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Evaluating AC Milan’s Latest Top Project: Pierre Kalulu

The Rossoneri’s newest defender made his debut much earlier than expected.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-GENOA-AC MILAN Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

After moving from Olympique Lyon 2 to AC Milan during the summer transfer window, Pierre Kalulu has recently been thrust into the Rossoneri’s starting eleven due to injuries to centre-backs Simon Kjær and Matteo Gabbia. The 20-year-old first started against Sparta Prague in the Champions League and has since made appearances against Parma, Genoa, Sassuolo and Lazio. Kalulu’s form has been inconsistent so far; he has made a handful of errors that have led directly to goals, but he has impressed with his speed and tackling abilities. The Frenchman, who has been playing out of position, has some obvious strengths, as well as some amendable weaknesses.


Strengths

Kalulu’s biggest strength has been his tackling and his ability to read opposing passes. His speed gives him an advantage over centre-backs like Kjær because he can afford to take chances on tackles because his pace is comparable to most forwards. His tackles themselves are actually controlled and smooth, and though they will not make many highlight reels, they are extremely effective.

Above, Kalulu wins two tackles against Sassuolo in a span of fifteen seconds. In the first, Kalulu is trailing Domenico Berardi, a technically skilled player, but easily catches up to the midfielder and calmly pokes the ball away from him. After the throw-in, Mehdi Bourabia receives the ball and tries to cut by Kalulu, but the 20-year-old stays calm, watches the ball and then easily steals it when he gets the opportunity. Kalulu’s tackles are calm, methodical, and the defender never dives in, not allowing himself to be beat or commit a pointless foul. He has also managed an incredible 2.75 interceptions per 90 minutes, which would have ranked first in Serie A last season.

Despite typically playing as a full-back, Kalulu has also shown that he’s not afraid to be physical. He essentially shut down Francesco Caputo in the second half against Sassuolo, man-marking him across the pitch. Kalulu frequently uses his arm to let the opposing forwards know of his presence, and he has no problems dealing with big, target man strikers. This style of play helps him deal with forwards who have their back to Milan’s backline, forcing them to find options away from the goal.


Weaknesses

Kalulu’s biggest weakness so far has been his tendency to make critical errors that lead to goals. Against Parma, he was easily beaten by Gervinho, who played an easy backwards pass into the box that eventually found the back of the net. Genoa’s first goal against Milan was largely Alessio Romagnoli’s fault, though Kalulu certainly could have stepped to the ball better, and the 20-year-old was badly out-jumped by Destro for Genoa’s second. At the San Siro against Lazio, he was technically at fault for both goals as well, and though the first was the result of a horrifyingly bad penalty call, he did lose track of Immobile for the second. Kalulu should improve with more time at minutes at centre-back, but being responsible for three goals in four matches is certainly not a good look. Unfortunately, the centre-back position requires defenders to be alert and in-form at all times. If you play brilliantly for 89 of 90 minutes but give up a goal, you haven’t had a good match.

Kalulu also must improve his positioning. He often follows forwards too deep into the midfield and leaves a gaping hole in the backline that can leave Romagnoli and Davide Calabria scrambling to track runs.

Here, Kalulu comes much too far up into the midfield. As a general rule of thumb for centre-backs, if you are pressuring a player when your side’s attacking midfielder, Çalhanoğlu in this case, could be doing it instead, you are too high up the pitch. Kalulu never has a shot at winning the ball, and Lazio turns his error into a three-on-three chance that is sent just wide of the goal. Kalulu has to be aware of the space around him and let the forwards be the first line of the defense, the midfield the second, and the defenders the third. It’s not hard to imagine a situation where a diagonal run in this scenario results in a match-changing goal.

One last area that Kalulu needs to work on is his passing consistency. The Frenchman has shown that he has the ability to play fantastic long-balls forward, but often he boots the ball to the opposing team, or plays a mid-range pass directly out of bounds. Again, better focus and increasing comfort at centre-back should help alleviate these issues.


Final Thoughts

Kalulu clearly has a high potential, but his mental lapses and avoidable mistakes shows that he needs more time to develop, though ideally not in the amateur French fourth division as with his former club. Any Serie B side or a Serie A team in need of defensive reinforcements, like Spezia or Torino, would likely be the best option. Despite flashing at centre-back, the presence of Andrea Conti and Calabria means that he likely will not be able to break into Milan’s right-back spot this season, so it would probably be best for both him and the club to find playing time elsewhere.

When considering his strengths and weaknesses, Kalulu appears to be on track to be a quality starter in a top European league. Pace and defensive technique are much more difficult to teach, and his positioning and mental resiliency should improve as he becomes more comfortable with Milan and top-flight football. The 20-year-old is still a very raw prospect and will need to develop significantly before he can break into the starting eleven in a full-time role. That said, he is a very good, if not great, prospect, and his past five matches at centre-back will certainly help him become a much more balanced defender in the future. For now though, it looks like AC Milan is going to bring in an additional defender in the winter transfer window, and Simon Kjær will likely be back from injury before the Benevento match, so Rossoneri fans have likely seen the last of Kalulu for a while.