M’Baye Niang is just 21 years old. The extent of his youth takes some time to digest fully, precisely because of the sheer quantity of highs and lows he has endured in his playing career thus far.
At 16 he was a professional footballer and a first-team player. He had signed a contract with Caen before making his debut for the Lower Normandy club against Toulouse as a substitute on April 23, 2011.
While just 17, Niang became official footballing hot property. His performances for Caen in Ligue 1 alerted several of the richest and most venerable clubs in Europe. Milan won the race for his signature on 28 August, beating the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton in the process, per the Daily Mail.
At the age of 19 Niang had had his first stereotypical teenage starlet meltdown, crashing his Ferrari while suspended from driving during a spell on loan at Montpellier.
That particular error came in the midst of what became a prolonged personal crisis, albeit a crisis of far-from-seismic proportions. Niang couldn’t find the net, at least in Serie A.
Three years without scoring in league competition for Milan saw the youngster’s status plummet. He went from proclaimed prospect, subject to scrupulous assessment from Europe’s best, to uncertain squad member, over-hyped, underwhelming and facing the Milanello exit door.
The drought led to a second loan spell away from the club in the latter half of the 2014-15 season, with Niang heading south to join Gian Piero Gasperini’s Genoa side.
At the time the Grifone were competing for a place in European competition and playing some wonderful, flowing football, and Niang seemed to thrive in the environment both from a personal and tactical standpoint.
Often playing on the left-hand side of a front three in Gasperini’s 3-4-3, his strike rate improved drastically as he found the net on five occasions in just 12 starts. His form prompted a return to Milan and a two-year contract extension.
Oozing confidence and showing signs of greater maturity, Niang had no trouble finding his feet in pre-season, suggesting that under new coach Sinisa Mihajlovic he could play a key role in the club’s exciting future. Unfortunately, however, it hasn’t been that simple.
Just as he was gathering momentum, Niang’s wings were clipped by injury. In an August friendly against Bayern Munich he suffered a metatarsal fracture that ruled him out for almost three months. But Mihajlovic kept the player in mind and, once he was fully recovered, immediately brought him back into first-team affairs in a clear show of faith.
Niang went straight into Milan’s starting lineup for the 0-0 draw with Atalanta on November 7 and later that month he would end a long wait, finally opening his Serie A account for the club with a double against Sampdoria.
The two-goal salvo was one of Niang’s best performances in Milan colours, acting as validation of Mihajlovic’s confidence in him. Since then he has not scored in league action but two goals in two Coppa Italia games hint further towards the 21-year-old’s growing importance.
His form is the result of an effective working relationship with his coach.
Mihajlovic has always been a strong man manager and Niang seems to be benefitting from playing under his tutelage, telling Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia): "I have an excellent rapport with the coach. He makes me work hard and we got on from the first day we met. He can help me in many different ways."
In a relatively short career marked by peaks and troughs on and off the field, Niang looks ready to fulfil his vast potential. He now marries his pace with increasing strength and composure in front of goal. Additionally, he’s now willing to combine his dazzling array of tricks and flicks with an enhanced work ethic.
Arguably most important of all, Niang fits in. He has shown tactical competence beyond his years to feature on either wing and as a centre-forward, and—on the evidence so far—is capable of operating in various different formations.
His versatility means he can slot effectively into a 4-5-1, 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, meaning that no matter which system the tinkering Mihajlovic opts for in future, Niang will guarantee his coach a useful attacking option.
It has perhaps taken longer than expected, but Niang’s time could be upon us. 2016 may be the year the fitful French forward embraces his talent on a more consistent basis to establish himself with Milan.