5 Players AC Milan Let Go Too Soon
The development of young players is never a guarantee, and gauging it is never an exact science. Whether they come up through the academy or are purchased young from smaller clubs, there's no way to figure out just how a youngster will turn out. AC Milan is no exception to that rule.
For every Paolo Maldini—who spent seven years in Milan's youth sector before cementing his legend as one of the greatest players of all time—there is a Mattia De Sciglio, who has fallen out of favor after coming out of the academy and fading from a hot start to his career.
Then there are the players that are given up on too early. Every club has them. Juventus, for example, has seen players like Domenico Criscito and Sebastian Giovinco go on to play at high levels after they failed to nose their way into the side. Milan's cross-town rivals Inter famously—or infamously, depending on your point of view—gave up on Andrea Pirlo in 2001.
Milan has done this just as many times as the next club. Recently, however, it seems to be happening more often than usual. A number of young players that could have formed the core of a very good team have left the club for other places, only to blossom into young stars.
Who has Milan given up on too quickly? Today we'll take a look at five notable players that could have been key for Milan and are now set up elsewhere.
Stephan El Shaarawy
Stephan El Shaarawy was a constant source of frustration for Milan fans.
When he was healthy, he was fantastic. He can be a terror on the left wing. He dribbles well, and can be lethal cutting inside and firing from range with his right foot. On form, his skill set can be best described as Cristiano Ronaldo lite.
His breakout came in 2012. Milan had just sold Zlatan Ibrahimovic and needed someone to step up and lead the line. El Shaarawy, 19 years old when the season began, was the man that stepped up.
After a slow start, Il Faraone exploded at the end of September. He scored five times in four games over two weeks starting on the 23rd of the month, including a brace against Cagliari. His goal against Zenit St. Petersburg at the end of that stretch made him the youngest Milan player ever to score in Champions League play.
By December, El Sha was a revelation. He had scored 14 times in the league and 16 times overall. He earned his second Italy cap in the November friendly against France and scored his first international goal. The future seemed limitless.
And then the bottom fell out.
El Shaarawy's body wasn't strong enough to handle the rigors of a full top-flight season, let alone the added burden of European competition. He broke down. He only scored twice after the winter break, once in a losing effort at Juventus in the Coppa Italia and once to tie the Derby della Madonnina.
He looked good at the start of the following season, scoring against Ajax in the Champions League playoff. But that was when the injuries set in.
Various maladies, including three separate metatarsal fractures and foot surgery, kept him out for large swaths of time. He never managed to stay healthy long enough to get back into any kind of groove, and he never came close to the heights he once reached.
But that doesn't mean the Rossoneri should have given up on him quite so easily. His move to Monaco in the 2015 summer transfer window came out of the blue. The deal was a season-long loan with a mandatory option to buy for the principality club after 20 appearances, as noted by his agent Federico Pastorello.
If he managed to stay healthy, he could have been a cornerstone piece of Milan's attack. Instead, he'll be plying his trade in Monaco for the foreseeable future, it seems.
This one left everyone scratching their heads.
When Bryan Cristante was promoted to the first team, there were high hopes for him. He made his debut in 2011 as a late sub in a dead rubber Champions League match against Viktoria Plzen, making him the youngest Milan player ever to feature in the competition.
Two years later, the young midfielder debuted for real, starting the first two games after the 2013-14 winter break against Atalanta and Sassuolo. He scored a goal in the first game and assisted the second.
He never played a game in a Milan shirt again.
In the summer of 2014, he was very abruptly sold to Benfica for €6 million at the end of the summer transfer window.
In short, it was a catastrophic mistake. Instead of building their midfield around a skilled young player with an astronomical ceiling, stop-gap solutions like Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari took over.
Cristante hasn't yet broken out in Portugal, but for a team that until recently hasn't been able to spend the kind of money it's used to spending to move on from such a promising young player is irresponsible.
It's really still not clear what the club thought it was doing when the decision was made.
Matteo Darmian is one of the major black marks against the current regime's attitude toward young players. Despite captaining the primavera squad, he only ever made five appearances with the first team—four in the league and one in the Coppa Italia—before leaving the club.
