Silvio Berlusconi described him as "our Andrea Pirlo, now and in the future". And with those words the Milan President explained in a nutshell exactly why Riccardo Montolivo has stepped up and demonstrated the ability many people have been expecting from him for years at the top level, and at the same time struggles to impose himself for Italy.
He is now the main man in midfield for his club, a situation not too dissimilar to the one he had at Fiorentina. And just like his time in Florence he is responding with the performances we are still waiting to see with the national team on a consistent basis.
The comparison between club and country is not a completely fair one to make, but it offers insight into why there is a difference in performance. At Milan he is surrounded by comparatively inferior players technically so he naturally becomes the first option in midfield, and probably their only option given the lack of ability around him.
The passing stats reflect this, particularly in the important games. In those matches against other members of the current top six, Montolivo has made the most passes of any player on the team. He was playing to the right of another player in midfield in all bar last weekend’s derby and the home defeat to Fiorentina, so these numbers have not arisen by virtue of playing in front of the defence. Of course his position is not inflexible, but he tends to be a little further forward when Massimo Ambrosini or Nigel De Jong are stationed in front of the central defenders, meaning he is not always an easy short pass from the back four.
When he joins up with Azzurri it is a different story. At best he is the second option for the team and in a full strength Italy XI that drops to third. He still gets the ball, but perhaps mentally he does not feel as valued or as important when there are other players who receive it first.
The game against England at Euro 2012 is a good example, primarily because Italy were so dominant from around the 20th minute onwards, yet Montolivo was largely anonymous. The top two passing combinations had Daniele De Rossi and Pirlo as the ball receivers – and that is despite the former only playing 80 minutes, whereas Montolivo played the whole 120.
Indeed in the entire list of Italian passing combinations Montolivo’s name as a ball receiver does not appear until you reach the 11th combination, even though the total number of passes received shows he was found by teammates more than most of the other players in that night, leaving him ample opportunity to make his mark.
His position for Italy is a factor – he naturally will not be involved in as many combinations playing his unique brand of faux-trequartista football – though his average position in the England game was not that much further forward of Pirlo, hence why only the No 21 received the ball more during the match, and it does not stop his Milan colleagues from ensuring they find him on a regular basis. Yet while he continues to impose himself on games for the Rossoneri, he cannot do so for the Azzurri despite his teammates’ best efforts
Unless Milan continues to buy defensive midfielders, this is a problem he is going to eventually encounter at club level, with players of a similar technical ability playing in midfield alongside him. If he remains the go-to guy, all is well, if not, the mental hurdle he faces around 12 times a year is going to hit him every day.