Radja Nainggolan is enjoying his life once again. He isn’t doing that in Milan. He is doing that at Sardinia- the place that gave him the platform to impress about nine years ago. He’s back at Cagliari and has been crucial to their standout season, making Inter regret letting him go.

The Nerazzurri were very intent on pushing two players out this past summer. One was Nainggolan. The other was Mauro Icardi. While the Argentine was keen on staying until the very end of the transfer window, Nainggolan was quicker in packing his backs.

Nainggolan’s wife was continuing her cancer treatment in Sardinia and that moving there to be closer to his family was the reason for the Belgian’s return. And being the club that gave him the thrust to go onto bigger clubs, a move to Cagliari made sense.

Under Rolando Maran, Nainggolan has become the Isolani‘s most productive midfielder. He has racked up four goals and five assists, allowing Cagliari that flair in midfield. Around him, he has grafters in Marko Rog, Nahitan Nandez and Luca Cigarini. In the club’s 3-4-1-2 shape, he has been thriving and playing with freedom.

He is the central creator of the side, playing 1.5 key passes per game- the second-highest at the club. He is completing one dribble per game- the fourth-highest in the side. Because of that freedom, Nainggolan has been attempting 2.5 shots per game. All four of his goals have come from long distances out- something one can always expect out of him (via Whoscored).

The last few years haven’t been the best of his life. He was not included in the Belgium World Cup squad for the FIFA World Cup 2018. The move to Inter was spoilt by consistent injury problems, even though his goal against Empoli was crucial to helping them seal Champions League football. He was then pushed out by Antonio Conte, as the club prepared for regeneration.

After leaving the club, Nainggolan told La Repubblica in an interview (via Calciomercato):

“I took Inter into the Champions League with a decisive goal, but the credit belongs to everyone. I am glad they are really strong this year, I wish them all the best. I would not mind if they won the Scudetto this season, but there is some sour grapes on my part.

“I think I could have stayed in that team. The club had made a decision about me. Conte asked the club for new players. If you want to get something, you also have to give.”

As things stand, Nainggolan has come off better in the loan deal. While Inter do top the league over Juventus, Conte has been vocal about a lack of depth in many parts of the pitch.

Since Stefano Sensi sustained an injury in their loss to Juve, things haven’t been as smooth. They have been winning games, but they haven’t been as comfortable. The recent knee injury to Nicolo Barella has brought out more weakness about a lack of quality depth.

While Roberto Gagliardini, Matias Vecino, and Borja Valero have been playing in recent times. There is no player in that trio who can be what Nainggolan is. Sensi’s ability to control games in attacking midfield was missing when he got injured.

While Sensi was a defensive midfielder at Sassuolo, so was Nainggolan up until the 2015-16 campaign at Roma. It was from the 2016-17 campaign that he began playing as the attacking midfielder. That was where he played for Inter last season too, scoring six times and assisting thrice.

He would have added much-needed depth and quality to the Inter midfield. He is now injury free, after having got rid of issues early in the campaign. But the key for Inter now is that he is still only on a loan deal in Sardinia. Getting him back in the summer could be an option. But if they have a better option in mind, they can let Nainggolan leave permanently.

One thing is for sure- Nainggolan would be making many at the San Siro think. That could include Conte himself.

Kaustubh Pandey