Milan fans nicknamed him "Boss". One of the smartest players tactically, he is the kind of player opposing fans love to hate.
Milan fans nicknamed him "Boss". One of the smartest players tactically, he is the kind of player opposing fans love to hate. He was the first player to win league championships in 4 different countries (PSV, Barcelona, Bayern and Milan). Mark Van Bommel is a player that strongly divides opinions. I came to know of him when he scored in a friendly against England in 2001. Back then, he was an energetic midfielder with a knack for goals. However, as years went by, he was portrayed by the media as rough, dirty and even cynical.
Sent-off on Serie A debut
During the 2010-11 winter transfer window, Adriano Galliani signed Van Bommel from Bayern Munich. Initial responses to the signing of Van Bommel were unenthusiastic. The general consensus among fans were that they were getting another "experienced" player (read - old). The injury to Pirlo had left the defensive midfield position short-handed. With only Ambrosini suited to play the role, reinforcement was needed. Gattuso and Flamini were too terrier-like in style and does not fit the role of a defensive anchor. They were more inclined to charge around the field in search of the ball rather than holding their position and breaking up play from the middle.
He made his first appearance for Milan in the Coppa Italia against Sampdoria on the right side of a midfield 3 to accommodate Thiago Silva. Before long, he was making the anchor role his. In the absence of Pirlo and Ambrosini to long-term injuries, Van Bommel made the position his, ensuring they were not missed. It shows how good he is that when Pirlo and Ambrosini returned from injuries, they found Van Bommel in such imposing form that they were unable to dislodge him from the anchor position. His organization ability and tactical awareness were key towards Milan's title charge. Indeed, it was the triumvirate of Nesta, Thiago Silva and Van Bommel in the center that provided the base for Milan's charge towards the Scudetto that season. Van Bommel commanded the team with his vast tactical know-how, intelligence and experience (not that Milan were lacking in that department). Together with Ibrahimovic, they brought a fierce winning mentality to a team desperately in need of inspiration.
Having appeared for Bayern earlier in the Champions League group stage, he was ineligible for the knockout games against Tottenham. His absence was perhaps most sorely felt in the competition. Thiago Silva deputized in the first leg and the difference in quality was clear to see. A center back by nature, moving him to the defensive midfield position meant it broke up the partnership between himself and Nesta. Ball retention was compromised when Silva's unfamiliarity with the role meant that he was always looking to play the ball long towards the strikers, instead of the slower and controlled playing style of Van Bommel.
Van Bommel and Ambrosini both possess rather similar skill sets. They are known hard tacklers, never shying away from a challenge. Both of them provide the presence in the central areas.
Despite the similarities, it is the subtle details in their playing styles that makes Van Bommel and Ambrosini truly different. For one, Van Bommel has a better and wider range of passing. He can play quality balls out towards the flanks, something Ambrosini struggles with. He loses out to Ambrosini in the heading department though. Ambrosini wins many first balls in midfield through headers and he also has the knack of timing his runs to meet crosses in the box, giving Milan an additional weapon in their inventory. Another key difference is the way they go about recovering the ball. Ambrosini prefers to dive into challenges, winning the ball with a crunching tackle. Van Bommel, on the other hand, leans towards intercepting the ball. Quotes from the man himself:
1. "You have to “see” when a player turns and pick your timing right. Best interceptions are the ones where my opponent doesn’t yet have the ball and I act quicker than him when the pass comes. I love those. It’s interesting when you check the stats, which I always do… I make the least meters on the pitch but have the most interceptions."
2. "I always coach my attackers to pressure defenders into a certain direction. My opponent will move a certain way to help out and I allow him two meters. The defender thinks my man is unmarked but once the pass comes I attack. 99 times out of a 100 I’m in time and I intercept the ball. That one time when I’m late it’s usually a yellow because the opponent will make a nice little jump up."
The signing of Van Bommel might very well be the reason Pirlo was let go at the end of last season. Allegri preferred a player with a defensive slant in the anchor position. Pirlo offers little in terms of defensive steel to the back four. He makes up for his defensive ineptness with the ability to dictate proceedings in the middle, switching the ball from left to right, making the killer pass and his assuredness in possession. On the other hand, without a player like Gattuso circa 2006 beside him, his deficiencies on defense is exposed. Van Bommel's arrival meant that Pirlo was considered a luxury by Allegri. Van Bommel possesses fantastic defensive skills whilst being an economic passer himself, often receiving the ball and choosing the safest passing option. It is a credit to his ability that even when being closely followed by an opponent, his team-mates still pass to him, confident in his ability to control and retain the ball. Both Pirlo and Van Bommel are masters at earning free-kicks in the center of the pitch. Their craftiness in the art of earning fouls allows the team to reset their attacks and slow down the opponents'.
This season, with injuries and age catching up on him meant that he wasn't as influential as the previous season. With Milan not looking to extend his contract, it looks likely that he will return to PSV once his contract expires at the end of the season.
"The contact with PSV has always been kept steady, till this day on. I’ve always said that one day I will return to the club, and I still feel that way. Although I have to admit, I have to be of value to the team. I won’t be taking it easier."
Through his performances last season and this, he has displayed his qualities to the Serie A audience, earning himself many new admirers in the process. It's only when Van Bommel plays for your team that you start to appreciate his talents. At 35, there are not many years left to savor his performances at the highest level. Opinions of him have certainly changed after witnessing his performances during the Scudetto triumph. Gone are the times when I thought of him in less than desirable terms. Instead, I acquired a new-found respect for his winning mentality, intelligence and his style of controlling the game.
Classic Van Bommel quote:
"I always try to talk to the referee, asking him what he feels, so that I know how far I can push it, and it will be the same against Spain. As far as I'm concerned, that is just part of the game. Often you don't talk about anything important, chat about the weather or what the pitch is like. Once, after I'd been booked in a game, I asked the ref where he bought his groceries and I told him where he could get them cheaper. "He let me off another foul and then five games later asked me about another shop. You just need to chat with these guys. It doesn't help if you stress them out."