Yacine Adli had barely been seen in the games leading up to Tuesday’s against Borussia Dortmund, and yet Stefano Pioli fielded him from the first minute in arguably the biggest game of the season.
“We always liked each other a lot, an extraordinary guy, super creative. An exemplary worker, for me the new Zinedine Zidane for his technical qualities. He needs consistency.”
Those words echoed from former Bordeaux coach Paulo Sousa offering the highest possible praise for Milan midfielder Adli was a real eye-opener.
Compared to the legendary ‘Zizou’ thanks to his middle name of Zinedine, representing Bordeaux as well as being born in France with Algerian origins, many were full of excitement and optimism to witness a potential new star in the Rossoneri midfield.
Although Zidane’s talent and ability are obviously head and shoulders above Adli having achieved virtually everything in the game, the 23-year-old possesses one of the most critical traits: a great attitude.
Arriving at Milanello at the end of the 2021 season, the Frenchman was loaned out to the same club in an attempt to further enhance his experience and qualities. It proved to be the right call, as Milan went on to win the Scudetto with a midfield of Franck Kessié, Sandro Tonali, Ismaël Bennacer and Rade Krunić.
Hyped as a player with incredible technical ability and creativity on the ball, surely the end of his loan spell would signal the beginning of a bright adventure in red and black? Sadly, it was more of a dark nightmare.
Six appearances totalling 140 minutes caused the greatest mystery last season as to why Adli was not in Stefano Pioli’s plans. To make matters even worse, he wasn’t even included on the bench for 32 games during the same campaign.
Throughout the summer, it became brutally clear that there was zero possibility of Adli remaining at Milan, with the hope of reaching a deal with potential European suitors for his services.
That’s where the trait of having a great attitude paid dividends. Simply put, most players would’ve dropped their heads and succumbed to defeat. Luckily for Adli, giving up, or ‘abandonner,’ is not part of his French vocabulary.
Needing an option to turn to in the middle of the park against Cagliari in round three, Pioli gritted his teeth and opted to select Adli from the start in a deep-lying defensive role to cover the back four. Notably, it was previously stressed by Pioli that the former Bordeaux player could only play as a number 10.
Taking some time to release the cobwebs and settle the nerves after being at fault for Cagliari’s opening goal, Adli could do no wrong. The way he controlled the game on a string made all of the fanfare and build-up start to make sense.
After the match in Sardinia, Adli spoke to the media about the struggles he faced in preseason and the strength needed to conquer adversity.
“The first day I spoke to Pioli and he told me that we would change the way we play and that I wasn’t in the plans. Tomori asked me what I would do and I told him: I’ll stay here and you’ll see how I play,” he said.
You see, regardless of whether a player is a world-beater or simply average; above and beyond all, Milan supporters respect a warrior who fights tooth and nail for the shirt, just like Patrick Cutrone for example who wasn’t the most talented player. The difference here is that Adli has the best of both worlds.
The raving reviews on social media and the Italian papers forced Pioli to eat his fair share of humble pie, who doubted Adli’s versatility and talent more than anything else.
He was then rewarded with three starts in the next four outings, displaying much of the same positive attributes he demonstrated against Cagliari to add a sense of calmness to the midfield.
Suddenly, Adli was dropped to the bench for the next five consecutive games in all competitions without little explanation, causing a real mystery.
Looking back, what did Pioli conclude from his analysis around Adli’s last starts before coming to a decision to go with other alternatives?
Those other options include Rade Krunić and Tommaso Pobega who, with all due respect, are not up to the standard required at this level of the game, let alone representing one of the biggest clubs in world football. When they have both been plugged into the system, the team looks short of ideas, creativity, and an ounce of energy to combine both in defence and attack.
When Adli is both with and without possession, his movement and reading of the game are exemplary for his young age. Add in his vision and talent to pass into spaces to open up an array of angles is a glimpse of how Andrea Pirlo conducted himself.
Without Adli’s presence from the get-go during that stretch of poor results, the Frenchman’s absence has become more noticeable which has raised serious questions about Pioli’s tactics and judgement.
Hence, shock reports circulated on the eve of Milan’s Champions League clash with Borussia Dortmund that Adli would finally get the nod in a midfield trident alongside Tiijani Reijnders and Ruben Loftus-Cheek after yet another underwhelming showing against Fiorentina. Those rumours turned out to be accurate.
The first half in particular was a confident display from Adli who didn’t shy away from the momentous occasion; always getting involved in the build-up play and dictating the tempo of the match to a well-refined pace. He may take a gamble at times with some of the risky passes he attempts to pull off, but that fearlessness is exactly what’s been missing.
A devastating 3-1 defeat to the German giants witnessed nothing short of a capitulation in the second 45 minutes. Will Adli be the scapegoat for Pioli this time around? Perhaps, the blame needs to be thrown onto the shoulders of the 58-year-old for deciding to throw Adli in the deep end where the pressure was at its peak.
Injuries have been treated Milan in the cruellest way imaginable this season, but Adli’s frustrating reality of being forced to fight for his place every single week as if the management is waiting for him to fail is quite confusing.
The fans have warmed to Adli with open arms and his teammates are rooting for his success with the challenging obstacles he has been forced to overcome which have been nothing short of inspirational.
At the end of the day, what separates him from the elite-level players is the opportunity to build consistency on the pitch to be allowed to gel and connect, allowing for continual growth to help blossom what is already a uniquely gifted talent.
It all goes back to Paulo Sousa stressing the most important factor in developing Adli’s game: “He needs consistency.”
If only Pioli could understand.