Ante Rebic’s goal against Fiorentina wasn’t the prettiest of all. But it worked, like it has so far this season. The manner of it was hardly surprising, as the man has made a career out of dirty goals. But this one coming against his former club was meant to be and it was proof that the Croatian is proving critics wrong this season.
The game didn’t go Milan’s way, as La Viola got a controversial penalty that Erick Pulgar slotted home. But it was another reminder that without Rebic, Milan may not have been competing for Europe this season at all. The Eintracht Frankfurt loanee has now technically won as many as 10 Serie A points for the Rossoneri, excluding his recent Coppa Italia goal against Juventus and the non-decisive goal against Inter.
When the season had begun, there were question marks about Rebic and why he wasn’t playing under Marco Giampaolo. Under the former Sampdoria boss, Rebic played only three games and couldn’t make a single start. Playing in a technically obsessed system could have been a reason, but the fact that Rebic had played in a technical system under Adi Hutter at Frankfurt made it strange.
What made it even more strange is that the Eagles had been playing in a 3-4-1-2 shape with a narrow front three, exactly how Giampaolo likes in a 4-3-1-2. No one knew what was wrong.
The former Fiorentina man was linked with a premature exit in January. There was talk of a return to Frankfurt and he did admit a desire to go back to the Commerzbank Arena.
Stefano Pioli did give him his first start against Lazio in a 2-1 defeat, but it came on the right-wing of a 4-3-3 shape. Over time, Pioli has changed the club’s system and shape to mould it into a variable 4-4-2 formation. Ever since that has happened, Rebic has come to the fore with aplomb. It worked to his strengths.
The idea of the 4-4-2 isn’t the usual one. It isn’t the one in which Milan’s wide players stay wide in a kick and rush style. Theo Hernandez has been given a free role down the left side, while Samu Castillejo dictates everything attacking-wise from the right. This has made sure that Andrea Conti doesn’t have as much distance to cover and has to stay in the defensive zones more often. But this also allows Rebic to drift into central areas off the ball.
Milan first played the 4-4-2 against Cagliari to end the three-game unbeaten run. It was Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s first start, as Rafael Leao played as the second-striker. It sparked the re-emergence of Castillejo, but Rebic could only play one minute of the game.
He got a start against Udinese, playing on the left channel of the 4-4-2. Since then, Rebic has scored six goals in six Serie A games, not scoring only when he was playing as the striker against 10-man Verona.
And that says a lot about the bulldog-like 26-year-old. And that is why Jose Mourinho wanted him at Manchester United. He has that determination and graft about him which makes him a no-nonsense player. When things got tough, he put the hard work in, and it is paying off.
Because of Hernandez’s attacking impetus from the left, Rebic pops up in unexpected areas around Ibrahimovic. That catches the opposition off guard - like it caught Martin Caceres at the Artemio Franchi on Saturday. He comes up in goalscoring positions of a striker and finishes them off like one too.
What was wrong under Giampaolo is anyone’s guess. But that hardly matters now. Milan have taken a lot of stick for poor recruitment over the years, but this past summer was a success. Rebic has been part of that success, along with Theo and Ismael Bennacer.
Milan might have sold Krzysztof Piatek and could regret not having a target-man. But Rebic has shown that sometimes that bullishness goes a long way in winning games for the team.