By: Chaka Simbeye
Arkadiusz Milik’s last season at Ajax was a tale of two halves as after a frustrating first half of the season, Ajax finally began to play to his strengths as they stumbled on the last day of the season with their top scorer being hauled off as Frank De Boer’s side searched for a goal against De Graafschap.
Rudi Voller and Bayer Leverkusen rarely make mistakes in the transfer window as they scoured the market for an attacker in the last few seasons signing Josip Drmic, Admir Mehmedi, Javier Hernandez and now Kevin Volland while Milik was fermenting at Ajax as the sell-on fee they received for the Pole only served as respite for a rare miscalculation.
Now, Milik treads the Napoletano path in Naples as he will tussle with Manolo Gabbiadini and whoever else Napoli sign to fill the Gonzalo Higuain shaped hole. The Pole scored 47 goals at a rate quicker than Serie A’s gilded alumni Zlatan Ibrahimovic but is far from hitting the lofty heights of the Swede or Higuain. His game is all about mobility, involving others but being aware of opportunities in the box as he meshes the archetypal Serie A poacher and the multi-faceted modern day forward. It took new Inter Manager Frank De Boer a while to adjust to this style of play as he spent way too much of the last season playing false-nine’s while when Milik did play, he was left isolated higher up the pitch.
Ajax’ dreaded European campaign which Frank De Boer and Edwin Van Der Saar expected to take them to the latter phase of the knockout stage was dead in the water before it even got started with De Boer choosing to play Anwar El Ghazi, Davy Klaassen, Lasse Schone and Viktor Fischer up front instead of the Pole who was left to wilt on the bench. The biggest indicator of that phase was in the penultimate match against Celtic at Celtic Park when Milik opened the scoring with a tap-in as that ended up being his only shot on goal while substitutes Yaya Sanogo and Vaclav Cerny more than doubled that output when they came on in the second-half.
In the second-half of the season, we saw more early crosses to the lanky frontman to which he duly began to put away as the team began to play to his strengths. He was more involved in build-up play as Ajax were more willing to use him whether it be as a passing option, a through ball when he played on the shoulder of the last defender, in counters and as an early crossing option when he was lingering around the box. He scored the opener against PSV Eindhoven at the Phillips Stadion after Joel Veltman launched a pin-point early cross to him as he put some space between him and his marker to rise high and head the ball past Jeroen Zoet in the PSV goal.
Amin Younes also began to cross the ball for him as the two struck up a partnership and deft Younes cut-ins and crosses were the catalyst for many Milik goals. De Boer had an unhealthy obsession of pumping in copious amounts of crosses to a lone target in the box so Ajax could utilise second balls which rarely worked and made the team from Amsterdam easier to defend against, but now each cross had precision and purpose as the big man started to receive more adequate service. His goal against AZ Alkmaar at the Amsterdam ArenA where he received the ball on the break by the halfway line with the AZ defenders trudging behind before he embarked on a run and calmly finished was a testament to the aesthetic pleasure of him having the ball at his feet.
There are glaring weaknesses in his game with his over-reliance on his left foot while the European Championships showed he is prone to missing sitters as as he joins Napoli with a massive price-tag weighing heavily on him. He will need the support of Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens to truly be effective as if he is left isolated, defenders will find it scarily easy to muzzle him. He might be the player that allows Maurizio Sarri to revert to his favoured 4-3-1-2 from his Empoli days while he will also allow the Italian to juggle his lineup in between European and domestic features which he was unable to do after finding his best lineup.
In some ways he is perfect for the Serie A as in such a league that relies heavily on tactical nuance, the more complete and well-rounded forwards have always thrived and are still thriving while in some ways he isn’t as the vociferous crowd at the San Paulo have spent the last few years cheering Gonzalo Higauin’s name while being choreographed by the booming voice of Decibel Bellini as they are looking for a new striker to take up the mantle of the Argentine who top scored in the league. After a strong pre-season and being unable to break into Sarri’s side last season, Gabbiadini has a chip on his shoulder too while a team that has a lineage of top forwards including Diego Maradona, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani and Higuain need to find another way forward in a season where they will be fighting a battle on two fronts.
Assuming, Napoli fail to pry Mauro Icardi away from Inter and Koulibaly remains at the club, Milik will be their big name signing of the window and will have to shoulder the burden of making an instant impact as the onus for Napoli has been to fill out a squad with an already strong starting lineup. He is well-suited to Sarri’s measured, patient and incisive attacking style but will take to syncronise his movement to give Insigne the time and space to cut in while having the positional sense to make himself available for the distribution of the marauding fullbacks. Napoli at their best last season, where a well oiled machine with an industrious midfield, a lethal attack and man mountain Kalidou Koulibaly sweeping up in defence.
There is of course the difference in leagues as he were facing younger defenders in the Eredivisie while in Italy he will face more tactically aware and physically imposing defenders but one must take into account that there are many dimensions to Milik and instinct and movement around the box will throw up many quandaries for defences in the Serie A. He needs to be given time to find his feet in a way similar to how Massimiliano Allegri took his time to introduce Paulo Dybala to Serie A from Juventus’ vantage point last season. The most pivotal thing he will give Sarri is tactical diversity which is imperative in Serie A, especially with the beast that Juve have become in the summer.
The price will be a factor in his early performances this season and so will his predecessor and current competition, as Napoli bought him so much that Pierre Van Hooijdonk tweeted that Ajax should wrap him in bubble wrap and deliver him to Naples themselves. However, one must take into mind the premium that comes with potential in the modern day market and Milik certainly has that on his side but the thing that will endear him or villianate him to many Napoletani is reliability which Juventus have bought in bulk this season as we have yet to see how this move will turn out.