Since the turn of the millennium, few faces associate so clearly with a shirt as Kaká and the red and black of AC Milan.
In six years at the San Siro, the Brazilian scripted a remarkable legacy. He was twice crowned Footballer of the Year, latterly in 2007 when he also won Best FIFA Men’s Player and the Ballon d’Or.
Part of one of the iconic modern teams, Milan won the Champions League, Italian Super Cup, Serie A, FIFA Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup during Kaká’s time there.
Yet the once inseparable parties would be divorced in 2009 by the financial might of Real Madrid. What would unfold in the next chapter of Kaká’s story however would puzzle and bemuse. These are the forgotten Madrid years of a generations greatest attacking midfielder.
A modern Milan great
It is difficult to express, with reasoned and rational calm, the phenomenon Kaká had become in Milan. Joining in 2003, just months after they had won the Champions League, the young Brazilian wasted little time in making inroads. Dethroning Rui Costa as the team’s playmaker so quickly was an unthinkable jump however, and set the tone.
At his best playing as the attacking midfielder in a 4-1-2-1-2, or as one of the advanced creators in a 4-3-2-1, Kaká set about redefining the expectations of the midfield role. 104 goals in 307 Milan appearances, with eighty five further assists. This involvement rate of 0.61 per game is monstrous, and even includes a year long loan return in 2013/14. He scored eleven in that season too.
For reference, Frank Lampard’s goal involvement rate for Chelsea was 0.55 per appearance. Considered the greatest goal scoring midfielder of his generation, even Lampard could not match Kaká for goal threat.
Every goal type imaginable was at his disposal. Long range rockets, cute one on one finishes, volleys, half volleys, headers, chips. Go through a Kaká goal compilation and you’ll find numerous of each. In both the mentioned formations, Kaká was afforded this license to attack. The vertical passing prowess of the three midfielders behind him would locate his movement between the lines. This is not surprising; that base was made up of Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo.
Time and time over the Brazilian is found by one of the midfield. He turns and drives forward before firing at goal. Another favourite was when ’22’ would hang on the box’s edge, waiting for a ball drop from a cross, or a holding forward. Few players command such certainty of a goal as Kaká hovering over a bouncing ball.
His final campaign in red and black was stellar. Milan had fallen somewhat from their heady heights of two years previous, now competing in the UEFA Cup. Neighbours Inter were the new Italian power and finished ten points clear of the Rossoneri. Yet Kaká would score sixteen times and assist nine from midfield in the league. Even the ignominy of Inter’s rise under Jose Mourinho could not quash his genius. Yet as Milan started sinking, other powers grew, and their beloved Brazilian was now performing above the club’s capacity.
Those latter years in Italy made an enormous European bid inevitable. Milan would finish third in Serie A in 2008/9, and Carlo Ancelotti would resign as manager after eight years at the club.
Hindsight shows that this would be the start of the decline for Milan. Many marquee names would continue to come and go, without recapturing the dominance of the mid-2000s.
In Madrid, Real were at the outset of their latest Galactico era. They finished second in 08/09, albeit nine points adrift of Barcelona. The contrast in fortunes between the Spanish giants was vast. Real scored twenty two fewer goals, and conceded seventeen more. They had recycled through two managers, whilst Pep Guardiola was at the start of his historic tenure at Barca. Real were also humiliated in the Champions League Round of 16, whilst Barcelona won the competition. The necessary rebuild was seismic.
Real set about amending this in the only way they know. Managerial turnover, and immense spending. On top of Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema, Los Blancos broke the transfer record twice that summer.
First was to bring Kaká to the Bernabeu. The £60 million fee (transfermarkt.com) broke the club’s own record paid for Zinedine Zidane seven years prior. Just weeks later, another record was broken to sign Cristiano Ronaldo. The 2007 and 2008 Ballon d’Or winners had been brought to the Spanish capital. Their aim only to viciously swipe back their crown.
Yet whilst Ronaldo’s time in white is among history’s most prolific and famed, Kaká’s experience never hit remotely similar heights.
The grand unveiling
For all the glammer and raucousness of their transfer business, Real’s managerial appointment that summer was understated.
Manuel Pellegrini was hired off the back of an impressive Villarreal tenure. Calm, composed and calculated, the Chilean is not immediately simpatico with the club’s image.
Throughout his career, Pellegrini has liked to use a 4-4-2 formation. It was successful at Villarreal, and at Manchester City. His City team showed how he enjoyed this system to be played, with one central midfielder dropping deep and protecting the back four. In Yaya Toure, he had the perfect box-to-box partner for the defenisve minded Fernandinho.
