Young Players Suggest the Future Is Bright for AC Milan

Blair Newman@@TheBlairNewmanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2016

AC Milan's Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma celebrates during the Italian Serie A football match between AC Milan and Inter Milan at San Siro Stadium in Milan on January 31, 2016. / AFP / OLIVIER MORIN        (Photo credit should read OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images)
OLIVIER MORIN/Getty Images

With a trophy cabinet illuminated by domestic and continental trophies aplenty, it’s understandable that AC Milan is a football club that craves results.

The Rossoneri’s history is something to be immensely proud of, though in periods of little success, it can hang over the incumbent coach’s head like a dark cloud. This has been particularly evident of late.

It is almost half a decade since the club last picked up some silverware and the patience of owner Silvio Berlusconi and chief executive Adriano Galliani has become notoriously quick to wear thin. As a result, a procession of coaches have come and gone during the last five years in a bid to revive results.

Sinisa Mihajlovic was the latest man charged with improving the situation, though his failure to do so within the first three months of this season saw speculation grow surrounding his future at Milan. However, we are now well into the second half of the campaign, and he is still in the dugout.

Clearly, Mihajlovic has done enough in the short-term to ensure his job for the time being. But it is his focus on the longer term that has impressed more than anything else.

While he has a multitude of tactical ideas and is—judging by the improved performances of several players during his tenure—a strong man-manager, Mihajlovic’s dedication to youth development is unique given the tense results-based atmosphere of life at Milan.

He has not been shy in promoting youngsters and giving them game time. It is thanks to this refreshing attitude that the Rossoneri have one of the finest crops of young talent in the country, many of whom are poised for big things or, at the very least, first-team football in the near future.

When experienced Spanish goalkeeper Diego Lopez, who was one of Milan’s best players last season, looked shaky at the start of this term, Mihajlovic swiftly dropped him in favour of 16-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Donnarumma has made some crucial saves since becoming first-choice goalkeeper.
Donnarumma has made some crucial saves since becoming first-choice goalkeeper.OLIVIER MORIN/Getty Images

Some saw the call as a gimmick; a deflection of attention from a coach under pressure. With hindsight, it was a bold but intelligent call.

Donnarumma has adapted to regular top-level football with a startling degree of maturity. His confidence is growing by the match, and he has made some vital saves to win points for Milan. Indeed, according to Squawka.com’s statistics, he has been the eighth-best goalkeeper in Serie A this season, despite the fact he has made far less appearances than many of his peers.

And he isn’t the only youngster to have benefitted from Mihajlovic’s guiding hand.

M’Baye Niang has developed into a first-team regular having spent the first half of 2015 on loan with Genoa. The French forward has already scored more goals this season than in any previous campaign and credits Mihajlovic for his improvement.

“I have an excellent rapport with the coach,” the 21-year-old told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia). “He makes me work hard and we got on from the first day we met. He can help me in many different ways.”

While Niang is building a strong strike partnership with Carlos Bacca, another 21-year-old is leading Milan’s defensive line: Alessio Romagnoli. Having worked with Mihajlovic last season while on loan at Sampdoria, the centre-back has become a more authoritative force since joining Milan.

Mihajlovic has also afforded opportunities to 19-year-old right-back Davide Calabria and 22-year-old centre-back Rodrigo Ely. While the latter did not perform well in his outings, his appearance at least highlighted the coach’s commitment to youth.

Calabria is one of many youngsters to have benefited from Mihajlovic's youth policy.
Calabria is one of many youngsters to have benefited from Mihajlovic's youth policy.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

The only youngster who has struggled to impose himself upon the first-team is Jose Mauri. The 19-year-old signed on a free transfer after leaving financially doomed Parma at the end of last season but has yet to make a single Serie A appearance for Milan.

It was reported that he could have gone out on loan, though Mihajlovic told Milan Channel (h/t Football Italia): “I’m happy if he stays, because he’s…improving and he could even play in the upcoming games.”

Precedent suggest, when the time is right, Mauri will no doubt get more involvement.

The latest player to make the leap from youth team to first team is Manuel Locatelli, an 18-year-old midfielder and former primavera vice-captain who was brought into Mihajlovic’s squad to replace the outgoing Antonio Nocerino.

The coach's inclusive approach to youth is a world apart from what Milanisti had become used to in recent years, with the club previously opting to sell rather than develop home-grown players. That he has managed to combine this long-term emphasis with a short-term improvement in results is particularly commendable.

Milan may not yet be where they want to be as a club but, with Mihajlovic laying down important building blocks for the future, they are undoubtedly headed in the right direction.

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