AC Milan's Suso, thriving with San Siro, sets his sights on derby win over Inter
Carpooling with Gonzalo Higuain apparently isn't all it's cracked up to be. Next-door neighbours in Milan for a while, Suso and his new teammate used to take turns driving each other the 30 or so miles to training at Milanello. Not much of a morning person, you get the impression Suso would happily spend the journey gradually waking up. But Higuain wants to chat.
"He talks and talks and talks," Suso laughs. Anyone who's watched the Argentine play can understand. He's always muttering away at something.
"At times I want to pull over on the motorway and let him out," Suso jokes.
That the two get on is obvious. Suso has set up Higuain's past three goals at San Siro and disrupting the pair of them will surely be the priority of Inter's game plan for Sunday's eagerly anticipated Derby della Madonnina.
"He's a champion," Suso says of the team's €54 million signing. Higuain hasn't stopped scoring since he opened his account against Cagliari in mid-September -- the streak is in its sixth game -- and, for the first time since Pippo Inzaghi's retirement, it looks as though Milan have a No. 9 worthy of the illustrious names to have honoured that shirt in the past.
Suso knew they'd hit off because "when two people know a thing or two about football, it's only a matter of time," he says, before they start to understand each other and, in this case, the goals start to flow.
"You've seen him play before," Suso says. "But until you're on the pitch and on the same team together and get to see how he moves, what he does, what he likes, what he doesn't like ..."
And now that they find themselves on the same wavelength, they are proving quite the dynamic duo.
Suso is in the form of his life. No one apart from Jadon Sancho can match him for assists in Europe's top five leagues this season. The 24-year-old has six in seven games and laid on another two for Spain against Wales last week as well as crashing a shot against the woodwork. "Physically and mentally, I think it's the best moment of my career," he says. Milan haven't seen wing play like this perhaps since the days of Roberto Donadoni, who, it so happens also used to wear the No. 8 jersey Suso dons today.
As with Arjen Robben, everyone knows exactly what Suso plans to do when he gets the ball, but it simply doesn't matter. Explaining how he manages to find unpredictability in being so predictable, he says: "It's about timing. Choosing the right moment. Watching the body position of your opponent. [Lionel] Messi always does the same move and you know it's coming [but no one can stop him]. To be clear, I'm not comparing myself to him. I think it's just something that comes naturally to you."
Of the wingers playing today, Suso says: "There's one I love: [Eden] Hazard. He plays on the left, but he's right-footed. He's one of the best players to watch. The way he runs with the ball and goes into one-v-ones. He's one of the players I like most."
Growing up in Cadiz, Suso adored Kaka, and when he outlines why, it's clear he isn't just saying so out of a sense of obligation to the club he has played for these past four years.
"He was so quick when he got the ball," Suso says. "He used to go past players with such ease, and when he was in front of goal he had that composure you need to score."
This is something Suso himself is working on. There's a case to be made that a player of his skill and ability should be getting on the score sheet more. Suso's goals against Sassuolo in late September were his first in seven months.
Running over to celebrate with Gennaro Gattuso, the bond between this promising young team and its coach is noticeably strong. Earlier this week, Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli said he'd "die" for Gattuso, and in light of Higuain telling La Gazzetta dello Sport, "I agree with Alessio," Suso understands the sentiment.
"In every interview we do, you can see no one has a bad word to say about him," Suso says. "As a kid, I used to watch him on TV. He's won everything. He does his job on the pitch, but off it he's one of those guys you can talk to."
There is a sense of belonging at Milan that has all too often been missing in recent years. Suso has played under three different presidents and five different managers. The brief period Li Yonghong spent as owner raised all kinds of doubts about the financial stability of one of European football's grandest names.
"Stories used to come out every day about the club needing to sell me because of [financial fair play], but us players didn't have a clue about what was going on, at least I didn't," he says.
Elliott management's repossession of the club and the assembly of a new football braintrust headed by Leonardo and Paolo Maldini has conferred renewed credibility upon Milan, cultivating a sense that the seven-time European champions are now on the right path after all too long in the wilderness.
Maldini's mere presence serves as inspiration.
"It's amazing," Suso reveals. "Maldini is Milan. He comes to watch us train every morning, talks to us. It makes us better as players and as a team."
As with Gattuso, these are football people, steeped in Milan's rich history, possessed of a human touch that has real significance to the team's players.
"[Leonardo and I] talk about the games. He talks about what's going on off the pitch too. He wants to know how my girlfriend is doing," Suso says.
Suso is due to become a father in three weeks, with the due date close to his own birthday on Nov. 19. Alis, his girlfriend, was not too chuffed with him for choosing to celebrate his goals against Sassuolo with Gattuso.
"She sent me a message asking why I hadn't dedicated a celebration to our child," he smiles, vowing to make up for if he finds the net in the derby. The baby boy is to be called Alessio, and there is some banter about whether he is to be named after Romagnoli, especially as his shirt number is 19.
"Definitely not," Suso giggles.
Family is important to Suso, and for more than just the obvious reasons. His nearest and dearest were over for his birthday two years ago, and all came to the derby against Inter. He scored twice, and, out of superstition, has since insisted they come along to every one that Milan host.
"I said 'Right, I'm bringing you to every derby,'" he says. "Some of them had to work, but I was like: 'I'm not interested. Do what you have to do, you have got to be here.' This time, though, there won't be anyone. We're playing 'away' from home. There'll just be my wife [in Milan], but she'll be at home."
It needn't have been like that, though. Sunday's derby could have been a "home" game for Suso.
"Listen, I'm going to tell you something," he says, turning serious. "Write it [exactly] as I say it. This summer there was an opportunity ... there was an offer to go to Inter. And [Milan's former sporting director Massimiliano] Mirabelli was aware of it. It surprised me a little when he said publicly he didn't know anything about it. He did. We spoke to him about it. But as I said, my intention was always to stay here, and I am very, very happy."
Milan are too, and must feel they got a bargain when looking back at the €300,000 they paid Liverpool for him at the beginning of 2015.
It's easy to see why Inter -- who also bid for him in the summer leading up to his last contract extension in 2017 -- wanted Suso. For someone who doesn't score many goals, his record against them (3 goals) in particular demonstrates a knack for raising his game on nights like these. It must be a quirk of destiny, then, that Suso's goals are still yet to inflict defeat on Inter in the league.
"If it's like that, I prefer not to score and win the derby," he says with a glint in his eye. "That way, we're all happy."