Diego Lopez had made one slight error too many. The Spanish goalkeeper was beaten at his near post by a Daniele Baselli strike, erasing AC Milan’s lead and handing a point to their hosts, Torino.
It was the latest in a series of wobbles from the formerly reliable Lopez. He had already shown weak hands in allowing Lorenzo Insigne’s free-kick to curl past him during a 4-0 loss to Napoli, while his distribution had been nervy throughout the start to this season.
In the aftermath to the Torino game, there were murmurings that 16-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma was set to take the out-of-form Lopez’s place between the posts for Milan’s upcoming must-win clash with Sassuolo.
Amid rumours that Lopez had fallen out with Sinisa Mihajlovic, Donnarumma started in Milan’s Trofeo Berlusconi friendly meeting with Inter. Within days, he would become the youngest goalkeeper ever to appear in Serie A.
Gianluigi Donnarumma's record for AC Milan this season: 3 games 3 wins 5 saves 1 clean sheet Bright future! pic.twitter.com/lpR2K6EXFM
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 1, 2015
Some saw Donnarumma’s selection against Sassuolo as a bit of a gimmick. Mihajlovic was up against the ropes with his future at the club on ice that was thinning by the week and dumping the previously undisputed first-choice goalkeeper for an untested youth seemed like the panicked decision-making of a man on edge.
However, despite the small furore surrounding his being picked for first team action, Donnarumma serenely accepted the call and didn’t look out of place. He debuted with a steady if unremarkable performance as Milan beat Sassuolo 2-1 with the only slight question mark regarding his positioning for Domenico Berardi’s well-placed free-kick to equalise.
The gossip columns raged in the post-match analysis with the focus evenly split between how Lopez would react to being benched and whether Donnarumma was truly ready for the step up at such an early juncture. Goalkeeping is after all a task fraught with possible pitfalls; one slip-up can cost a game and, in some more harrowing cases, define a player.
There is plenty of time ahead for Donnarumma to make those mistakes, and he no doubt will, though making them at this point could have severe ramifications on his development.
Cognisant of the risks involved, Mihajlovic nevertheless attempted to douse the flames by removing any air of personal conflict, re-affirming that the youngster’s selection was made purely on ability. “I chose Donnarumma because he has great technical and physical qualities, he’s better than Diego Lopez right now,” the Serbian told reporters matter-of-factly.
Donnarumma kept his place for the 1-0 win over Chievo three days later as Milan obtained a first clean sheet of the campaign. His second appearance provided a better look at his ability, as he was forced into making a reaction stop to tip over a header before denying Alberto Paloschi from close range in the second-half.
The display validated Donnarumma’s selection, ensuring he retained his position for Milan’s trip to face Lazio last Sunday evening. In a match that was viewed as the acid test for the club, unbeaten in three games, he put in a remarkably composed showing as Milan won 3-1 and moved into Serie A’s top six.
In the space of one week, Donnarumma had gone from relative unknown to occupying the goalkeeping berth at one of Italian football’s most prestigious clubs via three first team appearances. It was an unexpectedly fast rise to prominence, though the signs had been there to see for those paying close enough attention.
Donnarumma’s former coach with Italy’s Under-17s, Bruno Tedino, had described him as “the national team goalkeeper of the future”.
Towards the end of last season, Filippo Inzaghi – who preceded Mihajlovic in the Milan hotseat – thought highly enough of Donnarumma to bring him onto his substitute’s bench. Then, during pre-season, Mihajlovic included him in the squad for their International Champions Cup fixtures, even starting him in the friendly with Real Madrid.
Donnarumma’s quick start has led to comparisons with the Azzurri’s current number one, Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon, and the similarities go well beyond their shared first names.
Like Donnarumma, Buffon was eager to play and wasted no time fighting for a first team place in spite of his youth, making his debut for Parma at the age of 17.
That day, up against a Milan side that included George Weah and Roberto Baggio, Buffon kept a clean sheet. Previously, he had been told by coaches that he could be a regular first team player by the age of 20. The budding legend responded, “Oh, what am I supposed to do until then?”
Buffon would become a regular starter for Parma well before his 20th birthday and, nearing two decades later, he remains one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Donnarumma has a lot to live up to if he is to get anywhere near emulating one of Italian football’s modern icons, but his maturity and determination to improve should serve him well in attempting to.
When his father, Alfonso, was asked to discuss Donnarumma’s recent recognition, he had no qualms about the sequence of events proving a case of too much, too soon for his son.
“Fortunately it won’t get to his head”, he said. “Gianluigi is a quiet and calm boy; after training or a match, for example, he prefers to go to the hotel where his friends from the youth team are or go home to the family. He tries to learn something new from every situation, the thing he hates is being unprepared and therefore he always does a lot of research.”
So far, the research seems to be working. Per game, Donnarumma has made 2.33 saves, four catches and 0.67 punches. In every one of those categories, he bests his more experienced teammate Lopez. The Spaniard does have higher distribution accuracy, though it’s worth noting Donnarumma’s average length of distribution is much greater.
It was recently announced that Lopez will be out for an indefinite period as he receives treatment for patellar tendonitis, an issue which has been troubling him for several months.
However, there’s no certainty that he will return to Milan’s starting line-up once fully fit. Donnarumma has adjusted well to the limelight and, with each passing week, he is proving his selection to be far more than a mere statement of defiance from his coach.