By Brett Worthington.
AC Milan have begun the 2020/21 season in promising fashion and sit pretty at the top of the Serie A table after 17 games.
It’s been a dreadful few years for the Italian club and the decline has been staggering considering previous glories, but thanks to some great recruitment over the last few years, and the arrival of their current manager, Stefano Pioli, they look a team on the rise again.
One man who has made a big difference to Milan’s fortunes is Hakan Çalhanoğlu. He’s become a real catalyst in Milan’s attacking force.
From the start of his career, the Turkish international attracted all sorts of attention from around Europe. His impressive technique, extraordinary skills, and that well-known knuckleball technique on free kicks caught the eye of many suitors.
He was single-handily keeping Hamburg in the Bundesliga and his performances alerted fellow Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, who he joined in 2014 and spent three years there, scoring 17 goals in 79 appearances.
Çalhanoğlu continued to impress and top teams around Europe, including Arsenal and Chelsea, were keeping a close eye on him.
European giants AC Milan were the team to eventually secure his signature, in 2017. He had to adapt quickly, and instead of playing in his usual No. 10 position, he had to adjust to a wider attacking role, which took time.
He was used in various positions under managers Vincenzo Montella, Gennaro Gattuso and Marco Giampaolo. It seemed they didn’t know where to fit him in.
Fortunately, last season looked to be a massive turning point for the Italian club and Çalhanoğlu himself. The combination he and left-back Theo Hernandez turned out to be a game-changer, Çalhanoğlu range of passing and intelligence, combined with Hernandez’s speed, made Milan a real threat on the counter-attack.
This season it seems to have gone one better, Stefano Pioli looked at his recruitment more closely. As well as looking for areas to strengthen, it seems he looked at a way of getting Çalhanoğlu into his favoured position while at the same time keeping Milan balanced.
After coming into the San Siro in October 2019, Pioli has made the Turkish international an ‘everywhere player’.
Pioli looked to shake things up and adopted a 4-2-3-1 formation. With the additions of Ante Rebic and Franck Kessie, Çalhanoğlu was able to be the playmaker in his preferred No. 10 role.
This has enabled the 26-year-old to float behind striker Zlatan Ibrahimović, and the vision and quality he has, meant Milan look dangerous up top. With Zlatan up there, he’s never going to be short of a striker to feed.
Çalhanoğlu averages a pass success of 84% per game thanks to his fantastic ball control and flawless first touch, even in attacking areas. His ability to get out of tight situations is very impressive, and his awareness is up there with the best.
Last season he finished with nine goals and nine assists which, for a player comfortable in the middle of the pitch and then playing out wide, is particularly good. This season so far, he has three goals and seven assists.
This may be less than what most would expect from him, but with the change of formation, Çalhanoğlu is more involved and no longer drifting in and out of games.
He touches the ball more often, his average dribbles per game are up, and he now has the ability to control games and help Milan be dominant on the ball.
This season Çalhanoğlu is already making more passes into the final third and he’s now got the freedom to move into pockets of space and drive Milan forward on the counter-attack.
In the last couple of months, there’s been uncertainty around whether Çalhanoğlu will sign a new deal, as his current contract runs out this summer and he is now free to speak to foreign sides. Manchester United are apparently monitoring his situation and will keep an eye on what happens in the next couple of weeks.
Milan are rumoured to have offered him a deal worth $4m per year, as talks continue between the Turkish international’s agent and the club.
It’s massively important that Milan and Pioli do all they can to keep hold of Çalhanoğlu — not just because of the goals or assists he’s racked up, but because of the effect he has on the side and the quality and vision he brings to midfield.
He is in his peak years as a footballer and has worked well with Ibrahimović — contributing greatly to Milan’s rise to the top of the table.
Whether they can maintain this form for the rest of the season remains to be seen, but Çalhanoğlu will be a big part of any success they have in 2021.