Many football fans would be forgiven for having not heard of A.C. Monza. It is a small town nestled 15 kilometres North of Milan, synonymous with the Formula One race circuit rather than the football world.
The team has spent its existence in Italy’s lower divisions, but thanks to a socio-political heavyweight, that seems to be changing quickly.
Ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi can often seem inescapable when reading about Italy in general. He served in four different governments, owns large parts of the country’s media landscape, and is now a Member of the European Parliament.
Moreover, he owned AC Milan from 1986 to 2017. Milan’s former CEO Adriano Galliani and Berlusconi oversaw and bankrolled the development of one of football’s most successful sides.
Despite now being 84 years old, these two patriarchs of Italian football have found a new challenge, purchasing AC Monza in 2018. The two were not coy on their ambitions for the club, with Galliani stating to Sky Italia: “There’s no point in hiding, we want to take this city into Serie A”.
So far their plan is working with the club winning Serie D in 2016/17, and Serie C in 2019/20. An interesting statistic will make potential promotion to Serie A all the sweeter for the fans: Monza hold the record for the highest number of seasons played in the Italian second division, 39, without ever reaching Serie A.
So is this purchase as simple as two heavyweights bankrolling a small club into the elite footballing arena, or is there more to his new era at Monza than meets the eye?
On the one hand, Monza’s transfer business since the takeover would suggest that they’re throwing money at the problem and seeing what sticks.
Over 50 players have been signed across the last three seasons. That’s initially an alarming figure but it’s worth noting that Serie B sides often have a very high turnover of signings, and a huge amount of loan signings from Serie A clubs.
Heading into the 2020/21 Serie B season, Monza spent £15.7 million on transfers. This is a lot for a club of this size and level. 22 new players entered the fold.
The two most notable signings were Kevin Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli. The two former Premier League and AC Milan stars joined on free transfers. Seven players came in on loan, and eight more are reported to be free transfers.
Six players cost Monza money. Two were for less than €1 million, and the most expensive was €4.5 million. It’s these signings that make the Monza project more interesting. They’re not in the mould of Balotelli and Boateng who could fairly be viewed as previously exciting players whose antics have become tiresome for the top-flight teams.
An exciting 21-year-old left-back called Carlos Augusto joined from Brazilian side Corinthians for €3.6 million. This signing stands out because it’s clear he is playing at a level that’s beneath him. He signed a four-year deal that is very unusual for Serie B teams to hand out, suggesting he’s been promised promotion to Serie A in the very near future.
This works in two ways for the club. Either they get promoted and already have a quality, settled left-back, or they don’t and they still have a very saleable asset who will sell for more than they paid.
A similar signing is left-sided attacker Dany Mota. The 22-year-old Portugal U21 player, who can speak five languages, only signed on a two-year-deal but is showing great promise this season.
He joined for €2.3 million from Juventus U23’s. With five goals and assists so far this season, he is looking like a similarly clever piece of business to Carlos Augusto.
Monza have also utilised the loan market to tap into some of Italy’s best academies. The two most successful examples in the squad right now are Davide Frattesi and Davide Bettella, from Sassuolo and Atalanta respectively.
On the pitch
It’s become common for teams who sign a raft of first-team players at once to struggle the following season. Two notable examples are Tottenham Hotspur after Gareth Bale left, and Chelsea’s current squad with the likes of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz struggling to bed in quick enough.
This doesn’t seem to be the case for Monza right now. The Serie B season is long and changeable, but currently, they sit in fourth place, six points behind leaders Empoli, and seem on track for that heavily sought-after promotion. They’re unbeaten in the last five matches, conceding just twice.
The Milan connection doesn’t stop with the owner and chairman. The coach is former Rossoneri player Cristian Brocchi. The defensive midfielder played 99 times for Milan in the mid-2000s, as well as turning out for Inter Milan and Lazio. He’s now in his third season in charge of the Brianzoli.
In terms of managerial style, Brocchi seems to favour a big squad. 22 different players have been used in the last five games alone, suggesting he doesn’t know his best eleven yet this season.
Results have still been good though, which seems to be down t the consistency in playing style both home and away. They almost always line up in a 4-3-3, with lots of possession and a high volume of passing. This consistency means Brocchi can rotate the starting eleven frequently without disrupting the team’s rhythm.
This being said, the squad does seem to be settling down as the season wears on. The midfield three of choice is the experienced heads of Andreas Barberis and Antonio Barilla, with Sassuolo loanee Frattesi on the right of the three. He is a clear example of a mezzala, making darting runs forward to aid the attack. This helps to compensate for the lack of attacking intent from the right-back, Giulio Donati.
Dany Mota and Boateng regularly start on the right and left of the front three, with Christian Gytkjaer and Balotelli rotating upfront.
This blend of exciting young players and experienced heads means that not only do Monza have a very real shot at promotion, they could also have a squad capable of maintaining a place in Serie A. If that doesn’t work out, they’ve already acquired some very saleable assets in Dany Mota and Carlos Augusto.