This season, AC Milan have gone from mid-table makeweights to contenders for European football. Sinisa Mihajlovic is thus in the process of helping the club turn an important corner in its history. Helping him do that is his elegant trequartista, Giacomo Bonaventura.
Bonaventura is perhaps one of the finest accidental transfers of modern times. The day he put to pen to paper and became a Milan player was a frenzied emotional rollercoaster, full of twists and turns.
He began 1 September, 2014—the last day of the transfer window—as an Atalanta player. By that afternoon, he almost became an Inter Milan player, but a complication in the deal meant Bonaventura looked set to remain in Bergamo for the time being. Then the Rossoneri came calling.
“I will be honest, I was happy that after four years at Atalanta I was going to a big club at last,” Bonaventura told Guerin Sportivo (h/t Football Italia) of Milan’s move for him.
“At 20:30 (Atalanta director general Pierpaolo) Marino stopped me…and said he’d received a phone call from Adriano Galliani, so we were heading to Milan headquarters.” Bonaventura went from almost laughing to crying tears of joy when signing on the dotted line.
His arrival was fairly inconspicuous, despite the eventful manner in which the deal was sealed. He was already 25 years old and, while he had appeared for Italy in a friendly, he was no star.
Bonaventura was also joining Milan at a time of flux. The club had finished eighth the season before and, under the inexperienced Filippo Inzaghi, would finish 10th in his first campaign. He played well but it wasn’t until this term that he broke out.
Indeed in 2015-16, Bonaventura has gone from being a handy player to Milan’s most important asset.
He is one of several individuals to deserve praise for the way they have performed this season. The likes of Alex and Juraj Kucka have played above themselves, while Keisuke Honda is finally living up to his billing. Youngsters such as 16-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and 21-year-old forward M’Baye Niang have also broken into the starting lineup with mature displays.
However none of those players have made quite so notable an improvement as Bonaventura.
This term, the 26-year-old attacking midfielder has set up seven league goals and scored five of his own. Thus, despite only having moved beyond the halfway mark of the campaign within the last month or so, he has already contributed to more goals than in any of his previous seasons as a professional player.
Also, having had a hand in 12 goals combined, he has been directly involved in just under one-third of Milan’s total Serie A tally of 37.
According to WhoScored.com, Bonaventura has been Milan’s best player by quite a distance, garnering a 7.53 rating.
Meanwhile, Squawka.com rate him as the sixth-best midfielder in the country. In terms of attacking performance, their statistics state that only three other midfielders—Palermo’s Franco Vazquez, Atalanta’s Alejandro Gomez and Juventus’ Paul Pogba—have done more.
That Bonaventura has achieved these numbers in a tactical environment as unstable as Mihajlovic’s Milan makes them all the more remarkable.
When the Serbian coach first arrived at the club last summer, his intention was to implement a 4-3-1-2 system with a diamond midfield. This was a formation he had used to good effect with Sampdoria, though it was initially unclear how Bonaventura would fit into it.
After a dalliance with playing him in the hole behind the strikers, Mihajlovic settled on using his playmaker on the left of the midfield three. However, by October, this was an irrelevant concern as the coach made the first of two systemic changes.
Bringing in a 4-3-3 which became a 4-5-1 when out of possession, Mihajlovic fielded Bonaventura on the left wing. This allowed the player to cut inside onto his favoured right foot and link up with Carlos Bacca, who took up the lone striker berth.
At this point, the growing relationship between these two players became a real positive for Milan.
After setting up the team’s second goal in a 3-1 win over Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico last November, Bonaventura provided the third for Bacca with a beautifully weighted slide-rule pass that split open the opposition defence. The Colombian simply had to run onto the ball before rounding Federico Marchetti and tapping home.
That goal was a microcosm of their partnership. Bacca lingers on the shoulder of the last man; Bonaventura searches for him with accurate passes through the opposition defensive line.
The combination between these two players is the most productive in Serie A. Only Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne’s respective duets with Gonzalo Higuain can equal them, per WhoScored.
And since Mihajlovic brought in a 4-4-2 last December, the pair have continued to work in a similar way. Nominally, this system sees Bonaventura play on the left wing, though he tends to drift infield to dovetail with Bacca, who often plays as the left-sided striker.
In this sense, Bonaventura has been crucial to aiding Bacca in settling into Italian football.
The clinical striker joined Milan last summer as a marquee signing but took some time getting used to Mihajlovic’s tactics and Serie A defences. Bonaventura’s presence in the side ensured that, even when the team was lacking in spark, there was at least some creativity for Bacca to feast on.
Aside from supplying Bacca, Bonaventura’s all-round play has been impressive. A player with plenty of intelligence and awareness, his ability to find dangerous areas on the pitch make him a constant thorn for opponents.
He also possesses excellent vision to go along with his smooth technique and passing range, making him a devastating player when given space to exploit.
The nimble attacking midfielder has quietly become Milan’s silent leader, a figure respected within the team not necessarily for his voice, charisma or willingness to crack skulls, but for his impact and reliability.
He appears comfortable with his new role within the team dynamic, telling Premium Sport (h/t Football Italia):
I’m an important player. The supporters look at the attitude, the way one takes to the pitch, and that’s what I’m like.
But I’m not seeking admiration, I’m just trying to help the team. Being considered a leader is not important for me, I just want to give the right example to the team.
Bonaventura’s progression as a player is, evidently, not just down to his work on the training ground. He is growing as a person and, at a time when Milan lack true leadership throughout the squad, he should be considered for the captaincy in the future.
Riccardo Montolivo currently holds the armband but has not always convinced and isn’t necessarily guaranteed a starting place each week.
Giving the captaincy to Bonaventura would be apt. After all, if no-one can lead by talking, at least the Rossoneri would have appointed someone who can consistently lead by doing.
With UEFA Euro 2016 coming up this summer, Bonaventura’s form should see him comfortably make the 23-man cut for Antonio Conte’s Italy squad. He may even sneak ahead of the likes of Stephan El Shaarawy and Lorenzo Insigne to take the left-wing berth in Conte’s 4-3-3.
Yet, while international competition is perhaps what will take Bonaventura’s career to the next level in the eyes of the general public, the truth is that he is already there.
This season he has made the leap from good to great. Milan have a star amid their ranks.