Thursday, August 30, 2012

Manchester City's identity crisis

Manchester City's two Premier League games this season have been ... workmanlike.

The new signings ... underwhelming.

The manager ... apparently unsettled.

In spite of this, Manchester City remain the smart choice for this year's Premiership title. Even after managing a victory and a draw after falling behind against promoted Southampton and an inspired Liverpool, City have yet to inspire. In order for them to do so, the scattered approach that's characterised their August needs to disappear before it becomes a problem.

City has looked unstable this term; their centre of defence still hasn't convinced after shopping four goals in two matches and their experimental 3-5-2 formation hasn't been the versatile attacking springboard that manager Roberto Mancini hoped it might. Rumblings continue to emanate from Etihad Stadium that Mancini wants new – pricey – signings opposed somewhat by a boardroom that has adopted a confusing fiscal conservatism.

The club is travelling well, but no doubt things could be more smooth. The club proved last year it has the talent and application to overcome even the most troubled times, however it's imperative the club address this unease before it becomes more problematic.

The present Manchester City team seems from the outside to be struggling with its sense of identity. This is natural, considering so much has changed within the team over the past half-decade – only Joe Hart, Micah Richards and Pablo Zabaleta (just) pre-date the Sheikh Mansour regime. Given the number of personnel and tactical changes the squad has undergone, it's not surprising they might question how they play their best football.

Since August 2008, the club's been first a rest-stop for second-tier superstars like Emmanuel Adebayor, Roque Santa Cruz and Craig Bellamy. Once Mancini arrived, the club then became an indomitable defensive team who burnt opponents with terrier-like forwards like Carlos Tevez. Last season, City started as barnstormers, reverted to defensive type in midseason and finished the year in true come-from-behind style. Added pressure from being league champions – and popularly perceived as being a billionaire's plaything – forces two more elements to this identity crisis.

But which of these – if any – are Manchester City in 2012-13? Which personality suits them best?

A sense of identity always helps a team's performance. This is because it offers certainty to players, removing doubt as to how they play. Underdog. The Bad Boys. Pass and Press. Buying club. Selling club. These are all merely labels, but what labels provide is a sense of certainty and identity. Lacking that assurance in tactics, formations or individual role promotes player confusion and hesitation, while instinct is minimised and key decisions are overthought.

If existential questions on an individual level are vexing, they can become destructive when there's another 30+ elements in the equation. City are hardly the only club in such flux. The same could be said of many clubs that undergo significant change – Spurs, Arsenal, United and Aston Villa. However given the moderate quality of City's opposition (no matter how well Liverpool played) and their gift equaliser from Martin Skrtl, City's lack of cohesion has been quite pronounced.

It seems the lack of a defining identity in the Manchester City squad of August 2012 has manifested as caution. Do the players and managers see themselves as defense-first, offense-first or a football chameleon able to match any team at their gameplan? Defining identity and subsequently adopting an attendant culture is the foremost responsibility of any coach. This means the task is Mancini's alone, a task undermined or distracted by constant public calls for reinforcements.

The season is still young. But it behoves Roberto Mancini to create an identity for his team before it begins to overshadow their wonderful 2012.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Liverpool, not Arsenal, right for Sahin

Nuri Sahin appears close to signing on loan for Brendan Rodgers' new Liverpool. The temporary (?) transfer promises to add to a midfield that didn't convincingly implement a new pass 'n' press gameplan in an opening day loss to West Bromwich Albion.

Turkish playmaker Sahin conducted the exquisite Borussia Dortmund midfield for several seasons before moving to current club Real Madrid before last season. He promptly found himself a fixture on the bench, squeezed out in preference of the powerful triumvirate of Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso and Mesut Ӧzil. He has the nous, physique and game to make a significant contribution to the Anfield mob this season.

It had been thought that Sahin would move to Arsenal, perhaps as a direct replacement for Alex Song who, shortly after Robin van Persie, discovered the not-so-secret tunnel that allows players to escape from the Emirates. Now a deal with Liverpool seems imminent and more the better for the player.

