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Miles Olusina takes an in-depth look at one of the most coveted and hyped young goalkeepers, AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma.
As far as goalkeepers go, Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon has ruled the roost for the best part of two decades and at 38, astonishingly isn’t showing any signs of letting up. Despite many fantastic keepers vying for Buffon’s spot as the Azzurri’s no.1, he remains supreme. However, many Italians have had to come to terms with the fact that their beloved deity between the sticks is due to call time on his glittering career sooner rather than later. Over the past few years or so, many Serie A fans have borne witness to the emergence of a number of exciting young keepers coming through, all of whom are determined to assume the number 1 spot and emulate the career and achievements of the Bianconeri legend. The most notable include 23 year old Genoa shot stopper Mattia Perin, Juventus’ Nicola Leali and until recently, the apparent favourite, 20 year old Simone Scuffet of Udinese.
However, the red and black half of Milan has witnessed the meteoric rise of the new leading contender for the title of Italy’s future no.1, adding to the list of already potential world class goalkeepers in Italy. 17 year old man-child Gianluigi Donnarumma has taken not only Italian, but European football by storm since he burst onto the scene at the end of last year. What has shocked many is not just his astonishing ability in goal but also the fact that he has managed to claim the number 1 spot at such a young age and at an illustrious club like AC Milan no less. His performances have caught the eyes of many in the footballing world, with his great form being rewarded with a debut in the Italy under-21 squad, the youngest player ever to do so. One wonders how soon he will be donning the shirt for the senior team, all that can be said is, if he continues his current trajectory, the original Super Gigi will be forgotten a lot sooner than expected.
Born in Castellammare di Stabia in Naples on the 25th February 1999, Italy’s newest goalkeeping sensation was first inducted into Milan’s youth system at the tender age of 14, signing from football academy Club Napoli in order to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Antonio, who was also in the Milan set up at the time. His potential was evident from very early on as Milan realised by putting him in the age group above throughout his entire time within the academy.
His promotion to the first-team did not come as a surprise to anybody within the Milan establishment, with Fillippo Inzaghi giving him his first taste of professional football, placing him on the bench against Cesena at just 15 years old in the 2014/15 season. His youth team coaches at international level were also quick to heap praise on him, with his former Italy under-17 coach labeling him as ‘the national team goalkeeper of the future.’
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His chance to make the number 1 spot at Milan his own came soon enough when he was handed his debut against Sassuolo on the 25th October 2015. With first-choice goalkeeper Diego Lopez in torrid form, conceding 14 goals in his first eight games and pressure mounting on then manager Sinisa Mihajlovic, Donnarumma was thrust into the limelight and delivered a performance justifiable of all the hype that had preceded his introduction into the first team.
Despite his performance not being perfect he still showed ability well beyond his years, fans all over the country took notice of the 16 year old putting in the performance expected of a seasoned professional, for one of the country’s biggest clubs. He was lauded with praise at the end of the game by many, including his manager Mihajlovic and his rival Diego Lopez, who described him as ‘the future of Italian football’. He didn’t stop there, however with a number of phenomenal performances for Milan. He finished the season with 10 clean sheets in the 30 Serie A games, a fantastic return for a keeper of any age, let alone one still in his adolescence.
One thing which stands out about Donnarumma is his domineering physical frame. Standing at 1.96m (6’5), he towers over his opponents despite being the youngest player on the field most every time he dons the Milan shirt. With his huge stature come a plethora of advantages that he exploits to the fullest. For many strikers, seeing the towering figure of Donnarumma rushing towards them tends to put them in a state of apprehension and often leads to an inability to fashion an effective one-on-one opportunity when up against him between the posts.
As was expected with the fact that he bears the same name as the Italian great Buffon, people were quick to draw comparisons with both Gigis, with many saying they were almost identical in style. Although they do share some similarities, it would be quite misguided to make such strong comparisons as when analysing both players it is clear to see the difference in their goalkeeping style. Both have a wonderful ability to save shots from long and close range, and have a command of their area that many goalkeepers would kill for.
