Things looked promising for Vincenzo Montella and his AC Milan side when Serie A went on its short winter break over Christmas. Just two points off third-placed Napoli with a game in hand, the Rossoneri had been enjoying a good start to the season and were harbouring realistic ambitions of qualifying for European football once again. They even managed to collect their first piece of silverware since 2011 on the 23rd December – travelling to Qatar and beating Juventus in a penalty shootout to lift the Supercoppa Italiana.
Since then, though, their form has notably dropped. Not only were they knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Juventus last month, a slight piece of revenge for that game played in Doha, their league standing looks much worse than it was. The Rossoneri have picked up just eight points out of the 21 available to them since the resumption of the Italian top flight. From being on the verge of overtaking Napoli, they’re now ten points behind them. And their chances of getting into the Champions League seem to have all but disappeared.
It looked like it was going to go even more downhill during their last game too, when Milan travelled to Rome on Monday night to take on a Lazio side who sat narrowly above them in the table. With a weary and mismatched eleven, a result of several injuries and a string of suspensions since the turn of the calendar year, Montella’s men struggled for large periods. They kept a decent portion of possession, however the home side’s dangerous and fluid attack heavily outshot them (by 23 to nine) and kept Gianluigi Donnarumma very busy in goal.
The teenage superstar did as much as he could to help his team stay in it. Lazio still took the lead despite his best efforts though, a Lucas Biglia goal from the penalty spot shortly after half-time looking like it would be enough to secure the win and take them further ahead of their Milanese opponents. But just as Donnarumma stepped up as much as he could in an hour of need, their outfield star of the season did the same in the 85th minute.
Weaving between three defenders before neatly curling home into the far corner with his left foot, in a fashion that bore heavy resemblance to Lionel Messi and his own countryman, David Silva, Suso’s moment of pure brilliance rescued a much-needed point for Milan – and certainly not for the first time. That was his sixth league goal of the campaign, and with seven assists alongside those the 23-year-old has been their most productive attacker under Montella by a good distance.
His consistency in creating those sorts of moments this season is indicative of how far he’s pushed on as of late. Those who are aware of the diminutive playmaker’s talents won’t be too surprised. He’s always been a bright prospect with the potential to go a long way in the sport. The difference now, is simply that he’s finally got a regular platform from which to demonstrate the gifts he has.
At Liverpool, Suso’s initial breakthrough in September 2012 was hampered by the arrival of Phillipe Coutinho in the January transfer window that followed soon after. And for a Spanish youth international who was quickly growing accustomed to regular first-team football at that point, it ultimately meant he had to go elsewhere to get the playing time he needed. So first came a loan spell at Almería in 2013/14, where he impressed and played a vital role in keeping the team in La Liga, before then making the important decision to leave Anfield permanently in January 2015.
Even at Milan initially there must’ve still been some doubt in the youngster’s mind over exactly where his future would be. He played just 278 minutes of league football in his first full calendar year at the club, then was loaned out again for the second time of his career: this time to Genoa for the remainder of the season. Fortunately, it was another stint that proved to be extremely useful for his development, with him making 19 league appearances (15 of them being starts) in that time and scoring six goals. Forming half of that tally was an excellent hat-trick against Frosinone, which made him just the second Spanish player to ever manage three goals in a single Serie A game.
Also included in there was a brace against Sampdoria in the Derby della Lanterna. The manager on the receiving end of that? Well, funnily enough, it was Montella. The current Milan boss. If he disliked Suso back in that moment of time because of those two goals, though, there’s little doubt to be had that his opinion has changed drastically since.
Donnarumma aside, no player has managed more minutes in the league for Milan than Suso has this season. With 2055 out of a possible 2160, comprised of 23 starts and one substitute appearance in 24 games, he’s barely missed any football at all – Giacomo Bonaventura (1574) being the next highest when it comes to minutes played by midfielders and attackers at the club. That gap between he and the rest is perhaps representative of those injuries and suspensions more than anything, but either way his own figures in isolation show how important he’s been for the team.
He’s predominantly started on the right side of their 4-3-3 system, operating in the same sort of role as the ‘false winger’ one which Brendan Rodgers coined for him when the two were at Liverpool together. Even if it’s perhaps not his absolute best position, his natural style being one that hints strongly at a more centrally-based number 10 role (he's also been impressive in a deeper role for Spain's youth teams before) in the future, Montella has at least given him the licence to cut infield at will so as to still utilise his quick feet and even quicker brain.
And as Lazio found out first-hand the other day, he’s very dangerous in those situations. Asking him to beat three men like that consistently is a bit of a tall ask for anyone that isn’t Messi, but put him in just about any one-on-one situation and the likelihood is the young Spaniard will come out on top. No need for electric pace over long distances, because that’s not something he possesses, just a quick burst of acceleration and some swift manoeuvring of the ball in tight spaces. He also uses his slender frame and high level of balance superbly in combination with that, often feinting to go one way before twisting unexpectedly into another.
For someone who’s in the middle of just their second full season of first-team football, and in what has become a quite largely disrupted team lately at that, his stats are well worth paying attention to as well. Even beyond that standout total of 13 goals and assists. With 0.57 direct goal contributions per 90, for example, he’s been right up there alongside some of the best attacking players in the league.
Looking at shots (2.8) and key passes (2.0) per 90, which have more correlation to future output than just goals and assists on their own, Suso also remains in esteemed company. Of all the players in Serie A to have played at least 1000 minutes, his combined total of 4.9 (the odd 0.1 is due to rounding error, promise, not being unable to add up) in those puts him amongst the top 20 most creative stars.
And away from the more definitive contributions in the final third, he’s also shown himself to be one of the most forward-thinking players in the division. When it comes to moving the ball vertically in order to advance the play and speed up attacks, whether through passes or dribbling, few in Italy are more progressive than him. This isn’t just a case of a few flashy moments here and there. There's genuine, consistent substance behind him.
Enough, anyway, that a first full call-up to the Spanish national side doesn't seem to be far away. Julen Lopetegui has been sending scouts to Milan on occasion to keep an eye on his progress, and in November he was named in the provisional squad before just about missing out in the end. Given that technical attacking midfielders are hardly a rarity for La Roja, that's quite a significant testament to how well the 23-year-old has been playing since cementing himself in the side under Montella.
Back in December 2015, just before the loan to Genoa went through, his agent Jaime Serra was threatening the player's permanent departure from the San Siro because of a lack of football. How things have changed since. If he ends up pushing for a move again in the near future it's likely to be for a far more positive reason. After a few slow years where it felt like Suso's career was on something of a halt, it's finally launched again.
This article was written by Daniel Butler, the editor of The Tactics Room and the owner of the site's official Twitter account (which you can follow here).