Several years ago, Mattia De Sciglio was widely viewed as one of Italian football’s brightest prospects. Assured, intelligent and assertive, the AC Milan full-back had the traits of a future star. Now, however, he resides mostly on the Rossoneri bench, threatening not to fulfil his immense early promise.
Having made his debut at just 18 years of age as a substitute in a Champions League group-stage match against Viktoria Plzen at the San Siro in September 2011, he would go on to establish himself as a frequent starter for the club within the year.
The 2012-13 season proved to be De Sciglio’s breakout campaign. Then-head coach Massimiliano Allegri handed him the No. 2 shirt, something which was not lost on the player.
"Next season I will be wearing a very important shirt that in the past was worn by some great players like (Mauro) Tassotti and Cafu,” De Sciglio told Milan Channel, per the club’s official website. “I hope I live up to their standards.”
He didn’t disappoint.
Playing mostly as a left-back, De Sciglio showcased more than just the basic requisite elements of modern full-back play, such as a good engine and work rate. He also played with advanced tactical acuity, reading of the game, timing in the tackle and sound defensive positioning, combined with composure on the ball and quality dribbling and crossing in his forays forward.
His ability to contribute effectively in both the defensive and attacking phases of the game were impressive and, perhaps inevitably, led to comparisons with footballing greats of Milan’s past. He was considered to be the heir to Paolo Maldini, a comparison the icon himself saw, telling press: “As for the current squad, I think De Sciglio can follow a similar path to me at Milan. Things aren’t going too well at the moment, but he can have a career like mine.”
Now at 23 years old, however, such grandiose early hype appears unjustified.
De Sciglio hasn’t yet been able to push on from his excellent maiden campaign and, over the course of the last three years, has been edged out of the first team. As of the present, it seems likely he may never quite live up to those early expectations, and there are a number of reasons why.
One is that the player’s second term with Milan was disrupted by a succession of injuries. Per Transfermarkt.co.uk, he was sidelined for 21 games in 2013-14 because of a series of knee and ankle problems. Then, the following season, he was absent for 18 games due to heel and ankle issues.
With prolonged spells on the treatment table, time spent recovering and rust when back playing, De Sciglio understandably lost some form and also, seemingly, a great deal of confidence. Even though his difficulties maintaining full fitness are now behind him, he doesn’t play with the same zeal.
This is something the player has admitted to, though he has sought to combat it with the help of a professional, telling Gazzetta World: “Mentally I started working with [personal coach] Stefano Tirelli, and he helped me find joy and confidence in life because I had struggled before that.”
Beyond his own physical and mental strength, De Sciglio hasn’t been helped by outside factors, namely the succession of coaches at Milan of late.
Allegri, who gave the youngster his senior bow, was fired in January 2014. His replacement, Clarence Seedorf, lasted until June of that year before being dismissed in favour of Filippo Inzaghi. One year later, Sinisa Mihajlovic was appointed, though he was sacked before the completion of his first season in charge. In his place came Cristian Brocchi.
This revolving door of head coaches has destabilised the club, creating a fractious culture where continuity is disregarded and the short term is constantly prioritised. It hasn’t been a productive environment for players, especially for those—such as De Sciglio—who are at an important stage in their development.
Each coach has brought with them their own methodology, including basic shape, playing style, tactical schemes and set-piece routines, each requiring adaptation for the existing squad. As a consequence, the team has lacked a defined identity in recent seasons.
This instability doesn’t always lead to negative results, however. Premier League outfit Watford have shown that it is possible to grow in spite of consistent change in the dugout, achieving promotion and survival under different managers. Unfortunately, in this respect, Milan’s issues haven’t just been quantitative in nature—they've been qualitative, too.
Three of the four coaches who have been appointed since Allegri moved on have had no prior first-team experience. Inzaghi and Brocchi were previously in charge of the club’s Primavera, while Seedorf had no training or managerial pedigree whatsoever.
Young players can benefit greatly from the education of a wise tactician and the motivation of an inspirational leader, but Milan’s youth, De Sciglio included, have had no such opportunity in the recent past.
Interrupted by injuries and without an experienced coach to guide him, the full-back has been shunted to the right or left depending on the prevailing circumstances, operating in multiple different formations without consistent use.
De Sciglio showed glimpses of quality towards the end of last season, especially in the Coppa Italia final defeat to Juventus, where he evidenced the sort of hard-running, bold, attacking approach that characterised his breakthrough in 2012-13. And, at 23, he still has plenty of time to recapture top form.
He has been linked to other clubs such as Juventus and Bayern Munich, per Calciomercato.com, though recently his agent Donato Orgnoni told Tuttomercatoweb (h/t Football Italia), that his client would be staying put for the time being, saying:
Milan’s difficulties didn’t help any of the lads, not just Mattia. A move away? Rumours are always nice … At the same time we’re cautious, and Mattia just has to get his head down and work, like he’s done in recent months. Mattia has a contract with Milan and, despite all the problems, he’ll stay at Milan.
While the possibility of a transfer could suit both player and club, it appears unlikely based on Orgnoni’s comments. Thus, Milan must look to maximise De Sciglio’s talents.
He sits behind Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonelli in the Rossoneri’s full-back pecking order, though Antonio Conte regularly calls him up to the Italy squad. Indeed, he made this summer’s UEFA European Championship squad, even coming off the substitutes' bench in the opening-day win over Belgium.
That the Azzurri use De Sciglio so frequently contradicts any notion that he lacks the necessary quality to play for Milan, especially when his club team-mates are unusually ignored by the national team.
And the player enjoys training with Italy, seemingly benefitting from the advice of a respected coach, something he discussed in a recent press conference, saying:
Conte has the ability to make you memorise movements and tactics very quickly. So if you are having a moment of difficulty on the field, you know that one of your teammates will be in that position. Of course the coach also transmits the grit and determination he is famous for, so all these things help you find your self-confidence game by game.
It is no coincidence that De Sciglio’s decline has mirrored that of Milan’s in the last three years.
In his first full season in the first team he was trained by Massimiliano Allegri, who has since led Juventus to successive Scudetti, and the club finished third in Serie A. Since then, the Rossoneri have slipped to eighth-, 10th- and seventh-place finishes under a succession of underqualified coaches.
Like the team he plays for, De Sciglio needs greater stability, tactical identity and continuity if he is to stand a chance of progressing. He may never prove the heir to Maldini, but if Milan can provide the right conditions, he can be the best version of himself.