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Jul 22, 2014

Inzaghi hopes to restore Milan's DNA

Filippo "Pippo" Inzaghi picked his brother Simone up at the train station, then got behind the wheel of his car and drove to via Solferino in Milan where La Gazzetta dello Sport's offices are located.

They had a joint interview in the publication. It was late April, 2014. The pink paper wanted to speak to the sibling strikers about the success of their new careers as coaches in youth football. Pippo had ended Milan's decade-long wait for the prestigious Viareggio trophy while Simone had led Lazio's Primavera to glory in the Coppa Italia.

"Let's play a game," proposed Marco Pasotto and his colleague Fabiana Della Valle. "You already faced each other a year ago in the youth sector. How long do you think it'll be before you meet again in Serie A?" Bellissima domanda; a great question.

"We hope in three or four years' time," Pippo replied. However, Simone believed that his older brother would be waiting for him. "Pippo will get there first..." he predicted.

Simone was right, although for a while it looked like both would be working in Italy's top flight this season. Simone's candidacy was given serious consideration by Lazio when Edy Reja stepped down as coach at the end of the last campaign. Ultimately, though, owner Claudio Lotito settled on Stefano Pioli.

By contrast, Pippo's ascension to the first team position at Milan had already long held a sense of inevitability. Ever since chief executive Adriano Galliani had offered him the chance to coach the Allievi (Milan's Under 16s) two years ago, the standard interpretation was a straightforward one: Inzaghi was being groomed for the top job.

A clash with Milan's then coach Massimiliano Allegri at Vismara (where the youth teams train) only added to that impression even if it was perhaps indicative of a pre-existing tension between the pair with one holding the other responsible for ending his playing career.

"You want to take my place?" La Gazzetta claimed Allegri said.

"Sure," Inzaghi supposedly replied. "I'll take it and I'll do a better job."

Promoted to the Primavera (Milan's senior youth team) last summer, a path appeared to be laid out for Inzaghi. Allegri would see out the final year of his contract, leave and then the prodigal Pippo would take over. By all accounts this was Galliani's grand plan. Alas it went awry.

It was always Adriano Galliani's plan to eventually promote Filippo Inzaghi into the manager's position at AC Milan.

Allegri was sacked in the spring -- a casualty of results but also a civil war fought within the club between Galliani and Barbara Berlusconi. Never in his 28 years at the club had the former's stock been so low.

As such, and with his influence checked, perhaps the case he made for Inzaghi didn't carry the same weight. Besides Silvio Berlusconi wanted to make the next appointment and while he held Pippo in as high regard as Galliani, he also had an intuition about Clarence Seedorf and replaced Allegri with him.

As his former teammate put pen to paper on a two-and-a-half-year contract, it looked as though Inzaghi would have to leave to further his ambition. After winning the Viareggio tournament he'd achieved more or less everything he could at the youth level.

Sassuolo wanted him to replace Eusebio di Francesco. "But," Inzaghi revealed, "Galliani and Berlusconi told me: 'No.' I had an obligation to them so I adjusted to their wishes. If they had said: 'You decide,' I would have chosen differently."

Anyway, Seedorf wouldn't last long. From the outside, sacking the Dutchman after only four months seemed nothing short of absurd. But from the accounts of what allegedly happened on the inside, it's understandable. Breakdowns in relationships with the owner, chief exec, his assistant, captain and other members of the team left Milan with no choice. The improvement in results couldn't mitigate for it. Had he stayed, Mauro Tassotti and a number of players have said they would probably have walked.

Milanello was a house divided. With Inzaghi's appointment it has come together again. Great enthusiasm has been generated. Three thousand fans showed up for the opening of Casa Milan and the presentation of Inzaghi and the team. It was quite unexpected after a season in which Milan had finished eighth. "When the bus pulled up and I saw all these people, I got chills," he said. "I hope my players felt the same sensations."

One of the most beloved Milan legends, cynics will say it's a populist hire, a big name and a link to the glory days of yesteryear made to appease the fans. It's also cheaper than extracting Luciano Spalletti from his golden gardening leave at Zenit, and Roberto Donadoni, Vincenzo Montella and Unai Emery from their respective contracts with Parma, Fiorentina and Sevilla. Inzaghi, who will earn 700,000 euros a year, also won't break the bank while Milan continue to pay Seedorf the 2.5 million euros a season he's due until 2016.