Rodgers' preferred tactical system demands his central midfielders be mobile, efficient and to play both attack and defence. It doesn't hurt if they can pass, either. If the centre-mids overcommit or don't/can't harry effectively, the possession-heavy game style becomes exposed to counter-attack. Swansea City's performances while implementing a pass-press approach earned Rodgers the Liverpool job, but the Reds don't quite have the horses to completely adopt either the pass or the press: Rodgers' current midfield features too many players unable to adapt their games to his liking.

Big-ticket Kenny Dalglish items Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson haven't synched well with the Rodgers manifesto; academy graduates Jonjo Shelvey and Jay Spearing may never. Acquiring another pivot players became paramount before harrier Lucas Leiva or new buy Joe Allen succumbed to injury or fatigue. Sahin would play heaps and could even conceivably become Liverpool's featured player.

While Arsenal leapt at the opportunity to bring in Sahin, negotiations with Real Madrid have hardly been smooth. Sahin would fit – apart from Real, there are few places he wouldn't – but would be another class player at a club which seems allergic to grunt. Even Song, who ostensibly occupied the defensive midfield position for five years, thought of himself as more playmaker than combatant.

The Gunners – like many other EPL squads – lack a Tiote-type, paid primarily to win back possession; at Anfield, the press (and Lucas) this need is minimised. Sahin at Arsenal would duplicate talent – he'd be very handy, but not address the club's most pressing need. While surrounded by Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and, most blindingly, Santi Cazorla, Sahin may never develop into the “franchise player” he could become.

This makes the impending move to Merseyside the best option – for Nuri Sahin, and football watchers everywhere.

(Original article date: 24th August)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Book review: Tip Off, by Filip Bondy

Tip Off isn't a bad book, but it's hard to get excited about.  In fact, a one-word review would simply be "meh".  Filip Bondy presents us with the equivalent of watching a player take a 17' jump shot when he could have dunked on three guys - it's just as effective and may even be the right play, but leaves the audience slightly underwhelmed.

This is a shame, because Bondy chose a fascinating topic: the 1984 NBA draft, which saw Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Perkins, Charles Barkley and John Stockton arrive in professional basketball.  It also provided the backdrop for the most high-profile draft blunder in history, when Portland selected Kentucky center Sam Bowie instead of Jordan with the second overall pick.

It's a succinct read which touches on the leadup to the draft, what each team was thinking when making their selections and also a brief look at how each player fared.  There's little coming together of the players - of every player drafted, the book may as well be about the six guys listed above.  Nobody - well, nobody except the most hardened basketball-philes - wants to know Chicago's thinking behind taking NBL legend Butch Hays with a seventh-round pick, or the reasons that Indiana chose Charlotte legend Stuart Gray.

Bondy writes to get the facts out rather than to entertain.  It is well-researched and the author has obviously researched and interviewed broadly, which all serves a purpose but at times upsets the book's flow.  Each chapter focuses on one aspect of the draft process, be it Chicago or Houston allegedly tanking (leading to the institution of the draft lottery in 1985), the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics or Sam Perkins' background in upstate New York.  The result is that there are minimal shared experiences which takes away from the Draft's inherent maturation storyline.

The information is all there, but given the storied nature of that draft, the reader is left feeling as if they're in some way short changed and that perhaps a writer with a greater sense of the event may have made Tip Off  more enjoyable.  As it is, it's intriguing at times (did you know that Philadelphia offered Dr. J or Andrew Toney and the no. 5 pick for the no. 3 pick so they could take Jordan?) but labours with an invasive flatness.

A perfectly average read.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Graphic: The Football League heat map

This is a concept I've been playing around with for the past week.  It's basically a year-by-year standings of the English Football League tree made to look pretty by colour-coding specific finishes.  That is, red represents a league finish in the top 15 of the 92 Football League teams, a year highlighted in orange denotes a club finishing in position 16-30 and so on.

