By Richard Morgan
Football journalist - @Richiereds1976
Milan's Suso will be biggest threat to Arsenal in Europa League tie
Last Updated: 08/03/18 6:35pm
A rejuvenated Suso will be Arsenal's biggest threat when they face AC Milan in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie at San Siro on Thursday night.
The Spain playmaker, who joined from Liverpool in January 2015 for a compensatory fee of just £1m, is now one of the first names on the Milan teamsheet after an impressive last two seasons at the club.
In fact, since Gennaro Gattuso replaced Vincenzo Montella as manager in November 2017, the 24-year-old's game has reached a new level of maturity that belies his age, while also helping to spearhead the team's recent revival under the former Milan midfielder.
"Suso is now one of Milan's best players, both technically and in the way he can decide a game at any moment through a piece of skill, like a free kick, a dribble, or a long-distance shot," says Sky Italy reporter Augusto De Bartolo.
"And that is why he is one of Gattuso's most important players, and will be against Arsenal."
It has taken Suso some time to fully establish himself in the starting line-up at San Siro, though, with Pippo Inzaghi - his first coach at the club - and then his successor Sinisa Mihajlovic both hesitant to offer the player regular football.
If his fight matches his talent, then we will have a very good player
Brendan Rodgers, Sept 2012
However, a successful loan spell under Gian Piero Gasperini at Genoa during the second half of the 2015-16 campaign - during which time the forward became only the second Spaniard to score a Serie A hat-trick - convinced then Milan boss Montella to give the youngster another chance.
Suso responded by contributing seven goals and nine assists in 34 Serie A games last season, finishing the campaign as the club's leading assist maker, including creating Manuel Locatelli's winner as Milan beat Juventus for the first time in four years in October 2016.
The Spain international also scored his first-ever double in the Milan derby the following month, before playing a starring role as the Rossoneri ended 2016 by getting the better of Juve on penalties to win the Supercoppa Italiana.
Despite Suso's habit of delivering in big games, however, Montella still needed convincing.
"He has enormous potential, but needs to grow in his consistency and also self-confidence," he said.
"He is a little shy and ought to take more risks in the final third. He has to be more incisive, because he has the quality to do that."
This season, Suso appears to have taken that advice on board, with the Spaniard having registered an impressive eight goals and 11 assists in 36 matches in all competitions, form that even saw him make him make his senior debut for his country against Russia in November 2017.
Some of those strikes have been memorable efforts too, including eye-catching long rangers against Austria Wien in the Europa League in September, his first European goal for Milan, and at Udinese in February.
Since Suso returned to the club from his loan spell at Genoa, only one other Milan player has featured in more games, while the playmaker leads the way when it comes to goals, assists, chances created, as well as both attempted and successful dribbles.
Suso - Milan (Serie A)
|Serie A since Aug 2016|
|Milan||Serie A rank||Milan rank|
|Chances created (inc. assists)||120||6th||1st|
|Dribbles success rate (min. 150)||56.25||6th||1st|
Meanwhile, in Serie A as a whole during that time, Suso ranks fifth overall for attempted dribbles and sixth for chances created, the result of which was a new long-term Milan deal in September 2017.
"He renewed his contract until the summer of 2022, with the new deal containing a €40m release clause," explains De Bartolo.
"However, the player is understood to be keen to stay at Milan, despite recent interest from Liverpool, who see him as a like-for-like replacement for the recently departed Philippe Coutinho.
"But if Milan qualify for next season's Champions League, or even the Europa League, it is difficult to see them selling one of their best players."
Positionally, Suso is likely to start on the right of a three-man front line against Arsenal on Thursday, but with licence also to roam more centrally and look to create when Milan are on the attack.
"In the 4-3-3 formation currently favoured by Gattuso, he is stationed as a winger on the right-hand side of the forward line, although not as a normal wide man," explains De Bartolo.
"So when Milan are not in possession, he is a token winger in order to help pressurise the opposition and stop them building out from the back.
Suso - Liverpool (All Comps)
|Competition||Games played||Games started||Goals||Assists|
"However, when the team have the ball, Suso acts as a No 10, with the player often staying out on the right flank to give width to the team's attacks. But he will also tend to gravitate towards the centre so as to play between the opponent's midfield lines where he can receive the ball and feed his forwards."
Suso's recent emergence as a player of real quality will come as some surprise to those Arsenal fans travelling to San Siro for Thursday's clash following his time at Anfield though.
After being part of Spain's U19 European Championship-winning squad in the summer of 2012, the attacking midfielder spent two-and-a-half seasons under Brendan Rodgers on Merseyside, with the then Liverpool boss handing him his Premier League debut at the age of 18 against Manchester United in September 2012.
The Northern Irishman saw someone who "still has a lot to learn", but "has got a really good appetite for the game" as well. Tellingly, he added: "If his fight matches his talent then we will have a very good player."
Interestingly, Rodgers thought Suso's best position was as a "false winger, that seven-and-a-half role," but after only one goal and one assist in 21 games in all competitions for the Reds, the forward left for Milan without much fuss.
However, those Gunners supporters - and Arsene Wenger - should know that much like with Mohamed Salah's incredible transformation at Liverpool this season, the Suso they will come up against this week is not the same player they came across in England.
Fantasy Head to Head
Challenge a mate in our brand new Fantasy Football head-to-head mode. Play for free!