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Were it not for a bizarrely early international retirement, Kevin-Prince Boateng wouldn't even have played against Arsenal this week. Whereas the Gunners couldn't select Gervinho after he represented the Ivory Coast in the Africa Cup of Nations final, Boateng didn't play at the tournament where his Ghana side achieved fourth place.
And in this, Boateng surely holds the record for the least amount of time between international debut and international retirement. It was June 2010, shortly before Ghana's excellent World Cup display, that Boateng turned out for the Black Stars for the first time. His impact on debut was impressive and he became a key player in their run to the quarterfinal, driving the side's counterattacks from the heart of midfield.
Yet after only nine international appearances, Boateng decided he'd had enough. Apparently, the physical demands of playing for both club and country were taking a toll on his health, though another excuse soon emerged: he was on a special training regime at Milan, and international call-ups meant that his program was interrupted.
Physical fitness is vital for any footballer, but for Boateng, it's especially important. Few other footballers are so based around sheer strength, power and energy. Or rather, few other players in his position are so dependent upon those attributes.
Milan's transition under Max Allegri from a midfield of beautiful ballplayers to a quartet of workhorses has been obvious -- the perfect microcosm of this change in ideology was when Mark van Bommel assumed the Andrea Pirlo role at the bottom of the diamond.
But higher up, Boateng was essentially the replacement -- after a year's gap -- for Kaka. The Brazilian was the main man for Milan throughout the majority of the Carlo Ancelotti years, at one point becoming the world's greatest player. He was superb at picking up the ball in the final third, bursting past a defender and finishing. Often, as at Old Trafford in 2007, he could win a game almost single-handedly.
|Boateng's physical, aggressive utility play was too much for Mikel Arteta and the Arsenal midfield to handle at the San Siro.|
Kaka's game was more about physical attributes than many care to remember -- he was superb technically, of course, but since losing his explosive pace over 5 yards, he's struggled. In that sense, Boateng isn't completely different from Kaka, but he's still one of the more physical attacking midfielders you'll find in Italy, a country obsessed with beautiful No. 10s like Francesco Totti, Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero.
Allegri's concern when he took over Milan was that they were a broken team, with no link between the midfield and attack. That was unquestionably true in the final few months under his predecessor, Leonardo. In the defeat over two legs to Manchester United in 2009-10, Milan lined up in a 4-3-3 system that featured a huge gap between midfield and attack. Three midfielders sat very deep and made few forward runs, while three forwards stayed high up the field and didn't track back -- Ronaldinho on the left and Pato on the right were hardly the most willing runners. Attacks were predictable, and when Milan was without the ball, United's holding midfielders had space to work in and dictate the tempo.
All of which made Boateng a surprise signing. He'd finished in the bottom of the Premier League with Portsmouth the season before, and had only put himself in the shop window with his performances in South Africa, which furthered Ghanaian frustration given that he since turned his back on the country. Initially Boateng seemed to be a squad player, able to help out in any of the three central midfield slots. Allegri continued with the 4-3-3 at the start of the season, then switched to a 4-3-1-2, but all along, he needed a trequartista -- Seedorf was probably too slow, Ronaldinho wasn't in shape and soon returned to Brazil, while Robinho stayed too high up the pitch, more used to acting as a forward.
And then there was Boateng. To describe him as a trequartista would probably insult the tradition of gifted players in that role. Boateng plays deeper, influencing the game with power rather than craft. His statistics involving chance creation are similar to that of Michael Bradley, now with Chievo. Bradley is a good player, of course, but he's a box-to-box player rather than a playmaker. Can Boateng be a trequartista if he doesn't create?
Perhaps not, but he's made that position behind the forwards his own. The problem of a "broken team" is no longer apparent -- Boateng spends the game tearing between the midfield and attack, dropping back to pick up a midfielder when his side doesn't have the ball, then motoring forward to become an extra attacker in possession. That varied positioning was the reason for his goal against Arsenal. The initial question was the whereabouts of Alex Song -- but when you watch the replay, you realize that Boateng was just very high up the pitch, out of the reach of the Arsenal midfield.
|Boateng's early goal against the Gunners on Wednesday showed his devastating, game-changing speed. It's not always what he does, but the speed with which he does it.|
The finish was quite outstanding from such a narrow angle, and while Boateng's creative edge can be questioned, his technique is undeniably brilliant. His goal against Barcelona in the group stage -- when he controlled the ball in midair with his first touch, flicked it behind his standing foot and past Eric Abidal with his second, then swerved it into the near post with his third -- was astonishing. The technique was combined with lightning quickness, and that's what makes Boateng so dangerous. It's not always what he does, but the speed with which he does it. Again, the Arsenal goal was surprising because he took the shot so early. As Wojciech Szczesny gets up from his dive, he glances behind him where Boateng has already started his celebration, as if yet to comprehend what has just happened.
That speed is vital for Milan. Too often they -- along with other Italian clubs -- have suffered in European competition because of their sheer lack of pace. That's how Milan fell last year, to the pace of Aaron Lennon -- and it's how Arsenal should have attacked yesterday down the flanks, notwithstanding the questionable excuse regarding the state of the San Siro pitch, which Arsene Wenger didn't bother blaming.
Boateng is an odd player. Forgive the sweeping generalization, but in football, tall players tend to make their mark in defense, strong players own the centre of midfield, quick players are on the flanks and good finishers are forwards. Few of those qualities are naturally embraced by the attacking midfielder, but the unusual nature of Boateng's skill set makes him a surprisingly effective player in that role.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.