AC Milan coach Filippo Inzaghi has sported a confused look this season. It’s a look that has also adorned those watching on at San Siro. In his short time in charge of the club he once scored for, Inzaghi has altered tactics on a frequent basis, displaying uncertainty of the sort that can only be seen in those still learning their trade.
Within the proliferation of systems, Jeremy Menez has thrived. The mercurial Frenchman has been unadulterated by the chaos; wherever he has played he has done so with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders. In doing so he seems to be on a one-man mission to prove correct the stereotype of the smug, carefree and inescapably artistic Frenchman.
Since joining at the start of this season Menez has already scored more league goals than he did in the entirety of his three-year Paris St. Germain career. He has more than doubled his Roma record, which again was compiled over three seasons. Indeed, Menez’s 16 goals is a personal record. His skulking look may suggest otherwise, but he is thrilled.
Nobody predicted that Menez would become the sole bright spot in an eerily gloomy campaign for Milan. While all around him were getting injured, having contractual issues or simply not doing what was expected of them, he has exceeded all preconceived notions of his own importance. Retaining his spur of the moment joi de vivre, Menez has added consistency to his game.
Despite all this, the Milanisti are still quick to jump on his back. His emotionless facial expression portrays a man who doesn’t care. This means every mistake can simplistically be attributed to a lack of effort. He also doesn’t track back much, if at all, leaving whichever side of the pitch he chooses to inhabit at any given moment exposed defensively. Furthermore, he has a tendency to dwell on the ball in pursuit of individual glory instead of finding a better-placed teammate.
He’s not perfect then, but at times this season he has been all Milan have had.
Born one year before the opening of France’s proclaimed Clairefontaine academy, Menez is a member of the much-vaunted generation of 1987, which also includes the likes of Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema. He, like the other three mentioned, is a precocious talent. Unfortunately he, also like the others, has often seen his attitude deflect attention away from his feet.
Coming through the ranks at Sochaux he made his debut at the age of 16, making him the youngest player in the history of Ligue 1. He had already been at the centre of attention having been courted by several of Europe’s richer clubs prior to signing his first professional contract. Having visited Old Trafford it was purported that he was on his way to England, only for him to return to France where he would remain for the formative stages of his pro career.
Menez eventually left France in his early 20s and headed to the Italian capital, signing for Roma at the beginning of the 2008-09 season. His first year was a series of substitute appearances as he struggled to find frequent game-time and, come his second season, Menez’s frustrations started to manifest themselves on the pitch.
After a feckless display coming off the bench against Cagliari he was criticised by all and sundry. At this moment, his output just did not reconcile with either his ability or personality in a low point typical of the effortless creative tag. Showing increasing maturity, Menez at least admitted his wrongs, apologising publicly to his teammates and manager Claudio Ranieri.
Following the apology, Menez’s form picked up, but Ranieri remained unsatisfied. Instead of embracing the Frenchman, Ranieri antagonised him by continuously substituting him. Following Ranieri’s resignation things didn’t get much better for Menez, whose career with Roma essentially came to an end after a training ground dust-up with Vincenzo Montella; Ranieri’s temporary replacement as club coach.
Menez ended up back in Italy with Milan by way of a stint back in France with Paris St Germain. His arrival at the San Siro was greeted with interest as journalists prepared themselves for more bad boy-related headlines. Menez has indulged them by giving them plenty to write about, only this time his play has been the central theme.
Inzaghi has utilised various formations, requiring Menez to occupy different areas on the pitch; sometimes on the left wing of a 4-3-3; sometimes up front as a false nine. Since January he has operated in the hole behind newly acquired centre-forward Mattia Destro. Yet, while Menez’s position has changed one thing has remained constant: his performance.
This season has seen Menez produce magic with regularity. Last September, away to Parma, he latched on to a poor backpass to flick beyond the keeper before back-heeling into the net. He then opened the scoring in his first Derby della Madonnina in November with a delicately placed, first-time, side-footed finish from a cross.
Before Christmas he revisited the Stadio Olimpico for the first time since his Roma exit. The game finished goalless but Menez left his mark with a bodacious piece of skill. Having rounded Morgan De Sanctis, Menez was declared offside but nonetheless executed a stunningly sharp daisycutter finish with the outside of his right boot from the byline. It was as close to defying physics as a human being can get on a football pitch.
Last month Menez curled in a delightful strike against Cagliari before turning around without the slightest sign of happiness and cupping his right ear. Some saw this as a riposte to the occasional jeers he has suffered but Menez clarified the gesture was aimed at the media in remonstrating, “They talk about me without knowing anything and I don’t like that.”
Evidently, there is still a defensive streak in Menez, perhaps nurtured through years of being viewed and treated as a burden as opposed to a gift. There is no question which of the two he has been to Milan this season though; the goals aforementioned are but a small piece of a picture that also includes his winning and converting penalties, cute trickery and precisely judged turns of pace.
Last Sunday as Milan trailed 0-1 at home to Sampdoria, Menez lost a boot on a slaloming run into the Blucerchiati penalty area. He continued on anyway, getting off a cross that was cleared. The run was a showcase of Menez’s disdain for convention. He’s happy to forge his own path, which is perhaps why he hasn’t been affected by the uncertainty surrounding him.
With another Milan derby approaching Menez could be set to resume his false nine role. In doing so he will be the fulcrum of Milan’s attack; the centre of attention. If he can lead his team to victory, he will be forgiven for the placid look and passive reactions. Inadvertently, Milan’s hopes are now built around Menez; wherever he shows up on the field. He may not yet be loved, but he is becoming increasingly accepted.