Entering 2016, Keisuke Honda’s AC Milan future was up in the air.
The Japanese playmaker had struggled for game time in the first half of this season, and the indications were that he would soon be on his way. He had started just four times in league action since Sinisa Mihajlovic took the reins last summer and seemed to be edging closer to the exit door.
He made several comments in public that hinted at his own unhappiness, telling Kyodo News (h/t Football Italia) in early January that, “the situation has become even uglier. I arrived at Milan in the hope of being able to … change things, but since then the club has continued to keep changing coach.”
Less than two months later, however, and Honda’s situation is markedly better. He starred in Milan’s 2-1 win over Genoa at the San Siro on Sunday, scoring a fantastic goal to round off a strong all-round display.
His individual showing in the victory was merely the latest in a string of performances evidencing an improved work rate to go along with his longstanding technical skills. In many ways, it was the confirmation of a complete turnaround in personal fortunes.
In facing Genoa, Honda looked into a alternate version of what his future could have been. Former Milan players Suso and Alessio Cerci—both left-footed playmakers—appeared for the opposite side having moved to the Grifone in the January transfer window.
The Japan midfielder was rumoured to be on his way too, though club chief executive Adriano Galliani stated otherwise recently, telling MilanNews (h/t Football Italia):
He always states his opinions politely. He wants to stay at Milan, and we want to keep him, he’s never been for sale and he’s never asked for a transfer.
We’re very happy with what he’s doing now. He’s doing very well, he works very hard and sacrifices himself so much for the team.
That willingness to put in the hard yards is something that has impressed in Honda’s performances, establishing him in Mihajlovic’s starting lineup. Even when his passes, dribbles or shots aren’t coming off, the minimum he has offered to the team is his maximum effort.
Against Genoa, Honda added a productive edge to his effort. It was his cross that ended up at Carlos Bacca’s feet on five minutes, setting the Colombian up for a routine finish to put Milan ahead.
Then, after the hour mark, Honda cut inside and unleashed an accurate, curled finish to double his team’s lead. It was a stunning strike; a goal so good that it was surprising to realise the player previously hadn’t scored since October 2014.
He was immediately surrounded by his team-mates, celebrating what must have been a huge milestone with him.
After the match, Milan captain Riccardo Montolivo commented on how pleased he was with Honda and his contribution to the team, telling Sky Sport Italia (h/t Forza Italian Football): “Honda is a reliable and trustworthy player. I’m happy to have a player like him in the team, with guys like him you reach your goals.”
Honda’s attitude isn’t just winning over his fellow players, though. In the aftermath of the derby win over Inter Milan, Mihajlovic remarked of the 29-year-old, when speaking to Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia), that “when you explain clearly what he needs to do, he does it. He sacrifices himself.”
Self-sacrifice isn’t a trait commonly associated with trequartistas. Honda’s ability to adapt to a new role on the right of a four-man midfield, combined with his determination to aid his team not only when they have the ball, but when defending, make him unique in this respect.
BeIN Sport’s football commentator Matteo Bonetti stated that, in his opinion, Honda has been “one of Milan’s best performers since (the) derby.” He isn’t wrong.
A matter of months ago, it seemed as if Honda was set to waste his prime years sitting on the substitutes' bench in a perpetual state of frustration. That has all changed now. And, if he can continue his current form, he can play a big part in Milan’s future.