Jeremy Menez is finally fulfilling his potential at new club AC Milan
A formal announcement had yet to be made. It wasn't official that the next coach of AC Milan was to be Filippo "Pippo" Inzaghi. But days after dining with Silvio Berlusconi at his residence in Arcore on May 31, evidence emerged to indicate a future was being built around the former striker as he was being let in on their recruitment plans.
Pictured with CEO Adriano Galliani in Ibiza in Spain, it was clear they weren't there on holiday. Sat around a table with them at the restaurant Es Torrent was a certain Jeremy Menez. Available for nothing on the expiration of his contract with Paris Saint-Germain, he was to become the first signing of the Inzaghi era.
Pippo's personal touch, the longstanding relationship between Galliani and his agent Jean-Pierre Bernes, and the greater appeal of Milan ahead of Napoli and Fiorentina made it an offer Menez couldn't refuse. He had fallen out of favour at the Parc des Princes. After scoring PSG's title-clinching goal against Lyon the season before, his playing time had become limited. Back surgery the previous summer meant he missed the preseason. Carlo Ancelotti, his mentor, left for Real Madrid and was replaced by Laurent Blanc, whose resignation as coach of France came after a Euro 2012 quarterfinal against Spain in which Menez hadn't exactly covered himself in glory.
Disillusioned after being left out of the starting XI, his professionalism was called into question. Inspecting the pitch with the rest of the team, Menez, in slippers and headphones, looked too casual to French journalists as he lied on the bench.
Upon replacing Mathieu Debuchy in the second half against the eventual European champion, the only impact Menez made was to swear at referee Nicola Rizzoli and his team's goalkeeper, France captain Hugo Lloris. Banned for one match by the French Football Federation for his conduct, Menez's relationship with Blanc seemed, if not beyond repair, to have cooled.
Competition at PSG was fierce too. After the signing of Ezequiel Lavezzi came that of Lucas Moura. And if Zlatan Ibrahimovic was out or didn't play center-forward, Edinson Cavani expected to fill that role instead. It was a cause of frustration.
Ménez reacted angrily when Blanc chose to replace Lavezzi with Lucas instead of him in the 3-0 win against Benfica a year ago. He felt it was political. After spending so much money on them, let's say a certain pressure was exerted by the owners to see the big names out on the field.
"In comparison with some [of my teammates], when you make a judgment based on quality of player, the price paid and their statistics, I was not bad, no," Ménez mused in France Football. "Lucas has been at PSG two years. He has scored three goals [six at the time of the interview back in September]. But he cost 40 m euros [closer to 45m euros including bonuses]. And he is Brazilian."
When asked what he meant by that, Ménez clarified: "Lucas has quality, that's not a problem. But today, it's perhaps better to be a foreign player at PSG and care for your image as well...Me, I'm French and Parisien. I don't have Twitter or Instagram to send messages or post nice photos. I don't say: 'Vive Paris!' or 'Allez Paris!' to look good. I'm not like that. But it doesn't mean to say I don't love the club. Far from it! Basically, I'm not false."
Before entering negotiations with Ménez, Milan sought a reference from Ancelotti, their former coach, as they did for his PSG teammate Alex and the Real Madrid goalkeeper Diego López. Ancelotti backed Ménez up on the Lucas claim. An 8 million euro buy from Roma in 2011, he had represented better value to PSG, contributing 19 goals and 28 assists in all competitions.
Even so, few expected Ménez to make the impact he has at Milan. Perhaps that's because when he arrived it was thought Mario Balotelli would still be the main man and the Frenchman part of the supporting cast. After his sale to Liverpool, the attention shifted to Stephan El Shaarawy. Would he rediscover his best form and carry the team like he did before Balotelli signed?
Ménez's deployment as a false nine or Phantom Ménez on the opening day against highly fancied Lazio was interpreted at the time as a stop-gap. A debut goal in a 3-1 win didn't change that impression, because on the one hand his strike came from the spot and on the other while a no-reference point forward line of Ménez, El Shaarawy and Keisuke Honda had shown plenty of promise, the club were expected to sign a new center-forward and then also Giampaolo Pazzini was soon anticipated to return from injury.
But the momentum began to pick up further after Ménez twice found the net against Parma. The winner in a 5-4 thriller was one of the goals of the season, as he rounded the goalkeeper and back-heeled the ball across the line.
"It was all pure instinct," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "If I think it over again, I don't remember it well. I only did what came to mind. This is my football. Fun. Instinct. I don't know how to defend, I know how to create, to go one v one and beat my man."
Consecutive victories got the media carried away. A 1-0 defeat to Juventus at San Siro was a reality check. Fernando Torres' recovery from an ankle twist in time to face Empoli meant Inzaghi moved Ménez out-wide to accommodate the Chelsea loanee. He'd open his account with a fine header but the team drew 2-2. Inzaghi tinkered again.
Owner Silvio Berlusconi, enthusiastic about Torres, wished to see all his flair players on the pitch at the same time. A shift from 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 with Ménez in-behind was tried but what had become apparent to Premier League viewers in recent years gradually dawned on Milan. Torres' decline is irreversible. Even Berlusconi has come to accept it.
Ménez, it must be said, had also appeared to let much of the praise go to his head. His play was selfish and egotistical at times. But upon being restored to his central role and after a pep talk from Berlusconi who threatened to fine him if he didn't stay in the penalty area, advising Ménez to even hug and even strike up conversation with the opposition goalkeeper during games, the 27-year-old has provided big moments for his team and memorable ones for the neutral too.
The highlights spring easily to mind: a cushioned volley in the derby against Inter. And what about the dribbling skill he used to jink past defenders and finish past Udinese and Napoli last Sunday.
Ménez does not score ugly goals. With eight already, a personal best for a league campaign and it's only December, he's in the form of his career and thank goodness he is for Milan's sake. Torres hasn't scored since his debut. Honda is without a goal since October and, after ending his 622-day goal drought last month, El Shaarawy has run dry again.
"Enough of this story that Ménez is a false nine," Galliani insisted on Sky Italia. "He's a nine and that's it. Even at PSG he played as a center-forward with Ibra behind as a No.10."
Only one goal short of Carlos Tevez at the top of the Capocannoniere (The Serie A Golden Boot) charts, Ménez is averaging one every 85 minutes and has a more impressive conversion rate. He has scored from 22 fewer shots.
Asked what his objective was back in September, Ménez said: "To score 10 goals. In Italy when you say Ménez, you think: 'Ah yes, the one who scores four times a year'. It won't be like that. And I want to get back in the national team. France host the Euros in two years' time, and I want to be there."
A member of the much-hyped '87 generation with Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa, the one that won the Under-17 European Championship in 2004, Ménez is catching fire after flickering for so long. This season marks a decade since he announced himself to the world with a seven-minute hat-trick for Sochaux against Bordeaux. The youngest player to score one in Ligue 1 history at only 17, he received a phone call from Sir Alex Ferguson that season inquiring if he'd consider joining Manchester United. Ménez turned him down.
"Saying 'no' to Ferguson wasn't easy but I was young and had to follow my path," he recalled.
The potential was evident. And now Ménez is finally fulfilling it. Three points adrift of the final Champions League place, if Milan are to finish third, much will depend on whether he can continue to be a menace in Serie A. With the Rossoneri's last game before Christmas coming against former club Roma at the Olimpico, improbable though it is, a win signed, sealed and delivered by Ménez would be the perfect gift to Milan fans this festive season.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.