifying match in early August, and when anything seemed plausible - will hang over the red side of San Siro for a long time.