However, when observing Donnarumma’s style one notices his tendency to rush out of goal when an opposition striker has breached his team’s defensive line. He is quick to anticipate when the striker may receive the ball in behind the defence and a lot of the time has already prepared to rush forward and thwart the striker’s advancement on goal. Add to this his eagerness to contribute to Milan’s circulation in the build-up phase and his desire to occasionally position himself higher up and one can easily say his style is reminiscent to that of Germany and Bayern Munich shot stopper Manuel Neuer. That is not to say that they are anywhere near on the same level, Neuer’s technique is clearly more refined which is understandable considering his wealth of experience. In my opinion though, it would not be fanciful to think that Donnarumma could reach the level of the German stalwart in about a decade or so.
One of his main strengths which I was able to pick up on right from the start is his wonderful reflexes and shot stopping prowess despite his lanky frame. On many occasions this season, Donnarumma can be seen pulling off magnificent saves that many of the world’s goalkeeping greats would be proud of. Key to his wonderful ability to save shots is his fantastic positioning. He is always mindful of how and where he is positioned in relation to the movement and trajectory of the ball. Anticipation is again key here as he must predict the flight of the ball, a very difficult skill when the ball and the game as a whole is passing by at such a rapid pace.
One example which comes to mind is the world class save he pulled off against Roma when faced with an indirect free kick from Francesco Totti. After admittedly giving away the free-kick due to a lack of composure under pressure when receiving the ball (more on that later), he was faced with the task of keeping out Totti’s close range strike. The ball was not that well struck but what made this save so much more astonishing was the deflection that it took before reaching Donnarumma which completely altered the flight of the ball.
It seemed as though the ball was destined for the net as Donnarumma had already dived to the bottom corner, unaware of the impending deflection. However, he amazingly was able to spread his body wide and use his huge wingspan to reach the ball that would have likely been too high for a lot of keepers. He shows great reflexes in this example as he displays his ability to rapidly change his body position and reactions based on the ever changing environment of the game. The ball appears to be out of his reach initially but he is able to spring up very well despite being virtually on the ground and seemingly unable to parry the shot.
He showed his great shot stopping ability once again in a game against Atalanta when he made a fantastic near post save from a shot by winger Morales. The ball was played into the channel with Morales through on goal. The shot was struck with power with Donnarumma doing well not to be beaten at his near post.
What makes this save possible again is how he adjusts his body position to ensure that the ball is within his reach when the save is made. Morales does not have a huge angle to aim at but the shot is still on target and well struck. Donnarumma makes this task even more difficult by moving his body closer the attacker in order to make him believe he has even less to aim at when shooting on goal. He narrows the angle and thus Morales has much less space in which to place the ball. The position of Donnarumma’s body is very important as he spreads his body in an attempt to further limit space in the goal. His crouched body position also proves decisive as he can effectively spring into action. It gives him a greater ability to leap as he can jump with greater height due to the aforementioned spring in his step.
His stats also show his ability to pull off saves with regularity. Last season he achieved a saves per 90 minutes ratio of 2.40, which betters that of Thibaut Courtois, David de Gea, Roman Burki and Jan Oblak.
Besides shot stopping he boasts an authoritative command of his area that is unusual for someone his age in his first season in professional football. He shows a great confidence when coming out to claim balls from crosses and punch balls clear. This ties in with his large 6’5 frame as he towers over other players inside the box and is able to dominate them physically with consummate ease. Opposition players often appear reluctant to challenge him aerially during set pieces and crosses as he can often appear intimidating to many players. He tends to punch more often than he catches, again taking advantage of his large wingspan to punch the ball out of harm’s way when confronted with balls coming in from wide areas.
In this game against Fiorentina, midfielder Borja Valero puts in a ball from a corner into a dangerous area which Donnarumma is able to punch away from danger without much in the way of opposition from the Fiorentina strikers. There appears to be a fear of challenging for the ball when up against a giant such as Donnarumma and it is due to this as well as his ability to reach high balls which allow him to make this punch.
