He is ‘The Boss’. The player opposing fans love to hate. He is also one of the smartest and savviest midfielders. Here was a player that had won league titles with four clubs in four different countries (PSV, Barcelona, Bayern and Milan). Mark Van Bommel is a player that strongly divides opinions.
Moving to Milan
During the 2010-11 winter transfer window, AC Milan signed Van Bommel from Bayern Munich. Initial responses to the signing of Van Bommel were unenthusiastic. The general consensus among fans were that they were getting another “experienced” player (read: old). The injury to Andrea Pirlo a few weeks before had left the defensive midfield position short-handed. With only Massimo Ambrosini left to play the at the base of coach Massimiliano Allegri’s diamond midfield, reinforcement was needed. Gattuso and Flamini were too terrier-like in style and does not fit the role of the defensive anchor in Allegri’s system. They were more inclined to charge around the field in search of the ball rather than holding their position and breaking up play from the middle.
He made his first appearance for Milan in the Coppa Italia against Sampdoria on the right side of a midfield 3 to accommodate Thiago Silva. Before long, he was making the anchor role his. In the absence of Pirlo and Ambrosini to long-term injuries, Van Bommel made the position his, ensuring they were not missed. It showed how vital he was to the system that when Pirlo and Ambrosini returned from injuries, they were unable to dislodge him from the anchor position. His organization ability and tactical awareness were key towards Milan’s title charge. Indeed, it was the triangle of Alessandro Nesta, Thiago Silva and Van Bommel in the center that provided the base for Milan’s charge towards the Scudetto that season. Van Bommel commanded the team with his vast tactical know-how, intelligence and experience (not that Milan were lacking in that department). Together with Ibrahimovic, they brought a fierce winning mentality to a team desperately in need of inspiration (and rejuvenation).
Having appeared for Bayern earlier in the Champions League group stage, he was ineligible for the knockout games against Tottenham. His absence was perhaps most sorely felt in the competition. Thiago Silva deputized in the first leg and the difference in quality was clear to see. A center back by nature, moving him to the defensive midfield position meant it broke up his partnership with Nesta. Thiago Silva’s unfamiliarity with the role meant that he was always looking to play the ball long towards the strikers, instead of the slower and controlled playing style of Van Bommel.
Role at Milan
Van Bommel is a known hard tackler, never shying away from a challenge. He provides the presence in the central areas. Despite being tagged with the “dirty” player stigma, Van Bommel has a good and wide range of passing. Often, he can be seen spreading the ball towards the flanks. Van Bommel is also extremely adept at intercepting the ball. Quotes from the man himself:
“You have to “see” when a player turns and pick your timing right. Best interceptions are the ones where my opponent doesn’t yet have the ball and I act quicker than him when the pass comes. I love those. It’s interesting when you check the stats, which I always do… I make the least meters on the pitch but have the most interceptions.”
“I always coach my attackers to pressure defenders into a certain direction. My opponent will move a certain way to help out and I allow him two meters. The defender thinks my man is unmarked but once the pass comes I attack. 99 times out of a 100 I’m in time and I intercept the ball. That one time when I’m late it’s usually a yellow because the opponent will make a nice little jump up.”
The signing of Van Bommel might very well be the reason Pirlo was let go at the end of the 2010-11 season. Allegri preferred a player with a defensive slant in the anchor position. Pirlo offers little in terms of defensive steel to the back four. He makes up for his defensive ineptness with the ability to dictate proceedings in the middle, switching the ball from left to right, making the killer pass and his assuredness in possession. On the other hand, without a player like Gattuso circa 2006 beside him, his defensive deficiencies is further exposed. Van Bommel’s arrival meant that Pirlo was considered a luxury by Allegri.
Van Bommel possesses fantastic defensive skills whilst being an economic passer himself, often receiving the ball and choosing the safest passing option. It is a credit to his ability that even when being closely followed by an opposing player, his team-mates still look to pass to him, confident in his ability to control and retain the ball. Both Pirlo and Van Bommel are masters at earning free-kicks in the center of the pitch. Their craftiness in the art of earning fouls allows the team to reset their attacks and give the team the opportunity to take a breather.
Van Bommel’s greatest performance for Milan was probably the derby against Inter on April 2, 2011. In that game, he completely shackled his opposite number Wesley Sneijder. Winning that game provided Milan with the impetus to go on and win the league. It’s only when Van Bommel plays for your team that you start to appreciate his talents.
Classic Van Bommel quote:
“I always try to talk to the referee, asking him what he feels, so that I know how far I can push it, and it will be the same against Spain. As far as I’m concerned, that is just part of the game. Often you don’t talk about anything important, chat about the weather or what the pitch is like. Once, after I’d been booked in a game, I asked the ref where he bought his groceries and I told him where he could get them cheaper. “He let me off another foul and then five games later asked me about another shop. You just need to chat with these guys. It doesn’t help if you stress them out.”
He left Milan after his contract expired at the end of the 2011-12 season. That period saw a total revamp of the Milan squad. Players who have been with the team for many years were let go. Legends like Nesta, Inzaghi, Gattuso and Seedorf were all released at the end of that season. It is a credit to Van Bommel’s qualities and impact on the team that his departure was felt deeply by many Milan fans. He left to join his former club PSV Eindhoven, a club which he promised to return to after his initial departure in 2005. At the time of writing, he has a real chance of adding another league title to his collection.
His stay at Milan might have been a brief one. However, he left a deep impact and emotional attachment to the fans with his performances. Opinions of him have certainly changed after witnessing his performances during the Scudetto triumph. Gone are the times when I thought of him in less than desirable terms. Instead, I acquired a new-found respect for his winning mentality, intelligence and his style of controlling the game.