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Suso Is Bringing Rare Left-Footed Beauty Back to AC Milan

Blair Newman@@TheBlairNewmanFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2016

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 22:  Suso of AC Milan looks on during the Serie A match between AC Milan and Juventus FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 22, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Being left-footed is a strange and wonderful thing. It is believed only one-fifth of the world's population can put themselves in this bracket, with the overwhelming majority favouring their right foot. And this rarity is carried through into football, something to which AC Milan can categorically testify.

Most of the Rossoneri's current playing squad are right-footed, which isn't abnormal. However, this season one left-footed player has made a significant mark on the team. And while his impact no doubt emanates from his talent and other specific attributes, his favourite foot has also played an important part for reasons both tactical and aesthetic.

Of the lineup Milan head coach Vincenzo Montella selected to play against Pescara last Sunday, only two players were left-footed. One was Alessio Romagnoli, a central defender. The other was Suso, a winger. Yet, while the former can call upon Paolo Maldini as an obvious recent example of left-footed defensive greatness at the club, the latter, as an attacker, has fewer icons to look up to.

Despite this, Suso is challenging his club's right-sided hegemony.

Suso takes on Juventus' Juan Cuadrado.
Suso takes on Juventus' Juan Cuadrado.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

In the past few years, Keisuke Honda has featured frequently in Milan's attack, but the Japanese playmaker has been limited by a frequent inability to fit into the system implemented by his coaches. Last term under Sinisa Mihajlovic, he performed well in spells as the right winger in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formation, but his form fluctuated between hard-working displays and ineffectiveness.

And, since joining the club in 2013, Honda has rarely had competition from fellow lefties; indeed, up until this season, the only players who had challenged his status as the team's No. 1 left-footed attacking player were Alessio Cerci and Valter Birsa, each of whom failed to leave any tangible imprint on the first team.

Furthermore, in the same timeframe, a multitude of right-footed attackers have managed to establish themselves as important Milan players, from attacking midfielders and wingers such as Giacomo Bonaventura, Stephan El Shaarawy and Jeremy Menez to forwards such as Mario Balotelli, M'Baye Niang and Carlos Bacca.

25 Sep 1999:  Leonardo of Milan celebrates during the Serie A match between AC Milan and Bologna played at the San Siro, Milan, Italy. Tha game finished in a 4-0 victory for Milan.  \ Mandatory Credit: Claudio Villa /Allsport
Claudio Villa/ Grazia Neri/Getty Images

Arguably the last truly great left-sided attacker to wear the club's colours was Leonardo. The versatile Brazilian had two spells with the Diavolo, his first coinciding with the club's Scudetto success of 1999. He was an integral member of this title-winning side, initially thriving on the right of Alberto Zaccheroni's 3-4-3 system and scoring 12 goals in 27 league appearances.

Earlier in the 1990s, Milan had Dejan Savicevic, a mercurial Montenegrin who played for the club under the auspices of Fabio Capello. While the relationship between player and coach was at times a frosty one, Savicevic thrust his way into the side and played a key role in the Rossoneri's stunning Champions League victory of 1994.

Playing in the final against Johan Cruyff's Barcelona, the flamboyant forward set up the opening goal for Daniele Massaro before scoring his team's third in a 4-0 win by audaciously lobbing opposition goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta from outside the box, on the half volley.

90s Footballers @90sPlayers

90's legend Dejan Savicevic scores a pearler against Barcelona in the 1994 Champions league final! https://t.co/wyFVvbVSLY

Long before Savicevic, Pierino Prati was the most renowned of Milan's historic left-footed attacking players. In the late 1960s and early '70s, Prati's pace, nimble footwork and precision finishing were instrumental as the club asserted itself as one of the finest on the continent. His finest moment came in the 1969 European Cup final against Ajax where he scored a hat-trick to help his side to a 4-1 win.

Leonardo, Savicevic and Prati encapsulated the indefinable beauty specific to the left-footed attacker. Their sophisticated touch, fluid movement and potency in and around the final third were seemingly only exaggerated by their "otherness."

This effect is also prevalent with top left-sided forwards today, including Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Manchester City's David Silva, Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben and, of course, Barcelona's Lionel Messi. Their effortless grace is something few of their right-footed colleagues possess. And, beyond the simple fact of their left-footed rarity, there exists some scientific evidence underpinning this vague assertion.

A study undertaken by the universities of Oxford, St Andrews and Bristol in conjunction with several Australian institutions (h/t Marca) found that left-footers have a "gene that makes [them] more creative and inventive out on the pitch."

There's something special about Ozil.
There's something special about Ozil.NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/Getty Images

Perhaps it is this purported genetic difference that separates Suso from his team-mates, but there are also clear tactical reasons that have been evident throughout his start to the season. Since scoring a double against Bordeaux in the opening friendly of Montella's reign, the Spaniard has stood out, and it has a lot to do with the way he has been deployed.

One element, besides their aforementioned specific aesthetic quality, that makes the likes of Silva, Ozil, Robben and Messi so enrapturing to watch is the unique problems they pose defenders. Like the southpaw boxer, they cause havoc simply by their being among the minority that left-footed footballers are; defenders aren't quite so used to facing them. When utilised correctly, this can be an awesome attacking tool.

Montella appears to have recognised this in seeking to place Suso in the most dangerous areas possible in and around the final third.

While nominally a right winger, the 22-year-old is often stationed infield and between the opposition's midfield and defensive lines, as seen below. This is facilitated by the high positioning of Milan's right-back, usually Ignazio Abate, on the same flank. From this area, Suso and his left foot can affect the game in multiple ways.

Credit: Wyscout

One possibility of Suso playing in this area is that it causes problems for the opposition defensive line's marking scheme. The former Liverpool man is naturally inclined to move further infield from the right on to his favoured foot, which directly engages a greater quantity of defenders than if he were simply to drive down the flank on his right.

And, from his deeper infield role, he operates at a different depth to that of Milan's lone striker, usually Carlos Bacca. Drawing attention by looking to move or pass inward rather than out to the wing, this allows his more advanced team-mates, Bacca included, to make runs behind what is a preoccupied defensive line. An example of this is seen below.

Credit: Wyscout

Another positive of Suso playing in this area is that he has greater access to the whole final third than a right-footed player would have. Cutting in on to his left, he is able to attack the opposition's central defence, as depicted in the image below.

He also has the option of passing in the general direction of his run—further to the left. However, unlike the right-footer, he also retains the possibility of passing back towards the right.

Credit: Wyscout

Additionally, he benefits from one of the great cliches regarding left-footed attackers, which is that they are all fundamentally one-sided. This, to an extent, is true.

Just as when Robben receives on the right-hand side for Bayern Munich, the opposition expect Suso to cut back in on to his preferred foot. This, however, enables him to occasionally throw defenders by shifting on to his right. And, while this means reducing the quality of his final pass, it often allows him to create space for himself having deceived his marker.

Credit: Wyscout

According to WhoScored.com, no Milan player has made more key passes than Suso. And only Bonaventura has completed more dribbles, though this may be aided by his playing in a slightly more involved central midfield position.

The statistics show how important Suso now is to his team's attacking game, as well as how productive he has become. Like many of the world's best left-footed attackers, he isn't just beautiful to watch, he's also extremely effective.

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