The decline of Kaka

Kaka left for Real Madrid for a world record fee in 2009. He returns to AC Milan on a free transfer. Adam Bate examines the decline of a prodigious talent and wonders whether he can recapture former glories at 31

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The 2005 Champions League final will go down in history as one of the great sporting comebacks. Three goals down at the interval, Liverpool produced a remarkable revival to level things up at 3-3 against AC Milan before winning the penalty shootout. As a result, tales of Didi Hamann's half-time intervention, the Herculean efforts of Steven Gerrard and Jerzy Dudek's spaghetti legs will be the focus of after-dinner speeches on Merseyside for years to come.

History is written by the winners. But the highlights reel belongs to Kaka. The bursting run leading to Andriy Shevchenko's disallowed goal makes it, as does the deliciously dinked through-ball enabling the same player to square for Hernan Crespo to double the lead. It's the third goal minutes later that really astonishes. A sway of the hips leaves Gerrard in his wake before an angled long pass cuts through the heart of the Liverpool defence. Crespo finishes. Game over.

Of course, despite Kaka also netting in the shootout, there was a very different outcome and Gerrard - having caused Guardian MBM writer Barry Glendenning to wonder at half-time "how badly does he have to play before his legions of cheerleaders in the media will put down their pom-poms and pass comment on it?" - got to walk away with the man of the match award.

Classic Finals: AC Milan 3-3 Liverpool

Two years later, Milan enjoyed a revenge of sorts. Again, there was a two-goal striker to get his name in the record books. But once more, the magic came from Kaka - his measured pass to Pippo Inzaghi late in the game setting up the arch-predator for what turned out to be the winning goal. At the age of 25, Kaka belatedly had his Champions League victory.

The UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup followed later that year to go with the Serie A title he had earned in his first season with the Rossoneri. There was already a World Cup winners medal to his name, claimed as a 20-year-old talent (who saw 20 minutes of pitch action) before even leaving Sao Paulo for Europe. There were individual honours too. The Ballon d'Or in 2007 and a guaranteed place in football's hall of fame. So much so young.

Record move

In 2009 came the move to Real Madrid. Despite the world record transfer fee of £56million, the dubious honour of being Real's record buy didn't even last the month. Cristiano Ronaldo joined for £80m a few weeks later. Still just 27, Kaka was ostensibly in his prime having just enjoyed his best ever goalscoring season in Serie A. Within weeks of the move he won the Golden Ball for Brazil at the Confederations Cup, being named man of the match in the final.

In some ways, that was as good as his Real Madrid career got. By March in his first season at the club, he was being jeered by the Bernabeu crowd in a Champions League game against Lyon. Kaka then endured an injury-hit second season before returning to play a bit-part in the 2011/12 La Liga triumph under Jose Mourinho. Even in that successful campaign, he found himself booed throughout in a game against Malaga in the spring.

So where did it go wrong? "I never had any continuity during my four years with Real Madrid," the 31-year-old Kaka said last week, although he fell some way short of blaming Mourinho for his struggles. Indeed, he seemed quite magnanimous about the whole experience, acknowledging the need for Carlo Ancelotti to take the club in a different direction.

Perhaps there is an awareness that he has been complicit in his failure to meet the vast expectations. For Kaka is visibly a different player today. The languid style and sureness of touch remains. But where once the loping stride was accompanied by the pace to glide away from opponents, the way he had against Gerrard in Istanbul, there is now a sturdier frame to haul around the field.

And besides, in Football Manager terms, Kaka was always more deep-lying forward than advanced playmaker. Of course, the ability to play those killer balls was in his armory. But what few had realised was how quite how dependent upon pace those qualities were. The statistics from his time in Madrid show that those dribbles have become a rarer sight with each passing year. It was his pace that allowed him to dribble so effectively. It was his pace that allowed him to play.

Kaka decline at Real Madrid
SeasonKey passes per 90Dribbles per 90
2009/103.211.63
2010/112.881.55
2011/122.481.17
2012/132.331.12

During that same four-year period in the Spanish capital, Kaka's key passes have also fallen year on year. Examine again those vital moments in Champions League finals. Each was preceded by a run to find space. With that turn of speed gone, the key passes have dried up too. The decline has not been as marked as that of Michael Owen or Fernando Torres, but it is a reminder that sharpness can affect players in deeper positions too.

Main man

Kaka will be the main man at Milan. He'll be loved too. The jeers will be a thing of the past and there has already been familiar talk of the joy returning to his game. Expect moments of magic to hint at a rekindling of the flame, just as his Brazil team-mates from that 2002 World Cup triumph, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, occasionally managed during their spells at the club. Relighting the fire for real is another matter.

"I am returning home again," Kaka told Sky Sport Italia. "I am very happy to be back at Milan. I can't wait to play at San Siro again and feel the same emotions from before. I will be wearing the No.22 jersey again." The number on the jersey is indeed the same and there may well be the same emotions. It's certainly the same stadium and the same football club. But the real question that Kaka must answer is whether he is the same player. The signs are not so good.

Can Kaka get back to his best at AC Milan?

  • Yes
  • No