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Despite slew of signings, Milan's future is in their youth academy

Part One: Milan starlets ready to step up...almost

AC Milan v Bologna FC - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images
SS Lazio v AC Milan - Primavera TIM Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images

To say AC Milan have had an active summer transfer campaign would be a very big understatement. Behind new owners Yonghong Li, Han Li and the rest of the Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux consortium, Milan is making an emphatic statement, Milan are back! Well, back in terms of attracting high profile players solely on name alone. And that is all one can go on now. Milan have only played three games with their new rag tag team of players from all over the world. But let us recap who the Rossoneri have signed thus far and where we go from here.

Milan began the campaign with the signing of Mateo Musacchio from Villareal. Followed shortly by Franck Kessie from Atalanta, Ricardo Rodriguez from Wolfsburg, Andre Silva from FC Porto, Andrea Conti from Atalanta, Fabio Borini from Sunderland, Hakan Calhanoglu from Bayer Leverkusen, Lucas Bigliafrom Lazio and recently Leonardo Bonucci from rivals Juventus.

Massimilano Mirabelli and Marco Fassone have hit all the key points of necessity for the Rossoneri. Fans and team officials alike knew what the weaknesses were for the team last season. Both Mirabelli and Fassone tackled each phase with certainty and even included a couple surprises like Leonardo Bonucci in the mix. If nothing else, Milan have made the world pay attention to them; relevant once again.

Last season Milan had one of the youngest starting XI lineups in Serie A. Mirabelli and Fassone have only gone out and bought younger, more talented players to fill the void and shortcomings from last season. As nice as it is to start over with the substantial funds provided by the Chinese consortium and acquire talent to compete right away, this is not sustainable for a very long time. All teams depend on their youth academies and the youngsters to build a dynasty to eventually take over the club and continue the project you have set out at the beginning.

Some of the Milan younger players expected to take the mantle, are already plying their trade on the senior squad. Alessio Romagnoli is considered the rock of the Rossoneri back line, and at 22 years of age, is poised for a prominent role for the next decade or more, barring injury. Gianluigi Donnarumma who came up through the academy, is only 18 years old and one of the best goalkeepers in the world. If he can keep any type of longevity like Gianluigi Buffon, Rossoneri fans will have a couple decades to look forward to with him between the posts. Franck Kessie is 20 years old, Andrea Conti and Hakan Calhanoglu are 23 years old, Andre Silva is 21 years old and all will be inserted into the starting XI from day one. But who else can we Milan fans look forward to? Whom are the players making a name for themselves right now, in the Milan youth academy system? Let us take a look at some of the names you may already know, and some you do not.

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At age 18, Gigio Donnarumma shot through the youth ranks and exploded onto the Serie A scene. His innate reflexes have earned him the starting role for Milan and he has been dubbed the heir apparent to Buffon on the National team.But Rossoneri fans, Donnarumma is not the only uber-talented goalkeeper on the books. Alessandro Plizzari, only 13 months the junior to Donnarumma at only 17 years old. The Crema-born keeper joined Milan at age 6. Many experts are saying he could be better than Gigio. Though he does not carry the same frame as Donnarumma, the remarkable shot stopper is quite similar to Gigio in terms of athleticism, shot-stopping ability and speed off the line. That ability was evident by his play for Italy in the under-20 World Cup. Though he wasn't the primary goalie for the Italians , he did star for Italy in their 3rd place game against Uruguay. Plizzari not only played well, but made two outstanding penalty saves to help secure victory in the shootout to give Italy their best ever finish in the tournament. Despite the immense talent, he is still quite humble. In an interview with Milan TV he revealed his adoration for the club while talking about training with the senior squad. "I saw Diego Lopez and I said no, no, I'm going back inside," said the young Italian. "I went out and I was really nervous," continued Plizzari. He currently is Milan's third choice keeper, but if he is to continue developing, he needs pitch time. I am sure Milan fans would love him to stay on the team, but he is best served to go on loan where he can continue to grow and improve. Plizzari will be playing this coming season for Ternana Calcio in Serie B, which is the most ideal place for his progression.

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A player from the youth system Milan fans will know well is Davide Calabria. At only 20 years old, Davide is still very raw, but has a lot of potential. Calabria has been with Milan for several years, and last year was his first decent foray into the senior squad. At times, he made Milan fans forget about Ignazio Abate on the right wing. At other times, fans could not wait for Abate to be back on the pitch. Calabria was inconsistent, most notably on the defensive front. There is no questioning the talent that Davide Calabria possesess, especially on the attack. The times he played, whether in a starting role or coming off the bench, Calabria was on the attack. He provided Suso and the forwards an opportunity to get open by marauding down the right flank and overlapping the winger. Calabria made good use by either keeping possession or finding a way to get free for a cross in the middle. Where his strength is in attack, there too lies his weakness. The times that Calabria got involved heavily in the attack, he failed to get back in time after a turnover. Other times he was exploited defensively by the opposing team's wingers. The wingers that caused Calabria the most trouble, were the pacier players and those who could change up the pace quickly.

