Keisuke Honda Offers AC Milan Hope but Real Progress Will Take Time

Christopher Atkins@@chris_elasticoContributor ISeptember 30, 2014

Cesena's Francesco Renzetti, left, vies for the ball with AC Milan's Keisuke Honda of Japan, during their Serie A soccer match at Cesena's Manuzzi stadium, Italy, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Marco Vasini)
Marco Vasini/Associated Press

Keisuke Honda's AC Milan career took some time to get going. Having made his long-awaited move from CSKA Moscow to one of Europe's top five leagues in January, the Japanese star stuttered as Milan's malaise continued under the management of Clarence Seedorf. A club accustomed to life at the top, the Rossoneri staggered to an eighth-place Serie A finish.

The elevation of Filippo Inzaghi to the manager's role this summer was heralded as the start of a new dawn for the club, with the likes of Mario Balotelli, Robinho and Kaka heading for the exit doors. Pre-season was woeful, but two wins to begin the campaign saw a feel-good factor return to the club for the first time in quite a while. A defeat to Juventus and subsequent failure to beat Empoli and Cesena, though, is in danger of derailing any rescue plan before it gets going.

Milan are a team and, indeed, an entire club bereft of confidence, yet they have a run of highly winnable fixtures ahead of them. Inzaghi's challenge is to give his side belief that they can win such games and put themselves in a position where they can challenge the league's elite later in the season.

The San Siro side will not win Serie A this year, but there is no reason why they cannot return to European competition in 2015/16 given the players at their disposal

Honda is foremost among those players and has begun the campaign in much improved form. This was the Japanese star the club had believed was arriving in January, albeit he is not yet being used quite as he would expect.

Much was made of Honda, naturally a No. 10, playing from the right under Seedorf yet that is where he has continued for Inzaghi and in five appearances, he has contributed three goals and five assists this season. In the Italian's preferred 4-3-3 formation, it is hard to see where else he could be so influential, although a recent change to 4-2-3-1 could offer hope of a future central berth.

Honda has always been an interesting player in that, for any side not operating with a No. 10, it can and has proved difficult to accommodate his talents. He is not a central midfielder, with his best work done in and around the penalty area. Neither, though, does he possess the physical strengths required of a striker.

The argument has always been that Honda playing wide also limits his ability to push into the area and influence the game as he does best and, even in his improved form, it is hard to argue against such statements.

Yet, with right-back Ignazio Abate overlapping on his outside, Inzaghi allows the Japanese room to wander off his flank in the 4-3-3 setup and look to link with fellow forwards Jeremy Menez and Stephan El Shaarawy. Given the protection offered by a workmanlike three-man central midfield, the trio can remain high up the pitch as a unit. As a consequence, as shown by WhoScored.com statistics, only Menez can claim to have equalled Honda's tally of 10 shots this season—proof he is getting in the right areas of the pitch.

Taken from Squawka.com, the following touch maps show how Honda is at least finding areas higher up the pitch this season:

Honda's pass map vs. Atalanta last season
Honda's pass map vs. Atalanta last seasonSquawka.com

Last weekend vs. Cesena Honda is clearly higher up the pitch
Last weekend vs. Cesena Honda is clearly higher up the pitchSquawka.com

Having switched to a 4-2-3-1 last weekend due to midfield injuries, Inzaghi now has the choice of playing the Japanese in a No. 10 role but has opted to instead use Menez in a central role. Given the Frenchman's regular refusal to pass when better options are available, it is a somewhat confusing decision with Honda's ability to unlock a defence seemingly better suited to the role.

Both Honda and Menez, when used centrally, have offered encouragement this campaign, but Inzaghi is as as much to blame for recent poor results as his team. He must settle on a back four, having used four different centre-back combinations in five games without a clean sheet thus far. Honda should not be marginalised in the 4-2-3-1 and, indeed, starting Torres up-front over an in-form Menez was a decision that is difficult to explain.

Given Milan's lack of genuine class, more must be made of Honda, who, despite his frustrating lack of positional flexibility, can be a real match-winner when used properly. Milan are well below past levels, but they must build upon the likes of Mattia De Sciglio, Honda and even Nigel De Jong who can return them to where they desire to be.

Inzaghi is still learning on the job and his lack of a solid system thus far is understandable in a team that has many options but few standout stars. After five games, the time has come to settle on a system and, at present, there are few better options than to build around their Japanese star. A big-game player with a great attitude, Honda can, and perhaps should, be the face of a new era in Milanello.