AC Milan can call upon one of the strongest crops of young talent in European football today. As a result, while the club’s present is promising thanks to head coach Vincenzo Montella leading his charges into Serie A’s top three, the long-term future is even more exciting.
Last month saw the Rossoneri win four of their five league games, with just one defeat coming away to Genoa. And this positive form was propelled by the performances of the team’s younger talents.
It’s becoming increasingly evident that Milan’s progress is dependent on the likes of 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, 21-year-old centre-back Alessio Romagnoli and 18-year-old midfielder Manuel Locatelli. In this vein, here Bleacher Report assesses the progress of Milan’s best prospects throughout October.
It’s worth noting that, in order to qualify, players must be aged 23 or under.
Best moment: Manuel Locatelli’s goal against Sassuolo
Milan were chasing the game when Locatelli was introduced at the hour mark against Sassuolo on Oct. 2. Captain Riccardo Montolivo had put in an ineffective performance as Montella’s men went 3-1 down at the San Siro, and his teenage replacement was brought on to provide some energy in midfield.
Nine minutes on, Milan had one back. A bustling run into the opposition’s 18-yard-box by M’Baye Niang drew a foul, and a penalty was awarded. Carlos Bacca stepped up and coolly slotted home to drag his team back into the game.
Four minutes later and with Sassuolo rocking, the Rossoneri won a corner kick as they pushed relentlessly for an equaliser. Giacomo Bonaventura curled in an in-swinging cross but could only find a Neroverdi head. The ball bobbled harmlessly away from the penalty area and the attack seemed to have petered out. And then Locatelli arrived.
Charging forward, the teenager had one thing on his mind. Without stopping to think or control the ball, he hurtled a sweet left-footed strike into the top-left corner of the away team’s net. He had his first goal for Milan, and it couldn’t have been more important or aesthetically pleasing.
Cue chaotic scenes of celebration as Locatelli wheeled away, frantically trying to come to terms with what had just taken place. The San Siro roared at a volume that has rarely been matched in recent times, and the youngster struggled to take it all in as he was mobbed by ecstatic team-mates.
Best individual performance: Manuel Locatelli against Juventus
Montolivo’s injury during Italy’s 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification game against Spain ensured the 31-year-old would be out of action for around six months. Fortunately for Milan, they had recently found someone to fill the void left by the captain’s absence.
Locatelli’s goal against Sassuolo had catapulted him into the consciousness of football fans beyond Italy. But, following Montolivo’s injury, he needed to prove he was more than a highlight-reel performer capable of scoring the occasional wonder goal.
His first competitive start under Montella’s auspices came away to Chievo in a convincing 3-1 win. But it wasn’t until the visit of Juventus to the San Siro that he would truly prove himself ready for regular first-team football.
Up against an experienced midfield trio of Germany international Sami Khedira, classy creator Miralem Pjanic and Brazilian regista Hernanes, Locatelli got off to a nervy start. Short of space, two of his lock-picking through-balls were cut out as he gave up possession inside his own half.
But, in spite of this difficult beginning, it was clear to see that the correct intentions were there. Milan’s young playmaker was always looking to play vertically through the pressure, attempting to penetrate the Bianconeri’s midfield line and get the ball into more dangerous areas when possible.
Gradually, Locatelli settled and began to find his team-mates with greater accuracy. He also proved astute defensively, making three tackles, one interception and one clearance. And, to top it all off, he scored a historic winning goal.
Just as he had done against Sassuolo, he eschewed the easy option by beating Gianluigi Buffon from just inside the Juventus penalty area with a right-footed thunderbolt that clipped the underside of the crossbar before bouncing down over the line. That proved to be the only goal as Milan secured a first league victory over the reigning Italian champions since 2012.
Locatelli’s match-winning strike may have grabbed the headlines, but his composure on the ball and positioning off of it were just as worthy of attention in what was a fine all-round display.
Most improved player: Manuel Locatelli
Before October, Locatelli’s only start for Milan came at the end of last season in a 3-1 home defeat against Roma. On that day he looked out of place, a boy among men, unable to deal with the pace and movement of top-level football.
But, having been eased in by a number of substitute appearances, he was given another chance to stake his claim last month following Montolivo’s injury and didn’t look back.
Locatelli’s goals against Sassuolo and Juventus were momentous instances in the formative stages of a bright talent’s career. But the 18-year-old also stood out for his grasp of Montella’s possession game.
His awareness in the build-up, constantly correcting his positioning to offer a pass to the centre-backs, as well as his ability and willingness to play vertically, were suggestive of a player more than comfortable in the overarching tactical environs.
And his reading of the game seems to be improving, too, something evidence by the fact that, according to Squawka.com, only two Milan players have made more tackles per 90 minutes than Locatelli this season.
Fans’ choice: Gianluigi Donnarumma
Donnarumma just edged out Locatelli in the race to be Milan’s best young player in October, as voted for by the fans.
The goalkeeper put in a strong showing away to Chievo and was imperious in the win over Pescara, making some important fingertip saves to keep his side in the lead.
However, his finest moment in October undoubtedly came in the 1-0 victory over Juventus. In what proved to be the last action of the game, he denied an effort by Khedira that was set to whistle in with a stunning reflex save.
One to watch in November: Mario Pasalic
Milan began November with a trip to Palermo at the Stadio Renzo Barbera. Without Niang due to injury, Bonaventura was shuffled to the left wing of Montella’s 4-3-3 in the Frenchman’s place. This freed up room in the centre of midfield for Mario Pasalic to make his first start since joining on loan from Chelsea.
The 21-year-old Croatian, who was keen to build on his substitute appearance against Pescara at the end of last month, played adequately against Palermo, making three tackles and achieving an impressive pass completion rate of 96 per cent.
With the first Derby della Madonnina against Inter Milan coming up on Nov. 20, Milan may wish to pack the midfield in order to prevent space for Joao Mario and Ever Banega to move and pass in. Pasalic, having made his bow in the starting lineup, could help in this respect.
Who needs to improve: M’Baye Niang
Niang has established himself as a key player within Milan’s attacking trident since Montella arrived. From the left wing his skill in one-on-one situations, raw athleticism, audacity and work ethic have given opponents headaches. But improvements could be made.
In October, the 21-year-old scored just one goal in five appearances. Thus it is arguable that, while his general play in and around the final third is good, his end product could be better.
All statistics provided by WhoScored.com unless otherwise stated.