On August 5, it became apparent that AC Milan were to be taken over by a Chinese consortium. After months of negotiations and consequently staggered transfer activity, the breakthrough ushered in a sense of relief. But buried beneath this historic news was the arrival of a new player.
Gustavo Gomez agreed terms to become a Rossoneri player on the same day news of the club’s imminent takeover filtered through. His signature, quite understandably, flew under the radar.
A short statement on Milan’s official website confirmed the deal, saying:
AC Milan have met a great professional with a strong passion for football and want to warmly welcome him. The Paraguayan, defending champion in Argentina with Club Atletico Lanus, Gustavo Gomez has signed a contract with our club until 30th June 2021. Best of luck Gustavo!
The player announced himself to Milanisti in an interview with the club website (h/t Football Italia), saying:
I am very happy to be able to play for a club like Milan. Over the coming weeks I will put myself at the coach’s disposal. I am happy to have arrived in Serie A. ... Before anything else, I want to start playing, then I want to win a league with this team. For me it really is an honour to wear this shirt. It was a very fast deal, three days. I want to thank Lanus who understood that this was a very important step in my career.
The overwhelming response to Gomez’s arrival centred on establishing exactly who he was. Having spent his entire career in South America, little was known about the player. However, it soon became apparent that the Rossoneri had signed a promising young talent.
The 23-year-old centre-back began his career in his native Paraguay with Libertad, where he made 57 appearances, having broken through the club’s youth academy. And after impressing domestically, he captained his country during the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
One year later, he left for Argentina, signing for Lanus for a fee of £1.91 million per Transfermarkt. And after forming an effective central-defensive partnership with Diego Braghieri, he would help Lanus to only their second league title this year.
Having established himself at the senior international level, he followed up his championship success in May by starting all three of his country’s games at this summer’s Copa America Centenario. This preceded his move to Milan, where he became the first Paraguayan to ever represent the club.
The centre of defence has been a problem area for the Rossoneri in recent years. Last summer, the signature of 21-year-old Alessio Romagnoli brought a touch of class to the back line, but apart from the former Roma youngster, there has been an evident lack of quality in that department.
In 2015-16, Milan rotated between ageing 34-year-old Brazilian veteran Alex and the cumbersome Cristian Zapata on the right side of central defence. The former moved on this summer, but the latter remains alongside a generally uninspiring cast.
The Colombian is joined by his compatriot Jherson Vergara, a 22-year-old who spent last season on loan in Serie B with Livorno.
Rodrigo Ely is of the same age and calibre. After returning from Avellino in the second tier last year, he struggled to get to grips with the demands of Serie A, scoring an own goal and receiving a red card in just three league outings. The 30-year-old Gabriel Paletta, capped three times by Italy, brings experience to the table but lacks pace and technique.
With such an underwhelming pool of centre-backs, it is not unreasonable to suggest Gomez might start this campaign as Romagnoli’s centre-back partner in the 4-3-3 formation favoured by new head coach Vincenzo Montella.
The player, who joined Milan for a fee of £7.23 million according to Transfermarkt, comes highly rated.
Paraguayan football writer Ralph Hannah told Bleacher Report that the Rossoneri’s latest addition is, “Defensively very good and mature for 23," adding, "Naturally [it] will take a bit of time to adjust [to playing in Serie A].”
When the transfer was completed, Lanus president Nicolas Russo was also quick to praise the centre-back, telling Tuttomercatoweb (h/t Football Italia):
Without a shadow of a doubt he is ready for this step up. Gustavo is an extraordinary player, very strong and certainly ready to face this new adventure. His greatest strengths are in the air and in challenges. Gomez has a winning mentality and will be Milan’s first choice defender for the next 10 years. ... I can confirm that Milan, Fiorentina and several Premier League clubs wanted him.
And statistics back up the complimentary words.
For his displays in the Argentinian Primera Division in 2016, Gomez earned an average rating of 7.36 from WhoScored.com, making him the third-highest-rated player in Lanus’ first team. He also completed more interceptions and passes than any of his team-mates, won more headers and cleared his lines with greater frequency.
While the 6’1” defender has garnered a reputation as a rugged and uncompromising physical ball-winner, his statistics also give the impression of someone with an acute understanding of the game as well as strong technical qualities. These traits will help him settle in at Milan, given the new coach’s specific stylistic principles.
Montella has successfully set about implementing his favoured brand of football since his appointment earlier this summer. Already the Rossoneri look like a team in his own image, building possession patiently from the back through short passes and combinations.
Gomez will have to get used to this style of play if he is to assert himself upon the first team, though he already seems to have adjusted well on the basis of his substitute appearance in Milan’s most recent friendly against Freiburg.
Coming on for the final 20 minutes, he took up the right-sided centre-back berth and immediately won a header. He then proceeded to play several accurate forward vertical passes into the feet of more advanced team-mates.
While his outing was brief, he showed a good level of composure and a positive outlook in possession. He always looked to pick out a progressive pass, combined well with those around him to create space and occasionally pushed on with the ball at feet, showing his athleticism in the process.
Gomez has the strength and mobility to complement the more refined Romagnoli, who is known for his precise passing range and sophisticated left foot. But his Freiburg appearance also offered further proof of the technical polish he reportedly showed during his time with Lanus. Per Opta Paolo, he attempted more passes than any other defender in the Argentinian Primera Division last term.
After his first friendly performance for the club, the 23-year-old told Milan TV (h/t Football Italia), “I am happy with my debut and the victory. I am settling in well and day by day am getting better to ensure I’m ready when called upon. If the coach wants, I will be at his disposal for the match against Torino.”
With Milan’s 2016-17 Serie A campaign beginning this Sunday, Gomez may well be selected to start alongside Romagnoli in central defence. As it stands, he is unknown to most of European football, but that could soon change.