Clubs are arranged according to their average league position over the 20 years - that is, Manchester United are ranked highest because since 1992-93 their average league position (ALP) is 1.6.  Clubs in boldface type are those who competed in the Football League/Premier League in 2011-12.

Short pitch: Fixing the Pro Bowl

With the popularity of the Pro Bowl waning dramatically, it's time for the NFL to either put the game out to pasture or to expand the weekend's festivities to include more than American Football's least important annual encounter.

The NFL could take a lesson from their younger antipodean brother, the Australian AFL.

The AFL Grand Final pre-game and half-time entertainment probably peaked in 1979 with KISS's half-time spectacular.  Since then, acts have been as varied as Angry Anderson and the Batmobile to last year's abominable Meatloaf performance.  But the one thing that entertains most between the Grand Final's halves is the sprint, where one player from each club races to earn the title of league's fastest.
Even though it's handicap nature means that usually resting ruckmen or even Brendan Fevola win the title; "Crackers" Keenan tells a wonderful story about drinking all morning and then having to run the event fueled only by beer.  The race captivates 10 million barbecue-bound Australians in culture where any self-promotion is automatically dismissed as self-aggrandisation.  Just imagine what it could do in the largest market in America.

NFL athletes are those best suited to run entertaining sprints: they've got the speed, they want the attention and finally - and to put it mildly - they're not afraid of self-promotion.  Since Usain Bolt destroyed his rivals in the London Olympics, no end of challenges have been issued to the Jamaican blur by likely types.  Chris Johnson, of the Tennessee Titans, says Bolt's slow starts could cost him in a head-to-head matchup, while Heisman Trophy candidate Denard Robinson thinks he could beat the Olympic champion.  Terrell Owens recently earned a contract with the Seattle Seahawks based largely upon his sub-4.5 second 40 yard sprint.

Rhys Stanley wins the 2011 Grand Final sprint
If the event is lucrative enough, enough stars - possibly Bolt himself - could probably be enticed to run.  It's possible that just the title itself would be enough.  As well as fascinating a nation, the sprints could be interactive, with fans voting on participants in concert with players and coaches.  Distance?  Who cares about distance?  Have individual events like a 40 yard sprint and a 100 meter dash.

Of course, installing a sprint doesn't increase waning interest in the Pro Bowl itself, but it would certainly attract a major television audience and generate the pub debate that the Pro Bowl just doesn't.  The Slam Dunk and 3-point contests revitalised the NBA's All-star game but have suffered with time; the simple and elegant beauty of a sprint is that it never loses it's appeal.  The event is wholesome, injuries are rare: a win-win for a league where anything controversial just runs and runs.

The Pro Bowl seems destined for ignominy unless major changes occur: it's time for the NFL to think outside the box.


Friday, August 17, 2012

What Robin van Persie could mean to Manchester United

With Arsenal captain Robin van Persie certain to sign for Manchester United, the balance of power in the English Premier League shifts again towards the country's northwest. Despite Arsenal's best efforts to provide him with support in the form of the deepest squad of his tenure at the Emirates, van Persie's quest for self-actualisation through silverware now continues at Old Trafford.

Manchester United supporters will be happy with the purchase: it cements their position as a destination club, goals are always welcome and the transfer fee – despite reaching a rumoured 24 million – is quite justifiable should the van Persie provide even three years of quality play.

He will (likely) start at the pointy end of Sir Alex Ferguson's preferred one-striker formations, the 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1. This means, despite ink suggesting other centre-forwards will be marginalised, it seems far more likely that fellow new signing Shinji Kagawa or established wide men like Ashley Young will be most affected. With Kagawa, Tom Cleverley, youngster Nick Powell, Rooney and Young all probably best employed behind the striker, pessimists suggest the club has too many players in competition for one role.

