An issue that has been discussed a lot by Milanisti so far in the closed season is the existence of a position behind the strikers in which there are several options as to who can fill the gap.
It is fair to call said position the ‘central attacking midfield’ role, or perhaps even the ‘centre forward’ role, depending on what the game dictates, and one quick glance down the Milan squad list throws up several possible candidate.
Of course, this article is all based on the assumption (a very solid one at that) that Mihajlovic will be playing the 4-3-1-2 formation for the start of the season, something which he has expressed is the case on several occasions.
There is an element of positivity about this debate, because all of the players who can play there each have their own skill set and unique ability that elevate their warrant to a place in the team. There are no two midfielders in the team that are really alike, which will be very encouraging for Sinisa Mihajlovic as he continues to search for the perfect formula.
So, with that said, let’s take a look at who could play behind the two strikers and what they could bring to the balance of the team.
1. Keisuke Honda
It is important to start with those who are more naturally suited for the role, which Honda (as a natural CAM) certainly is.
Seemingly, Honda is a player who bears the brunt of plenty of criticism from Milan supporters as someone who perhaps isn’t productive enough given his roles as both a playmaker and a winger.
Last season, in 29 games and 2148 minutes (just under 75 minutes per game), he amassed six goals and five assists. He played two games as an attacking midfielder, the rest were as a right-winger.
It may be difficult to forget the contribution that Keisuke made last season purely because he got it all out of the way in the opening seven games. After scoring the first goal of the season for Milan at home to Lazio, he then netted against Parma, Empoli, Chievo and Hellas (twice) as he was the team’s top scorer after seven games.
Keisuke is a player who is always capable of picking a pass and carrying a goal scoring threat, but is also very dependent on confidence and rhythm in order to produce, as evidenced by the way he started last season compared to how he finished.
A typical playmaker style from a bygone era, Honda is not dependant on pace, and his low centre of gravity means that he is successful with penetrating dribbles in key phases of the pitch. This alone makes me think that Keisuke could be the right player for the job, but yet again it boils down to how consistently he can get those goals and assists, and that he doesn’t go on dry spells such as what we saw last season.
On paper, a midfield three of De Jong (slightly deeper) in the middle of Poli/Bonaventura and Bertolacci, with Honda in front of them as the juggernaut, looks great when all players are firing, and it is something that Mihajlovic will have certainly considered as a possible line-up for Milan next season.
2. Giacomo Bonaventura
One of the surprise packages of a pretty dismal 2014-15 season was the overall performance of Giacomo Bonaventura in his first season with the club. Purchased for just €7 million, there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure on his shoulders as will be the case with players like Bertolacci, but ‘Jack’ still delivered good performances on a regular basis.
In 36 appearances in all competitions last season (two with Atalanta), Bonaventura scored seven goals and bagged five assists. The versatility which he provides was a huge bonus, as he alternated between left wing, central midfield and central attacking midfield.
Bonaventura, in my opinion, is one of the most well-rounded players in Serie A in terms of the abilities that he brings to the team, as is proved by the sheer number of positions he is more than adequate at playing in.
A composed player, the 25 year old provides great ball control due to his game time as a winger, and similarly to Honda, whilst he is not the quickest of players he has the skill to penetrate defenses and the football brain to be in the right place at the right time.
It is difficult to really put a finger on where Bonaventura’s true position is, however I feel that if he is to be deployed in a midfield three then it must be as a deep-lying playmaker rather than being relied on for his not yet up to scratch defensive ability (which he could develop over time).
As an attacking midfielder between the midfield three and front two, however, I feel he possesses the composure and decision making skills to at least be given a go. The only thing that worries me slightly is his lack of pace, which could reduce the effectiveness of counter-attacks slightly. Of course, the same problem exists with Honda, but the Japanese international can pick a better pass at this moment in time in my view.
Another player who was a pleasant surprise last season was Suso, a man who joined from Liverpool in the January window having failed to make an impression on Brendan Rodgers.
The Spaniard has only appeared in five games for Milan since arriving, playing just over 200 minutes and starting just twice. Despite this, he made a prompt impact upon Milan supporters due to his energy and enthusiasm, perhaps because he had something to prove to everyone including the club who put faith in him.
Naturally a right-winger, Suso is a very technical player who has all the typical qualities of a Spanish winger (without over generalizing) such as pace, incredible dribbling, a surprisingly explosive shot, skill and most importantly the audacity and intention to make things happen on the offensive side of the ball.
This alone suggests a rather easy transition into playing centrally, although I would express worries about his ability to work in a more crowded area of the park, as a natural winger is more used to space and looking to get the ball into dangerous areas of the pitch.
No doubt he has the ability to produce at CAM, and a lot of fans would like to see him given a shot without a place in the formation for a winger.
