Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Youth Factor


When Mihajlovic gave the start to a 17 year old keeper, all of Serie A changed. Milan put faith in a lot of younger players, including spending so much for a young defender called Romagnoli and starting him ahead of older players, too. And when the deal for the club kept falling through and we couldn’t buy players, more young players moved up to the first team, too, to fill the voids. Other Serie A teams, inspired by Milan’s success with youth, have started more young players as well, with the results often being tremendously successful. Thus, Serie A’s average age of players is dropping, and it’s about time. However, now that Milan are compulsively buying new players, what will happen to the youth factor?

Two of the most promising young keepers ever in one club

Donnarumma is expected to sign his contract renewal shortly, in between his senior national team duty and his tour of duty with the U21 national team for their Euros run. Yesterday we saw Plizzari save back to back penalties to help Italy’s U20 team win their third place match, the first time the Italian U20 team has medaled in a World Cup. What a wonderful problem to have two incredible young keepers, but Milan have a lot of other young talent right now as well. We discussed this a little bit on the recent podcast, that we were going to have some tough choices ahead of us. With new, more expensive, and most importantly more experienced players, what will happen to the young players who have been playing in the first team?

One option which has always been common is to loan them out to other clubs so they theoretically get more playing time. However, there is never any guarantee that they will in fact get first team experience. For example, in January, we loaned our keeper Gabriel to Cagliari with the hope that he would get some playing time. Cagliari were having a bit of tough luck with their keepers, and to help, we even took their ostracized older keeper Storari on loan. But Gabriel only played three matches, where he conceded seven goals. Not ideal experience for a 24 year old. And now, Storari actually got a one year extension on his contract for Milan, whereas after multiple unsuccessful loans and sitting behind two younger, more talented keepers, Gabriel’s future is still very much up in the air. Loans definitely don’t always work out.

Age before beauty... or youth, for that matter

So many young players have left the Milan youth sector to be loaned, only to never come back. The most painfully obvious example would be the current Bundesliga top scorer, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. People say that our youth sector was neglected, that we had no talent in it, and that’s why all the players went out on loan. But this singular example alone begs that question. So Milan sold Aubameyang for around €1m, and now the new Milan management are looking at anywhere from €70-100m to try to bring him back. After just six years since selling him. That’s not inflation, people, that’s just very poor judgment.

So will this new management have better judgment? After seeing the likes of Alberto Paloschi, Andrea Petagna, Bryan Cristante, Ricardo Saponara, Simone Verdi, Hachim Mastour, Christian Maldini, Luca Vido and so many more go out on loan but not return to Milan, it’s difficult to trust that sending our current young players out on loan would ever see them return and wear the Milan shirt again. And with players like Cutrone, Zanellato, Zucchetti, La Ferrara, Hamadi, Gabbia, and more coming up through our youth system, will they have a spot in the first team? Cutrone was promoted at the end of the season and got five minutes with the first team. But will there be any space for him, or should he risk being sent on loan in the hopes of more playing time?

Who knew he was so talented besides the accolades, the scouts, and everyone who watched him play?

Keeping the youth in the first team is dangerous because they may not play at all, which completely stunts their development. However on the other side of the argument, they get to train with more experienced players, be on the bench to watch the first team play, and hopefully glean wisdom from the older players as well as learn what it means to wear the crest. And with Milan in three competitions this year, they at least stand a chance to play in some Coppa Italia matches, or perhaps fill in if there are injuries or players need to be rested. But it is quite the risk. And Montella doesn’t have a solid track record of playing youth players at Milan unless he had no one else. Even then, in the case of both Calabria and Locatelli, he went sideways for a more experienced but possibly less talented player instead.

Mirabelli and Montella and staff have some very tough decisions to make. Decisions which can literally make or break young players’ careers. And decisions which can determine the results of our season as well, in addition to future seasons. To trust in youth is a gamble. To loan youth players out in hopes of playing time is a gamble. To simply sell them off is a gamble, one that may net the team €1m now but cost them upwards of €70m later. All Serie A clubs will have to look at their rosters and their aspirations and see if they are willing to continue to gamble on their young players.

 
What does the future hold for this talented young bomber?

I am not sure if these decisions will be made as quickly as the Milan purchases are being made. For one, we likely need to know exactly what our squad looks like outside of young players first. Then, knowing what kinds of spots we have available, they will have to make the best decisions they can for our talented youth. For players like Locatelli and Calabria, to be cast aside after saving Milan’s proverbial life this season would be a huge shame. But so would sitting on the bench all year watching more experienced players. I don’t envy these very tough decisions. I only hope that with the new management, we don’t completely lose sight of the youth factor.


This post inspired by the music of Sonic Youth

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