It’s not easy being 16. The transition from child to adult isn’t always a smooth one, particularly when important physical and mental development comes at the same time as an important period in formal education. And what about those hormones, eh? Oh, and playing for Milan.
One 16-year-old, Gianluigi Donnarumma, was under even more pressure than most of his contemporaries at the weekend. The youngster from the Bay of Naples just happens to be an aspiring footballer, and he was handed the first big start of his nascent career on Sunday.
This, though, was not any old game: rather than debuting for a local side in a fierce derby or an academy team in a cup final, Donnarumma found himself playing for Milan’s first team in front of 37,500 people at San Siro in an encounter that was labelled make-or-break for manager Sinisa Mihajlovic’s future.
The teenager would also be playing for the 18-time Italian champions in goal, a position the carefree abandon associated with young wingers and centre-forwards isn’t so welcome.
Some questionable positioning and footwork for Domenico Berardi’s equalising free-kick aside, Donnarumma generally acquitted himself well as a nervy Milan narrowly overcame a Sassuolo side forced to play with 10 men for over an hour. Mihajlovic – who had included the 6ft 5in custodian in his starting XI because of Diego Lopez’s poor form – praised Donnarumma after the 2-1 win, telling the press that he “is a good player [who] did well”.
It is, in many ways, a fantastic story. Donnarumma is the youngest keeper to have ever started a match in Serie A, and the second-youngest player to have pulled on Milan’s famous red-and-black stripes in the top flight. Lopez, despite presumably feeling piqued at his displacement by a kid, labelled Donnarumma the ‘future of Milan’ after his promising debut.
On the other hand, however, the episode serves as another example of how far Milan have fallen. Donnarumma is a prodigiously talented prospect who could go on to develop into the next Buffon or Zoff, but throwing him into a must-win league game smacked of desperation from a club stuck in a malaise that has gone on far too long.
Milan’s problems can be traced back to the summer of 2012, when president Silvio Berlusconi decided he would try to cut costs and move the club towards self-sustainability. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were sold to PSG for a combined €63 million, with long-serving icons Alessandro Nesta, Pippo Inzaghi, Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf also departing Italy’s second city. Given such losses, Milan did extremely well to finish in the top three and qualify for the Champions League the following season, but it was already clear that the approach from the boardroom – while arguably necessary – was having a detrimental effect on the club’s chances of on-field success.
The wheels well and truly came off a year later. Max Allegri was sacked in January when Milan languished in 10th, with Seedorf chosen as his replacement despite the then-37-year-old never having managed before. A gradual improvement brought an eighth-place finish, but the former Netherlands international was sacked at the end of the campaign and replaced by Inzaghi, another former player lacking in coaching experience.
The appointment of ex-Fiorentina and Sampdoria boss Mihajlovic this summer – Inzaghi was dismissed after overseeing another mid-table finish in 2014/15 – was a step in the right direction: the Serbian divides opinion on the peninsula, but he at least arrived in Milan with six seasons in management under his belt.
There was also considerable investment sunk into the squad, with €86 million spent on eight new additions including Carlos Bacca, Luiz Adriano, Juraj Kucka, Andrea Bertolacci, Alessio Romagnoli and the return of Mario Balotelli on a season-long loan from Liverpool. A return to the Champions League was cited as a realistic objective, particularly as Milan – unlike fellow top-three contenders Juventus, Roma, Fiorentina, Napoli and Lazio – don’t have the distraction of European competition.
Doom and gloom
The opening two months of the campaign, though, suggest that Milan remain some way short of fulfilling that ambition: the Rossoneri have already been beaten by Inter, Fiorentina, Napoli and Genoa, with their four victories against Empoli, Palermo, Udinese and Sassuolo all coming by narrow one-goal margins.
Former Sevilla striker Bacca has started well, scoring five goals in nine league appearances, and Giacomo Bonaventura always manages to demonstrate his quality and intelligence no matter where he is deployed on the pitch. Balotelli has so far kept his head down and shown flashes of his exceptional talent, while Davide Calabria, Riccardo Montolivo and Bertolacci have also put in some commendable displays.
Unfortunately for Milan supporters, such positives increasingly resemble silver linings in an otherwise gloomy and overcast sky.
Only lowly Carpi, rooted to the bottom of the table in their first-ever top-flight campaign, have conceded more goals than Milan this season. The midfield appears functional and devoid of invention, Mattia De Sciglio and M’Baye Niang haven’t really developed as the club would have hoped, and gifted players such as Keisuke Honda and Alessio Cerci continue to disappoint.
Milan don’t look quite as bad as they did under Inzaghi last term; unlike during the former striker’s ill-fated year in charge, the Rossoneri at least have a clear plan and evolving identity under Mihajlovic.
On the flip side, notable problems remain and, while dismissing the manager would be premature in the extreme, Milan are still light-years away from returning to the days when they would regularly compete for the major domestic and European honours.
Donnarumma, meanwhile, is expected to be given his second senior start on Wednesday when Milan host Chievo in a midweek round of Serie A fixtures. It may not be easy being 16, but at least this teenager will have an interesting story to tell his classmates on Thursday when they ask what he did last night.
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