It's been an inconsistent season for AC Milan. Fans have had to endure the lowest of lows—the season-opening 2-0 loss at Fiorentina or October's 4-0 home thrashing at the hands off Napoli come to mind—as well as epic highs like their 3-1 victory over Lazio two Sundays ago.
That inconsistency has been the story of the last two seasons. Even the steadiest of performers from a year ago like Diego Lopez have found it difficult to turn in high-level performances game-in and game-out.
One rock in this season's choppy sea has been Giacomo Bonaventura.
Bonaventura joined Milan last summer after spending the first seven years of his professional career with Atalanta. He was an instant starter and scored in his debut match, a 5-4 thriller against Parma. From the end of November to the end of the season, he started every game save one.
More important than anything he did with the ball was his attitude. Bonaventura was one of the few people who kept playing full-bore when the team's season turned in the second half. While the majority of the players dropped their heads and played as if they didn't care what was going on, Bonaventura continued to play with the intensity expected of someone who plays for a team with the history and prestige of AC Milan.
Since the arrival of Sinisa Mihajlovic in the summer, Bonaventura has emerged as a major leader. He is one of the few players on the team with the creativity to break a defense down. Without him, the team simply has no ideas in attack—as evidenced by Saturday's game against Atalanta, for which he was suspended due to yellow-card accumulation.
But while he has played very well, there is also a major question that arises about him. Where should he be deployed—and what formation gets the best out of him?
Last year, Filippo Inzaghi played almost exclusively in a 4-3-3 formation, where Bonaventura played on the left wing. When Mihajlovic arrived, he installed a 4-3-1-2 formation. That seemed to play right into the hands of Bonaventura—but for one thing: There were two other players to compete with for the trequartista role.
The first of these competitors was Keisuke Honda. The subject of a protracted transfer saga while Milan tried to pry him from CSKA Moscow before his contract ended, he finally arrived on a free transfer in January of 2014 and was handed the No. 10 shirt. He scored in his second game with the team, against Spezia in the Coppa Italia, but he didn't score again until April.
After a fast start to last season while also deployed on the wing, he cooled off considerably, and by the end of the season, he was an afterthought. That allowed another winter signing from 2015—21-year-old Suso—to take over. Another attacking midfielder played out of position under Inzaghi, the young Spaniard put in some impressive performances, but nothing held a candle to Bonaventura's play.
Those two started the first five games of the year—Honda four times and Suso once—before Bonaventura was finally slotted into the trequartista role. Bonaventura himself slid back to a box-to-box role.
Bonaventura has started twice as an attacking midfielder—his natural role. In both, he's been hampered by factors beyond his control. Against Genoa on September 27, a botched back-pass led to Alessio Romagnoli getting his second yellow card, forcing Milan to play down a man for 48 minutes. The next week against Napoli, the team was simply overpowered by a rampant Napoli side.
Coming out of that international break, Mihajlovic changed formations, replacing his 4-3-1-2 with a 4-3-3. The reasons for the change were varied. After such an awful display against Napoli, a change was probably a good thing to inject some new life into the team.
There was also an element of force in the change. With Mario Balotelli hurt, Mihajlovic had only two strikers available to him, and starting them as a pair would limit his in-game tactical flexibility.
With the change, Bonaventura was again shifted to his less natural position on the wing. Since then, he's been quite good. WhoScored.com has named him Man of the Match in two of the four matches he's played since the change, and in his last game, against Lazio, he assisted on two of Milan's three tallies.
The question now, though, is whether he should stay there or whether he should move back to the middle when Balotelli returns—or if he returns, depending on whether or not he requires surgery.
As mentioned before, Bonaventura is naturally an attacking mid. It's how he came up at Atalanta, and it's where he plays his best football. It's evident in his play off the wing. Against Torino he drifted inside constantly. By the end of the game, he was drifting inside to get the ball so much that it sometimes looked like there was no left winger in the game at all.
That would suggest that he plays his game best in the middle of the field. Being in the hole behind the strikers allows him to use his vision and passing ability to pick out the men ahead of him. His ability to set up his teammates is well established—WhoScored has clocked him at 2.4 key passes per match so far this season.
In spite of that, his success since Mihajlovic changed formation is encouraging. He's been nothing short of a creative force over his last three games. Against Sassuolo, he tallied four key passes, against Chievo five and against Lazio three. He also notched a pair of assists in Rome, one from a free kick and one on a perfect through ball to Carlos Bacca.
That certainly indicates that he can still be productive on the wing. But that tendency to float inside still exists, which could be problematic. If he keeps drifting, the team could end up reliant on the left-back for real width, which could pull the rest of the formation out of alignment down the road.
It could also create a selection crunch down the line. M'Baye Niang made his season debut on the left wing in Bonaventura's place against Atalanta on Saturday and impressed. He cut inside with the ball dangerously, unleashed a few pile-driver shots and dovetailed nicely with Bacca.
He tired after about an hour—predictable for a player who wasn't quite at top fitness after an injury—but the youngster showed the form he carried on loan at Genoa last year. With some regular playing time, he might finally develop into the player whose potential we saw when he was a teenager.
But with Bonaventura entrenched at that position, Niang my not get the chance to grow—unless Bonaventura is moved back into the box-to-box role he held for the first five games of the season. He has recorded three assists from that role this season, and it may help solidify Milan's scuffling midfield.
But Bonaventura is more effective the closer he is to goal. The fact that Niang can play as a striker himself—indeed, in a post-match interview with Sky Sport (h/t Football Italia), he said that that was his preferred position—means that Mihajlovic can use a strike pair again should he so choose. That would allow Bonaventura to slide back into his familiar role in the middle of the park—the place he really should be.
The mark of an excellent coach is the use of a system that maximizes his team's strengths and minimizes its weaknesses. Some observers saw Antonio Conte's refusal to move away from his 3-5-2 formation at Juventus as stubbornness, when it was in fact exactly that virtue. He had no viable left-back on the team and three of the 15 best centre-backs in the world—using that formation was a no-brainer.
Mihajlovic needs to do the same here. He has an excellent attacking midfielder at his disposal—and he needs to deploy him accordingly. When he is comfortable again with his depth at striker, he should move Bonaventura back to the trequartista spot, where he belongs.