That Ferguson purchased Kagawa this summer, Young last year, as well as advancing Cleverley, suggests the United manager favours a mobile, multifocal attack where numerous players are able to threaten opposing defences. This flexibility fits with his formation preference, which ostensibly affords better support for an creaking central midfield from a mobile forward corps. When attacking, the mosquito-fleet forwards can then run at defences rather than depending upon glamour balls to isolated target men.

United's best play this century came from 2007-2009 with a fluid 4-3-3. When they effectively replaced the versatile Cristiano Ronaldo with the more orthodox Dimitar Berbatov, an element of that interoperability was lost.

Although he was hardly a failure, it was perhaps a sense of tactical straightforwardness which led to Berbatov's purchase in 2008. In spite of a reported 30 million price tag, Berbatov was rarely deployed in big matches and almost never by himself: his lack of acumen and (apparently) inclination reducing his effectiveness in the critical poacher's role. Berbatov's languor and uncanny lead-up play has always been suited best to the 4-4-2. As United have attempted to increase their flexibility, Berbatov has become a bench fixture. van Persie is not nearly so limited.

Although sometimes very effective – c.f. Martin O'Neill's success at Aston Villa and Sunderland – it is tactical naïveté to suggest that “defenders defend, attackers attack and midfielders link the two”. When competing against the best clubs in the world, such simplicity is quickly rendered obsolete, and the flat, age-old 4-4-2 formation is now utilised less and less in truly elite teams.

The lessons taught by Champions League drubbings against Barcelona may have been learnt. Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, the three most important players in what was popularly acknowledged as the best team in recent memory, all prefer to operate centrally. Of course there are differences and these changes may just be a stall until Ferguson develops or acquires a supertalented central hub. Ferguson may opt to shuffle – no-one really knows what the old fox has in mind: signing Robin van Persie could simply be the managerial equivalent of a mid-life crisis sports car.

However, optimists could perhaps see him as the final step in United's journey towards fully embracing a more fluid tactical system.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Expanded EPL survival rates now available

On Monday we published the survival rates of every team promoted to the English Premier League from the League Championship since the start of the year.

Because I like to be thorough and because we're about to enter the Premiership's 21st season, I expanded the diagram (and hopefully made it somewhat clearer) to take in every promoted team since the inception of the league in 1992-93.

As usual, years spent continuously in the top division are indicated in azure, while any season spent in the Premier League after promotion-relegation-promotion are represented by green.  Red denotes any season spent outside the Premiership, because we all know football begins and ends there (/sarcasm).

Copyright Balanced Sports
As you can see, Second Season Syndrome is perhaps an overstated phenomenon, with only six instances of a club being relegated after their second year in the EPL.  Every time I look at this graphic I mentally congratulate Fulham for their longevity, a streak matched in the Premiership's history by Newcastle United after their promotion in Year 1 anno PL.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Graphic: Premier League survival rates

The graphic below shows the survival rates since the start of the millennium of teams promoted from The Championship.  It's a direct extension of a similar post authored at about this time last year.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Some regeneration advice for Chelsea from Doctor Who

Patrick Troughton as Doctor Who
“Life depends on change, renewal”.

These were some of the first words spoken by the second Doctor Who, all the way back in 1966. They were needed because the original actor who played the Doctor, William Hartnell, had left the series and moved on to a retirement home for the terminally crotchety; he was replaced by a younger, fitter, happier – at least initially – actor, Patrick Troughton.

The character of The Doctor, from the eponymous series – starting again in only a matter of weeks – has (mostly) enjoyed a fifty year television existence because when Hartnell's illnesses became too great for the program, they simply subbed in another actor and wrote it into the plot. The Doctor's appearance and mannerisms changed markedly, but his innate character of fairness, equality and just being generally good has remained through eleven actors and half a century. The invention of “regeneration” was so simple and elegant that it allowed a successful program to embrace, and therefore survive, radical change.

This same sort of regeneration is currently in process in West London at Chelsea. Over the summer the Blues cornered the market in tricksy, creative types as they acquired starlets Oscar, Marko Marin and the Hazard brothers, Eden and Thorgan. When combined with last season's best buys, Gary Cahill and Juan Mata, the Blues have replaced their cantankerous old stagers with much more watchable stars.