Calabria is the future for Milan on the right flank, or at least an option now with the arrival of Andrea Conti. He still needs to develop his game more. His consistency and defensive marking are the key things he needs to improve upon. He has shown Milan fans that there is talent in him. The best thing for Davide Calabria now that Conti is here, is to go out on loan to a team where he will get a starting role and a chance to properly develop. If he rides the bench this season, it will only stunt his development. Hopefully Milan is able to find a suitable team, both good for developing the young Italian and getting some much needed pitch time.

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A player who had a breakthrough season from the youth ranks last term was Manuel Locatelli. Then 18, the young Italian had an October that makes the stuff of legend. During the seventh matchday, Milan took on Sassuolo at home, which is a day no Milan fan, or Serie A fan will forget. The game started out well for Milan when the heart and soul of Milan, Giacomo Bonaventura, opened the scoring off a lucky deflection. Things looked they were going the way of the Rossoneri. Milan's lead was cancelled out by Matteo Politano. Sassuolo would go on to score two more goals early in the second half that left the San Siro faithful in shock. Milan needed an injection of energy and Riccardo Montolivo would be the player to be sacrificed. Out came the captain and in entered the 18 year old Locatelli. What followed were seventeen minutes of pure mayhem. Just minutes upon Locatelli entering, Milan earned a penalty kick and Bacca cut the deficit to one goal. Four minutes later, Milan had a corner kick. Up stepped Bonaventura to pass it into the box, but the Sassuolo defense were able to head out the ball. Waiting at the top of the box was Locatelli, who blasted home a thunderous left-footed shot into the top corner of the net passed outstretched hands of Andrea Consigli. The San Siro went bananas as the entire Milan team piled on top of Locatelli. Not a bad first goal to start off his career. Milan completed the comeback when Gabriel Paletta scored off a corner kick. The comeback was credited to the insertion of Manuel Locatelli and what followed were several starts as the future was seemingly now.

That game against Sassuolo alone was not enough to put Locatelli into Milan lore, which is a fair word to call it. An important game lie ahead of Milan and Vincenzo Montella, with the reigning five time Serie A champions coming to town. Having already tasted victory against the Bianconeri in the Supercoppa Italiana, Milan knew Juventus were coming into Milan with a statement to make. That statement would be, the win in the Super Coppa Finals was a fluke. Montella and his men knew Juventus came to play, and despite this, Montella still gave a starting role to Manuel Locatelli. The young 18 year old started like you would imagine in such a big game, making several errors but quickly shook that off and played quite well for Milan. In fact, this was the best regista performance for Milan in a long time and that is before the moment that Milan fans would not forget. In the 65th minute, Suso near the right corner, rolled a perfectly weighted pass towards the edge of the box, and in perfect stride, Manuel Locatelli teed up and shot a rocket of a shot with his right foot to the far top corner passed the legend that is Gigi Buffon. The stadium went nuts and once again Locatelli was mobbed by teammates. Even Montella could not hold back his disbelief in the goal. That goal gave Milan the 1-0 win and Locatelli's name will forever be etched in Milan lore, even if he does nothing else. Not bad for an 18 year old.

Despite the great upside of Manuel Locatelli, he too is quite raw. The more starts he made, the more it became evident. Locatelli has a short fuse, and when opposing players got to him, he reacted. The end result were several yellow cards, and the penultimate last straw for Vincenzo Montella, in an important Coppa Italia elimination match against Juventus, Locatelli lost his head again, this time receiving a red card and ruined any chance of Milan pulling out a result against their rivals. That red marked the end to Locatelli's starting role position, and he had to succumb to coming off the bench for the remainder of the season.

Locatelli looks to be a future pillar for the Rossoneri, but needs to play more consistently and watch his temper. A loan out to give him more playing time does make a lot of sense, however, that is not the ideal move for Milan. Milan were very smart in signing the savvy veteran Lucas Biglia from Lazio. Milan should keep Locatelli on the senior squad and have Biglia mentor the young Italian this upcoming season. No doubt Manuel Locatelli and Milan will both benefit from the presence of Lucas Biglia.