The ball looks to be landing directly into the path of Nikola Kalinic, however the danger is thwarted as Donnarumma leaps over everyone in the box and punches clear. This is an action which requires a lot of skill as he must time his punch perfectly to make sure he gains optimum power on it and that he strikes the ball cleanly. He also perfectly times when he must come off his line and meet the ball which can prove costly when not done properly. If he is being impeded by other players in the box he may choose to stay put and not attack the ball, he is very skilled in discerning whether the obstruction from other players in the box will hinder his ability to punch the ball clear and also whether the ball is too far away for him to punch.
In the same game against Atalanta where he made the stunning near post save, Donnarumma can be seen exhibiting his wonderful command of his area and his confidence when dealing with dangerous crosses entering the box. A cross from a free kick was put into the box, which Donnarumma was able to handle with ease. Again his skill at anticipating the flight of the ball and the likelihood he will reach it comes into play here. He is on his toes and ready to sprint off his touchline and spring up in order to reach the ball.
What is most amazing however is the considerable distance he manages to accumulate when punching the ball clear. The way in which he appears to have an abundance of time and space when dealing with the cross implies a fantastic ability to organise his defence so as to allow him to deal with the danger without much hassle. It is also indicative of the aforementioned fear of opposition players to challenge him for the ball, which he seems to use to his advantage frequently.
His stats in this area evidently reinforce this; he completed a total of 24 punches last season with a 99% success rate, the 4th highest in all of Europe’s top 5 leagues.
Arguably his greatest asset, which I believe sets him apart from most every goalkeeper let alone those just in his age group is his wonderful ability in dealing with one-on-ones. He displays an astonishing bravery to constantly come off his line, especially for one so young and also phenomenal anticipation and reaction time as we see on a regular basis. It helps his team tactically as it allows them to maintain a reasonably high defensive line, safe in the knowledge that Donnarumma will be on hand to sweep up in behind and thwart opposition attacks should they break through Milan’s defensive line.
Donnarumma’s intervention in the image above against Inter Milan is perhaps one of the best examples of his sublime ability to come off his line and save his team when the back 4 has been beaten. This sprawling stop against Ivan Perisic perfectly illustrates his proficiency and reliability as the last line of defence. An attempted through ball by Milan midfielder Brozovic was deflected into the path of Perisic who received the ball in acres of space as a result of the inactivity of the Milan defence.
Sensing danger, Donnarumma sprinted off his line, showing great agility and speed to be able to reach Perisic before he could perform and potentially dangerous action. His wonderful reflexes, as well as his perceptual abilities, were on show here as he dived quickly to ground to slap the ball from Perisic’s feet, putting an end to the danger of the attack.
When watching the action, you can see how he anticipates the deflection becoming a loose ball. He is quick to spot where and who the ball is travelling to and rushes to the ball as soon as it becomes loose. What makes his perception of the situation more impressive is that he is aware he is unable to win the 50/50 challenge as Perisic is quicker and effectively has a head start. He throws himself to the floor, swiping the ball away so cleanly in an incident that could have just as easily resulted in a foul and a penalty for Inter Milan had the situation not been executed so perfectly.
Against Fiorentina, he is quick to push off his line, this time in less spectacular fashion than against Inter Milan. A through ball is played into the path of Nikola Kalinic, who seemed to be well covered by Milan centre backs Alex and Alessio Romagnoli. Although the situation is not very well dealt with by the Milan defenders who continue to let the ball remain in a loose position, which could have potentially led to it being stolen from behind them by Kalinic.
Well aware of the situation, Donnarumma covers a great distance in a short space of time to clear the ball away and quell the danger. What sets him apart from most keepers is his insistence on ensuring that the situation is under control. Had another goalkeeper been faced with the same predicament, one would assume that he would just remain in goal safe in the knowledge that his centre-backs would have him covered. He differs from other keepers as he is a lot more pro-active in his approach, implying a confidence and self-assurance seen in some of the world’s greatest keepers.
In spite of all his qualities and prodigious talent, he does display some glaring weaknesses, which is understandable for someone of his age which will most likely even themselves out over time as he improves his technique and becomes more experienced.
