It’s perhaps taken longer than he had hoped, but Turkish playmaker Hakan Çalhanoglu is slowly but surely settling into a zone at Milan.
Patience was always going to be an essential component of the 2017-18 AC Milan and their wide supporter base across the world filled with hope, excitement and lofty expectations for the current campaign.
After spending upwards of €250 million on virtually an entire new squad, consistent positive results and aesthetically pleasing football was never going to be an overnight occurrence. Yet, with the pressure to qualify for the UEFA Champions League through a top four finish mounting so heavily from the first match, time was of the essence for the Rossoneri. However, in a matter of months, they stood on the outside looking at their ultimate goal of a return to Europe as several of the new faces struggled out of the gate, including Hakan Çalhanoglu.
The 23-year old signed on to join this new look Milan side from Bayer Leverkusen last summer for €20 million. Carrying a heavy reputation as a bonafide free-kick specialist into the Peninsula, Çalhanoglu was expected to immediately improve the club’s effectiveness from set pieces, both as a source for goals and provider for others. There was no denying, however, Milan needed him to be much more than a threat from dead balls and be a creative cog yielding one goalscoring chance after the other. Certainly, that is not how life in Lombardy began for the Turkish international who struggled to earn his red and black stripes.
Early on, with the exception of a few fair grade performances in the UEFA Europa League against provincial sides, the playmaker struggled to convince, looking out of his element with regards to his positioning on the pitch and inability to get involved in the attacking third.
For Çalhanoglu, adapting to his new life in Milano proved difficult as a language barrier impeded on his communication with the others.
After a crushing 4-1 defeat to Lazio in early September, the number 10 told Gazzetta dello Sport:
“It’s not easy to memorise all of the formations that I’ve been given. Clearly, I have difficulty with the language. I don’t have a translator, but my teammates help me sometimes with that.”
Buying the former Hamburger midfielder off a long suspension was always going to be a gamble. However, the talent is obviously there for us to see. Çalhanoglu was often being fielded as one of three in the midfield, but it’s known that the ideal role for him to flourish as a playmaker is in the hole behind the strikers or in a wide area where he can get on the ball often, swing in crosses and dribble his way into dangerous areas for high-percentage chances on net.
In any case, the truth was – like Leonardo Bonucci, Lucas Biglia, Franck Kessie and Nikola Kalinic – Çalhanoglu needed to start performing and deliver on what was expected of him, and since Gennaro Gattuso has stepped into the fray, things have been looking up for the Turkish youngster who, with every match, seems to be settling into a zone. And there is perhaps no better example of his increasingly positive form than the brief, yet highly impacting, performance off the bench in Milan’s thrilling 1-0 victory over rivals Inter in the Coppa Italia semi-final late last month.
Hopping in to replace Manuel Locatelli in the 73rd minute, Çalhanoglu instantly ignited the Rossoneri squad with fresh legs and the hunger to make an impact in the Derby.
Poised over 45 total minutes including extra time, he carried the ball well and floated into space where he could make something happen. Though not known for his contributions on the defensive end, Çalhanoglu even worked hard to regain possession with a calculated tackle before moving the ball back up the pitch to apply further pressure onto a tired Nerazzurri. Eventually, Milan found their match-winner through Patrick Cutrone, but certainly the Turk’s most vocal critics and their condemnation, were quelled that night at the San Siro.
Days later in Serie A away against Fiorentina, Çalhanoglu left his mark once again in limited action, coming off the bench to draw level in the 74th minute and leave the Franchi with a much needed point to end 2017.
Last night, Gattuso rewarded Çalhanoglu’s upswing in form by playing him from the start on the left wing where he brought width to the attack, moved the ball well and looked lively yet again.
Completing 84% of his passes (h/t Who Scored), including this threaded long ball below into Suso, Çalhanoglu played a pivotal role in Milan generating a high sum of chances.
This is exactly what I like about Hakan. Great ball. pic.twitter.com/wmQiLdQ5xx
— Isak Möller (@Isak_Moller) January 6, 2018
Though with only one goal on 26 total shots to show for it, Milan are beginning to see a hike in goal scoring chances, and Çalhanoglu’s involvement cannnot be overlooked.
After the final whistle blew on the Rossoneri’s 1-0 win over Crotone, the rejuvenated attacker lamented the comfort taken from playing out wide, explaining to Milan TV that “the left wing is a more suitable position for me. I have more space and more freedom.”
It’s taken more time than Milan supporters expected, but Hakan Çalhanoglu is beginning to hit his stride; kicking on, and delivering when it’s needed most.