The Young Stars at the Heart of AC Milan’s Revival
26th October 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
Since their 2010-11 Serie A title win, AC Milan have fallen out of contention both domestically and in Europe.
One of the grandest names in world football, with a history which boasts seven European Cups, 18 scudetti and five Coppa Italias, had regressed to the level of mid-table also-rans.
Tenth in Serie A in 2014, eighth the following season and seventh last term – a far cry from the days of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit.
But this season, under new manager Vincenzo Montella, the Rossoneri are experiencing somewhat of a revival. The 42-year-old former Fiorentina and Sampdoria coach was brought in in the summer and given the task of awakening this sleeping giant of a club and returning it to the Champions League.
Few envisioned Montella being able to right the ship quite as quickly and as thoroughly as he has, though.
With a squad lacking the kind of quality on display in previous great Milan sides (see the above list of legends for a start), little was expected of Montella’s men.
But, following last weekend’s 1-0 win over champions Juventus at the San Siro, Milan are up to third in the table, just two points behind the Bianconeri and level with second-placed Roma.
Despite some early season hiccups – they lost two of their opening three fixtures – Monetlla’s blueprint was clear: his 4-3-3 was designed to cultivate a possession-heavy approach, with the aim of bringing attractive passing football back to the San Siro.
Individual errors and a habit of hitting the self-destruct button was costing Milan: a red card and a late penalty concession almost caused the Rossoneri to drop two points at home to Torino, while two dismissals the following week played into the hands of Napoli at the San Paolo.
Such costly mistakes have been eradicated in recent weeks, however. This uptick in discipline and composure has been borne out by recent results: Milan are now unbeaten in their last six matches since the 4-2 defeat to Napoli.
At the heart of Montella’s Milan turnaround is a handful of gifted young players, all beginning to realise their potential together.
Gianluigi Donnarumma has become one of the most talked about young players in Europe since being given his debut by Sinisa Mihajlovic last season. He became the youngster goalkeeper in Serie A history upon making his senior bow at the age of 16 years and eight months.
The now-17-year-old, who wears the number 99 shirt for Milan to reflect the year of his birth, made his international debut in August this year when Azzurri boss Giampiero Ventura called him up for a friendly against France. The youngster played 45 minutes after replacing 38-year-old legend Gianluigi Buffon – the man he has been proclaimed as the new incarnation of and eventual heir to – at half-time.
Despite his tender years, Donnarumma has already clocked up 39 Serie A appearances and kept 14 clean sheets. This season, the prodigious stopper is averaging 2.78 saves per game and has a success rate of 100 percent when attempting to claim crosses.
At 6ft 5ins, Donnarumma cuts an imposing figure between the San Siro posts and has displayed an impressive degree of leadership despite his relative inexperience.
With his size, reflexes and supreme confidence, the youngster has the makings of a complete goalkeeper, combining the agility to make brilliant reaction saves, whilst commanding his area with a real presence.
He has also shown himself to have the temperament of a seasoned veteran. When Torino were given a stoppage time penalty with the score tied at 2-2 in Milan’s Serie A curtain raiser, it marked the first time in his fledgling professional career that Donnarumma had faced a spot kick.
With all the coolness of a man who’d been in that situation a thousand times, Donnarumma perfectly anticipated Andrea Belotti’s strike and extended his substantial frame to make a diving save.
Signed from Roma for €25 million in the summer of 2015, Alessio Romagnoli arrived in Milan with high expectations.
In his first season with the Rossoneri, Romagnoli started 33 of 38 Serie A games and was one of the few bright lights of a disappointing campaign for his new club, averaging an impressive 2.5 interceptions and 5.4 clearances per game.
The 21-year-old was overlooked by then-Azzurri boss Antonio Conte for his 23-man Euro 2016 squad this summer. But when the former Juventus boss took charge of Chelsea after the tournament, he sanctioned a £35 million bid for the former Roma star — Milan refused to sell.
This season, Romagnoli has been equally impressive as he continues to build a strong understanding with central defensive partner Gabriel Paletta.
Calm under pressure, strong in the air and comfortable on the ball, Romagnoli is the complete package.
So clean is the young Italian defender’s work, that the only foul he has conceded all season came in last weekend’s victory over Juventus.
If newspaper media rumours are to be believed, Chelsea are preparing a £49 million January bid for the two-cap Italy international. Milan would be wise to keep Romagnoli for as long as possible.
Milan signed French forward M’Baye Niang from Caen in 2012. The youngster had made an impression in Ligue 1 the previous season and was being chased by the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at the time.
Regarded as one of the hottest prospects on the Continent, the 21-year-old has juxtaposed moments of inspired skill with indiscipline off the field and inconsistency on it.
After a relatively successful loan spell with Genoa during the 2014-15 season, Niang became a more regular feature of the Milan side last term, scoring an impressive eight goals and registering five assists from 18 appearances.
But just as he was beginning to gather steam, an ankle ligament injury sustained in a car accident in March ruled him out for two months. He returned in time to make the bench for the Coppa Italia final defeat to Juventus, in which he came on as late substitute.
This season, however, Niang finally appears to be putting it all together. His raw gifts are becoming more polished, while he looks comfortable with the added responsibility Montella has afforded him.
With three goals and two assists from his eight appearances, Niang has been one of the most potent attacking threats at Milan’s disposal. The only blemish on his record was a late sending off in the defeat to Napoli — a game in which he’d scored a spectacular goal.
Blessed with tremendous pace, excellent close control and dribbling skills, and a rocket of a right foot, the ceiling on Niang’s potential is sky-high.
His propensity to pick up the ball in the inside left channel and run at the opposition defence before unleashing a right-footed effort on goal is reminiscent of Arsenal legend Thierry Henry. No wonder the Gunners are supposedly tracking the young winger.
Since captain Riccardo Montolivo picked up a serious knee injury on international duty, ruling the experienced midfielder out for around six months, Montella hasn’t hesitated in giving 18-year-old Manuel Locatelli a more prominent role.
The teenager was known as one of the brightest prospects coming through the ranks at the San Siro having made his senior debut towards the end of last season.
This summer, he was a key part of the Azzurri side which finished as runners-up in the UEFA Under-19 European Championships.
Locatelli bagged his first professional goal in spectacular fashion against Sassuolo earlier this month, coming off the bench to rifle home a 25-yard strike to help Milan come back from 3-1 down to win 4-3; the Lecco-born youngster was visibly in tears as he celebrated.
And having stepped into the starting XI to replace Montolivo in the last two games, Locatelli has looked a natural fit in Montella’s midfield. His stunning strike into the top corner of Gianluigi Buffon’s goal, via the underside of the crossbar, to beat Juventus, showed how the young man is maturing: no tears this time, it was as though he expected to score.