In first coaching role, Seedorf faces daunting task at Milan

Wednesday January 15th, 2014

Clarence Seedorf returns to AC Milan, facing a daunting task in his first managerial role.
Fabio Castro/AGIF/AP

After the news had broken that Clarence Seedorf was to be the new manager of AC Milan, the Curva Sud ultra group erected a banner outside the club's old offices. Its message was simple: "Seedorf, no grazie."

Given that it's only two months since the ultras were confronting players over poor performances, there's something unexpected and slightly touching about their on-going support for Massimiliano Allegri, who was dismissed following Sunday's 4-3 defeat at Sassuolo after a little over three seasons in the job. The Curva Sud have been consistent in this, though, acknowledging the turmoil behind the scenes at the club, and releasing a statement in May in which they explicitly stated they didn't want Seedorf or any other manager who lacked experience.

It's easy to fall into the trap of assuming, given the general reputation of ultras, that they oppose Seedorf because he is black -- and he immediately becomes the highest-profile black manager in Serie A history, surpassing Cane, the Brazilian who managed Napoli in 1994-95 -- but in this case it seems the opposition is rooted in genuine doubts over his capacity to do the job.

The inexperience is the key; Seedorf doesn't even have a Pro License and will coach only with special dispensation. Nobody doubts that Seedorf was a great player (he is the only player in history to win the UEFA Champions League with three teams), that he is a highly intelligent and eloquent man, somebody who thinks deeply about the tactical side of the game and has the force of personality to convey his opinions -- at times, arguably, rather too much so.

His early days as a player were littered with spats that flared, because he felt the need to correct a coach he thought was getting things wrong. As the Dutch journalist Simon Kuper pointed out, Seedorf usually seems to have believed he was helping, realizing only later than he had inadvertently undermined his coach.

That perhaps suggests man management may not be a strength, and while those incidents became less common as his career went by, he refused to play at Euro 2008, because he said he couldn't play under the Netherlands coach Marco van Basten. You wonder, too, how Seedorf's forthrightness will sit with a resident used to having his say on team matters, albeit less than he used to.

Yet nobody at Botofogo, where he surprisingly chose to go after Milan -- a move that speaks of his inquisitiveness and willingness to face new challenges -- has anything but praise for him, speaking of the way he amended his game to suit the team and that the team then came to revolved around him as it qualified for its first Copa Libertadores.

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The perfect time for him to go, perhaps, would have been in six months, after that Libertadores campaign, but opportunity sometimes knocks at inopportune times. The truth is that whoever takes over at Milan faces an extremely difficult situation. Allegri was a coach who divided opinion, and it's hard even now to know whether the second, third and fourth-place finishes he achieved in his first three seasons bordered on the miraculous, or whether this season, in which Milan lies 11th and 30 points off the top, is just disastrous. But whatever his capabilities, he has not been helped by the on-going power struggle within Milan.

Back in November, Milan's long-serving general manager Adriano Galliani was talked out of resigning only after an agreement was reached under which he would handle the football side of the club while Barbara Berlusconi, a board member and the daughter of the former prime minister of Italy and the president of the club Silvio Berlusconi, oversaw commercial operations. Yet on Sunday night, as Galliani spoke on the telephone to Silvio, Barbara released a statement that made Allegri's position untenable.

Gallliani has since spoken of his "sadness" at Allegri's departure: quite apart from disappointing results, Allegri was been to an extent the victim of internal politicking. He was also hampered by a severe reduction in the club's budget -- at least in part caused by Berlusconi fighting various charges of tax evasion and sexual impropriety.

Last season was described as "Year Zero", a fresh start for Milan after it sold Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva and said goodbye to Alessandro Nesta, Rino Gattuso, Pippo Inzaghi and Seedorf himself. You can question why so much aging talent was allowed to accumulate, but no club could easily endure the loss of so much talent at the same time.

The signing this winter of the Japanese star Keisuke Honda perhaps suggests at a relaxation of the austerity, but this remains a squad of the past-their-best -- Kaka, Philippe Mexes, Sullley Muntari; the temperamental -- Mario Balotelli, Robinho; and the promising but unproven -- Stephan El Sharaawy and perhaps M'Baye Niang, who has been loaned out to Montpellier after an indifferent start.

In terms of balance, the squad is heavily weighted towards attacking, the defensive shortcomings all too apparent on Sunday. Milan is in a mess that even Allegeri's biggest critics couldn't claim was more than partly of his own making. Turning things around would be a huge task for even the most experienced of managers.

Seedorf has the self-belief to think he can do it, but there are greater issues at Milan than who the coach is. Even if he gets everything right in the dressing-room and on the pitch, he could be undone by the Galliani-Barbara Berlusconi struggle. The Curva Sud may be right: even if Seedorf is the preferred choice, it may have been better to appoint an experienced interim manager to steady the ship before handing over control.

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