It wasn’t too long ago when many fans cast jealous eyes at AC Milan. This wasn’t because of how well they were playing. It was because of one player – Suso. The way the Spaniard started the 2018-19 season was special. He looked like Milan’s best player every time he played.
Till about March last season, the former Liverpool man had scored six times and had assisted seven times. He was Rino Gattuso’s most influential attacking player. He would cut in from the right flank and unleashed a gem of a cross or shoot from outside the box. It was almost like an Arjen Robben who wasn’t as quick as the Dutchman.
But since assisting against his former club Genoa in early March, a barren period ensued for Suso. In 11 games, he assisted just twice. They came in just one game.
Despite that poor spell, Suso went down as the club’s best player. He played the second-highest number of key passes per game for the club – 1.9. The Spaniard also played the most number of key passes per game – 2.8. This was 0.5 more than second-placed Hakan Calhanoglu.
He also played as many as 1.5 crosses per game – more than anyone else. Out of all outfield players, the 24-year-old played 3.1 long-balls per game. That was the second-best in the season (via Whoscored).
But the poor form has carried on to this season. In eight games so far, Suso has assisted just once.
What is still surprising though, are the stats. Suso has still played 2.6 key passes per game. He has still completed the third-highest number dribbles per game. He still averages the highest number of crosses per game. Not just that, but he has also played more crosses per game than any other attacking player- 3.3 (via Whoscored).
But on a closer look at these stats, it is worth knowing that he has had more unsuccessful dribbles per game this season. This season, it stands at 1.4, when last season it had stood at 0.9. He also had only 1.4 unsuccessful touches then as compared to this season’s tally of 1.8.
His inaccurate long-balls per game has increased from 1 last season to 1.3 this season. When it comes to short passing, the amount of times per game he has failed in that has also increased. It has risen from 5.9 to 6.2 (via Whoscored).
This suggests that something has changed, even though it isn’t a massive change by any means. His productivity in the final third has reduced. He has become prone to errors. Mass criticism from fans has not helped at all – it helps no one.
But it is also worth pointing out that no attacking player thrived under Marco Giampaolo. The play was slow and static. A lack of creativity saw Krzysztof Piatek play isolated up front and not getting any service at all playing there.
Last season, despite having only 53 percent possession, they registered around 15 shots on target per game. This season, they’ve had about 55 percent possession on average, but they have had only 14.3 shots per game (via Whoscored).
They scored only six goals under Giampaolo, despite averaging the fourth-highest amount of possession per game in the league. A lack of midfield balance has seen them let in 11 goals. This lack of balance in the midfield allowed no stability to rely on for the attacking players as well.
Giampaolo’s narrow system could never help Suso. The Spaniard’s position has always been obvious. But Giampaolo was keen to implement his possession-based 4-3-1-2 shape. Despite Suso’s strengths not lying in playing centrally, the Italian felt he could do a job there.
He said: “I brought Suso closer to his natural position, but Suso can play as a trequartista, I am convinced he can do it.”
Giampaolo did end up playing him wide towards the end. But it didn’t help. Players never knew what his system was, and that ultimately led to his exit.
As for Suso, there is still a top player in him. The stats are good enough to show that. Stefano Pioli’s system has freed Calhanoglu and the attacking promise could be key to unleash Suso once again too. He does look short of confidence currently. But it can only improve from here.
The way Milan played against Lecce showed that flair players like Calhanoglu and Leao can thrive in it. Suso is a flair player himself, and Pioli could spark a revival. He just needs to be played to his strengths – as he did till March last season.