“Anti-calcio won this evening,” complained Ajax coach Frank de Boer. “Unfortunately in football, the most beautiful teams don’t always win.”
Requiring a victory at San Siro last night to reach the knock-out stages of the Champions League for the first time in six years, Ajax were held to a stalemate by Milan. They hit the post soon after kick-off, played with a man advantage for 73 minutes after the hosts lost their captain Riccardo Montolivo following a horror challenge on Christian Poulsen, commanded 71% of the ball and had no fewer than 25 attempts on goal.
“I lost a few kilos this evening,” admitted Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri. When his team went down to 10-men so early on, you feared for them.
Still what was it Arrigo Sacchi used to say? “Five organised players would always beat 10 disorganised ones.” This became like one of his training exercises. All Milan needed was to hold out for a draw to make the last 16. Anyone who has followed them closely this season, however, knows that they can’t defend. But they had little choice. Up went the barricades, manned in chief by Nigel de Jong.
Associated with the high kick on Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup final no player, apart from his former international teammate and predecessor at Milan, Mark van Bommel, epitomises how far removed the Netherlands became from their Totalvoetbal ideals as he does. It was as though the Oranje renounced everything they stood for under Bert van Marwijk.
You might say that Milan’s experience has been the same: going from the tulipani or tulips of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard to the ortiche or nettles of van Bommel and then de Jong. “You can’t always dine on lobster and caviar,” Allegri once claimed. “Every now and again you have to be satisfied with a ham sandwich.” Wednesday night was one of those occasions.
Rather than play like the Grande Milan that owner Silvio Berlusconi evoked on his visit to Milanello the day before, Milan played like Solbiatese, a provincial team. But what did you expect? This was a backs-against-the-wall job and in these kinds of situations there are few better players to have by your side than de Jong.
For a man of small stature, he was a giant, wrote La Gazzetta dello Sport. He screened the back four, organised his troops and read Ajax’s play as though it were a book he knew off by heart. A former student of theirs through the `90s and early 2000s, de Jong questioned what he was taught. “Even if I came through at Ajax, good football as an end itself doesn’t interest me,” he said. “My objective is success. You can have it by going down many different paths.”
Grinding out a 0-0 is one. Last night he intercepted the ball 7 times, made 1 clearance, blocked a shot and not for the first time this season finished as Milan’s leading passer with 37.
He’s an interesting one de Jong. There’s a temptation to stereotype him as a destroyer, a snarling mastino or mastiff as he’s been described in today’s papers in Italy. But there’s more to his game than that. As touched upon, he reads the game well. De Jong is third for interceptions in Serie A (47) and down in 20th for tackles (40). Like former Milan midfielder Ray Wilkins advises players to, he stays on his feet.
There’s a directness to his play too. When he’s not taking the ball on de Jong’s looking to spray it around. It might come as a surprise to learn that he has made the most accurate long passes in Serie A (12.8 per game) this season. It says a lot about Milan’s play that Philippe Mexes and midfield partner Riccardo Montolivo are second and third in the league in this regard too.
Needless to say, this doesn’t mean they have found a replacement for Andrea Pirlo. Far from it. While de Jong has made the third most accurate passes in Serie A (59 per game) and is also third for pass success (92.1%), he isn’t a born again regista. As if that needed underlining only five of his 961 passes this season have been classified as key. A lot are short and side-to-side.
He’s a carpenter not an architect. Ask him to chop wood rather than build you a house. Why else do you think Milan experimented with Kaká alongside de Jong during the international break? They need greater invention from deep. De Jong is a platform for that. He allows others to go and play, offering to look after the defence while they do so.
Purists would of course prefer a Pirlo in his position. That’s understandable, but remember how fans of Manchester City were sorry to see de Jong go. They lost a leader and you might argue their midfield tandem hasn’t had the same balance since. Largely absent in his first season with an Achilles injury, many Milan supporters are beginning to appreciate what they’ve got in de Jong. Recently brought back into the international set up by Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands are again too.
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