The news is in. It took months of speculation and half a season of bench warming, but Nigel De Jong has finally departed the San Siro. Signing with MLS club Los Angeles Galaxy, the move put to an end a three-and-a-half year Italian adventure with AC Milan for the Dutch midfielder. Through good times and bad, De Jong showed himself as one of the most important signings of the “new Milan” era, and leaves behind a void that a scarce few players could ever hope to fill.
De Jong’s foray into Italian football began, in a sense, during his time in England. He was bought from Hamburg in January of 2009 by Manchester City to fill the role of midfield enforcer as the free-spending Citizens tried their luck at a top-four charge. Quickly becoming a fan-favorite, the Dutchman’s no-nonsense approach to defensive work and lack of qualms regarding tough challenges made him a joy for City fans to watch take down player after player. Becoming a regular starter under Mark Hughes, he maintained his first-choice berth after the sacking of Hughes and subsequent appointment of Inter Milan hero Roberto Mancini.
The Italian manager was De Jong’s first taste of Italian-style football, and the two enjoyed a highly positive working relationship. Mancini thought very highly of his Dutch destroyer, coming to his defense even after the player horrifically broke Hatem Ben Arfa’s leg in October of 2010. Speaking to the media in the immediate following the incident and De Jong’s exclusion from the Netherlands squad by then-manager Bert van Marwijk, Mancini remarked, “as his club manager I wish to say that, whilst he is naturally competitive, Nigel is first and foremost a great player as well as being honest and loyal and I support him wholeheartedly.”
Though a regular starter and star player during his first two full campaigns in sky blue, the 2011/12 season yielded a departure from the Etihad. Amid increasingly less playing time, an expiring contract, and the signings of players expected to replace him, there was nowhere for De Jong to go but out. At one point tempted by Inter Milan, it was to the red side of the San Siro that the Dutchman eventually made his way.
Brought in for just £3.5 million, a mere fifth of what the Citizens paid for him in 2009, the 27-year-old was one of the only bright spots in Milan worst transfer window in many years. Coming into the fold as a massively powerful midfielder and one of the league’s best in his position, he started out the season well enough, putting in solid performances and holding his own despite the rest of the team’s falterings. However, only starting 11 league matches in his final Premier League season saw De Jong look fairly rusty in his first few matches in red & black.
Building up form going into the Christmas break, the midfielder’s season was tragically cut short as a ruptured Achilles tendon in a victory over Torino sidelined De Jong through the spring. Returning for the start of the new campaign in August 2013, the 2013/14 Serie A was possibly one of the Dutchman’s best league seasons in his professional career. Though the Rossoneri as a whole woefully underperformed, finishing in a dismal eighth place, Milan’s enforcer shot onto the lips of the Milan faithful and into the notebooks of the world’s top managers.
Posting up huge performances, De Jong led the team as its main fulcrum, doing the defensive dirty work and providing the ball for midfielders to take up the pitch to the forwards. At many times doing the jobs of three to four players, the Dutchman more often than not functioned as both the club’s midfield and it’s central defensive pairing simultaneously. A fearsome player to come up against, Milan’s dynamo kept chugging along despite the rest of the team’s failings, doing all he could to keep Milan in contention match after match.
In an interview with FourFourTwo’s Anthony Lopopolo in December of 2013, De Jong commented on his positive impacts on Milan. “I have to protect my back four, but I also have to be a big part for the attacking players, to give them the ball so they can make connections,” he told Lopopolo, playing down his contributions to the struggling team. Though he remained modest, his exploits in the heart of the Rossoneri team did not go unnoticed, and multiple suitors reportedly came knocking to try and grab the services of the hard-hitting Dutchman. English clubs Arsenal and Liverpool reportedly expressed major interest in bringing De Jong back to England, and while both seemed attractive destinations, their target affirmed his desire to stay and win with Milan.
Continuing on into the 2014/15 season off the back of a successful World Cup, De Jong built up on his impressive first full season in Italy. Maintaining the stellar qualities that yielded dividends the previous season, the Dutchman was once more the club’s best player in a horrific league campaign. Again acting as both the midfield and the defense match after match, the tireless enforcer was constantly one of the most active players on the pitch, continuously positioning himself to both be able to intercept an opposition attack and provide a springboard for a Rossoneri offensive play. He did however, begin to gravitate more towards a combative role, seen in the increase of cards and fouls from the previous campaign.
Though he could do little to prevent an embarrassing 10th place finish to the campaign, without their Dutch tank Milan could very well have flirted with the relegation zone at the close of the season. The undisputed leader of the side, many expected De Jong to continue on battling with the Rossoneri for several more seasons. He himself many times expressed the desire to stay at the San Siro, quoted as telling German paper Bild that he “wants to try and stay at Milan for another four or five years” in February of 2014.
Somehow, inexplicably, it didn’t happen. New coach Sinisa Mihajlovic quickly nixxed the midfielder from his plans, and within the entirety of this season De Jong only managed to scrape up five league outings. From hero to zero, it was clear that the club’s Serbian manager had no desire to field the Dutchman any longer, and after half a season of waiting and hoping, De Jong finally gave up.
Milan did not just lose a valuable asset this transfer window. Milan lost one of the few remaining players with any semblance of what it means to be a Milan player. Every single match, De Jong played his heart out, leaving nothing held back and everything on the pitch. Through good times and bad, he remained loyal to his shirt, staying with a mediocre Italian side when he could have played for nearly any team in the world. De Jong gave up his best years, his peak years, to a team that so carelessly discarded him after being carried on his shoulders for two consecutive campaigns.
Words cannot do Nigel justice. He was our rock, our big man, our ‘Lawnmower’. He was the leader on the pitch despite barely wearing the armband. He commanded the respect of his teammates, and fear & admiration from his opponents. Despite only being a part of the team for a few years, he did more in that time than most of the club’s long-serving players have done in their entire careers. The joy of seeing De Jong tirelessly work and the excitement from watching him save Milan’s skin game after game is not something I shall soon forget, and no matter what happens, the Dutchman will always be in my heart.
Best of luck to you Nigel, wherever you may go.