His command of the area is one of his greatest assets; however, when dealing with crosses he is nowhere near as proficient in handling the ball as he is at punching it clear. On a number of occasions, he could be seen fumbling balls that a keeper of his quality would be expected to deal with. This problem is not uncommon amongst young keepers though, David de Gea’s first season at Manchester United being a perfect example, so despite it being an area that needs to be improved, it is doubtful that it will continue to affect him as he progresses as a goalkeeper.
This image provides an example of Donnarumma’s questionable handling in a game against Bologna. A long ball over the top is played by one the centre-backs and is headed towards Donnarumma, albeit fairly poorly by Alex. The Bologna striker, who was the target of the long pass, is triggered by the weak header and chases down the ball. This puts Donnarumma under pressure and when forced to act quickly and claim the ball, he fumbles it, which almost leads to a chance for the striker. He manages to recover in this instance, however when faced against better, more predatory strikers, his mistakes may be punished more severely.
Being young and inexperienced, a lack of assurance when claiming and catching high balls is understandable. With this skill being very underrated by many football fans in terms of difficulty, many believe that it should be more or less straightforward for all goalkeepers. This skill is one of the few where his large frame does not prove advantageous; his huge size may not do him many favours when catching the ball as opposed to punching it clear, as this requires much more intricacy and precision, something which is much more difficult to attain with such a huge stature.
Another predominant flaw in his game is his ball playing ability when faced with pressure from opposition strikers. He is prone to being impulsive when faced with the slightest bit of pressure and tends to act hastily, clearing the ball wildly instead of taking a measured approach when possible. That said, when analyzing his statistics his distribution can be considered up there with some of the highest in Europe’s top 5 leagues. He has an average pass length of 35m and a distribution percentage of 69%, which can be described as incredible by some who observe this area of his game purely from a statistical lens.
Looking at his average pass length, one can ascertain that he plays a lot of long passes, which are proven to have a much less substantial success rate than shorter passes. Milan’s structural issues in their build-up phase also can be problematic for him as there are many instances where he is given the ball in uncomfortable positions or is faced with virtually no short passing options due to his centre-backs being in the cover shadow of the opposition striker or having their passing lane obstructed. That is not to say that he is not completely exempt from criticism, as he does display a lack of composure in possession when faced with pressure as mentioned earlier.
In this game against Inter Milan, he receives the ball from Alex in the build-up phase. It looks a simple back pass which you would expect him to have no trouble in dealing with. However, as Alex plays the ball back to him he is being chased down by Eder and panics; he slices the ball horribly and Eder is quick to pounce on the loose ball, Donnarumma must then act quickly by throwing himself in the air in order to slap the ball out of the path of Eder.
Instead of assessing the situation and possibly taking a touch, as he had a lot more time than he realised, he opts for the first time kick and it goes completely wrong. Again though, we can see how Milan’s 1st phase structure is making his distribution opportunities difficult. Alex passes the ball off to Donnarumma and then remains in the same position, allowing himself to be cover shadowed easily by Eder. Romagnoli’s position is also problematic; two Inter attackers have access to him which would mean that he would come under immense pressure. In addition, the closest midfielder, the 6 in Milan’s formation is having his passing lane blocked by one of the Inter attackers. All of these issues force Donnarumma to aim to play it long, although this action could have been executed a lot better.
As many people have already stated, the future looks very bright indeed for the young Italian shot stopper. His meteoric rise has been nothing short of a miracle and if he continues this trajectory, we will only see him improve substantially and possibly become one of the world’s top goalkeepers. Milan fans and footballer lovers in general can only hope that he does not suffer from ‘second-season syndrome’, as we have seen with so many young players in the past. Being thrust into the limelight at such a young age has led to the burn-out of some young players. One cannot be too certain that he will achieve all his potential as Milan have a recent history of wasting the young talent at their disposal; Stephan El Shaarawy and Alexandre Pato can testify to that.
That said, home-grown talents such as Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi along with other club legends such as Marco van Basten and goalkeeping legend Sebastiano Rossi are great examples he can aspire to. He doesn’t look to be moving clubs anytime soon, with Milan stating that he is not for sale at any price. Fans of the Rossoneri are licking their lips at the prospect Gianluigi Donnarumma between the sticks for seasons to come.
Written by Miles Olusina