Of the six players AC Milan brought in during January's winter transfer window, Alessio Cerci is among those who have received the most criticism from the club's fans.
That criticism is somewhat misplaced. Milan's fans were hoping for a savior in the winter window and didn't get one. The expectations on him were unrealistic. On another front, Cerci was badly misused. He only started seven times and was brought on as a sub nine times. Five of those nine sub appearances, according to WhoScored.com, lasted 12 minutes or less. That isn't enough time to make an impact.
What's more, Cerci wasn't being used properly when he did play—and that's the primary issue. There is a simple way that Milan can take a transfer that their fans consider a bust and turn it into a triumph.
To understand how this can be accomplished, we have to dig into Cerci's past. He came up in professional soccer in Roma's academy. He made his debut for the Giallorossi at the end of the 2003-04 season under Fabio Capello, and in the 2004-05 season, he played a key role on the wing for the team that won the Campionato Primavera.
After only appearing in one match after signing a first-team contract in 2005, he went on loan to seek more playing time. He played for Serie B sides in both 2006-07 and 2007-08, then for Atalanta in Serie A in 2008-09. The latter of those loan stints was derailed by injury, and the first stint, at Brescia, saw him play mostly as a sub. It was during his time in Pisa (2007-08) that he first showed how talented he was.
Cerci scored 10 times in 26 matches before his season was derailed by knee injuries. What's worth noting about that time in Pisa was the man who managed him, Giampiero Ventura.
After his loan spells, Cerci spent another season at his boyhood club before moving on to Fiorentina. He spent two seasons in Florence, and while he wasn't terrible, he wasn't living up to his potential either. In August 2012, newly promoted Torino signed him on a co-ownership deal.
The move to Turin proved to be the most significant of his career. It reunited him with the man with whom he had had his greatest success as a professional, Ventura.
Ventura believed in the youngster who had so much success under him at Pisa, and he did two things that changed his career. First, he made him an almost automatic selection in the starting XI. He started 94 percent of the games he appeared in during his time with Torinio, allowing him to hit the groove that all players need to truly shine.
Ventura's second act was by far the most significant. Up to that point, Cerci had spent his entire career as a winger. After his first season at Torino, Ventura changed that by moving him into the middle as a "seconda punta"—the Italian term for the more shifty forward who plays slightly behind the traditional center-forward (the "prima punta").
The move turned into a revelation. After scoring eight goals in 2012-13—mostly from the wing—Cerci went on a tear to start the 2013-14 season and forged an incredible partnership with Ciro Immobile. Together, they combined for 35 goals. Cerci had 13 of them and augmented that with 10 assists—both far and away career highs.
His form saw him break into the national team under Cesare Prandelli and made him a hot commodity on the transfer market. It was here that he made a major mistake.
Last summer, Cerci transferred to Atletico Madrid. It was a move that was misjudged. He never got into Diego Simeone's setup and only made eight appearances—all off the bench—in the first half of the season before moving to Milan on an 18-month loan that saw Fernando Torres go in the other direction on the same terms.
What he needed was regular playing time to get back into game shape, but he didn't get any from Filippo Inzaghi. What's more, when he did get on the field, it was back in his old wing position, not in the central role that proved a better fit for him during his last season under Ventura.
In short, Inzaghi never put him in a position to succeed.
Cerci isn't the first player who has discovered success in a role different from the one he came up in. Fortunately for him, Sinisa Mihajlovic has a history of finding those players' sweet spots.
Upon arriving at Sampdoria two seasons ago, he moved Manolo Gabbiadini from a central striking position, where he wasn't living up to his talent, to the right wing, where his blinding pace and howitzer of a left foot turned him into a force.
Given the fact that Mihajlovic has a season's worth of game tape to prove to him that Cerci is better in the middle than out wide, it's not a stretch to think that he would recognize it and move him back to where he was most successful.
Milan has a good player in Cerci. He could even be a difference-maker if he's put in the proper position. If they play him regularly and put him in the central role that favors him better than his customary spot out wide, they could have a serious contributor for next season.