The Ballon d’Or nominations were announced this week and with it, the Kopa Trophy for the best U21 player. Two names familiar to any European football fan who feature on the prestigious list are Gianluigi Donnarumma and Patrick Cutrone. However, the casual viewer of Serie A may not know that it is, in fact, a trio of youngsters who graduated from the AC Milan academy who have been lighting up the San Siro this season and the last. The third name which should be held just as high as the two Kopa nominees, is Davide Calabria.
Slow and Steady
At 21, Calabria’s rise to first-team regular for the Rossoneri has been far from meteoric. He made his debut back in the 2014/15 season at 19 and was promoted fully to the first team the next season. He has been eased in since, with his ‘breakout season’ coming in 2017/18, as he made 21 appearances.
His slow rise to first-choice right-back has served him well. For such a young player he plays with exceptional maturity and is cultured on the ball, which also is helped by his younger years as a midfielder.
His maturity is seen in the strengths of his game. He is incredibly calm under pressure, keeps his focus for every minute of the game and has a reading of the game which goes far beyond his tender years.
As a 1-on-1 defender, there are few better full-backs in the league. His ability to concentrate and time his tackles is next level compared to even his far more senior team-mates.
A Cool Head in a Turbulent Time
That’s not to say he’s error-proof. Nothing can replace experience and on occasion, he can be caught out of position and has to rely on his turn of pace and tackling ability to get him out of trouble. This example against Lazio is a perfect case of confusion across a youthful Milan back-four, as Calabria gets caught out and has to recover.
Another criticism of Davide Calabria’s game last year was his attacking ability or lack of. He has never been shy of getting forward, but when he is in the final third his final ball, shooting or positioning, in general, hasn’t been the best.
But, since the turn of the year, he has improved this dramatically. His two senior goals for AC Milan have been beautiful to watch. His first against Roma was a lovely one-two with Nikola Kalinic of all people, breaking the offside trap with a lovely run, before a deft chip over Alisson Becker. His second was a low-driven shot against Napoli, a clinical finish for a full-back who couldn’t score if his life depended on it little more than a year ago.
Calabria’s goal pic.twitter.com/qHMVUcdIJb
— #FreeLocatelli (@semo33) 25 February 2018
— Milan Eye (@MilanEye) 25 August 2018
Whatever his flaws are off the ball, on the ball Davide Calabria has become an influential force for this AC Milan side. His last game, against Olympiakos in the Europa League, he was pivotal in defence as well as attack.
As we can see, the majority of the play for Milan came down the right-hand side, where the combination of Calabria and Suso caused absolute chaos for the Greek side. Suso provided the attacking threat as always, but Calabria’s advanced position in the heat map shows how often he bombed forward, always eager to overlap and put in a cross. A statistic that backs up how important he was in this game is that out of the 700 touches AC Milan had in the match, Calabria had 103 of them.
What this shows is that Calabria has the versatility and the discipline to vary his style of play from match-to-match. Against tougher opposition, he is the definition of a full-back, staying in his own half and deal with any threats with his solid defensive skills.
Against somewhat lesser teams, such as Olympiakos, he can be a wing-back and make run after run which also creates space and has been crucial in allowing Suso to have such a superb start to the season.
With AC Milan having a turbulent season (yet again) so far, the best context for Calabria’s performances is against his own team-mates. On the opposite side, Ricardo Rodriguez is starting left-back, with the 26-year-old having played in the Bundesliga as well as Serie A for Wolfsburg.
So far this season, Calabria has managed 3.6 tackles per game compared to Rodriguez’s 1.9. Calabria has also averaged more interceptions (1.3 to 0.7) and fewer fouls per game (0.9 to 1.2).
Among established company, the young gun still comes out on top.
At 21, Davide Calabria is far from the finished article, however, he has all the makings of an all-round player and the potential to be the best full-back in the league. What plays in his favour is that his weaknesses are ones that are expected for a young player, and with more games and invaluable experience, he should be a real force to be reckoned with.