This is a regeneration with leaguewide implications. The Blues still boasts five of the six most important aspects of the successful last decade – their names are Abramovich, Terry, Lampard, Cole and Cech. Only Drogba has departed. The character of this team doesn't so much depends on this quintet but is actually entirely derived from them: they have the strongest personalities and are the best leaders, the rest of the team will follow or be damned.

Because of this, no matter how important Mata or Hazard become, and despite the obvious cosmetic changes, Chelsea's performance in 2012-13 will revolve around its more venerable elements.

Let's harken back to Who for a moment. Acclimatising to a new Doctor usually took a couple of episodes simply because the characterisation varied so greatly between actors; a new boy was finally accepted as The Doctor (capital T, capital D) after claiming the role with a great performance in a strong story. The same applies at Stamford Bridge. The sheds belong unquestionably to Terry because of his “Mr. Chelsea” aura, his past performances and the memories of success. This has a twofold effect – it promotes team pride but it's hard to argue that it also doesn't lend itself to embracing necessary change. The reinvigoration won't be complete until an alpha dog emerges from this new batch.

For the Blues to walk, rather than reel, into the future, the old salts have to lead by example one last time and embrace regeneration not just of the playing squad, but of the team's leadership group.

Chelsea won't change definitively unless one of Eden Hazard, Fernando Torres, Daniel Sturridge or Mata takes over. While his performances last year justify him the title, Mata's personality may be too mild-mannered to wrest control of the team. With Torres' funk stretching back to the Tennant era, this almost automatically leaves the confident Hazard the best candidate.

The regeneration of body has all but taken. Now the same must occur at the head.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Graphic: US arena naming rights

The following graphic shows the startling range of companies that have the naming rights for North American major league sports arenas, broken down by company market.  That is, each company is categorised according to its primary industry.

The category "other" includes all companies which sponsored only one arena, eg. Petco Park in San Diego is the only stadium sponsored by a pet service company.  Traditionally named stadia are those whose iconic status is enough to generate income rather than relying upon corporate sponsorship - for example, Candlestick Park or Arrowhead Stadium.  (It is debatable whether multinational sports companies like Fenway Sports Group or the Madison Square Garden corporation in fact "sponsor" their arenas; for this purpose, they are lumped in with "traditionally" named stadia.)

As you can see, Financial Service, banking and mobile telephone companies dominate the naming rights landscape.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Arsenal finally swimming in the deep end

With their acquisition of Málaga's Santi Cazorla, Arsenal have for the third time this summer acquired a potential Premier League star. At worst, the twenty-seven year old will consign the somewhat-resurgent Tomas Rosicky and a turgid Andrei Arshavin to the North London scrapheap. At an unlikely best, his signature may even convince Robin van Persie to stay at the Emirates Stadium.

A classy attacking midfielder with a corner-seeking free kick, Cazorla will inherit the role of creative hub made vacant three times in recent seasons by injury and infirmity: Jack Wilshere's foot refuses to heal properly, Cesc Fabregas' homesickness finally bested him and Samir Nasri contracted a distressingly severe case of wandering-eye-syndrome (not a real condition). In Arsene Wenger's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, Cazorla is liable to start in the middle behind van Persie or fellow newbie Olivier Giroud.

The squad has been reshaped dramatically from August last year. Fuelled by the 8-2 drubbing at the hands of Manchester United, Wenger threw cash to the four corners of Europe and came up with Mikel Arteta, Andre Santos, Chu-Young Park and Per Mertesacker. In retrospect, only Arteta performed to his potential during 2011-12, but each – except the lamentable Park – played a role in salvaging Arsenal's season.

