If you were to take a look over AC Milan’s transfer activity in 2015-16, Juraj Kucka’s arrival wouldn’t stand out. Yet the Slovakian has imposed himself upon the club this season with some wonderfully energetic performances, the latest of which came as the Rossoneri dispatched Palermo on Wednesday night.
In what turned out to be a relatively comfortable 2-0 victory, the Slovakian central midfielder was once again integral, breaking up Palermo’s play with seven interceptions and six fouls while also contributing going forward with two successful dribbles and one key pass, per WhoScored.com.
That showing came on the back of his outstanding individual display against Inter Milan in Sunday’s Derby della Madonnina. In what was arguably a season-defining game, Kucka was irrepressible, roving forward and beating his marker consistently as the Rossoneri won 3-0.
In the aftermath of the derby triumph, manager Sinisa Mihajlovic simply could not contain his happiness. And after praising his team, he turned his attention specifically to his unsung hero in the middle. “Kucka...is great because he is like a tank, he’s very hard to challenge and goes into every tackle,” the coach told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia).
Such plaudits are deserved considering the relentless graft Kucka has put in since walking through Milanello’s doors in late August of last year. His signature went under the radar, sneaked in as it was toward the end of the transfer window.
In that same window, Milan made headlines for their purchases of several big names, including Carlos Bacca, Alessio Romagnoli and Andrea Bertolacci. Milan purchased each of that trio for a fee exceeding £15 million. Kucka came in for the rather more modest sum of £2.25 million, per Transfermarkt.
Considering he was in and out of Genoa’s starting lineup last season, Kucka’s addition initially appeared as if it would be the latest entry on Adriano Galliani’s list of peculiar transfer dealings. That notion could not have been further off the mark.
What Kucka lacks in refinement, he makes up for with a work ethic unrivalled elsewhere in Milan’s midfield. While the others may provide the tricks, flicks and eye-catching through balls, the 28-year-old adds muscle, commitment and self-sacrifice.
As Squawka’s statistics confirm, he wins more tackles and headers per game than either Riccardo Montolivo or Bertolacci, his direct rivals for a spot in central midfield. More surprisingly, while he completes comparatively fewer passes, he creates more chances than both of his more technical team-mates.
Kucka benefitted from Mihajlovic’s switch to a 4-4-2 system back in late November. His box-to-box dynamism suits the formation, which requires a willingness to break opposition lines in order to be effective.
Since the tactical tweak, he has put in two performances worthy of WhoScored.com’s man-of-the-match award and even bagged his first goal in Milan colours in the 1-1 draw away to Roma. Against Palermo, he was more restrained but did what he had to do with a minimum of fuss.
His vigorous playing style is reminiscent of Gennaro Gattuso, and though Kucka is not quite on the same level as the tenacious Rossoneri icon, he is nonetheless relishing a situation he never envisaged prior to this season.
Upon agreeing terms with the club, he told Milannews.it (h/t Football Italia): “This was a surprise for me. ... I’m going to give everything I’ve got to prove I’m worthy of Milan. I’ll be giving my utmost in every position, wherever the coach decides to field me.”
Evidently, Kucka was just as taken aback by Milan’s pursuit of him as most supporters were, but he has stuck to his word, sweating for the colours with a passion that has elevated his performance to another level.
If being picky, he could improve his disciplinary record. He has received more yellow cards than anyone else in Mihajlovic’s squad, though that is mostly down to the role he is asked to play, shuttling from end to end, disrupting then driving forward.
Asking Kucka to tone down his aggression would perhaps be counterproductive; it’s a vital part of his character. Without it, he wouldn’t be the same player, on or off the ball. With it, he has shown himself to be a redoubtable force when at his best.
While Bacca gets the goals and Giacomo Bonaventura the assists, Kucka is gradually becoming the understated heartbeat of Milan. He is Mihajlovic’s tank and Adriano Galliani’s bargain. He didn’t expect the spotlight to shine on him, but now it is, he’s taking his chance.