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Jose Mauri is a player who has baffled Milan fans. Baffling in the sense that Mauri does not get the opportunities to showcase his talent, and when given a rare opportunity, flubs his chances. Sure, if you are not given the pitch time, your skill set will diminish a bit. Many players have made a career coming on as a sub, so that is no excuse for Mauri. How has he not been given enough opportunity you ask? Jose Mauri was a fixture both in Parma and Empoli's starting XI. Once he joined Milan back from loan, it was thought he would compete for the midfield positions and at worse come on as a sub. Unfortunately for the young 20 year old Argentine, not only did he never get more than one starting opportunity, but his name was rarely called to come off the bench. Perhaps the manager did not see enough commitment in practice or feels Mauri is not ready for the next step up. Mauri has a good work ethic but still needs that valuable playing time to mold his skill set and gain experience. At this stage, he is still young enough to become a solid player for Milan. With the additions of Lucas Biglia, Franck Kessie, Hakan Calhanoglu, plus the return of Riccardo Montolivo from injury, the opportunity will surely be diminished even more this season. Couple that with the emergence of Manuel Locatelli, the best thing for Milan and Jose Mauri at this point is to go back out on loan where he can get that necessary playing time to evolve and develop his game. If Milan can find a team that will give him a starting role, they should send him out no questions asked and monitor his progression.

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If there is someone in the Milan youth system that gets Milan fans more excited than Alessandro Plizzari and Manuel Locatelli, then that player is Patrick Cutrone. There is something about a striker that gets a fanbase out of their seats and itching to see more. Milan fans long for the days of Marco Van Basten and Andriy "Sheva" Shevchenko. Since the departure of Shevchenko to Chelsea, other than Zlatan Ibrahimovic for two seasons, Milan have been void of a real striker. Yes, Milan have had Carlos Bacca, but he is not a mobile player. If Bacca is not getting the ball passed to him in the box, he seems to disappear the rest of the game, giving Milan one less player to help create chances. The last several seasons though, a lot of the buzz from the Primavera has been of a prolific striker in their ranks that could be the next one for Milan. That player is Patrick Cutrone, who has been lighting up the Milan youth system for some time now. He's had some sniffs with the senior squad, but many believe this season is when he can make the senior squad.

Many fans believe the end of Carlos Bacca with the Rossoneri has come, and the player will be sold this summer. A move like that would strenthen your belief that Patrick Cutrone's chance is here. As we all know now, Milan began a shopping spree this summer and one striker has already been purchased in the form of 21 year old Portuguese international, Andre Silva. The rumors now are Milan are still looking to strengthen their attack with the signing of a striker with a big name behind him. A signing like that would mean Patrick Cutrone's playing time would be even less should it come to fruition. Those rumors have not stopped the hungry Cutrone from proving a point. He has attacked this summer, like he has a point to prove.

Cutrone has been training hard and joined the team for preseason in excellent shape. Cutrone has been in instant impact thus far in preseason, scoring in nearly every match. When he is not scoring, he is helping his team offensively by being mobile and spreading the ball around. It all came to a beautiful display against Bayern Munich. Patrick Cutrone was mobile, he was aggressive and for his efforts, was rewarded with two first half goals against the reigning Bundesliga champions. The first goal, a header off a Ricardo Rodriguez free kick. The second, was a thing of beauty. As the play was developing, Cutrone went wide right to create space for the charging M'Baye Niang. Niang in turn fed Cutrone the ball who gave it back to Niang and then charged forward. Niang slid the pass to a streaking Bonaventura who spotted Cutrone in front of goal and just like that, tic-tac-toe, Cutrone got his second and Milan was up 3-0. Goals like that are not possible with Bacca in the lineup.

Patrick Crutone is still young both in age and experience. If he is even remotely as prolific with the senior squad as he was with the Primavera, Milan will have themselves quite a player for years to come. But what to do with the striker? Some pundits will tell you to send the kid on loan to gain pitch time and pick up his scoring touch in a lower league. There is merit to that argument. The other argument, which makes more sense, is to keep him on the senior squad, especially right now with just Andre Silva, Bacca and Niang in the mix. He'll get his opportunities, and has shown us this preseason so far that he can score against big clubs. If Milan do decide to get another striker, they should still keep Cutrone on the squad. Montella seems to like Cutrone's work ethic, hunger and drive, his ability to read the game both whilst pressuring the opponent and during possession play and that will give him opportunity. That hunger and drive is what gave Gianluca Lapadula opportunities, and Montella rewarded the player not only with subs, but also starting time.

In the next few weeks we shall see what Milan decide to do with Plizzari, Calabria, Locatelli, Mauri and Cutrone. What is a certainty is that the Rossoneri fans have a core of young players waiting on the outside, itching for that glory. Time will tell if they take their chances and run with it.

In part two, we will delve deeper into the Milan youth system and see who else to look out for. We'll even look at names you thought you forgot about, like Hachim Mastour. Stay tuned.