But are the motives behind the appointment that transparent?

Many have argued that Milan are making the same mistake with Inzaghi as they did with Seedorf: a young untried coach, the risk of burning an icon and so on. But at least Inzaghi has some experience. Granted it's not at this level, where the pressure and expectations are different, but for two years he has taken team meetings, training sessions and prepared for games, which is more than could be said for Seedorf. Remember, he retired from playing to immediately take the Milan job without any previous coaching work to speak of.

It must also be said that Inzaghi knows the club from the bottom up. He is aware of the players coming through and whether they are ready to be integrated into the first team. Getting back to a time when Milan were as ersatz as they were extravagant and produced the likes of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Demetrio Albertini has become a stated priority.

Growing their own and being organic in this time of austerity has an obvious attraction for financially straitened Milan. Unlike Seedorf, who intended to do away with much of the coaching and playing staff [at considerable expense], Inzaghi instead seems inclined to value what Milan have already got.

Tassotti has been retained. Daniele Tognaccini, the athletic coach and personification of MilanLab, has been made central to things again as he was under Carlo Ancelotti. Freshness comes in the form of Gianni Vio, the former bank clerk turned set-piece guru whose coaching helped Fiorentina score 23 goals from dead balls last season. If only he could teach Milan to defend them; joking aside, there was also talk (though it has since died down) of Arrigo Sacchi returning to the club to head its academy.

"We have to recreate Milan's DNA," Inzaghi said at his introductory press conference. He has a keen sense of this club's identity. "Perhaps no one remembers after a year like the last one, but I am becoming the coach of the most decorated club in the world [for international trophies, a claim disputed by Al-Ahly]."

Words like those are music to the ears of everyone connected with Milan but Inzaghi knows that the talking needs to be done on the pitch.

Milan are banking on Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy returning to form.

As a player he wasn't the most technically gifted and had to work harder than the others. That meant studying his opponents -- he asked for DVDs of them, working on the small details and finding an edge.

It's why even though he came across as a selfish player with only one thing on his mind -- not the team, but scoring goals and breaking individual records -- many thought he had the understanding of the game to become a top coach. What made Inzaghi stand out was his ferocious ambition and will to win. That mentality is what he will seek to transmit to his players.

"Who doesn't fight cannot play for my Milan," he said. "I will forgive a wrong decision in front of goal but not a wrong attitude."

Last year's losing Champions League finalists have been cited as inspiration. "Before we talk about a system, we will have to get back to being a united, cohesive group like I saw in Diego Simeone's Atletico [Madrid]," Inzaghi said. "I don't believe they started out with the idea of finishing in front of Real and Barca in La Liga. Instead they did it because Simeone built an extraordinary spirit."

Unlike Seedorf, Inzaghi will have a full preseason to work with his players. He will also benefit from having only one game a week to prepare for during the season as Milan will be out of Europe.

Yet it doesn't necessarily follow that the team will bounce back into contention. The squad is still incomplete despite adding goalkeeper Michael Agazzi, veteran centre-back Alex and mercurial wide player Jeremy Menez to their squad, along with permanent deals for defender Adil Rami and midfielder Andrea Poli. Inzaghi is also hoping enough money can raised to sign Alessio Cerci from Torino.

A lack of depth at full-back and particularly in midfield is of concern. Captain Riccardo Montolivo is out with a broken leg and Nigel de Jong is recovering from a muscle injury sustained at the World Cup. Kaka has gone, exacerbating a leadership vacuum. Can youthful exuberance compensate for it or will inexperience be exposed?

Inzaghi does appear to have plans to give Bryan Cristante more playing time and teenage wunderkind Hachim Mastour -- Milan's great hope -- a debut. Up front, Stephan El Shaarawy is like a new signing after spending most of last season dealing with injuries. Giampaolo Pazzini is fit. Then there's Mario Balotelli. Can a No.9 like Inzaghi get the best out of him? Galliani believes he can.

"Pippo is the right man at the right place," he says. Just like when he was their striker.

James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a European football writer who contributes to ESPN, BBC Sport, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.