He started all but one game in 2013-14 and played so well that he got a surprise call-up to the Italy squad for the World Cup in Brazil.
It was there that he truly became a star. He was everywhere in the opening match against England. He dovetailed with Antonio Candreva in attack as if they had been playing together since they were children and locked down the right side in defense. Italy's fortunes soon soured, but Darmian continued to play at a high level.
After another strong season on the maroon side of Turin, Darmian made an €18 million move to Manchester United, where he's continued to excel.
According to WhoScored.com he's averaging 2.9 tackles per match and 1.4 interceptions in league play. Those numbers fluctuate to 2.7 and 1.7 respectively in the Champions League.
In a period where Milan's biggest weakness has been its back line, Darmian could have been an anchor on the flank. It's yet another example of the Rossoneri letting young players slip away too soon.
Another bright forward talent, Aubameyang entered Milan's youth system in 2007 when he was 18. He immediately turned heads when Milan sent the primavera squad to Malaysia for the 2007 Champions Youth Cup, the first of several forerunners of the UEFA Youth League.
He won the golden boot in that tournament, scoring all seven of Milan's goals over six games as the Rossoneri finished fourth.
That attracted the attention of scouts everywhere but, apparently, never at his own club. He went out on a series of loans with varying degrees of success until he arrived at Saint-Etienne in Ligue 1, where he was eventually purchased on a permanent basis in 2011, never having played a single game for the Milan first team.
After scoring 31 times in 62 games over two years in France, Aubameyang attracted the attention of German giants Borussia Dortmund. He achieved respectable goal totals in his first two years in Westphalia, but this year, he has gone on an absolute tear.
His goal tally in the Bundesliga, which currently stands at 17, has already eclipsed that of last year, and he's equalled last season's count of 25 in all competitions in only 22 games.
Absurdly fast, Aubameyang is exactly the type of player Milan would love to have right now—a zippy speedster who can fly past opposing defenders on the counter and create space for everyone else in possession. Capable of playing both on the wing and in the center, he could have been a player Milan built its forward line around—if he had ever played for the Rossoneri.
If there's one player who is emblematic of the failures of the men currently running AC Milan, it's Riccardo Saponara.
An attacking midfielder, Saponara was bought by Milan in January of 2013, just after his 21st birthday. At the time he was leading Empoli, then in Serie B, to the promotion playoffs. He stayed with the side on loan through the end of the year, eventually coming up just short of the promotion that Maurizio Sarri would achieve a year later.
He arrived at Milan that summer and was immediately given the No. 8 shirt. He then proceeded to do...nothing. Not through any fault of his own, of course.
Milan had three coaches in the next year and a half, and none of the three deemed Saponara worthy of regular playing time—this despite the team being in desperate need of a creative spark.
He played in only eight games in red and black, and although he showed positive signs—particularly in his lone appearance last year against Palermo, when WhoScored tallied him at two key passes and an 89.2 pass-completion percentage—he continued to see the bench.
Perhaps it was because the Palermo game ended in a 2-0 loss, perhaps it was because he didn't fit Filippo Inzaghi's system, or perhaps it was just typical Italian obstinacy when it comes to putting young players into the team, but in January, Saponara was sent back to Empoli on loan.
Given his lack of playing time, it wouldn't have been that bad a move but for one thing—Empoli was given a €4 million purchase option at the end of the season. Saponara proceeded to lay waste to Serie A defenses, scoring seven times in 17 games and pitching in three assists as well. Empoli quickly triggered the clause, and a player that could have solved a hefty chunk of Milan's problems was lost.
Saponara continues to play well. He has four goals and five assists this season and, according to WhoScored, is averaging 2.7 key passes per game.
Imagine him starting as trequartista for the Rossoneri rather than Keisuke Honda or Suso and the relationship he could have developed with the likes of Carlos Bacca. Milan's attack, which is pretty much devoid of creativity beyond Giacomo Bonaventura, would look a lot scarier.
Simply put, the way Milan handled Saponara was a complete and utter failure. He was never given a chance and sold far too soon. It's a mistake that will haunt Milan for years.