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Analysing why Hakan Çalhanoğlu starts for AC Milan?

Every fan wants to know.

Hakan Çalhanoğlu
LightRocket via Getty Images

These days, mentions of the Turk’s name in Milan circles are greeted with scoffs, sneers, and a complete resignation of belief or expectation in that order: He’s the one who we now know. All there is is the placid reality of his continuation with the club and an enduring puzzlement as to why he still dons a Milan shirt every weekend.

Hakan Çalhanoğlu for Hamburg
Bongarts/Getty Images

Hakan finished the 2013/14 season with 11 goals and 5 assists in all competitions. An impressive tally for a 20-year-old midfielder in his first season in the Bundesliga. His performance was further elevated by the fact that Hamburg’s team, led now by the ailing Rafael Van Der Vaart, replaced managers twice that season, finished 16th and narrowly escaped relegation: Naturally, there were suitors.

Arsenal showed some interest but had Ozil who they signed the year before, Dortmund and Liverpool cast furtive glances in that direction but it was Bayer Leverkusen who would act on their hunch and lure the Turk away from the Imtech Arena.

Average key passes/90 for players under 23 (2015/16)
nieuwsblad.be

He went on to score and assist in every competition except the DFB pokal where he failed to set any teammates up but got two goals for himself. That season, he directly contributed 24 goals, bagging 13 and assisting 11 more, a whopping 38.7% of the offensive output for his club only behind Eriksen and De Bruyne in Europe in terms of attacking influence for players under 23.

After a mixed period with Bayer Leverkusen in 2015/16 season - in which Javier Hernandez completely dominated the limelight - he got back to form the following season, scoring or assisting in seven consecutive games before January 2017. Unfortunately, he was banned - from playing in any capacity - for four months in February 2017 for transfer related misgivings that had occurred when he was 17.

Later that year, he joined Milan.

Under the new Chinese owners, with 250 million euros spent on the market and, perhaps most importantly, the incredible weight of expectations from the fans, everyone folded: Even Leonardo Bonucci, an experienced campaigner and serial winner who was brought in from Juventus to turn the tide in Milan’s favour.

Hakan Çalhanoğlu transfer graphic
Vins

Again, and strangely enough, he did his bit. He finished the season with 8 goals and 10 assists. Not bad for a left-winger who also deputised as a central and attacking midfielder throughout that season. Milan would part ways with Vincenzo Montella and hire the then youth team handler, Gennaro Gattuso to steer them right after falling short of expectations following a summer of free-spending.

The following season, playing under Gattuso in a more restrained Milan side, registered 4 goals and 13 assists in all competitions: Once again, a reasonable return in a team where Gonzalo Higuain had been brought in to score 20 plus goals: but failed miserably.

Between 2017 and 2019 across two seasons, Milan played 94 games. He featured in 91 of those games, came off the bench once against Ludogorets in the Europa League and missed the other two due to a calf injury and an indirect suspension.

The implication of these numbers became apparent when RB Leipzig deposited an offer worth about 25 million euros with Milan, agreed on personal terms with the player only for the move to be blocked at the last minute by Gennaro Gattuso following a spat with Paolo Maldini about the player’s value on the pitch: Çalhanoğlu had Gattuso’s trust.

He stayed on and started the next game versus Roma in the league. Like most of the season, he had a relatively anonymous game with one shot off target, no tackles won, two crosses, one interception and one foul drawn.

Why does he start? Fans were aghast.

Carlo Ancelotti: Champions League final 2007
Getty Images

In 2007, under Carlo Ancelotti, Milan had played its best football within the framework of a Christmas tree. Seedorf and Kaka occupied the advanced attacking midfield roles behind Sheva or Inzaghi.

The team was protected by a solid base of Pirlo who dictated play, Ambrosini who was positionally astute and was the extra man in a defensive transition and Gattuso, who pressed and hounded the opposition at every turn.

There was a perfect balance between solidity and fluency with a solid regista to conduct the play, incisive midfielders to link and transition and forwards who were excellent at interpreting space and tormenting defenders with guile. Milan could dominate.

In Çalhanoğlu’s Milan, for a variety of reasons, this was often not the case. In his first two seasons, lining up in a Barca-type 4-3-3, he often started games on the left but had to play out of position as the extra midfielder or in defence as the extra body when teams tried to invade from the left-flank.

His questionable athleticism, lack of speed and uni-dimensional style meant that in the transition to attack, out of breath and short of options, he often became just another extra body: unable to contribute anything more than a whipped cross, a tentative shot on goal or the occasional back pass to another teammate.

And yet, for Vincenzo Montella, Gennaro Gattuso and now, Stefano Pioli: Hakan Çalhanoğlu was and remains a mainstay within the first team.

Why?