The plethora of attacking and creative options at Real made this a difficulty to implement. For Kaká, his skillset required him to be played as a creative ten, or as a second striker. His selling point was his attacking runs and goal scoring, not necessarily in possessive passing or operating in a deeper capacity.
Pellegrini sought to right this by rotating between a 4-4-2 diamond and a 4-2-3-1. Kaká could play as the creator in both roles, protected by Alonso and Lassana Diarra. Left back Marcelo was deployed as the left side of the diamond, such was his attacking potential.
Eight goals and seven assists in the league for the Brazilian is a perfectly serviceable return. For mere mortals perhaps, but Kaká had elevated the benchmark. This was a major regression on his Milan days, and without any immediate sign of an upturn.
Real amassed 96 points in the league. Yet they were stillupstaged by Guardiola’s jugernaut. Jose Mourinho was available, and so Pellegrini was dismissed. For Kaká, the Special One’s arrival only compounded his difficulties.
A post-World Cup nightmare
Kaká returned from the 2010 World Cup with severe knee discomfort. His desire to get to the tournament saw further aggravation to an existing issue for the player.
Meniscus surgery would put him out for four months. This having happened whilst Mourinho was establishing his team, could not have further isolate Kaká from his best form. Further creative reinforcements in Angel di Maria and Mesut Özil were signed. Kaká’s place was slipping fast.
For a player so reliant on dynamic carrying, and bursting into the penalty area, such damage to the knees was disastrous. Put simply, Kaká was never the same again.
Another second placed finish would close Mourniho’s first season, but 2011/12 would be an altogether different level. 100 points, over 120 goals, Los Blancos blew apart the competition and tore back their title.
Mourinho never swayed from a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 throughout the season. This has been the case throughout his career. These systems got the best out of Ronaldo as a left winger, who by now was producing extortionate goal tallies of forty a season. Kaká would score five and assist ten in twenty seven league outings, again an impressive showing. Yet the younger, more versatile Özil assisted a further nine to the Brazilian, as well as scoring four times.
Özil could play in Kaká’s preferred ten space, as well as operate as the right winger when Mourinho sought to congest the midfield in big fixtures. Six years his junior, Özil had been the creator to bring back the league title. Not Kaká.
The end of Kaká
Barcelona would storm back to the top of the league in 12/13. Mourinho’s relations with the club and dressing room would sour, and would see him dismissed at the end of the year.
For Kaká it was an even quieter year than previous. Just over 1300 minutes across all competitions was a meagre return for a player of his stature. Özil on the other hand would record nine goals and sixteen league assists, proving that the success of one was at the expense of the other.
Bizarrely, despite the horrific impact of the knee surgery, Kaká would not record a major injury again in Madrid. This was not a case of various injuries plaguing a career, but of one major one changing perceptions. The dented mobility caused by the knee injury took away Kaká’s arsenal, and simply left him an inferior tool than the younger German.
The appointment of his former coach Ancelotti ahead of the 2013/14 season prompted debate of a revival. However once again, the clamour caused by a new signing would quash any chance.
Gareth Bale’s £85 million arrival not only pushed Kaká further down the pecking order. It also made clear the need to balance the books with sales. Ancelotti chose di Maria over Kaká and even Özil, with the latter sold to Arsenal.
Kaká would seek refuge back in his beloved Milan. Now thirty one, this was a time to feel loved again. His year back in red and black was fairly productive, featuring thirty times in the league with thirteen goal involvements.
Even this was not without tinged sadness however. The contract would be terminated a year early as Milan failed to qualify for Europe, and Orlando City would bring him to the USA. That his first game back in Italy saw him tear a thigh muscle really set the twilight backdrop on his famed ’22’ shirt.
Kaká’s Madrid legacy
Real Madrid never saw the best of Kaká, that much is obvious. There is a sense however, that they were robbed of even an imitation of it by the club’s politics, and that injury.
A humble individual, and regarded as an excellent professional by Mourinho, Kaká’s profile was at odds with the noise of the Bernabeu. Be that of Mourinho, Ronaldo, di Maria and even Özil, there were always flashier options for the fans and club to back.
It is quite telling that in that final season in Milan in 13/14, Kaká recorded more league minutes than in any season at Real. For all the blaming of injury, this iconic midfielder was not a burnt out shell.
Were he part of a team built for him, the legacy of Kaká would have only grown further. The memories and glory of the gold number twenty two on red and black stripes, and not the navy ‘8’ on a white shirt are his legacy however. It would take far more than four underwhelming seasons at Real Madrid to tear down such a storied tale.