A year ago tomorrow 18-year-old Alexander Merkel scored his first professional goal, on his second Milan start, against Bari at San Siro in the last 16 of the Coppa Italia. Last night Merkel, now 19, appeared for the same team at the same venue in the same round of the same competition, with Novara the opponents.
The two performances, 363 days apart, were very different however, and not in the way you might expect. Against Bari he was assured, audacious and at the heart of all Milan’s attacking manoeuvres, scoring with a rasping left foot shot and providing a perfectly weighted assist for Robinho. Against Novara he was muted and somewhat unsure of himself, dilly-dallying on the ball and rarely venturing anywhere near the opposition box.
Shouldn’t that be the other way around? Last January he was virtually unknown and very raw, now he’s a year older and fresh from half a season of first team football at Genoa.
An explanation could lie in the circumstances of Merkel’s abrupt and unscheduled return to Milanello. Milan are in the midst of a creativity crisis. Kevin Prince Boateng, Alberto Aquilani and Antonio Cassano, the men responsible for 16 of the club’s 24 assists in Serie A this season, are all unavailable to Massimiliano Allegri, the former duo for a month, the latter for anything up to six months as he convalesces from serious illness.
The Rossoneri failed to convert 66 per cent possession into a single clear-cut goal scoring opportunity in Sunday night’s Derby della Madonnina. Earlier that day Merkel shone as Genoa ran out 3-2 winners over Udinese. For Adriano Galliani the solution was obvious and on Tuesday, just over six months after selling half of Merkel’s contract to Genoa, he persuaded the Rossoblu to give the boy back on a loan deal until the end of the season.
Having been born in Kazakhstan to Russian speaking parents, moved to Germany aged six, and then on to Italy aged 16 when Milan nabbed him from Stuttgart in 2008, such to-ing and fro-ing is nothing new for the teen, and neither is being fought over, the federations of Russia, Germany, Kazakhstan and even Belarus have been squabbling over his eligibility for years now.
The question is whether his return is a low cost quick fix for the Diavolo or a genuine expression of faith in one of their most precious youngsters. Much depends on his deployment. “Merkel proved that he is an important player,” Allegri declared last night, but it was a generous assessment. The difference between Merkel and the player he swapped places with in the summer, Stephan El Shaarawy, was night and day.
Playing on the right hand side of Milan’s midfield three seemed to sap the exuberance from the German Under-20 international, just as it did Boateng in the derby. Merkel’s characteristics are surely better suited to the trequartista role, and with Boateng injured and converted left-back Urby Emanuelson looking so out of place in the position behind the strikers, there doesn’t seem to be any reason not to play him there.
Barring a change of formation by Allegri, it’s arguably the best solution for everyone involved at a difficult and decisive stage of the season, with so many players missing and important fixtures in Serie A, the Coppa and the Champions League rapidly approaching.
Play to his strengths and Merkel could be a revelation, play him as a square peg in a round hole then discard him when others recover from injury, and you risk setting his progression back years.