AC Milan's fee for Romagnoli signals scarcity of quality centre-backs
A month ago, Sinisa Mihajlovic offered an insight into his tastes. "I like strawberries," he confessed. "But they shouldn't cost as much as oysters." Milan's new coach had the exasperated look of someone who couldn't get what he wanted. The club's latest bid for Roma centre-back Alessio Romagnoli had been turned down.
Milan weren't lowballing, either. The money they had put on the table amounted to €18 million. Performance-related add-ons would take it up to €20m. At that price, however, Roma were still unwilling to do business. Nor would they be tempted, even when Milan raised their offer to €25m. Roma had a different valuation. A higher one. Unless Milan paid closer to €30m, which they finally agreed to on Sunday night, Romagnoli wouldn't be going anywhere. This is no ordinary oyster we're talking about. Inside there must be a pearl.
The figure has been considered excessive in the papers. Milan are adjudged to have paid well over the odds, but they weren't in a particularly strong bargaining position. Roma knew the piece Milan needed and cared about upgrading the most was at centre-back. They were also aware of just how much they wanted Romagnoli. He wasn't so much at the top of Mihajlovic's wishlist as the only name on it. "Either he arrives or we stay the way we are," he said.
New rules have also worked in Roma's favour. From this season, the FIGC has brought their squad regulations in line with those introduced by UEFA. They can't exceed 25 players and must include four developed in Italy and four from the club's academy. As a product of Roma's youth system, this only served to make Romagnoli more valuable to the Giallorossi, just as it did Andrea Bertolacci, who they were also able to sell at a considerable premium to Milan earlier in the transfer window for a jaw-dropping €20m.
Demographics strengthened Roma's hand, too. As is the case with English players in the Premier League -- though to a lesser extreme -- Italians are a minority in Serie A, where foreign players account for 54.1 percent of the total. Scarcity has therefore had a role in driving up the price, and just to make things even harder for Milan, young Italians are in even shorter supply. The average age of a player in Serie A is 27.3 years old. It's the oldest league in Europe, which has contributed to making Romagnoli even more expensive. He was one of only two teenagers to make 30 or more appearances in Serie A last season. The other was Jose Mauri, the highly rated Parma midfielder who has joined Milan on a free transfer.
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Hype and potential obviously play a part too, and here Mihajlovic has only himself to blame. "He's like [Alessandro] Nesta, but more technical," Miha said after Romagnoli delivered a Man of the Match performance for his Sampadoria side against Chievo last September. "If he gets continuity he can play for Italy for the next 10 or 15 years." Romagnoli's considerable promise will have had no small impact on his fee. Placing it into context, only one trade between Serie A clubs involving an Italian player has been steeper since 2002 -- and that, coincidentally, was when Milan wrote a cheque out to Lazio to buy Nesta for €30.5m.
It must be said that the transfer market has also been ludicrously inflated in the past couple of years. David Luiz's incredible €50m Channel crossing from Chelsea to PSG last year did to centre-back prices what Gareth Bale's €100m move from Tottenham to Real Madrid did for any star who plays further forward. You might say PSG have a lot to answer for here. Walter Sabatini, Roma's director of sport, will no doubt have reminded his opposite number at Milan, Adriano Galliani, how he extracted €31.5m from the French champions in 2013 for another teenage centre-back, Marquinhos.
That would appear to have become the measuring stick for clubs around Europe when it comes to valuing the hottest prospects in the position. Athletic Bilbao have included a clause in Aymeric Laporte's contract said to be worth €50m. Chelsea have had a €42m bid for Everton's John Stones turned down.
As we have explored, Romagnoli's elevated fee has some very Serie A-specific causes, but it also needs to be explained within the broader context of a general shortage in both established and potential world-class centre-backs. No more so is this felt than in Italy. Romagnoli's new club, Milan, are symbolic of it. Where there was once Nesta, Thiago Silva, Paolo Maldini, Billy Costacurta, Mauro Tassotti and Franco Baresi, there is now Philippe Mexes. Historically the benchmark for defensive play, standards in Italy have generally slipped. For instance, more goals were scored in Serie A  last season than in any of the other top five leagues.
But now consider the reaction to Juventus reaching the Champions League final in May. Critical acclaim for the Old Lady across the continent came for how exceptionally they defended. The overwhelming sense was that here was a lost art that the game in general -- not only in Italy, but in England, Spain, France and Germany -- would do better to find again. Defending, unfortunately, isn't what it used to be, and when La Gazzetta dello Sport put that notion to Fabio Cannavaro, the last centre-back to win the Ballon d'Or, he wholeheartedly agreed.
"There was a time when it was enough just to concentrate in order to defend well. Today they want defenders to play. They teach them to look at the ball, not their opponent. How is it possible that there are attacking players scoring 60 goals a season? It'll be because the defences are to blame, no?"
Or perhaps that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are among the greatest of all time? Maybe the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
What's beyond dispute is that playing out from the back -- the attention and risk it brings from pressing opponents, the encouragement to step up and play a dangerously high line, and the overall change in mentality provoked by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and Bayern Munich to a more expansive, less closed style of play -- have all had an impact on how defenders go about their work.
"With old-school coaches, 60-70 percent of your training ground work would be defensive," Gary Neville wrote in a piece for The Telegraph. "Where your foot would be, the position of your hips, how often you would have to turn your head to avoid ball-watching. I started off with a high defensive base. Players now are starting out with a high technical grounding, and learn the defending later. My era of men who retired around 2009-10 were the last crop of predominantly defensively-trained players."
The best in the world at the moment are either the rugged North Africans schooled in the hard knocks of French football, such as Aymen Abdennour and Mehdi Benatia, who blended his education there with the lessons he learned in Italy; or the South Americans like Diego Godin, not least they grow up playing against the best forwards. As Arsene Wenger has argued, it "is the only continent to develop strikers today," and their development takes place not in a structured environment, but in the street, where "you have to be shrewd, you have to show that you are good, you have to fight, [and] win impossible balls." That, in turn, rubs off on South America's defenders, who have to be equally as savvy and street smart to stop them.
Centre-backs like these are a rare commodity. Those in the Italian tradition, such as Romagnoli and Daniele Rugani, even more so. Offence may sell tickets, but it's defence that wins championships. As such, what Milan have paid for Romagnoli maybe isn't so absurd after all. It's understandable.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.