AC Milan’s results over the last few years may have underwhelmed, though there is plenty of hope for the future. This optimistic stance is mainly due to the presence of several exceptionally talented young players.
Since breaking out last season, 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma has saved the team points on multiple occasions with his stunning reflexes, and, as highlighted in this previous post, 21-year-old Alessio Romagnoli is growing into a fine all round centre-back.
Up front, the 22-year-old Suso and 21-year-old M’Baye Niang are developing into integral team players with their skill, pace and movement, while in central midfield, 18-year-old Manuel Locatelli is beginning to see more game time as Milan search for a quality regista to dictate play.
The 19-year-old right-back Davide Calabria looks set to be the next player from this exciting group to establish himself as a first-team regular.
Milan’s right-back berth has been Ignazio Abate’s for the best part of the last seven years. The 29-year-old came through the club’s youth system and, after several loan spells, bookmarked his place in the starting lineup in 2009-10.
At his best, Abate’s frightening mobility made him one of the most incisive full-backs in Europe. And, since securing his spot at Milan, he has won 22 caps for Italy at international level, helping his country to the final of the 2012 UEFA European Championship.
Last season, he recaptured something resembling his best form, but a sharp drop-off at the start of this term led to growing clamour among the club’s fan-base for his first-team berth to be reconsidered.
Coach Vincenzo Montella took heed of these calls for his team’s home game against Lazio on Tuesday night, bringing Calabria into the fold. And the youngster capitalised with a fine individual display, something that came as no surprise to all of those who followed his progress throughout 2015-16.
Having made his debut towards the end of the previous campaign, he was granted a first start by Sinisa Mihajlovic in a trip to face Udinese. Milan won that game by three goals to two, and Calabria put in a shift worthy of recognition.
Abate quickly reclaimed the right-back position; however, with the more experienced player struggling with injury, Calabria returned to the team for the Coppa Italia final defeat to Juventus. Again, the Brescia-born teenager impressed, with his strong attacking runs causing problems for the Italian champions.
Over the summer, Milan’s full-back situation became more complex with the arrival of Argentinian left-back Leonel Vangioni. Given the presence of Luca Antonelli in the left-sided role, it was assumed that Mattia De Sciglio, who is capable of operating on either flank, would compete with Abate on the right.
Perhaps as a result of this, Calabria was linked to moves away. Indeed, Gazzamercato (h/t Football Italia) reported that Cagliari had agreed terms with Milan to take the prospect on loan. But, in spite of the rumours, he has remained a Rossoneri player for the time being.
Earlier in September, he addressed his future and stated his belief that the arrival of Montella as coach was a positive both for himself and the team, telling Milan TV (h/t Football Italia):
It’s my second year in Serie A, I’m very motivated and happy to still be here and I want to play in many matches and showcase my potential to everyone.
I’ve been at Milan for many years. Before, it was harder to get into the first team.
The project Milan is implementing is a positive one, the results are starting to be seen and it’s nice that the club are focusing on their youth system. It’s the right way.
[Montella] can bring the best out of my characteristics, the coach wants a proactive game and high full-backs. I will try to do my best.
In what was just the fourth Serie A fixture of the season, Calabria was given his first competitive start under the new boss in Milan’s clash with Sampdoria at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris last Friday night. And, despite playing on the left of the back four, he didn’t look out of place.
On the back of that performance, he was handed his preferred right-back slot for the game against Lazio, where his effective play and work ethic garnered applause from the San Siro crowd.
Tactically, Calabria had an important role to play up against a Biancocelesti outfit that opted for a rough 3-5-2 shape with wing-backs. Up against Bosnia and Herzegovina international Senad Lulic, it was his responsibility to take up a notably high position in the attacking phase as a way of pushing his opponent deep into his own half.
This was done for two reasons.
One reason was to do with Milan’s attacking game, as his high position enabled Suso, operating nominally as a right-winger, to drift inside into more dangerous central areas where his movement and passing could be utilised.
This also meant Calabria could offer an outlet down the right flank, something that was used to good effect as seen in the below image where, having drawn Lulic infield, he exploited the space behind through a one-two with Juraj Kucka.
Later in the game, a similar attacking run by Calabria led to him crossing for Niang to tap into an empty net, only for the French forward to somehow contrive to not apply the finishing touch.
The other reason for his high positioning in the attacking phase was to do with nullifying potential Lazio counter-attacks; with their wing-backs often forced into such deep areas of the pitch, the away side lacked an immediate wide out-ball for fast attacking transitions.
Calabria’s penetrative forward surges and intelligence in the attacking phase was one thing, but he also had to be alert in defensive transitions. In these situations, his pace helped him in recovering either the ball or his position. An example of this is depicted below as he chases, and eventually dispossesses, a Lazio player on the counter.
And, in the established defensive phase, his positioning and decision-making was again commendable. Retaining his place within the back four to ensure a compact defensive line, he would move quickly when appropriate to apply pressure when Lazio attacked down his wing. And, once he had met his opponent, his tackling was astute.
Calabria’s diligent defensive work was reflected in his statistics as, according to WhoScored.com, he won more tackles (five) than any of his team-mates; the closest to him in this respect was Romagnoli with three. He also made one interception and one clearance.
On the ball, his 38 passes were more than any of his defensive colleagues could offer, and one of them was a key pass, though his 68.4 per cent accuracy rate will have to be worked on if he is to flourish within Montella’s patient passing philosophy.
Speaking to MilanNews (h/t Football Italia) after the game, Calabria’s agent Gianni Vitali praised his client while remaining cognisant of the need for his continued development, saying:
I expected a game like that, because he’s a totally reliable player. He has character and personality as well as technical qualities. I’m always confident of a positive performance on his part. After one year his position has totally changed and that’s thanks to those who believed in him. That said, Calabria has to grow a lot more but I believe he can become a high-level full-back.
Milan are embarking on an intriguing new era, and many of the club’s old guard have already fallen by the wayside. Last season, 34-year-old goalkeeper Diego Lopez made way for Donnarumma, while this term the 30-year-old Keisuke Honda has been ousted in favour of Suso.
With his recent form, Calabria has shown he is ready to take the right-back position from Abate.