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Player Focus: Donnarumma Justifying Mihajlovic Gamble

Last month, Last month AC Milan coach Sinisa Mihajlovic stunned Milan fan when he made Gigio Donnarumma the youngest player to make his debut in Serie A for 35 years. He was 16 years and eight months old. Only Paolo Maldini made his first appearance for Milan’s first team at a younger age.

Unsurprisingly there were cries of “too soon” from the conservative commentariat. Mihajlovic’s decision was counter-intuitive. When the going gets tough and you may recall at the time there were reports that he had been given two games to save his job, the received wisdom is to go with experience. He instead decided on the road less travelled, trusting that kids instead have no fear.

But that in turn led to concern for Donnarumma. Was this really the best thing for his development? To be thrown into a team in crisis? And what if he had a bad game? Might it provoke a crisis of confidence and self-doubt and jeopardise everything? Shouldn’t a player of his age be sheltered from pressure and expectation? Mihajlovic stood accused of recklessness and irresponsibility.

His gamble, if you can call it that, also threatened to create more problems than it solved. Mihajlovic was dropping Diego Lopez. He had dropped a few clangers at the beginning of the season. Beaten at his near post against Torino, he should have done better to stop a free-kick against Napoli, got criticised for being too slow to react to a deflected one away to Genoa and didn’t claim the corner that led to a goal against Palermo.

But at the end of last season Lopez had been one of the few players able to walk with their head held high. He had been among the best goalkeepers in the league along with Albano Bizzarri of Chievo and merited consideration as Milan’s MVP along with Jeremy Menez and Giacomo Bonaventura. As such, benching Lopez might be construed as a lack of respect and unsettle a player who had, until very recently, been a major difference maker.

But the stats didn’t lie. Lopez’s shot to save ratio (53.6%) is the second lowest in the league. Asked to justify his selection, Mihajlovic did so by explaining that he picked players on form, not on reputation and Donnarumma had been impressing him at Milanello and on their pre-season tour, during which he had been the hero of a shoot-out against Real Madrid, saving a penalty taken by Toni Kroos.

The writing was on the wall for Lopez, you might say, when Donnarumma got the nod in the Trofeo Berlusconi against Inter four days before Sassuolo’s visit to San Siro. It has also subsequently come to light that Milan refused to let Donnarumma join up with Italy’s Under-17s a fortnight ago for a series of qualifiers.

“Evidently it had already been decided that I would make my debut,” he disclosed to La Repubblica.

What’s also for sure is that this baptism wasn’t for the feint hearted. Milan were 14th in the league and without a win in three games. There was dissent from the owner.

“I have €150m reasons to be angry,” Silvio Berlusconi huffed, grossly inflating Milan’s summer transfer spend. There was dissent from the ultras. A series of banners were unfurled before kick-off declaring: “We won’t save anyone from this embarrassing situation,” one read.

To make matters worse, Milan were playing their bogey team Sassuolo. A Domenico Berardi poker had got Max Allegri sacked and he followed that up by putting a hat-trick past Milan on their next visit to the Mapei Stadium under Pippo Inzaghi. What would he have in store this time at San Siro? It’s fair to say Donnarumma didn’t make the same impression Gigi Buffon did on his debut for Parma against Milan all those years ago. He didn’t have as much to do, but then nor did he keep a clean sheet either. Inevitably, Berardi out-witted him with a free-kick.

Still, Milan won and besides there were mitigating circumstances for the goal conceded. Juraj Kucka had given away a needless free-kick. There were too many Milan players in the wall and Donnarumma, unsighted, allowed himself to be wrong-footed. The marks in the papers the following day ranged from 5 to 5.5. Mihajlovic thought they were unfair. “What were you doing when you were 16?” he asked the press pack.

Faith was kept and rewarded. Donnarumma’s next appearance against Chievo coincided with Milan’s first clean sheet of the season. He got a little lucky as a stoppage time equaliser was ruled out for a foul on him by Giampiero Pinzi but he had otherwise taken care of business when called upon to deny Sergio Pellissier and Alberto Paloschi.

A trip to Lazio was expected to provide his stiffest test yet. They had won each of their last eight games at the Olimpico in the league and were one away from matching a record established in the `30s when Silvio Piola was still playing. Against the odds, Milan put on their best display of the season so far and Donnarumma made his contribution. He rushed off his line and Cruyffed the ball past Miroslav Klose with Neuer-like composure and reacted well to an effort from Senad Lulic. Disappointed to be beaten by Ricardo Kishna, ultimately it mattered little.

Since changing the system to 4-3-3 and bringing Donnarumma into the team, Milan were on a three-game winning streak in the league, a run that had been beyond them all last season. Beating Atalanta last weekend would, in Mihajlovic’s opinion, signify that they had turned a corner. Instead they took a step back. That they didn’t lose was down to Donnarumma. Picking up the highest WhoScored rating for the hosts (8.01), he made four critical saves and was responsible for Milan keeping another clean sheet. Mihajlovic now looks entirely vindicated for throwing him in at the deep end and maybe it’s just as well he introduced Donnarumma when he did considering Lopez is now out injured. Only Inter’s Samir Handanovic (86.3%) has a higher shot to save ratio (84.6%).

At 16, Donnarumma is a manchild. Standing at 6’5”, he probably hasn’t stopped growing yet. His agent, Mino Raiola, knows talent when he sees it. His other clients include Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Mario Balotelli and he of course needs no encouragement to talk up his proteges. He was already doing so at the beginning of this year. La Gazzetta dello Sport asked him who Juventus should buy if they were to get €100m for Pogba. Raiola put an entire team together and Donnarumma was in goal. Steady on though. Caution is necessary here.

For instance, remember Simone Scuffet? He burst onto the scene the season before last at Udinese making his debut at an earlier age than Buffon. Atletico Madrid lined him up as Thibaut Courtois’ successor. Maturely, Scuffet turned them down in the belief that staying with Udinese would be better for his development. Alas he is now on loan at Como. It also bears remembering that other Milan players have also been destined for greatness in recent memory only to then struggle, after initial promise, to live up to expectation. You can list them: Pato, Stephan El Shaarawy, Mattia de Sciglio.

Time will tell whether Donnarumma fulfils his potential as he prepares to become the youngest player ever to represent the Italy Under-21s. Encouragingly he doesn’t seem fazed by anything.

“My composure is my strength even in the difficult moments of a game. A goalkeeper has to radiate calm. You can’t allow yourself to be uncertain. Mentally I’m older than my years. I realised that on my debut. I should have been anxious. But I wasn’t.”