AC Milan Club Focus: Return of The King
Chicago Bulls front office. March 18th, 1995. The fax machine beeped. It was a two word message from the retired Michael Jordan. Chaos ensued, headlines were written, the media was whipped into a frenzy. It was the biggest sporting incident of the year, maybe even the last two years. The message? Simply read: “I’m back.” After 18 months in baseball purgatory, the greatest NBA player of all time had returned at the age of 32 to aid his Chicago Bull side once again compete for the national championship. The Bulls won 72 games and the NBA title the next season with MJ at the helm once again, and the rest is history.
Returns are rarely as sweet as Michael Jordan’s, but there were echoes of MJ in the two word SMS sent to the Milan Channel from Riccardo Kaka’ on the 2nd of September. Similarly brief, the text read: “It’s done!” After four years of well-paid isolation at Real Madrid, Kaka – like MJ – has cast off the white uniform to return to the more familiar, more fitting, red and black.
Those 48 months that have passed since the former Balon D’or winner traded Italy for the glitz, glamour and pressure of the Bernabeau, and much has changed in that time for both Kaka’ and Milan.
Riccardo is no longer a guaranteed inclusion on any “top 10 players in the world” list, and based on current perception would struggle to break into a top 50. A near-crippling knee injury in 2010 meant the Brazilian never managed to show he was irreplaceable in the Madrid starting XI, and by the time Kaka came back, it was a very different looking Madrid side to the one he first signed for. The player-friendly approach from Manuel Pellegrini was ousted in favor of the meritocratic, efficient Mourinho; not so keen to lend pitch space to a player like Kaka’ ahead of a harder-working one like Angel Di Maria, Sami Khedira, or even Mesut Ozil. Fruitless attempts to push himself up the depth chart followed as Madrid’s squad became saturated with creative midfielders, each new arrival making €65 million man more invisible.
AC Milan, the club that Kaka’ left behind, has gone through a makeover more drastic than any it’s history. Once notoriously dependent on long-serving heroes and highly paid stars to carry the club forward, the Rossoneri have gone through a personnel change that leaves it almost recognizable from the 2009 version Kaka’ remembers. Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Nesta, Gennaro Gattuso, Gianluca Zambrotta, Filippo Inzaghi and Massimo Ambrosini are all ex-teammates of Kaka’s that will not greet him upon his Milanello return, while what would have been his potential new-teammates Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva both left in high-profile moves to Paris. Instead, Kaka’ arrives as the experienced head of a crop of young players that grew idolizing him during his first stint at Milan; Stephan El Shaarawy, Riccardo Saponara, Mattia De Sciglio are among the fresher faces at the San Siro in 2013. The player and the shirt are familiar, the situation is much less so. For the first time in his career, Kaka’ needs to become a leader.
Whereas Michael Jordan returned to doubts only over his fitness and ability to re-adapt to the fast-pace of the hardwood, Kaka’s return to Milan comes with question marks over his form and his ability to become a regular contributor to a team after four years as a sporadic substitute. Will the return to the place that made him famous re-kindle the physics defining grace that once lit-up world football? Time will tell.
From studying videos of the intermittent appearances for Madrid that Kaka’ made in the last two years, it’s obvious that Brazilian will never again re-gain that burst of pace that allowed him to shred defences individually, leading counter attacks on his own. A combination of his now 31-year-old frame and his surgically repaired knees mean that particular area of his game is sadly gone.
What does remain however, is his awareness, his passing range and his silky, deft flicks. Kaka’ may not have the raw pace he once contained, but the quiet grace of his play is reminiscent of a classic #10; very similar to the man he usurped from the Milan line-up during his original tenure: Manuel Rui Costa.
What is fortunate, is that Milan don’t need Kaka’ to be the man he used to be – there is pace in abundance in the young Milan front-line. El Shaarawy, M’baye Niang and the (seemingly) newly rejuvenated Robinho bring enough speed on their own. What Milan have lacked is exactly what Kaka’ can be: a guy who can bring it all together.
Too often is El Shaarawy seen lost on the left-wing, crying out for someone to thread a ball he can run onto. Too long have the Milan defence lofted balls first up to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and now Mario Balotelli, hoping the respective strikers can produce something on their own. There is a real need for creativity in the Milan line-up, especially in the final third. While Kaka’ may not be the option the fans would have penned as their first choice for that role, he brings an undeniable feel of class and finesse to a position that had been previously occupied by Kevin Prince Boateng, who’s play can be more accurately compared to hammer rather than the feather-like feet of his veteran successor.
For this to work, however, Kaka must realize this. Adaptability is the key to longevity in the modern game, and Kaka’ must accept that he is not the player he was at 27, and he will not return. He must make a transition similar to Francesco Totti at Roma and Ryan Giggs at Manchester United to be successful at Milan again. Both players acknowledged that the pace they once had diminished, and played in deeper roles – utilizing their improved intelligence and awareness to continue to be an asset to their clubs.
Additionally, Milan coach Masismiliano Allegri must also be aware of this, and resist the temptation to play his new signing in a position that asks things of Kaka’ that he is best suited to avoiding. Playing him as a hard-working left-winger in a 4-3-3? Not a good idea. The sole playmaker in a 4-3-3? Better, but perhaps not the prime way of using him. Kaka’s skill-set suggests that he’d be better off with players in front of him to pass to, link with and create chances for. The more isolated he is on the pitch, the less useful he will become. A 4-2-3-1 formation with Kaka protected by two deeper midfielders behind him, with three attacking players to link with in-front of him and wide of him would arguably be the most logical way of lining-up, giving Milan the width they need with two of Robinho/El Shaarawy/Niang/Saponara operating in the wide positions. When Keisuke Honda arrives in January, the versatile Japanese international can also operate in the right or left attacking midfield positions, or rotate with Kaka’ in the ‘hole’.
Milan’s attacking depth was proven by their comfortable 3-1 win over Cagliari at home during the weekend, where Robinho and Balotelli caused problems all game with their movement and energy. However, in times of more difficulty – Milan will have to look to more players to stretch defences and create space for each other. Kaka’ can do that, and time will tell whether he does do that.
Returns are often bittersweet and better left forgotten, but this one could define Kaka’s career and give it late bloom right in time for a fairy-tale return to the World Cup in Brazil. Given the right application however, and Kaka’ could once again be a star at Milan. AC Milan re-signed Kaka’ and claimed on their Twitter account that “some love stories never end.” Milanisti will hope that this particular romance reaches a happy conclusion.
The King has returned. Whether he re-gains the throne is a different matter.