With Podolski, Giroud and now Cazorla arriving however, that quartet's greatest contributions may not come as absolute first-teamers. Apart from (maybe) Arteta, not one of these four purchases projects in Arsenal's best XI. This isn't a bad thing, though: they provide the quality squad depth Arsenal has needed since The Invincibles.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Book review: Sixty years on the back foot, by Clyde Walcott

The Caribbean has produced several of the greatest batsmen of all time. However, many of these players seem to rail against faceless figures of authority. Currently, talisman Chris Gayle swats boundaries at whim – more often for lucrative T20 sides than for the West Indies. The chain which leads back through the likes of Brian Lara and Sir Vivian Richards – who was rather partisanly profiled in the acclaimed documentary Fire in Babylon – to George Headley.

Sixty years on the back foot
The second (or third, or fourth depending on how you look at it) of these superstars was Sir Clyde Walcott, a forerunner of devastating West Indian batsmanry and later president of the International Cricket Council. His autobiography, Sixty years on the back foot, was published at the conclusion of his ICC tenure in 1997.

His memoir is lightweight – entire tours are glossed over, especially those in which the West Indies struggled – and Walcott writes with the style of a man who finishes lengthy believable anecdotes with “Can you believe it?”. However, the parallels between West Indian cricket in 1952 and in 2012 are too plain to ignore.

Along with Sir Everton Weeks and Sir Frank Worrell, Walcott was one of the famed “Three Ws”, three Bajan players raised within a mile of each other and who helped West Indian cricket attain relevance in the 1950s. The significance of the three friends and their relationship is underscored throughout Walcott's writings as he attempts to characterise Caribbean cricket through their free-hitting exploits.

He does this for a simple reason: Walcott unquestionably thought that West Indian cricket, when played hard but for fun, is superior to any other. (Ed: he may be right) Time and again, his tacit disdain the orthodoxy inherent in 1950s English cricket is obvious; simultaneously he rejoices in the laid-back joie de vivre that formerly typified West Indian cricket.

Although Fire in Babylon incorrectly suggested that calypso cricket was provided only a team of loveable freewheelers (ie. losers), you can't escape the feeling while Walcott revelled in victories, he wouldn't countenance sacrificing style to achieve more success. His transition from money-chasing maverick pro to WICB ambassador adds another intriguing dynamic. However, like most politicians, his autobiography is an exercise in using many words to avoid saying much at all.

Although Walcott's memoir hearkens to different times, where pacemen were named Esmond Kentish and Foffie Edwards, there are still familiar cricket themes. Race relations, though downplayed, provided undercurrents of discontent. The same could be said for matters of money, as cricketers were still strictly classified as “professional” or “amateur”. That Worrell, Weekes and Walcott were forced to choose between making a living playing English league cricket rather than representing the West Indies provides a fifty-year prophecy of the WICB's current struggles with player free-agency.

The same issues have plagued West Indian cricket now for sixty years. The islands' success from 1975 to 1995 and more widespread cricketing professionalism only masked the difficulties of West Indian players and administrators. That the situation is unchanged over so long, coupled with difficult economic factors leaves the reader feeling that this situation is now intractable in West Indian cricket and the game is so much the poorer.

However disappointing the state of West Indian cricket, it's perhaps more disappointing that such an eminent figure in the game stuck true to his political, rather than returning to his maverick roots and challenging the myriad failings in Caribbean cricket politics.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Scottish Premier League philosophy

On today's Guardian website, their football page is headed by the redoubtable Ewan Murray's preview of the Scottish Premier League. In it, the Guardian's main football guy north of Hadrian's Wall suggests that Celtic are a shoo-in for their 8th SPL title in 15 years. With Rangers out of sight – and lucky to be alive – the SPL looks like being the most boring league in Europe.

Barring an ebola breakout in Glasgow, Celtic will run the table this year. In fact, given the lack of overall talent available to the SPL, the most interesting storylines are likely to be whether the Hoops can play the year through undefeated (unlikely) or if manager Neil Lennon receives more death threats (more probable).

To anyone without a vested interest, the other teams, always also-rans, are now barely relevant. The league simply doesn't have the finances – or European pulling power – to lure imports of quality. With some of the religious element minimised (temporarily?), Scottish football will struggle to gain much press outside the British isles.  The whole has become far less than the sum of its component parts.

