Gonzalo Higuain was supposed to score the goals AC Milan desperately needed. Qualifying for the Champions League seemed a lot more achievable with Higuain leading the way, and so it became a priority.
Everyone knew this was a marriage of convenience. Juventus kicked Higuain out in the summer, and Milan were the only club willing to pay the Argentine’s massive wages. He wanted to join mentor Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea, but the west London side was far less convinced.
“Here at Milan, everyone wanted me,” Higuain said in August. “That’s why I chose Milan. The motivation and conviction they showed at Milan was fundamental.”
Higuain was considered the centerpiece of the club’s new project, a statement signing that signaled Milan’s intent to the rest of Serie A. Hedge fund Elliott Management – who took over Milan in July – wanted to win immediately.
If not, Milan would’ve kept Andre Silva, the 23-year-old Portuguese striker who arrived in 2017 for the third-highest transfer fee in club history. They would’ve been more patient and allowed the process to run its course. They would’ve seen him grow, just as he has on loan at Sevilla.
But now, Milan find themselves back where they were in August. Higuain is reportedly set to join Chelsea – the team that initially passed on him – leaving Milan with two weeks to find a replacement.
Sporting director Leonardo couldn’t foresee the 31-year-old up and leaving at the earliest convenience. He made a significant financial investment in the player and only received eight goals in return. Higuain may have doubted whether his loan deal would become permanent, but Chelsea reportedly offered no further guarantees. Leonardo gave the best he could under Financial Fair Play’s supervision to appease Higuain, and it still wasn’t enough.
So the onus is suddenly on Leonardo to make a fundamental change in strategy with time running out in the January transfer window. It’s not an ideal scenario, affording little time to negotiate an advantageous deal, but it’s imperative he gets it right.
Genoa sensation Krzysztof Piatek reportedly emerged as the primary candidate to replace Higuain in Milan’s attack, and although Piatek would command more palatable wages, the transfer fee could amount to €40 million. That’s a lot of money to spend on a player who was a relative unknown in the Ekstraklasa half a year ago.
Chelsea’s Michy Batshuayi is reportedly Plan B but is arguably an even bigger risk. At 25, he has less resale value and no experience in Serie A.
A move for Piatek, though, would redefine Milan’s outlook. Although the Polish international has scored more goals this season, Higuain – one of the most prolific strikers in club football over the past five years – was a much closer thing to a guarantee. Milan would have to play the longer game with someone like Piatek, knowing the 23-year-old is a bet on the future more than the present.
Piatek could yet score big goals for Milan – he’s done a lot more with less in Genoa – but there’s no promising he’ll light it up as soon as he arrives. And that’s OK – so long as Milan show the necessary patience.
It would no longer constitute a crisis if Milan failed to make the Champions League. Any loss of revenue would be mitigated by money saved on Higuain. Reaching the Champions League would reap around €40 million next year, but without Higuain, Milan could free up roughly €30 million per season in gross salary and amortized costs.
Although European qualification is still attainable – Lazio remain just a point ahead in fourth place – it wouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of Milan’s season. It would be less about winning now and more about building a winning team. That would help Milan meet their Financial Fair Play requirements and convince UEFA that they will eventually break even.
Piatek’s arrival could usher in a new economic approach altogether while offering the hope of remaining competitive in the short term. Milan may even feel inspired to part ways with outcasts Andrea Bertolacci, Riccardo Montolivo, and Fabio Borini. The project could become completely youth-oriented. Milan, after all, tried for years to fix things on the go, applying band-aid solutions that never worked, and it only left the club with record losses.
Out of nowhere, Leonardo and owners Elliott have an opportunity to re-establish the club’s goals and ambitions. Unfortunately, they don’t have much time to do it.