When it was announced that Gianluigi Donnarumma would displace Diego Lopez as AC Milan's starting goalkeeper for the team's October 25 match against Sassuolo, the reactions ranged from raised eyebrows to dropped jaws.
Donnarumma was a hot prospect. He travelled with the team during their entire preseason tour and acquitted himself well, playing some or all the second halves of games most games behind Lopez and Christian Abbiati. He even stonewalled World Cup-winner Toni Kroos in the fifth round of a shootout against Real Madrid to send the spot-kicks into a sudden-death round that didn't end until he himself missed his kick six rounds later.
But that was preseason. It was a surprise in itself that they kept him with the senior team going into the season rather than send him back to the primavera. To throw Donnarumma into a Serie A game was another matter entirely. Why? Because he was 16 years old.
As soon as referee Gianluca Rocchi blew his whistle to start the game, Donnarumma broke a nearly 20-year-old record held by Gianluigi Buffon as the youngest goalkeeper ever to play in Serie A. After a few games, he became the long-term starter after Lopez decided to seek treatment for a nagging knee injury.
Perhaps the only thing more extraordinary than the fact that Donnarumma is playing at 16 is how well he's playing.
All three of Milan's clean sheets this year are on Donnarumma's ledger. The teenager has shown incredible reflexes, like the time he adjusted to a huge deflection of a Hernanes free kick against Juventus and palmed the ball to safety. He's remarkably agile for a goalkeeper of his size, getting his 6'5" frame down quickly to parry low shots and adjusting almost in midair to block several shots against Atalanta.
He's made some truly world-class saves, and on at least one occasion—against Atalanta—he almost single-handedly salvaged his team a point.
Milan have themselves a prodigy on their hands. A prodigy that they must keep hold of, no matter what.
It's simple to see why. There are good goalkeepers aplenty in European football, but the list of truly elite ones is very short. At this point in time, its only solid members include Manuel Neuer, Thibaut Courtois, David De Gea and Buffon.
Petr Cech and Iker Casillas are recent members of that list, and they are still in the category of "very good." But the truly elite men between the sticks, the men who can be spoken of in the same breath as the likes of Lev Yashin, Ricardo Zamora or Dino Zoff—they are preciously rare. Even second-level goalkeepers, the very good that include Cech, Casillas, Joe Hart or Pepe Reina, are worth their weight in gold.
Lesser goalkeepers are often very much like baseball's closers, the relief pitchers that are relied on to end games. They burn hot for a few years, then fade away. They tend to become nomads, spending a few years with one team before moving on to the next. When a team hit on a truly elite closer like Trevor Hoffman or Mariano Rivera, they became treasured assets.
Milan may have come upon just such an asset.
There is, of course, no way to predict how Donnarumma will develop. He could plateau early, or an injury could hamper him. But he has all the tools of a fantastic goalkeeper.
He has impressive size, and although he's a bit gangly now he'll soon grow into his body. He's shown impressive shot-stopping ability, but he's also showing great proficiency in the other aspects of goalkeeping that are truly the mark of an elite goalkeeper.
Especially noteworthy is Donnarumma's command of his box. According to Squawka.com, he's successfully claimed 97 percent of crosses towards his box. He's less successful with his punches, converting 57 percent of his attempts, but his command of his area overall is impressive for someone so young.
Likewise impressive is his command of his teammates. When his defenders let opponents force him into a save, he gets up barking orders at men twice his age. That's the mark of a leader, and an early sign of the ability to marshal a defense, which is the most underrated but important part of goalkeeping.
Donnarumma's potential is off the charts. Barring any major injury, the bottom end of it looks like it will turn him into a tier-two franchise goalkeeper. At the top, he could turn into an elite-level No. 1 who could follow Buffon as the next Italian contributor to that group.
But Milan needs to resist the those advances at all costs. After years of mismanagement, the Rossoneri look like they may be finally moving toward building from their youth program. Donnarumma might be the jewel of that program, and he needs to stay put as a long-term building block.
If he leaves, it would be yet another sign that the people running the club have no idea what they're doing.