At the end of the last season, Nigel de Jong wanted to know what the plan was.
AC Milan had just finished Serie A in eighth, out of Europe and with a coach about to be sacked.
So he was asked about his own future.
“I am 29 years old, it will be an important decision,” he told ANP in June (h/t Football Italia). “I will have to choose whether to stay here or go somewhere else.”
Since joining Milan in 2012, following an exodus of veterans, De Jong has become a leader, if not the captain of the squad. He was cheap, a bargain at €3.5 million. And he was fourth in Serie A with a passing rating of 91.7 per cent, per WhoScored.com.
He came to a team desperately lacking any grit, and he brought it. He came to a club in need of leadership, and he had it.
Now they could sell him. If they do, it is further confirmation that there is no plan at Milan. De Jong is in his prime: If there are no signs of improvements or investments, then there is little reason to stay. Loyalty does not exist at Milan anymore.
De Jong's contract expires next year, and there is the risk of him leaving for free. But that in itself is an admission of a problem. If there's any desire to leave, then Milan simply are not doing enough to entice players as crucial to any project as De Jong is.
Over the past few years, Milan and CEO Adriano Galliani have looked out for cut-rate deals, loans here and there and sold whatever assets the team had. Rebuilding is useless if they keep selling their best. And De Jong—not Mario Balotelli, not Stephan El Shaarawy, not Riccardo Montolivo—is the most important aspect of this Milan squad.
He distributes the ball, plays it off quickly and finds teammates. He is the transistor of the team. He protects the back four, relieves pressure and can play almost as a sweeper.
"Everybody wants to be an attacker and score goals, but I always preferred to make a tackle or get the ball from some opponent," he said in an interview in December (via FourFourTwo). "As a striker you can’t recover as many balls.”
But De Jong is also patient, and he never looks like a man in a rush. "Sometimes you have to stay behind the ball and just wait for the right moment," he said.
Sometimes he tackles a little late, loses a little steam, but that is what you get from a player who never shirks from a challenge.
He is not an ideal playmaker, but De Jong has and can set up goals, as he did in a game against Genoa. He can score goals as well. He nodded one in against Inter in the derby. He is a fierce header of the ball. He is a complete midfielder.
He then shadowed Lionel Messi in the World Cup with the Netherlands. De Jong was supposed to miss the rest of the World Cup with a groin injury, but there he was, chasing Messi in the semi-final of the tournament. He would follow him everywhere.
i've not seen Argentina play better this World Cup + Mascherano's been their key man. I don't think I've seen De Jong play better ever— Simon Kuper (@KuperSimon) July 9, 2014
No wonder he is drawing interest from the Premier League, most notably Manchester United. His former coach, Louis van Gaal, is now at the helm there, and De Jong is exactly the kind of ball-winning midfielder that they need. David Craddock of Goal.com reports that United have lined up an £8 million deal for De Jong.
"I don't like singling out players, but Nigel de Jong was inspirational," Van Gaal told reporters (h/t Goal.com) after a 3-2 victory over Australia in the World Cup.
De Jong is still working out for the upcoming season, training away from Milan. He did not join them for their U.S. tour. And if Milan keep selling their best, he won't be playing for them again.