For all Milan’s problems on and off the pitch, one would be hard pressed to find anybody who would point to the presence of Nigel de Jong as an issue.
In a new age in which the Rossoneri have begun hunting down bargains on the transfer market instead of writing huge cheques to stock the squad, he’s stood apart from others.
The San Siro giants spent just £3.5 million to bring the Dutchman in from Manchester City in 2012, but selling for so little has looked a massive miscalculation from the Citizens.
It’s been said before that de Jong is the only one left at Milan who is the caliber of player the club had an abundance of in a bygone era, the heart and soul of a struggling side.
For this reason there is widespread fear about a possible imminent departure for de Jong, whose contract is up in June – with a renewal still yet to be agreed.
The Dutchman’s connection with former Netherlands boss Louis van Gaal has seen him linked with Manchester United, who could do with a midfield destroyer of de Jong’s class.
De Jong could indeed be available for a cut-price fee in January, one which van Gaal would reportedly pay happily in order to pry away the glue holding Milan together.
But according to Corriere della Sera’s Alberto Costa, de Jong isn’t the final remaining bastion of brilliance at Milan – he’s the one holding the side back via boss Pippo Inzaghi, the side's chief 'problem'.
“Pure numbers confirm Inzaghi’s blunder,” Costa writes. “With de Jong on the pitch, Milan average 1.2 points per game with 1.5 goals scored and 1.4 conceded.
“Without him it is another story: 2.3 points per game with an average of two goals scored and 0.6 conceded. The grim de Jong enjoys good press, but he is neither Pirlo no van Bommel.”
Costa goes on to implore Inzaghi to replace de Jong with Riccardo Montolivo, the Rossoneri captain who only just recovered from a broken leg sustained before the World Cup.
It’s a searing indictment of a player that ranks first among Serie A midfielders with four tackles per 90 minutes played while completing 89% of his passes.
The overall implication is that de Jong as more of a third central defender than a midfielder the way he is deployed by Inzaghi, leaving the midfield outmanned and lacking support.
The fact that Milan have fared far better in de Jong’s absence is clear enough, though whether that’s evidence enough of decline or a greater willingness to let him go isn’t certain.
De Jong still has considerable class that would be of use to almost any side – particularly United – though it remains to be seen how Milan will proceed form here in renewal talks.
Perhaps moving on would suit both parties, even if at 30 years of age de Jong undoubtedly continues to offer Milan more than the numbers Costa cites let on.