The rise of the Internet age has meant the arrival of footballers is rarely accompanied by mysterious anticipation. Every new transfer is followed by a legion of Twitter experts who can conclusively inform you if a player is good, bad, or just ugly. Nowadays, the only unpredictability comes in relation to a player’s transfer fee – as the objectively talented Paul Pogba is discovering at Manchester United.
Occasionally, however, there are transfers that are so odd that the financial aspects become irrelevant. In 2009, Real Madrid brought in Julian Faubert on loan from West Ham United to the complete confusion of both sets of fans. While his move was a failure, Juninho’s shift to Middlesbrough over a decade earlier led to a still-unbelievable lifelong bond with the city. In the footsteps of these oddities walks AC Milan’s newest recruit – former Spanish starlet Gerard Deulofeu.
When Everton bought Deulofeu for a reported £4.2 million in the summer of 2015, the blue half of Merseyside was delighted with the bargain return of a crowd favourite. Despite coming off a torrid season at Sevilla, Deulofeu’s form for the Toffees in his breakout season of 2013-14 had guaranteed him a red carpet welcome.
The young winger endured a productive, if underwhelming 2015-16 season, chipping in with two goals and eight assists in the league. This is partially explained by the disruption caused by the constant speculation around the future of manager Roberto Martinez. To the surprise of no one, he was fired at the end of a disappointing campaign and replaced by Ronald Koeman.
While most welcomed this change, it would prove harmful for the ex-Barcelona winger. As the stereotypical confidence player, Deulofeu relished the hand-around-the-shoulder management technique of Martinez. Koeman would show no such patience or sympathy. When the Dutchman publicly demanded more from Deulofeu, he simply shrunk away from the challenge.
While Deulofeu struggled with his new environment, Vincenzo Montella has been thriving in his new home at the San Siro. After a rough start, the ex-Fiorentina coach has got his new charges at Milan flying. Building on the work done by his predecessor, Siniša Mihajlović, Montella’s success is based on using young players like Manuel Locatelli and Gianluigi Donnarumma.
However, his most impressive success has to be the definitive improvement of 23-year-old right-winger Suso. The ex-Liverpool youngster was loaned to Genoa last season, but brought into the first team upon Montella’s arrival last summer. He has proceeded to pay back his manager’s faith with a series of outstanding displays that have already produced five goals and six assists in the league.
Based on Suso’s rapid development, many have already claimed that Montella may be the best candidate to revive Deulofeu’s stagnating career. Not only is the Everton loanee a year younger, but he is also a direct winger like his Spanish compatriot. And, with M’Baye Niang having left for Watford on loan, Deulofeu’s arrival seems like a match made in heaven.
Yet, before any firecrackers can be burst in celebration, we should consider the realities of the situation. Despite being a few months younger, Niang has already amassed 22 goals in 130 league games to Deulofeu’s six in 81. Niang’s star is clearly rising while Deulofeu’s is lucky to still be visible. Despite the Spaniard’s prominent role for Everton last season, he has only started four games and played 458 minutes this year. He has contributed zero goals and zero assists in that time.
While the winger’s form is not irreversible, the current situation at Milan is not conducive to creating an atmosphere of patience. With the departure of Niang this month and their serious lack of squad depth, Deulofeu is likely to be thrown into the deep end. With all the evidence pointing towards the conclusion that Milan have been unnaturally efficient in the first half of the season, the new recruit has a lot to improve, in not a lot of time.
In addition to these situational problems, Montella also has to contend with the fact that Deulofeu is not a natural left winger. While he has played on the left and behind the striker, his best performances have always come on the right. With Suso in the form of his life, it seems like yet another obstacle Deulofeu must overcome. As a natural right footer, it will be interesting to see if he can be as effective with his passes, crosses and shots from the left.
Despite these flaws, there are genuine reasons to be excited about the transfer. Deulofeu’s speed and dribbling ability make him quite a handful, even on a bad day. In the less physical and more technical Serie A, there is optimism about the havoc that could be created by his direct running at defenders. Additionally, his willingness to test the goalkeeper should help Milan improve their current figures of 6.1 shots per game in the penalty area (13th in Serie A), and 0.5 shots per game in six-yard box (17th).
Milan’s successes this season have been based upon the defensive solidity provided to them by players like Alessio Romagnoli and the aforementioned Donnarumma. If Montella is willing to tweak his formation a little to further favour a counter-attacking system, Deulofeu could provide a willing and dangerous outlet on the left. Not only will this create extra unpredictability within their attack, it will take some heat off Suso who is sure to face the increased attention of defenders in the spring.
Many commenters have also pointed out that Deulofeu’s previous interactions with Suso, for the Spanish youth teams, and Carlos Bacca, at Sevilla, could prove beneficial. While this should help their interplay up top, his impending relationships with Giacomo Bonaventura and Locatelli have more exciting potential. If Deulofeu’s inward movement can complement the former’s forward runs (albeit this particular relationship has been put on hold by Bonaventura's recent injury) and the latter’s passing range, Milan could have an explosive combination on their hands.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this transfer is theoretically low-risk for all parties. Regardless of the outcome, Milan will not have broken the bank, Deulofeu will get a chance to play regularly, and Koeman will get a chance to see if the young Spaniard has a future at Everton. Under these relatively pressure free circumstances, the confidence-dependent Deulofeu might actually be able to play with the freedom he needs.
Unai Emery, Sevilla’s manager during Deulofeu’s ill-fated spell in 2014/15, once said of the player that:
He has incredible qualities but lacks others. Put him out there, one on one and ... pfff [a sound of appreciation]. But, make him play football with teammates, on a big pitch, and it’s hard. He doesn’t have the maturity or capacity for sacrifice yet.
This seems to cut to the heart of Deulofeu’s problems. When he burst on to the scene for Everton years ago, these aspects were put down to the inexperience of youth. Today, they smack of an arrogant individual who refuses to help the team, and Deulofeu’s inventive but ineffective attacking play doesn’t justify that attitude.
Thus, in the end, it is not his technical ability or his surroundings that will determine if the young winger is to make a triumph of his Italian stay. Rather, it will be his desire to be a part of a team, or Montella’s ability to motivate that desire, that will establish his success.
That is what makes this loan deal so intriguing. If the stars align in the next six months, Montella and Milan could conceivably add an attacking jewel to their crown of improbably gifted young players. However, if Deulofeu’s poor form drags Milan down the table, a lot of those talents – and maybe even Montella himself – could be out the door in the summer. Either way, it makes for compelling viewing to the neutral.
Words by Tarutr Malhotra: @TarutrMalhotra
Tarutr is a freelance journalist who writes about football, international relations, African politics and economics, and Indian issues. He is currently based in Italy/India