Kevin-Prince Boateng could not wait to share his news with the world. “New Generation, New Team, New era and a New “PRINCE10″…#forzamilan,” read the player’s tweet on the morning of 26th July. Attached was a photo of his shirt for the forthcoming season. Following the departure of Clarence Seedorf, Boateng had inherited the No10 jersey previously worn by such club icons as Rui Costa, Dejan Savicevic and Gianni Rivera.
This was not how it was supposed to be. For two years the identity of the heir to the No10 shirt had been common knowledge, and it wasn’t Boateng. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had requested that number from the moment he set foot at Milanello, and been promised by Adriano Galliani that he would have it from this year. But that was before the Qatar Investment Authority’s millions intervened, sweeping the striker away to Paris.
And so instead it went to Boateng, another player who had openly coveted the shirt. In the context of the summer’s departures, it was tempting to wonder whether it might not have been better to leave the number open. Handing it to a player who would have been third in line as recently as last season only served as a reminder of the team’s diminished state.
Boateng, furthermore, did not exactly fit the classic mould of players who have worn that shirt. A player who had previously spent most of his career in midfield was only moved up to play as a trequartista by the Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri during the 2010-11 season. In the short-term that switch paid off richly, Boateng playing a starring role as the Rossoneri claimed their first Scudetto since 2004.
Tucked in behind the attack in Allegri’s 4-3-1-2, Boateng was effective—his physicality and aggression fit the character of a team who seemed content to bully their opponents into submission and leave the entertainment to Ibra. But the player’s interpretation of the role was always an unorthodox one. “Boateng is all strength, passion and running,” wrote Andrea Schianchi in Gazzettta dello Sport. “You can’t ask him for delicacy, dribbling and finishing touches.”
Although Boateng himself had always insisted that he saw trequartista as his natural position, there remained a lingering suspicion that what he really wanted was the opportunity to be the centre of attention. When the magazine Sportweek interviewed him together with Inter’s Wesley Sneijder before the Milan derby earlier this month, their answers to a question about what it meant to wear the No10 shirt were revealing:
Sneijder: “I have always worn this number on my shirt. For Real, for Ajax, for Inter. For the national team, too. I have it tattooed on my arm. I like it, nothing more than this. It is not linked to the fact that the No10 is the best player on a team, because that’s not true.
Boateng: “What do you mean not true?! It is true!”
Sneijder: “I was referring to him when I said that.”
Boateng: “The best players have always worn No10. Maradona, for example.
That is not to suggest that Boateng would put himself to be on a level with El Pibe De Oro—in the same interview he rated himself just six out of 10 as a footballer—but it is clear he revels in the spotlight. Asked what their shirt number meant off the pitch, Sneijder deferred, suggesting it was no different to any other, but Boateng was less modest: “[Kids wear] No10 because they dream of being important players.”
But Boateng should know that with an increased profile comes added scrutiny. Following Milan’s summer exodus and yet another injury to Alexandre Pato, the onus was on him to step forward and become a leader for his team. Instead he seems to have regressed. An average match rating of five out of 10 from Gazzetta so far this season would suggest that even his modest self-assessment was altogether too generous.
Without Ibrahimovic playing ahead of him, Boateng’s game seems suddenly impotent, all thrust and no climax. Stephan El Shaarawy, despite an impressive start to the season, does not yet have the presence to drag a defence out of position in the way that Ibra once did. Deprived of the openings that the Swede would create, Boateng has lacked the subtlety required to create space of his own.
Allegri shuffled his pack as a consequence, finally abandoning the 4-3-1-2 which has been his default with Milan in favour of a 4-2-3-1. Even so, the new formation had still been drawn up specifically with Boateng in mind, the manager seeking ways to get the best out of a player who had contributed so much to his best Milan teams.
After obtaining mixed results with the new formation, Allegri reverted on Sunday to the original 4-3-1-2, only to see his team defeated 3-2 by Lazio, with Boateng putting in his worst performance of the campaign. “If Boateng was one of the contestants on The Apprentice, Flavio Briatore would turn to him with a nasty gaze and say ‘Prince, you’re fired’,” wrote Gazzetta’s Marco Pasotto on Monday.
If Milan are not about to go that far, then it does appear that the player’s role in the team is set to become diminished. Boateng is expected to be on the bench when the team take on Malaga on Wednesday, with Riccardo Montolivo moving forward to occupy his spot behind the attack.
There is a sense in which it is unfair to single out Boateng, hardly the only player under-performing on a Milan team that is off to its worst start to a season in 30 years. At times the criticisms of the player’s performance on the field have been blurred with assumptions made about his life off it.
What started with a joke from his fiancée Melissa Satta about their rampant sex life—they do it a healthy seven to 10 times a week, apparently, though she later backtracked on that number—being the cause of his injury problems has since spiraled into all manner of conspiracy. There have been suggestions this month that his focus is not entirely on the game after gossip magazines published claims—strongly denied—that Satta had been exchanging flirty messages with Cristiano Ronaldo.
The truth of that situation, as ever, is known only to the protagonists themselves, but Boateng certainly will not be spending much time with Satta in the coming days. The entire team was placed into a closed training camp at Milanello by the vice-president Adriano Galliani following the defeat to Lazio.
It was a move designed to give the players a jolt, but also to protect Allegri. As much as they have been frustrated with the manager of late, the club do not feel that this is the ideal moment to contemplate a change; Galliani sees few available alternatives with the sufficient calibre. In that sense, they might privately be happy to have a player such as Boateng be made a scapegoat if it helps distract from the pressure on his boss.
But Milan must also know that they can scarcely afford to give up on a player like Boateng at a time when their resources are already so heavily diminished. The question on many fans’ lips is whether the player can be convinced to give up on his vision of himself as a trequartista and be useful to the team in another role. Whether he can accept that 10 is just another number, after all.