Despite an inspired performance in Sunday's Derby dell Madonnina against Inter Milan, Keisuke Honda has been one of the most disappointing Milan players this season. Honda is not solely to blame for his poor performances since joining the club, however, as Milan's management has not put Honda in a position to succeed.
First and foremost, giving Honda the number 10 before he played one match for Milan was, in retrospect, a massive mistake. The Milan number 10 is one of the most sacred numbers in all of football, having been worn on the backs of legends like Gianni Rivera, Ruud Gullit, Zvonomir Boban, Rui Costa, and Clarence Seedorf. The weight of that number 10 jersey is immense. The last man to wear the 10 before Honda, Kevin Prince Boateng, suffered a severe downturn in form after he inherited the number from Clarence Seedorf, and many are quick to point out that it wasn't just a coincidence. The number 10 is not to be given, it is to be earned; even if Honda requested the number, Milan management should have exercised better judgement and forced him to pick a number that carries less of a burden than the fabled 10.
Ignoring the issue of kit numbers and focusing on issues more pertinent to performance, is the fact that Honda has not been set up to succeed in large part because of his positional deployment. At CSKA, Honda was known as a skilled attacking midfielder who excelled at playing passes to his forwards in the final third. The fact of the matter is that Honda has not been given enough opportunities to play in his natural position behind the strikers at Milan. When Honda first arrived in the 2013-2014 season, Milan already had Ricky Kaka who was the preferred trequartista of both Massimiliano Allegri, and his managerial replacement, Clarence Seedorf. Honda found his opportunities limited, and failed to impress in his first season.
In the summer, Filippo Inzaghi took over behind the bench and employed a 4-3-3, a formation that doesn't utilize a trequartista. As a result Honda played out of position on the right wing, and despite a strong start to the season, he struggled to adapt to his new role. This brings us to this season, where new manager Sinisa Mihajlovic began by playing a 4-3-1-2, and at long last it seemed as though Honda would be given the opportunity he so desperately craved. However, after a handful of poor performances, Mihajlovic replaced Honda with Suso and then Giacomo Bonaventura before ultimately changing formation to a trequartista-less 4-4-2. As of late, Honda has found a home on the right side of the 4-4-2, but has been extremely unconvincing as a winger.
Honda is not quick enough nor skilled enough to beat his man on the wing, and despite his impressive work rate, has been a poor fit out wide. Modern wingers need to be quick, so fullbacks are always on guard for a sudden burst of pace. The problem isn't that Honda isn't fast, it's that he's incredibly slow to the point that he's almost useless on the right side. Milan are at least partly to blame for Honda's failure to excel, but the Japanese international has also not taken advantage of his limited opportunities.
Simply put, Honda is a very poor fit for the right wing, and Milan should make it a priority to find a true right winger in the summer. Milan have done a poor job of positioning Honda for success, and going forward Milan should either give him a real shot as a trequartista, or sell him to a team who will properly utilize him.