It's been a long, gloomy autumn since Roy Keane finished his career at Celtic. Despite Rangers NewCo securing some SPL-level players probably able to earn rapid promotion(s), the entire Scottish football system stares at losing its relevance. Despite being eligible, no Scots feature for the abominably-named Team GB while the Scotland national team continues to slump in the world rankings. Now, their top division looks more like a wasteland than a garden.

Lennon. Courtesy:
With Rangers' best now filling out Premier League squads, Celtic are the only team capable of fielding even a middling outfit. That said, the Parkhead giants have accumulated a barnful of mediocre talents rather than any players of absolute quality. Yet even with a severely flawed squad and fallible gameplan, the Hoops would probably defeat a “best of the rest” team seven times in ten.

With only a modicum of competition, the league only stands to lose popularity and even Celtic's vitality will dissipate. For so long Celtic and Rangers have been Scottish football's Ying and Yang – each depending on the other to give their existence meaning. Now shorn of their Yang, Celtic surveys the remnants of the SPL and must begin to doubt their own global importance.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

AC Milan: Ch-ch-ch-changes

Silvio Berlusconi doesn't do anything by half measures.

Two seasons ago, his club was perhaps the oldest elite team in Europe.  Although football's Peter Pan, Paolo Maldini, had retired, the Rossoneri claimed the Serie A title featuring almost an entire XI of thirtysomethings (Alessandro Nesta,  Mark van Bommel, Massimo Ambrosini, Clarence Seedorf, Gianluca Zambrotta, Pippo Inzaghi, Massimo Oddo, Christian Abbiati, Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso).  These decelerating stalwarts were supplemented by some elite "younger" talent like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Alexandre Pato.

2012 sees AC Milan looking forward to their next challenge: building a club around home-developed talent rather than big-money signings.

Strictures imposed by UEFA's Financial Fair Play, coupled with a perilous Italian economy means Berlusconi and co decided the club was best positioned to stare down their future without their gamut of fourth-decade, eight-figure signings.  Over the past two years, the club has sold or released a dozen of their most experienced players (Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Nesta, Seedorf, Zambrotta, Inzaghi, Gattuso, Taye Taiwo, van Bommel, Oddo, Legrottaglie and Pirlo), players with a combined age of 402.  Furthermore, the club finally gave up on Ronaldinho, a player who aged much sooner than anyone would have thought possible.

Replacements have been younger and relatively inexpensive: Philippe Mexes, Kevin-Prince Boateng and perhaps  most excitingly of all, Stephan El Shaarawy.  Although Berlusconi and manager Massimiliano Allegri are likely to enter the transfer marketperhaps for red-half alumnus Kaka or Montpellier central defender Mpou Yang-Mbiwa, global buzzwords "austerity measures" seem to apply at Giuseppe Meazza.

In fact, to compare the anticipated AC Milan starting lineup for their first Serie A match to that of two years ago is almost - but not quite - pointless.  The fourteen  players used that day had an average age of 29.6 - incidentally, the exact same average age that of those players that started Milan's first Serie A match last year.  Only five of those players from two years ago remain at the club.  Should no further purchases be made this transfer window the average AC Milan player would be 26.2, a figure increased by goalkeeper Abbiati who at 35 years old is half a decade older than the next oldest starter.

The turnaround was needed and anticipated.  Even though it was expected, it was still brutal.  The new club, while boasting abundant pace and stamina, will rely heavily upon El Shaarawy, Robinho and Boateng for flair and goals.  Despite not appearing to have the same class as even last year, Berlusconi may have chosen the perfect time to rebuild from within: arch-rivals Inter Milan completed an awful season last term, while the whole of Serie A - particularly champions Juventus - are sweating the results of further match-fixing investigations

Only once these allegations play out will we be able to accurately forecast the Italian league.  Count on one thing though: a changed AC Milan means a changed league.