All hail Fikayo Tomori, Milan’s Serie A campione and England’s best CB
Gareth Southgate was trending on Twitter as Sunday bled into the start of the working week. It’s not an uncommon occurrence for the England manager but it was the latest sign of the clamour for a certain centre-back to make the national squad.
One thousand miles away, Fikayo Tomori spent Sunday night convulsing happily around the Mapei Stadium in northern Italy. He had just helped AC Milan clinch their first Scudetto since 2011 with a thumping 3-0 win at Sassuolo.
After being unceremoniously dumped by Chelsea, Tomori took the opportunity to spread his wings and has grown into his own skin at the San Siro.
Tomori has been a central part of a Milan rear-guard that achieved their best defensive record for a decade – they conceded two goals in their final 11 league matches – and has formed a watertight partnership with Pierre Kalulu.
No wonder he’s being held up as the future of the Milan defence. And the Italians know a thing or two about defending.
Alessandro Nesta said Tomori and Kalulu are “two modern centre-backs who put pressure high up the pitch and leave a lot of space behind – that allows the team to stay high, which is fundamental nowadays.”
For the notoriously hard-to-please Fabio Capello, the pair represent “the future of Milan”.
While Mauro Tassotti, who formed one of the great Milan defences alongside Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, said: “Tomori is good at winning the ball back, his speed is impressive. He anticipates a lot and he’s always aggressive.”
With Harry Maguire enduring a torrid season at Manchester United and John Stones not guaranteed a starting spot at Manchester City, there’s an argument that Tomori has been the standout English defender in 2021-22.
His exclusion from the March squad was baffling, Southgate justifying Tomori’s omission by explaining he wanted to keep continuity from England’s success in Euro 2020.
That explanation will wear thin if Tomori is not picked for June’s Nations League matches – and the World Cup later this year.
Tomori’s status in Italy hasn’t been harmed by his eagerness to throw himself into Italian life.
Determined to learn the native language, the defender is now fluent enough to conduct press conferences in Italian. And life on the peninsula clearly suits the 24-year-old.
“My sister said: ‘You just seem a lot calmer…'” Tomori explained to The Guardian last month. “I think that’s probably the way Italy is.
“Everything is a bit more chilled. In England, everything is so rushed and hustle and bustle. In Italy, everyone’s walking a bit slower. Everything’s just a bit calmer.”
Both Tomori and Tammy Abraham, who is breaking records at Roma, have spoken of how they no longer rush home from training and take the time to enjoy their surroundings.
The former Chelsea defender has fallen into the habit of relaxing on the terrace with team-mates and friends, and like the Milanese, he drinks a macchiato after each meal. He never drank coffee in England.
And how could we forget the pastries?
Tomori went viral in March after being offered a tray of sfogliatelle (a Neapolitan pastry, filled with cream, custard or dried fruit) during a flight home from Naples. After eyeing the popular treats suspiciously for some time, Tomori carefully tucked in before showing enthusiastic appreciation of his newfound delight.
All this behaviour has wooed Italians, desperate for their foreign imports to embrace the traditions of their country and immerse themselves in Italian culture.
The days where English footballers would lament the absence of Rice Krispies from supermarket shelves are long gone.
😋 Fikayo #Tomori scopre le sfogliatelle per la prima volta
⁉️E voi da che parte state: meglio la riccia o la frolla? pic.twitter.com/P7MtTVi8CZ
— calciomercato.it (@calciomercatoit) March 12, 2022
Coffee and pastries are all well and good, but it’s worth underlining how impressive Tomori has been on the pitch for Milan this season.
Only the goalkeeper, Mike Maignan, has played more minutes than the Canadian-born defender. Nobody has won more aerial duels and tackles in the famous black-and-red stripes than Tomori. Milan look significantly better when he’s on the pitch.
When comparing Milan to their title rivals Inter, no player at either club won more tackles (73) or made more interceptions (45) than the 24-year-old. Only the experienced Inter defender Milan Skrinar made more than Tomori’s 77 clearances.
Let’s not forget the differences between football in England and Italy. While the Premier League has become more tactically refined, it’s still noticeably more energetic and basketball-like than its continental rivals.
Serie A, even today, places more emphasis on tactical intelligence, on managing games rather than going all-out-attack. Tomori has thrived in this environment.
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Stefane Pioli is a relentless coach, constantly dissecting performances to highlight the fine details that are needed to succeed. In other words, the perfect mentor for a player who isn’t quite the finished article just yet.
Pioli loves Tomori for his “aggression, pace, and a capacity to read the game,” but he wants him to curb his instinct to anticipate the play too early and wait longer for attacks to unfold – something that is alien to a host of Premier League defenders.
Maldini has been lending his expertise too. The Milan technical director has been giving lessons on body shape in crucial defensive moments and anticipating the reaction of opposition forwards.
Never mind the University of Cobham, Tomori has been receiving a PhD in defending from some of the world’s best teachers. No wonder he speaks with authority on the subject nowadays.
“When the ball’s here, I need to be here,” he told the Daily Mail in April. “When the ball goes, I know I have to be two metres over in that direction, or be looking for this particular player… OK, the ball’s there, where’s my team-mate? Where’s the opposition?’
“If the ball goes over the top I need to be in a position where I can leave the striker and get there, but if the ball goes into feet, I’m in a position to go press.”
It sounds frantic, indicative of a profession that requires total concentration and where any slip could prove costly. But Tomori is dedicated to his task and is a highly ambitious individual who wasn’t content to fester on the bench at Stamford Bridge.
“I hope to become the strongest defender in Serie A,” he said recently. “I work every day to try to reach certain levels. The most important thing for me is to win with Milan.”
He’s certainly fulfiled the latter part, with the Scudetto nestling in the Milan trophy cabinet. And he’s well on his way to becoming Serie A’s best defender too.
That only leaves Southgate to win over. But, with the stark improvement in Tomori’s game during 18 months in Italy, it feels like a matter of time before Tomori represents his country again.
The defender has won two England caps to date. Expect that total to swell over the next couple of years.
By Michael Lee