While 39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic undoubtedly steals most of the headlines at Milan – whether on the pitch or not – through his often match-winning performances and undeniable leadership qualities, there is another, less-celebrated veteran who has been notably reliable and influential in the club’s impressive displays this year.
After arriving on loan in January with far less fanfare than Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan 11 days prior, many eyebrows were raised when journeyman Simon Kjaer was unveiled as a newRossonero on January 13. The aging defender, who has played in six different leagues across Europe, had only joined Atalanta four months earlier on loan from Sevilla, yet had failed to impress, featuring in just six matches as he fell down the pecking order under Gian Piero Gasperini’s watch while struggling to adapt to theNerazzurri’s style of play.
A six-month loan deal to Milan was initially seen as a stop-gap solution, with Kjaer providing cover for captain Alessio Romagnoli’s defensive partner Matteo Musacchio, following Mattia Caldara’s injury-hit spell in Red and Black which saw him trade clubs with the Dane.
Kjaer was however thrown into the starting line-up just two days after his arrival, putting on an encouraging debut display in a 3-0 Coppa Italia victory over SPAL, and since then, he hasn’t looked back.
Composed on the ball, a physical presence with good positional awareness and impressive aerial abilities, the well-travelled centre-back grew in stature with every passing game for his new club. While sticking to the basics, he became a reliable presence in the heart of the Milan defence, forming a strong partnership alongside skipper Romagnoli as he made the right centre-back position his own.
After losing Romagnoli to injury in the latter stages of last season, Kjaer took up the mantle as defensive leader of the Milan backline while using his vast experience to guide and direct substitute defensive partner Matteo Gabbia, ten years his junior.
So dependable were Kjaer’s performances in aiding Milan’s remarkable post-lockdown run that the Rossoneri bought the defender outright from his parent-club Sevilla in July, his €3.5 million fee considered a steal for such a consistent performer amid the current financially-challenging times.
While his leadership attributes cannot be mathematically qualified, Kjaer’s on-field performances certainly can be: in the 39 encounters played across all competitions since his arrival in January, the 31-year-old has missed just four matches, with Milan failing to win any of those four games in which he did not feature.
This season, Kjaer has been the most-utilised defender in the Milan squad, and is the only player to have started all nine Serie A matches so far as well all four Europa League group stage games, together with the three qualifiers played at the start of the campaign.
While complementing either Gabbia or Romagnoli in keeping the opposition attack at bay – his 70 recoveries so far this season ranks him highest among his club teammates – his long, raking balls up field have become a common feature added to his game, with the Dane always looking to launch an attack where possible. With his vast experience comes discipline, having been cautioned just five times in his 35 games played across all competitions for Milan so far. While he is yet to open his goal account for the Rossoneri, he has come agonisingly close, hitting the woodwork twice already this season – the joint-most of any player in Serie A so far.
One of only three players in this young Milan team over the age of 30 – the others being ageless 39-year-old Ibrahimovic and second-choice 34-year-old goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu – Kjaer has flown under the Swedish striker’s radar as an unsung hero and leader at the back. Having worn the national team armband since 2016 and having celebrated his 100th cap for Denmark just last month, Kjaer’s leadership abilities cannot be undermined, and were especially brought to the fore in Romagnoli’s injury absence as he marshalled the defence and directed play from the back.
“Yes, I see myself as a leader on the pitch and in training,” Kjaer said in a recent interview. “I watch the others and give a hand. I have always tried to lead by example, I make myself heard. And I try to convey a message to the youngest of players, because over the years I have learned that we must never be satisfied.”
Despite only recently making his move to Milan permanent, Kjaer’s impressive displays have already sparked talks of a contract extension beyond 2022 as he continues to quietly go about his business on the pitch.
And while Ibrahimovic’s skill and goals leave football fans in awe, while youthful attackers in Rafael Leao, Brahim Diaz, Jens Petter Hauge and Alexis Saelemakers see their stock rise and while midfield duo Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessie continue to receive praise, Kjaer remains a constant and influential figure at the opposite end of the pitch. His ever-presence ensuring stability as Milan look to continue their impressive streak this season.