It’s been an up-and-down year in an up-and-down career for the magnificently gifted, maddeningly daft, infinitely enamoring young winger Gerard Deulofeu.
Around this time last season, Deulofeu seemed to have finally found a happy home. At Everton under Roberto Martínez, Deulofeu had a manager willing to put up with his hijinks so as to reap the rewards of his bountiful talents. Deulofeu played lots, amazing often and confounding regularly with his penchant for both the brilliant and the inexplicable. That he was getting minutes and performing well, even with his moments of stupidity, meant his future looked bright.
Not long after, however, Deulofeu picked up a couple little injuries (quite typical for him) and even when healthy fell a little out of favor with the manager (also a regular feature in this former Barcelona wonderkid’s time in the game). By the end of the season, you’d more often see Deulofeu on the bench than on the pitch. With Martínez getting fired, no one was quite sure what would happen to arguably the Toffee’s second-most promising player.
This season did not start well for Deulofeu. New manager Ronald Koeman did not have much use for the young attacker, featuring Deulofeu a bit at the start of the season but eventually plopping him back on the bench he’d been stuck to by the end of the season prior. Even after new wing signing Yannick Bolasie injured his knee and was ruled out for the season, Koeman still decided against regularly inserting Deulofeu into the starting lineup. By all appearances, the 2016-17 season would be yet another wasted year, depriving Deulofeu of the minutes he needed if he was to ever become something close to what his natural abilities preordained.
Thankfully, AC Milan have come to the rescue. Everton let Deulofeu leave on loan for Italy in January, and it’s hard to imagine a better team for him. The Rossoneri are coached by Vincenzo Montella, a very good young manager who has built up a young and fun though somewhat under-talented side. The coach trusts young players, has shown an ability to improve them, plays an attractive style of soccer, and has a need for good forwards. In Deulofeu, Montella has found maybe his biggest challenge and biggest potential reward yet.
The move to Milan always looked good because Deulofeu was certain to get minutes. At the same time, though, it didn’t necessarily make total sense fit-wise. Deulofeu’s best games as a professional have come from a position on the right wing. There, he can use his speed and agility and tricky dribbling to skip down the flank and knock in a cross before reaching the touchline.
The potential problem here is that Milan’s standout attacker this season has been Suso, a 23-year-old compatriot of Deulofeu’s who was similarly highly regarded as a youngster but struggled to break through at the top level until recently. Suso has thrived in a free role on the right, able to cut in on his left foot and find nooks of space centrally from which he can crack open a defense with his playmaking skills. If there’s one role in AC Milan’s team that didn’t need fixing, it was Suso’s spot on the right.
In light of this, the thinking was that Deulofeu would move over to the left side. While not the 22-year-old Spaniard’s best position, the potential move to the left was intriguing. The modern game is full of inverted wingers who start wide, cut inside on their stronger foot, and either create chances for central players with nifty little one- and two-touch passing moves or slice through and shoot themselves. Deulofeu hasn’t shown a particular knack for scoring since he’s made it to the big time, but he does have all the other skills an inside forward needs, and he also has a strong and pretty-looking shot. Given time in that position and more focus on his finishing, there’s no reason why he couldn’t make a transition similar to the one Cristiano Ronaldo made when he went from tricky, profligate winger to deadly wide-striker.
While it’s still early in his Milan tenure, Deulofeu has already begun paying back some of Milan’s faith in his talent. His best performance was his latest, in a match against Bologna in which he skinned a few Bologna defenders and nutmegged another to lay on an assist to give Milan, then down to nine men, a shock win:
But it doesn’t end there. Montella apparently is now flirting with the idea of making Deulofeu the team’s starting striker, trying to turn him into something like a Messi-esque false 9. This plan might sound a little crazy—again, Deulofeu isn’t known for his scoring prowess—but you can actually see where it’s coming from. Koeman actually had a similar idea for Deulofeu earlier this season when he tried playing the winger centrally. With Deulofeu’s speed, flair, gift for the incisive pass, and intelligent movement, he does have many of the attributes of a good false 9. Coupled with a relaxation of the defensive duties required of him (and it’s his lethargy on that end that has typically gotten him in the doghouse with his managers), this experiment just might be the thing that unlocks Deulofeu’s true potential.
Regardless of how it goes, the point of all of this is to alert you, fan and appreciator of both ingenious dribbles and delectably boneheaded dives, to the fact that Deulofeu will once again be playing, which means we’ll be treated to the best and worst of what he has to offer. This could go really well or really poorly; either way it should be a hoot to follow.