Pitchside Europe

Mattia De Sciglio: A sign of Milan’s renewal

This season at Milan has been called Year Zero by coach Massimiliano Allegri. A series of "painful but necessary" cuts were made in the summer. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were sold. Alessandro Nesta, Rino Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf and Pippo Inzaghi among others were all told that they'd played their last match for the club.

The reset button was pressed. President Silvio Berlusconi explained to disillusioned fans that Milan were starting over again. They needed to get back to basics and return to their roots. The path chosen [more like compelled to take] was to promote and invest in youth.

"Remember that the stellar Milan began like this," Berlusconi said, "from Maldini, Baresi [and] Costacurta."

Getting the club's academy to produce players for the first team again as it once did so well in the past has been a priority of chief executive Adriano Galliani's for the last couple of years.

It's inability to do so has long been a criticism made by former coach Arrigo Sacchi, who attributes a great part of Milan's success in the late 80s and early 90s to the identity formed by a core group of players who'd been brought up through the ranks of the club.

No one will be more pleased than Sacchi then with the rise of a player Mattia De Sciglio. Born in Milan on October 20, 1992, De Sciglio entered the world at a time when the club he'd later represent were in the midst of their most successful ever period. Champions of Italy under Fabio Capello, Milan would retain their title and reach their third European Cup final in five years. Two decades later, Capello would call De Sciglio "the young player who has impressed me most" this season.

It's just one of the many compliments the fledgling full-back has received since he made his first team debut in the Champions League against Viktoria Plzen nearly a year and a half ago. And yet De Sciglio's feet have stayed on the ground. "It's impossible that he'll let things go to his head," insists Milan captain Massimo Ambrosini.

You get the feeling he's living a dream and doesn't want to wake up. When asked at school what he would like to be when he grows up, De Sciglio was the kid who answered: "A footballer." And not just any footballer either, but one that played for Milan.

He joined the club when he was only 10. It was 2002 and Milan would win the Champions League at the end of that season beating Juventus on penalties at Old Trafford. Holding the trophy aloft was Maldini.

"He has always been my idol," De Sciglio revealed. "He was captain and ever since I was born I have been a Milan fan. I didn't have his poster on my bedroom wall. I'm not that kind of person. But as soon as I could, I went to watch him up close as a ball boy."

After establishing himself in the first team this season a lot quicker than anticipated, comparisons were all too predictably being made with Maldini. "Achieving a quarter of what he did in his career would be enough for me," De Sciglio said.

So far, he doesn't appear burdened by the expectations surrounding him. "He plays the same way in Serie A as he did in the Primavera," Gattuso said. "He's a very level-headed kid. It's like he's 40." That maybe so. But care must be taken before rushing to judgement on De Sciglio.

Those ready to proclaim him 'the next Maldini' are probably the same who talked up Davide Santon as 'the second coming of Giacinto Facchetti' when he broke through at rivals Inter in 2008.

Santon's is a cautionary tale. He too was supposedly a predestinato, someone destined for greatness. Stood across from Maldini in the tunnel before a derby in the spring of 2009, those in the press box at San Siro wrote of a passing of the torch from one full-back to another.

A week or so later, the 18-year-old Santon found himself up against Cristiano Ronaldo, as Inter played Manchester United in the first leg of a last 16 Champions League tie. The game ended 0-0 and Santon was hailed for keeping the then Ballon d'Or holder quiet. "He's a fantastic footballer," Ronaldo said.

Inter's coach at the time Jose Mourinho held Santon up as an example to Mario Balotelli. "Davide is a great player," Mourinho said, "and in 10 or 15 years time when he has made 400 or 500 appearances for Inter like Facchetti and Javier Zanetti, who knows, he might remember me."

Marcello Lippi then called him up to play for Italy at the Confederations Cup. Balotelli, incidentally, was left at home. Santon's teammate at club level Marco Materazzi joked with Santon: "If you don't go to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa you should go over to the balcony and throw yourself off." He couldn't have known what would happen next.

Santon lost his confidence. Mourinho was hard, maybe too hard on him after a performance against Palermo. He had come on in the second half with Inter 4-0 up. By the 67th minute, it was 4-3. Palermo's right-back Mattia Cassani had given Santon the run around. Though Inter still won 5-3, Santon left San Siro that night in tears after a reported dressing down from Mourinho. The man who'd made him could break him too.

A knee injury suffered while on international duty with the Italy Under-21s the following month was worse than first thought and complications emerged after one surgery. He required another and by the time he came back the following season Inter were in crisis and couldn't risk results by allowing a youngster to keep learning on the job. He was sent out on loan to Cesena then sold to Newcastle where, to his credit, he has since resurrected his young career.

The fear is that something similar may occur with De Sciglio. There is reassurance to be found in Milan's intention to place their faith in young footballers and build a project around them, circumstances that Santon didn't find in the time he was at Inter. As a Milan fan like De Sciglio, he told La Gazzetta dello Sport last week that, while very happy at Newcastle, "I'd seriously think about packing my bags again" if the Rossoneri were ever to call.

That says something about the appeal of Milan. Kids now think they'll get a chance there. "I trust in Allegri," says Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, who is grateful for the time and space he is granting young players like De Sciglio, Stephan El Shaarawy and of course Mario Balotelli. The trio are expected to start Italy's 2014 World Cup qualifier against Malta in Valetta tonight. The composition of the team is anticipated to be five parts Milan and six parts Juve.

De Sciglio made his senior debut against Brazil in Geneva last Thursday. He was 20, just like Facchetti and Antonio Cabrini were when they made theirs. Both of Brazil's goals in a 2-2 draw came down his side and fault could arguably be found with De Sciglio on each of them. Still, Prandelli did well to be patient and keep faith, leaving him on until the 74th minute rather than hauling him off at half-time. As a whole his performance was encouraging for it's pluck and personality.

While Il Corriere dello Sport got a little carried away asserting that rather than it being his first cap the assurance he showed gave the impression it was more like his 70th, De Sciglio didn't appear fazed by the occasion. There was an insouciance about him. Evidently he has yet to look down and feel scared at the heights he has so rapidly climbed.

Prandelli has a special interest in his development. Why? Because at the beginning of the season, he said: "The role of full-back is the most problematic [for the national team]." The reason for that is, in part, because so many teams now play with a back-three in Serie A that there are more wing-backs than full-backs, a subtle difference true, but a significant one, as many are unable to adjust to a back-four and are better at attacking than defending.

Having started out as a centre-back, De Sciglio knows how to defend. He can play on either flank and while many think he's better at right-back, he actually prefers to be on the left because it means he can cut inside onto his favoured right foot. Although he needs to bulk up and improve when making forays into the final third, something he actually did well in last month's derby against Inter, it's his versatility that Prandelli and Milan rate the most.

"He has everything it takes to retrace Maldini's steps and carry on the tradition in that position," Galliani likes to insist.

He of course is entitled to his opinion and is well-placed to make it. But Maldini is Maldini. Why not let De Sciglio be De Sciglio? How about we judge him on what he does. And not what Maldini did instead. That sounds like a fairer deal, does it not?

James Horncastle - follow on Twitter @JamesHorncastle