Rising Stars: Gianluigi Donnarumma already heading for greatness

In Depth

Gianluigi Donnarumma is still only just starting out in his career, but it’s already crystal clear the young AC Milan goalkeeper is destined for greatness.

There are a number of misconceptions when it comes to goalkeepers, particularly in England. Chief among them are the fact that a No.1 should cost less than a No.9, or any other starter for that matter.

When you think about that, it’s a bizarre assumption. After all, you can win trophies with a couple of average outfielders but very rarely an average goalkeeper.

Another is that it’s a position that demands experience. A young keeper will surely struggle to cope with the pressures of the job.

Although that’s again a more common opinion in the Premier League, until relatively recently, better shot stoppers were often overlooked for more experienced ones.

However, there’s a crop of emerging goalkeepers that are challenging those theories, and at the forefront of this change is one that has been in the news for the wrong reasons this week for the first time in his short career.

A costly slip in concentration from Gianluigi Donnarumma, rather than a goalkeeping error, cost Milan at the weekend, but the mistake has almost taken on greater significance due to the fact that teenager has made so few since breaking into the team.

He is just 18, but this massive manchild belies his tender years in almost every way imaginable. He’s already in pole position to replace the legendary Gigi Buffon in the Azzurri goal.

Nobody has been able to dislodge the Juve man for almost 20 years, and the same scenario seems destined to recur when Donnarumma inevitably takes his spot as Italy No.1.

Learning from a man that recently made his 1000th career appearance has only made Donnarumma determined to replicate his idol’s success.

Longevity is key, after all, and the fact that Buffon is old enough to be the teenager’s father brings into focus just how much he could achieve if he applies himself in the same manner he has up to now.

“I have a wonderful rapport with Buffon. In these first few call-ups he has given me so much. I follow his every movement in training, because I want to learn everything from him.”

When Donnarumma made his Serie A debut at 16 there were many that thought it little more than a PR stunt from manager of the moment Sinisa Mihaijlovic.

Diego Lopez had begun the 2015-16 season poorly, but drafting in a minor was surely nothing more than a kick up the arse for the Spaniard, who was among the best of an admittedly bad bunch the campaign previous.

Fast forward 18 months, however, and Donnarumma is still between the posts at San Siro.

One need only refer back to another sweet 16 debutant to realise that there are those out there able to deal with the pressures of a massive club. Francesco Totti made his league debut for Roma 24 years ago last week, six years before Donnarumma was even born, and is still at the Stadio Olimpico.

While it’s unlikely the Milan keeper will show the same loyalty – Mino Raiola is his agent, after all – he still has the opportunity to become a legend of Italian football.

That may seem a sweeping statement, particularly in light of such a glaring error, but since his first game against Sassuolo back in 2015 Donnarumma has not lost his place. Instead he’s cemented a starting berth to a level that would now require a monumental offer for Milan to allow the 18-year old to relinquish it.

The Rossoneri graduate isn’t just the most promising keeper on the continent as things stand, he’s not too far off the best of them already.

He may have cost Milan two points at the weekend, but he’s won them far more over the course of the season, time and again bailing out a distinctly average Milan side that are now on the rise after a hell of a fall thanks to youngsters of Donnarumma’s pedigree.

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His imposing frame is obviously a bonus, but the teen is far from just a big obstacle to have to beat. His reflexes are superb, his hands strong, and his communication and decision making are improving with the playing time he is afforded.

Other clubs have certainly taken note with regards to giving opportunities to goalkeepers that would previously have been written off as too young and fragile.

Some are the latter, of course, but from day one Donnarumma has never seemed to be in that category, nor does it seem likely that his mistake against Pescara will effect him.

It was only his third error that has led to a goal in two seasons – one more than the likes of Buffon and Neuer in that time for comparison – and the fact that nine and five month gaps have separated those mistakes highlights that Donnarumma has the maturity to quickly forget them.

By @P_I_Players

Weeks after becoming the youngest Milan debutant since the great Paolo Maldini, Donnarumma said with some confidence: “My composure is my strength even in the difficult moments of a game.

“A goalkeeper has to radiate calm. Mentally I’m older than my years. I realised that on my debut. I should have been anxious. But I wasn’t.”

His stats this season certainly affirm that self-assuredness.

A save success rate 78.9% is the best of all keepers to make more than 15 appearances in Serie A this season, while a total of 116 saves is also a league high.

To put that into perspective, Buffon’s save success rate of 73.6% has come from just 72 shots on target faced. Donnarumma has had to field more than twice that figure by comparison (147).

He’s out in front for successful cross claims too (39) to prove that he has no problems when it comes to commanding his area, while a total of 10 clean sheets is a match for Buffon despite him being by far busier.

Simply put there is no real weakness to Donnarumma’s game, regardless of his nightmare moment on Saturday.

It’s nothing but a minor blip in the career of a keeper destined to go down as one of the greats.

By Martin Laurence