AC Milan keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and echoes of Buffon
Young AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma will have an opportunity to further embellish his growing reputation this Saturday when the Rossoneri travel to Turin to take on the Juventus side of his childhood idol, Gianluigi Buffon.
Donnarumma, 16, was born into a football-loving family -- his elder brothers Antonio and Alfredo currently play for Genoa and Salernitana, respectively -- in Castellammare di Stabia on the Neapolitan coast of southern Italy. He grew up as a Milan fan, but they were not the only interested party when he left his local youth club at 14. Juve, Napoli and city rivals Inter were all keen on signing the youngster.
Milan were, however, the club he always wanted to join, and a deal was quickly agreed. He made an excellent impression in their youth ranks -- academy head Filippo Galli recently described him as "one in a million" -- and within two years found himself on the fringes of the first-team squad. The club received a special dispensation to select him on the bench against Cesena in February of this year, three days before he turned 16.
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Donnarumma signed his first professional contract in March and was then moved up to the senior squad on a permanent basis this summer by new head coach Sinisa Mihajlovic following some strong performances in preseason friendlies. Diego Lopez's uncertain start to the season gave the rookie his chance, and Donnarumma became the youngest Serie A goalkeeper in 35 years when he made his debut in Milan's 2-1 win at home to Sassuolo in October.
Three further starts have followed, including a man-of-the-match performance in a 0-0 draw at home to Atalanta prior to the international break in which he made a string of good saves.
Donnarumma received his first call-up to Italy's under-21 side for this international break, and while he currently finds himself behind Alessio Cragno and Simone Scuffet in the pecking order, that situation is unlikely to hold for long. In May, Donnarumma impressed for the U-17 side at the European Championship in Bulgaria, where he attracted the attention of scouts from the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Donnarumma is a tall, agile goalkeeper whose physique and composure belie his tender years. He appears unfazed by the publicity surrounding him and continues to go about his work in a focused, mature manner. He is a natural leader who already has the necessary confidence to organise a defence featuring players twice his age.
- Big frame and reach
- Composed nature
- Lack of experience
- Consistency of distribution
- Tendency to overanticipate at times
Handling: Generally solid, although his lanky frame can sometimes be a hindrance when making diving saves, as he is less compact than most and therefore less able to bring in and protect a ball that falls just outside of his initial grasping range.
Agility: Looks to have good hand-eye coordination and gets down surprisingly quickly for someone his size. Usually able to fling some body part or another in the way of a shot if his initial momentum has taken him in the opposite direction. Possesses a decent little burst of acceleration when coming out to close down an angle or sweep up in behind.
Positioning: Generally positions himself conservatively -- no more than a step or two off his line -- when expecting a shot on goal. He does, however, occasionally overanticipate the direction of an incoming effort, as he did in conceding against both Sassuolo and Lazio. In youth football, he has been decisive in coming off his line to deal with dangerous situations.
Command of Area: His height and reach make him a formidable barrier to goal, while he has also shown himself to be unafraid of issuing regular instructions to his more experienced defensive colleagues. Usually gets solid distance on his punches when dealing with high balls into the area. it is likely he will become more confident in his ability to claim cleanly under pressure as he grows and develops with age.
Distribution: Swift and decisive in rolling or throwing the ball out after gathering it. Generally looks confident with the ball at his feet, as evidenced by an audacious touch away from an incoming player after receiving a risky back-pass in the game against Lazio. Can be forced into inaccurate kicks forward when put under medium pressure. However, he is capable of picking out clipped passes to the full-backs when pressured less intently.
What The Experts Say
Milan youth coach Christian Brocchi: "He is a polite, serious lad, but he has no fear. He has always been a huge Milan fan. He dreams of being Milan goalkeeper for the next 15 years. This dream is very likely to come true."
Former Milan goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi: "I like his character and how he approaches situations, along with how he celebrates when the team scores. But I would exercise caution, as we shouldn't make the same mistake we have in the past with certain goalkeepers who have been described as stars. We must give Donnarumma the time he needs to develop, as he has everything that is needed to have a great career with Milan."
Donnarumma is already being spoken of as a potential long-term Milan No.1. While many would have allowed the adulation to go to their heads, he is a calm, humble character and is well aware that a long road still lies ahead. He has made an impressive start to his senior career, but there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome before his clear promise can become consistent reality.
His hero, Buffon, was a more viscerally thrilling goalkeeper during his early years at Parma than he later was at Juventus, but there is no doubt that by the time he reached his mid-20s, he was a better all-round performer. Donnarumma is in possession of all the necessary raw physical and technical attributes, while his current flaws are all things that can be worked on, but he too must now embark on that same maturation process.
Everyone at Milan is fiercely protective of their young jewel. Mihajlovic has admitted that he expects mistakes but is willing to take that risk given the qualities the 16-year-old brings to the team. Juventus are likely to provide his biggest test yet, but whether or not he emerges triumphant from Saturday's match, it will still just be one more small step in the progression of a highly promising goalkeeper whose whole career still lies ahead of him.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.