At no other point in the previous two decades would a player like Riccardo Montolivo be captaining AC Milan. This is the club of Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, among the most celebrated captains in the history of European football. Montolivo leading out Milan for the match against Juventus on Sunday felt like a perfect example of Milan's decline in quality and character.
Montolivo is an immensely talented footballer, an established Italian international and skippered Fiorentina for a couple of years, but is he a natural leader? If anything, he's the antithesis of the stereotype for that role – he is inconsistent, has struggled to fulfill his potential, and sometimes appears to lack commitment. He's the wayward, enigmatic playmaker who should be on the fringes of Max Allegri's dressing room, not the one setting the example. Besides, Milan usually give the armband to the player with the most appearances – Montolivo only joined in the summer.
Nevertheless, the midfielder was appointed as captain for the weekend clash with Juventus, and not by Allegri. "It was [club] president [Silvio] Berlusconi himself who gave me the news that I would be captain against Juventus," he told Radio Sport. "It was great news that I really enjoyed hearing, and that gave me a great thrill."
It could have gone either way; Montolivo might have been weighed down by expectation. Instead, he was the best player on the pitch, mixing his typical inventive passing with tremendous work rate, managing to technically and physically outfox Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, in combination with his more defensive-minded teammate Nigel de Jong, and the combative, energetic Antonio Nocerino.
He was everywhere, and he did everything: He ran, he attacked, he defended. He played ambitious passes when Milan needed to counter, he kept it simple when Juventus were rallying and Milan wanted to cool the tempo. Statistics from the WhoScored website sum up his contribution – of Milan players, Montolivo played the most passes, attempted the most shots, completed the most dribbles, won the most tackles and made the most interceptions.
Milan won 1-0 courtesy of a debatable penalty, but even Juventus couldn't argue with the result. "It wasn't a penalty, but that wasn't the reason behind our defeat," said Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. "We had an hour to get back into it and weren't able to do so … if people want to find excuses for a defeat, it's simple, but I believe the best way of explaining it would be to say the opposition were better than us and we deserved to lose."
Montolivo's performance was more inspirational given the context of the game – not just looking at the league table, but in terms of aesthetic quality. Pre-match discussion about Milan versus Juventus is now, inevitably, one big joke about how Milan were foolish enough to release Pirlo last summer, although it should be noted that he was seeking a new challenge. Not only did they release Pirlo, they favoured more functional, hard-working, destructive players. "Allegri wanted to place [Massimo] Ambrosini or Van Bommel in front of the defence," Pirlo said. "I'd have to change role … in my role Allegri preferred other players."
Of course, Allegri still does – De Jong was also vital in Milan's victory, sniping and battling in front of the defence. But Montolivo's prominence proved that Milan can play football. In a side that once squeezed Rui Costa, Kaka, Clarence Seedorf and Pirlo into the same midfield, it's a completely different side under Allegri. De Jong is a tackler, Nocerino a box-to-box man, and Kevin-Prince Boateng an unusual attacking midfielder that offers more aggression than guile. Montolivo is almost solely responsible for Milan's creativity, and yet he offered so much more.
It's taken too long for Montolivo to reach this level. At Atalanta, his promise was well-known, and at Fiorentina he was an increasingly key player, leading the club to the knockout stages of the Champions League. There was always a question mark over his best role, however. He wasn’t a deep-lying playmaker like Pirlo, the ultimate regista, nor was he a trequartista that thrives in the hole. Like Alberto Aquilani, with whom he effectively swapped clubs in the summer, he was a good all-round player, and often found himself shoved into a different position when another midfielder was dropped, injured or sold.
At Euro 2012, however, Italy manager Cesare Prandelli used Montolivo brilliantly in the knockout stage, switching to a diamond shape with Montolivo at the top, not exclusively for his ability to create, but because he pressed the opposition holding midfielders, pushing them back and allowing Claudio Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi and Pirlo space to dominate possession.
At Milan, he’s also been forced to perform different roles, as Allegri desperately scrambles to find a system that suits his players in the post-Zlatan era. The Milan coach is a dead man walking -- Berlusconi admitted last week that Allegri would be replaced if Pep Guardiola became available – and even when he led Milan to title glory in 2010-11, Allegri wasn’t a particularly fine tactician, instead keeping the group happy and letting Zlatan Ibrahimovic do what comes naturally. But the 4-3-3 system used in the past two weeks, with de Jong and Nocerino alongside him in a midfield trio, seems to suit Montolivo best. He can spray long passes toward Robinho and Stephan El Shaarawy on the flanks, or burst forward sporadically to shoot from long range. He’s not the primary defensive midfielder, nor one expected to contribute goals – as the statistics suggest, he simply does a bit of everything.
It remains to be seen whether Montolivo will continue to wear the armband as Ambrosini, Christian Abbiati and Daniele Bonera, all unavailable for the Juventus game, were higher in the pecking order at the start of the season. But Montolivo -- a quiet, unassuming character -- wants to feel trusted and needed, and has performed well since the start of the campaign. More performances like the one against Juventus, and he could help save Milan's season.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.