The only doubts I have about this lay on the defensive end of the ball, as playing with Suso is the acceptance of playing with a front three, due to the fact he offers little to no presence at the back. This isn’t his fault; it’s not his style or his responsibility, but who knows perhaps he can learn. The counter argument should be that a CAM/CF shouldn’t have to contribute on defence, although it would help.
4. Jeremy Menez
All the signs so far from Mihajlovic seem to point towards the Frenchman taking up the role behind the two forwards as a Trequartista.
Having joined on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain in summer of last year, Menez scored 16 goals to become the top scorer for Milan in the 2014-15 season, although many would be quick to point out the number of penalty goals.
Criticized by a majority of Milanisti for being selfish on the ball and making poor decisions, Jeremy isn’t given the credit that his 2014-15 campaign deserves, as without his goals the situation under Inzaghi could have been considerably more bleak.
To me, there is something quite intriguing about the prospect of Menez playing in the centre-forward role. It is a position in which selfishness is almost expected, but players are required to contribute with goals and assists.
The former Roma man boasts impressive dribbling skills and clearly an eye for goal, and could have ended up with even more goals last season if he had the supporting cast.
That being said, Menez is guilty of contributing to his own downfalls as mentioned, with his decision making needing plenty of work to fulfill the role properly and efficiently.
With Jeremy injured and not able to be involved in any preseason action so far, we can’t really judge how adequately he can potentially play the position, but there will be plenty of opportunity to see what he can do.
5. Andrea Bertolacci
Although Bertolacci seems destined to occupy one of the three midfield positions, it would be wrong not to consider him as an attacking midfielder given how he can play there if necessary.
Joining from Roma in July for €20million, there is a great deal of expectation on the young player’s shoulders, something which can only really work against him at this stage.
However, Bertolacci has the qualities to play as a playmaker behind two strikers, possessing accurate passing, decent dribbling and movement, but also an element of grit and strength that players like Suso, for example, don’t really offer.
Furthermore, although it is assumed that Andrea isn’t blessed with pace, the opposite is actually true. He doesn’t have the best acceleration, but once at top speed he can cause serious panic and damage the back line of opponents.
I do find this scenario highly unlikely though, because as mentioned he is preferred in the midfield, and having to then fill that place in midfield would be trickier than finding a natural CAM/CF.
6. Alessio Cerci
Again, this is a very unlikely possibility for a number of reasons, but Alessio Cerci has to be mentioned as Milan continue to search for a place for him.
Obviously a natural winger or a secondary striker, Cerci has the qualities to make an impact in games, yet for whatever reason has struggled since his arrival back in Serie A.
We all know the skill set he has; pace, dribbling, strength, shooting – everything that a winger should have. It could be argued that those skills should transfer into making a more than decent central attacking midfielder.
Contrary to this, it appears that Alessio will be used as a back-up striker, and if Menez plays as a Trequartista then he will probably be the third striker barring any new additions.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a long term solution, as after this season he will almost certainly be returned to Atletico Madrid, if the loan isn’t cancelled at any point before then.
7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
The final option is easily the most exciting. At the time of writing, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is about to make what is reported to be his last appearance for Paris Saint-Germain in the French Super Cup against Lyon.
All the talk in this mercato has been about a possible return for Zlatan, one of Rossoneri’s favourite sons. On July 24th, coach Mihajlovic described the Swede as “free to come” to Milan, which excited supporters.
Then, Ibra revealed that his next club would be “a big surprise”, which didn’t really make the situation any clearer but once again stirred the speculation once again.
Wherever he ends up (for what it’s worth I don’t think it will be Milan), Zlatan will bring so much. Not just on the field either; merchandise, ticket sales, media attention, everything associated with the most eccentric player in world football.
He would be perfect to play behind the strikers, no question. Some would say it is putting all the eggs in one basket, so to speak, and playing Bacca, Adriano and Ibrahimovic would limit our options from the bench.
It is important to think of the potential of the line-up though. The aforementioned front three supplied by Bertolacci, with Poli (or hopefully Witsel) and De Jong providing the defensive balance.
Never blessed with pace, Zlatan could slot into a role that allows him freedom to demonstrate all his class and composure. Feeding the front two, chipping in with his fair share of goals on the way.
It wouldn’t just be the on the field exploits though. Zlatan would bring an experienced head to the dressing room and the squad would move onto another level in terms of ‘fear factor’.
It is all speculation at this point, with more information likely after the Super Cup match.
Those are the seven players currently in the squad I have highlighted who could possibly fill the gap.
Some are far more likely than others, and Milan still have a lot of finding out to do in what remains of preseason preparations.
Personally, I can’t single out one player at this moment who will seize the role and make it unequivocally his, providing the backdrop for an important few weeks coming up.
Article by Oliver Fisher