There has been a resurgence of hope at AC Milan in recent months. One reason behind this is the improvement in results since Vincenzo Montella’s appointment as head coach, which has led the club into Serie A’s top three. Another reason is the exceptional performances of a number of young players.
17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, 21-year-old centre-back Alessio Romagnoli, 18-year-old midfield director Manuel Locatelli and 21-year-old forward M’Baye Niang represent the future, yet they are proving themselves now. However, amid the Rossoneri’s youthful revolution, it’s easy to forget those who didn’t quite make it.
Andrea Petagna is one such player.
The 21-year-old striker came through Milan’s Primavera just as Donnarumma and Locatelli did, but unlike his former team-mates, he was ultimately unable to assert himself upon the first team. And after a number of loan spells, he departed permanently over the summer.
Since his exit, however, Petagna has shown enough to suggest that his former employers got it wrong. He has scored three goals in six league starts with Atalanta, spiting his old club in the process.
Consequently, just months after Milan let Petagna go, it is worth reassessing the player and considering if he may be worth re-signing in the future.
International breaks can be torturous affairs for hardened football fans, long placeholders without club action and meaning. But for Milanisti, these periods are becoming more and more relevant.
Of the 29 players called into Italy national team head coach Giampiero Ventura’s squad, six represent Milan. This group was made up of the aforementioned Donnarumma and Romagnoli, as well as Mattia De Sciglio, Luca Antonelli, Giacomo Bonaventura and Gianluca Lapadula. The Rossoneri contingent was the largest from any one team.
Italy’s under-21 squad, meanwhile, was proliferated by Atalanta players. This group was composed of centre-back Mattia Caldara, flying right-back Andrea Conti, central midfielder Alberto Grassi and Petagna.
The striker won his second cap at this level last Thursday in a friendly clash with England and put in a strong showing.
Playing as the lone striker in Luigi di Biagio’s 4-3-3 system, he led the line well with good hold-up play and a willingness and ability to play with his back to goal, bringing team-mates into the game. He assisted Italy’s second goal in what finished a 3-2 defeat with a clever flick-on from a corner and played with intelligence in both the attacking and defensive phases before being substituted just after the hour mark.
Petagna’s rise to Italy’s under-21 squad was as sudden as it was unexpected.
Before this season, the 21-year-old had not scored a single goal in six Serie A appearances, three of which coming while at Milan. Having broken into the club’s first-team squad, he struggled to make an impact and was loaned out to Sampdoria for the 2013-14 campaign. However, time with the Blucerchiati failed to rejuvenate the player.
Petagna spoke about his difficulties during this period of his career in an interview with La Domenica Sportiva (h/t Calciomercato). “Perhaps I was catapulted among the big boys too soon. And I paid for that,” he reflected.
“I’ll always be grateful to Milan for what they have given me, but at 18 I wasn’t yet ready for [Sampdoria]. I had two tough years and, between a lot of wandering, few games and many injuries I found myself without any offers. I even though of quitting.”
But, instead of packing it in altogether, Petagna found his way to one of the most renowned clubs in Italy for youth development after some unproductive loan spells with Latina, Vicenza and Ascoli in Serie B.
Many Italy internationals, past and present, have at some point benefitted from the nurturing emphasis of Atalanta. Iconic libero Gaetano Scirea and Milan legend Roberto Donadoni both came through the Bergamo club’s famed youth academy, and more recently, the likes of Bonaventura and current Milan captain Riccardo Montolivo did the same.
With all of this in mind, Petagna’s decision to join La Dea in what are still the formative stages of his professional career was a wise one. And so far, the move appears to have greatly benefitted the promising attacker.
Playing under the astute tactical guidance of Gian Piero Gasperini, he has thrived as the lone striker in Atalanta’s 3-5-1-1 system, forming a particularly effective working relationship with attacking midfielder Alejandro Gomez. Gomez commented on their understanding, telling Mediaset Premium (h/t Football Italia), “I really get along with Petagna, as he is a very complete striker, and we combine well upfront.”
Forza Italian Football editor and Atalanta follower Conor Clancy believes that the tactical surroundings provided by Gasperini have been crucial to Petagna’s form, telling Bleacher Report:
He has Gomez feeding him, which works nicely, and (wing-backs) Andrea Conti and Boukary Drame get forward and hit crosses as well, so (the team does) play to Petagna’s strengths to an extent. He seems to have a good understanding with Gomez, and I think he'd be struggling without the No. 10 playing alongside him. He (Petagna) is still more effective than I expected when Atalanta are playing the ball around a bit more, and while far from the most technical player, he has done well.
Playing within Atalanta’s system with Gasperini’s ideals of high-tempo attacking isn’t something the bulky Petagna was expected to relish, but contrary to initial expectations, the overarching tactics have only accentuated the striker’s qualities.
“I find his style quite difficult to describe really,” stated Clancy. “He’s not a modern, versatile forward, but he’s not purely a traditional target man either. He is really good at holding up play and bringing others into the game, as well as winning headers and physical battles. However, he’s also keen to press defenders when he doesn’t have the ball and runs the channels often.”
Gasperini suggested that prior to joining Atalanta, Petagna was not reaching his maximum performance levels. “He has important qualities. [However] in training he was not in shape, maybe he was not used to training well,” the 58-year-old coach told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia). “Now he is in great physical condition. I’m curious to see how he evolves.”
At just 21, Petagna is beginning to fulfil his potential. And with Milan in need of attacking competition, the player may re-enter the club’s thoughts once more in the near future. Clancy isn’t quite so sure of the striker’s prospects at this stage, however.
“Petagna can definitely improve, though I’m not sure how much better he’ll get. I can see him playing for one of [Italy’s] bigger sides, but I think a middling Serie A side is probably more his level,” he stated. “With Milan’s style of play under Montella I don’t think he’d fit in…he would very much be a backup to throw on to mix things up if the game plan wasn’t working.”
And yet the statistics suggest Petagna would undoubtedly add something to Milan’s attacking options were he to return.
Compared to the Rossoneri’s top scorer and present first-choice striker Carlos Bacca, he has a much higher shot accuracy percentage, completes almost twice as many passes, creates far more chances, wins more aerial duels and beats his marker more frequently.
A talented young attacker with sound technique, good close control, combination play and immense physical gifts, Petagna, the forgotten man of Milan’s youthful resurgence, is finally adding goals to his resume. As such, the club that once let him go should consider the possibility of re-signing him.
All statistics provided by Squawka.com unless otherwise stated.