AC Milan's roster is in a transition phase. After years of making do with sub-standard stop-gap players, the Rossoneri have made several moves in the last year that have started them on the road to creating the kind of squad that can start bringing the team back to its former glory.
There's still a lot of work to be done, though. Milan is badly in need of creativity in the midfield and of real quality partners for Alessio Romagnoli at the back and Carlos Bacca up front.
Much of this roster is interchangeable, but there are probably five players who can make up a solid core for the future: Romagnoli, Bacca, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, left-back Luca Antonelli and midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura.
Milan is lucky in that they don't have all that many contracts expiring this summer. The deals which do are players that most fans would consider expendable: Cristian Zapata, Philippe Mexes and Antonio Nocerino will all be free agents this summer. Kevin-Prince Boateng is also signed through the end of the year, and it remains to be seen whether he'll earn a longer deal with his play before May.
Riccardo Montolivo and Alex will also be out of contract, but allowing them to hit the market could hurt more. For all his shortcomings, Montolivo can still play a role in the midfield, while Alex has proved steady in the back despite his age.
But losing those players wouldn't have near the effect of losing any of those core five. Fortunately for the club, they have control of the quintet for a while.
Romagnoli is locked up until 2020, while Bacca and Bonaventura have signed until 2019. Antonelli and Donnarumma are Rossoneri until 2018—but it's never too early to start looking at extending these two further.
Both players are products of Milan's youth academy, but Antonelli took a more circuitous route into the first team. After debuting in 2006, he was loaned out to Bari the next season. After impressing in Serie B, he was signed on a co-ownership by Parma, who eventually gained all his rights.
He stayed with the Crusaders for three seasons before moving to Genoa, where he played in 104 games in four years, scoring eight times. He made a name for himself as one of the league's steadiest full-backs, and when his boyhood club needed reinforcements at the back last season, he was one of the men vice-president Adriano Galliani identified as a target.
Antonelli was one of three defenders Milan brought in that winter. The other two—Salvatore Bocchetti and Gabriel Paletta—are no longer with the club. While the others were hit or miss, Antonelli quickly turned into a rock. He was one of Milan's best players in 2014-15 despite only wearing their shirt for half a year.
He has kept that form going this season. He's been robbed of a few games here and there due to injury, but he's been exceptional in the 16 matches he has been on the field. WhoScored.com rank him as Milan's fifth-best player, an accolade that's richly deserved.
The 28-year-old has rarely put a foot wrong in defense this season, and he's combined well with Bonaventura as an overlapper on the left. His enterprising runs up the field have helped pin opposing full-backs deep in their own territory and pull opponents out of position in the back.
A cool hand at the back, he can also serve as a mentor to young defenders like Romagnoli and promising 18-year-old full-back Davide Calabria—perhaps he can even get Mattia De Sciglio back on his feet after the promising start to his career fell flat.
With Antonelli as the elder statesman of a young, mostly homegrown defensive line, Donnarumma could have an impressive unit in front of him.
Donnarumma, of course, is the other part of this contract equation. The 16-year-old goalkeeper has been one of the biggest surprises of the season—not only in Serie A but in all of Europe.
He caused a shock when he was installed as the starter over a struggling Diego Lopez for the team's October 25 match against Sassuolo, breaking the league record for youngest goalkeeper to start a game. But in that game and every league match since he has played far beyond his years.
Donnarumma is a rare combination of size, agility and quickness. That agility allows him to get to low shots with an ease that many other goalkeepers his size—he's already 6'5" tall—can't match. It was on full display this past November, when the teenager made several world-class saves to preserve a goalless draw against Atalanta.
His quickness too was readily apparent this past week against Udinese, when he managed to make a fantastic double save before Pablo Armero squeezed through the covering defense to put the ball into the net with the third try.
Obviously he's far from a finished product. He throws his body at practically every ball that comes towards goal, regardless of whether or not it's going wide. With time he'll learn to track balls better, allowing him to economize his motion and get himself in even better position to get to balls that will be on target.
Perhaps his biggest weakness at the moment is with the ball at his feet. His distribution is in need of serious work.
He has a tendency to dribble the ball in his own box far too long, which has put him into needless trouble. In moments where he could have either found a teammate with a pass or hoofed the ball long to safety, he has too often been forced into rushed clearances that either give opponents throw-ins in advanced positions or, worse, put the ball right into an opponent's net.
The most egregious example of this weakness came during Milan's match with Sampdoria on November 28. The game ended in an emphatic 4-1 Milan win, but it could have been very different if Fernando had been able to bury the long shot that was presented to him by a terrible Donnarumma clearance barely two minutes into the game.
The teenager managed to scurry home and block the effort, but if he hadn't, it would have completely changed the game. It's events like that that will become less frequent as Donnarumma matures.
Great teams are built from the back. One of the biggest reasons Juventus has dominated Serie A for the last four-and-a-half years has been their defensive unit. Anchored by Gianluigi Buffon in goal, they have become one of the best, if not the best defense in Europe.
By contrast, the back line has been one of Milan's biggest weaknesses since their decline began in earnest in 2011. Donnarumma and Antonelli are both under team control for three more years, but locking them up even further isn't a bad idea.
It would behove them in particular to look into locking Donnarumma into a longer contract, both to reward his excellent play and ward off potential interest from other clubs.
There isn't a lot of immediate need for Milan in terms of extending key players. But making certain that their best players—the players they should be building their future on—stay on as long as possible is never a bad thing.
Donnarumma and Antonelli are cornerstones of the team's rebuild, and the club should ensure that they stay Milanisti for a long time.