After enduring embarrassing losses to Roma and Eintracht Frankfurt, an irate group of Lazio fans decided last weekend to publicly call out two players who have performed particularly poorly this season.
Before Sunday’s Serie A clash with Fiorentina at the Stadio Olimpico, they unfurled a banner which read, “Milinkovic and Luis Alberto [are] fake talents only hunting cash!”
The attack caused a divide among the Biancocelesti faithful. After all, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto had both been driving forces behind Lazio’s thrilling but ultimately unsuccessful bid to qualify for the Champions League last season.
Milinkovic-Savic had also been expected to leave during the summer, amidst interest from Manchester United, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and AC Milan, but signed a new contract until 2023.
However, while the rights and wrongs of scapegoating the Serb and the Spaniard sparked feisty debates on social media, there was no denying that both have played dismally so far this season.
Luis Alberto was dropped for the visit of the Fiorentina, while many felt that Milinkovic-Savic should have joined him on the bench.
Instead, the 23-year-old played the entire 90 minutes and the best thing that could be said about his display is he wasn’t as bad as he had been against Roma and Frankfurt, when he appeared utterly incapable of influencing the game, or even just retaining possession of the ball.
Lazio defeated Fiorentina 1-0 thanks to the ever-reliable Ciro Immobile but Milinkovic literally contributed nothing from an offensive perspective: no goals, no assists, no shots and no key passes.
Such performances have now become the norm. On top of the horror shows against Roma and Frankfurt, he was also a passenger against Napoli and Juventus at the start of the 2018-19 campaign.
Indeed, he has only had one good game, against Genoa, when he contributed his only goal and assist of the season so far.
That represents an alarming dip in productivity for a player who was directly involved in 22 goals last term by netting 14 times himself while at the same time racking up eight assists.
It was that fine form which had Europe’s elite clubs lining up to sign Milinkovic-Savic during the summer.
However, Lazio owner Claudio Lotito refused to entertain anything other than “indecent” offers, arguing that the Vojvodina youth academy product was better than Paul Pogba and, thus, worth far more than the €105 million Manchester United had paid to sign the Frenchman from Juventus.
The Biancocelesti did receive one colossal bid – reportedly from AC Milan – but it arrived just before the close of the Italian transfer window.
“We had a plan to replace him, but there wasn’t enough time,” Lotito explained.
“When a bid arrives on August 17 and the market shuts a day later, I couldn’t sell him.
“I won’t mention figures, but certainly it was an obscene offer that I think no-one else in Italy could’ve refused.”
Obviously, there is a now a very real fear that Lotito could come to regret his decision to hold on to Milinkovic-Savic for another year, given the player’s poor form could see his market value decrease significantly by the time the transfer window reopens.
The cynics out there have even suggested that it is all part of an agent-led ploy to force Lazio into cashing in on their most valuable asset in January.
However, Milinkovic-Savic’s poor performances are also hurting his own hopes of a lucrative transfer. No top team would really be willing to make a move for him in this form.
Furthermore, if he were truly desperate to leave, he would have pushed for a transfer during the summer rather than extending his contract, with both Milinkovic-Savic and his agent, Mateja Kezman, insisting that he was more than happy to stay in Rome for at least another year.
“Sergej loves Lazio, I’ve said it several times and I repeat it,” former Chelsea striker Kezman told Corriere dello Sport.
“He’s worn the Biancoceleste shirt for three years and he loves the club as they brought him to Italy, just as he loves his fans and team-mates. If he stayed, it’s because he believes in these colours.
“I’ve already said many times that we received many offers, but the idea of Lotito and [sporting director Igli] Tare, from the beginning, was to keep Milinkovic for another year.
“It was figuring out how to do it. We worked on it and ultimately Sergej said he was very happy to stay for another season.
“We’re not people who only think about money…”
Indeed, Milinkovic-Savic and his representative could have lined their pockets by agreeing a summer switch to Paris Saint-Germain, who offered the Serbia international a deal worth €8 million (£7m/$9m) a season.
The player, though, seems genuinely driven by the desire to get Lazio back in the Champions League and this could, in part, explain his dire start to the season because, at the moment, he looks as if he is trying too hard.
In almost every game he has played, Milinkovic-Savic has been guilty of over-complicating things, ignoring the easy option in favour of the far more difficult one.
If he really is hunting more cash elsewhere, he is definitely going the wrong way about it because he no longer looks anything like a €100m player.
Right now, United & Co. will be extremely grateful that they didn’t make an offer that would have now looked even more obscene.