By Carlo Garganese
When Michael Essien hangs up his boots, he will be remembered as one of the best central midfielders of his generation and arguably the greatest player in his country’s history after Abedi Pele.
The archetypal modern midfielder – fast, powerful, boundless energy, a fierce tackler and competitor – Essien would have walked into almost any team during his prime. He was a vital part of the outstanding Lyon and Chelsea sides that dominated their domestic championships during the middle part of the last decade.
But those days are now long gone. Ever since he first damaged his anterior cruciate ligament in 2008, Essien has endured a steady decline. Now at the age of 31 and after again rupturing his ACL and meniscus in 2011, the man nicknamed ‘The Bison’ has been reduced to an old warhorse that's seen one too many battles.
The message that this transfer sends out to the rest of the world is that not only are AC Milan no longer a serious team, but their future under the current leadership also looks very bleak.
Vice president Adriano Galliani stressed only last month that “Milan’s future is youth” and that the club would be adopting an Arsenal or Ajax-type model of scouting young talent from abroad and nurturing home-grown youngsters from the club’s academy.
The decision to sign Essien makes a mockery of these plans.
|ESSIEN'S LEAGUE STATS SINCE 2008
2012-13 (on loan at Madrid)
This season, Essien has made only five Premier League appearances – despite competing with central midfielders of a similar quality to those he will find in Milan. He started only two of these games, one of which he was hauled off at half-time as Southampton led at Stamford Bridge - with Chelsea recovering to win 3-1 in his absence. The three substitute outings amounted to only nine minutes of playing time.
Although he will arrive on a free transfer, the doubts surrounding his fitness and particularly his right knee - which has undergone two operations in the last four years - makes Milan’s decision to purchase him even more illogical. The veteran failed to pass all of his tests during the first part of his medical on Saturday. Only after further and deeper examinations on both knees did MilanLab adjudge that the Ghanaian was fit enough. In addition to his basic wage, part of Essien’s 18-month contract will see him earn on a pay-as-you-play basis – hardly a ringing endorsement of the midfielder’s health.
New coach Clarence Seedorf was instrumental in bringing Essien to Milanello and beamed: "He's a great player, a warrior I think of using in the midfield. He's a guy with personality that will be useful for the team."
Essien himself also reacted angrily on twitter to criticism of his transfer and doubts over his fitness: "Haters will broadcast your failure but whisper your success. Medicals done, looking forward to start my new life with AC Milan."
No one is doubting how successful Essien has been in the past, only the present and future. The truth is that Essien is no superior to any of Milan’s senior central midfield options – Riccardo Montolivo, Nigel de Jong, Sulley Muntari and Andrea Poli – and his arrival will only further decrease the playing time of promising 18-year-old Bryan Cristante, the “youth” player who should be a poster boy of Galliani’s new model.
Another teenager, M’Baye Niang, emerged last season and appeared to be a real prospect. However, he then failed to develop and was shifted out on loan to Montpellier in January where he has immediately shone – eliminating PSG from the Coupe de France and scoring three goals in five games, including a strike versus fellow big-spenders Monaco.
Stephan El Shaarawy exploded onto the scene in the first half of the 2012-13 season, but was then managed horribly after the arrival of Mario Balotelli and hasn’t scored a Serie A goal in 11 months. Riccardo Saponara, a member of Italy’s exciting Under-21 team that finished runners-up in last summer’s Euros, has barely been given a kick after arriving from Empoli.
With no hope of qualifying for the Champions League next season, and little chance of venturing deep into this edition's knockouts, Seedorf has essentially been gifted five free months to plant the seeds of the new Milan. Five months where results don't matter.
Although the best cure for Milan’s malaise would be investment from the kind of ambitious owner Silvio Berlusconi has long ceased to be, most fans would accept a year or two out in the wilderness if they could see evidence of a clear youth-orientated project being executed.
But Essien’s signing - along with other cheap and desperate quick-fixes like Kaka and Adil Rami - just sends Milan further and further into the abyss.