Gerard Deulofeu
Getty Images

The last time Milan fielded a pure winger on the left was in January 2017 when Gerard Deulofeu transferred to the club on loan. In the following window, of the five attacking players who started the season, only Sunderland want away, Fabio Borini was a viable replacement to the Turk: A reflection of how far the club had fallen.

In the following campaign, Villareal forward, Samu Castillejo was signed but was more suited to play from the right, had to adapt to the Serie A and could not deliver consistently enough to hold a permanent spot: Calhanoglu remained the undisputed king of the left flank.

This season, the trend has continued. Despite the signing of the versatile left-winger, Ante Rebic from Eintracht, Calhanoglu has once again, had the benefit of the doubt with Pioli stating;

”He’s a very strong and important player, I don’t think he’s a pure winger, he must play across the board, collaborate with Theo and Bonaventura, we must be good at covering the whole field.

The statement, subtle as it was, was both an indictment of Çalhanoğlu’s contribution and a homage to the fledgling Theo Hernandez whose explosive attacking game is helped by Çalhanoğlu’s propensity to cut-in and whip crosses into the attacking area -leaving space behind for an overlap- or tuck into the midfield and serve as defensive cover in the event of a loss of possession.

Make no mistake, Çalhanoğlu can light up a pitch when he’s in the mood: The game versus Lecce, Pioli’s first game in charge is a prime example. He commandeered the midfield with properly executed transitions to attack and got a wonderful goal, combined beautifully with Krunic before teeing up Piatek who deftly executed a finish and was an all-round leader on the night.

Although some still believe in the Youtube sensation from 2015, the one who came fully formed with dizzying runs, well-timed passes, and spectacular free-kicks: The stats tell a different story.

During his four seasons in the German topflight, he scored an average of 0.23 goals per 90, he created 0.19 assists per 90 and had a points per game ratio of 1.46. He also scored every 303 minutes which divided by 90, is every three games. In reality, he had only delivered in spurts and had long spells of 5,6 and even eight games without a look-in at each of his two clubs.

Why does Hakan start?

Çalhanoğlu versus Torino, January 2020
Getty Images

It is Stefano Pioli’s managerial debut in the Coppa-Italia. He is the second coach this year and only got the nod after Luciano Spalletti had passed on an offer, preferring to retain his fat paycheck from Inter to taking on the toxic atmosphere at the club.

Buzzing at the prospect of another win and yearning to cultivate the growing confidence at the club, Milan rose to the occasion. The game began as expected, a 50-50 contest with scoring opportunities on both ends of the pitch. After winning the ball in midfield, Samu laid a silky pass to Rebic who beat his man and sent a speculative ball across goal. Bonaventura arrived in time to shank the ball home.

1-0

Milan continued to create chances and continued to waste them with the same level of urgency. In the 33rd minute, against the run of play - after some shambolic positional play by Romagnoli - Belotti found Verdi in the middle of the park who clipped a lob over Milan’s ineffective offside trap into Geison Bremer for Torino’s first real chance.

1-1

The exchange continued well into the second half until Milan, after conceeding a cheap free-kick in the middle of the park, and also, as a bonus, decided to concede 25 yards of pristine green, San-Siro grass to Il Granata. Simone Verdi beat Samu easily and laid a pass to Ola Aina who was in acres of space on the right-hand side. The Nigerian executed a perfect cut-back and whipped in a delightful cross to the head of Geison Bremer.

1-2

And then, Hakan time.

He went on to score two piledrivers and helped Milan to a win which they otherwise, would not have gotten.

Why does Hakan Çalhanoğlu start?

Calhanoglu and Higuain
Sky

Maybe his affable character: For all of Zlatan’s machismo, he quickly warmed to the Turk when he transferred to the club, even greeting him in Turkish in their first meeting. A simple google search of “Higuain Milan Calhanoglu” shows Çalhanoğlu arms all over the Argentine during his first week. Last season, when Piatek, Bakayoko, and Paqueta were dominating games, Çalhanoğlu was often in the mix. Quietly galvanising relationships, bringing the team together.

Maybe his highlights: Çalhanoğlu, for all he is, has never played well consistently. His most consistent period being for Bayer Leverkusen in 2016 when he scored or assisted in seven games and between October and December. He does know how to put on a show though: his goal versus Dortmund for Hamburg is a quiet reminder of how devastating the Turk can be on his day.

Maybe, it’s not Çalhanoğlu: Maybe like Higuain, Piatek, Bacca and the other superstars who lined up to play for Milan in the last decade, Milan simply failed him. A lack of complementary talent, the dearth of long-term planning at the club, and three owners in the last half of this last decade are all potential reasons for his failure to deliver at the club.

Researching Hakan Çalhanoğlu was an interesting journey. Quiet, diminutive and ominously similar to his countryman, Mesut Ozil. Now 25, he was and remains an enigma: A prodigious talent probably something short of the talismanic presence that his early exploits indicated that he would become.