Hakan Çalhanoğlu, a free-kick master and another Milan No.10 to idolise
As a No.10 with a penchant for a spectacular free-kick, Hakan Çalhanoğlu is maintaining a fine tradition at AC Milan.
Milan are some distance from their former glories, but there are still strands connecting them to the past, both directly and spiritually.
Rino Gattuso ticks the first of those boxes, and, Çalhanoğlu is as good a bet as any to tick the second.
Çalhanoğlu’s dead-ball confidence continues in a long tradition of Rossoneri stars.
Even as clubs fall from the pinnacle, something within their identity will remain a constant: for Ajax, for example, it’s an ability to produce a stream of young and often local talent.
For Milan, it’s creative midfielders who double as free-kick wizards.
Andrea Pirlo is the ex-Milan playermost associated with the skill in the club’s Champions League glory days in the mid-2000s, but Ronaldinho took over in his short time with the club, as did David Beckham for a very brief spell.
Even more recently, with the club languishing lower down the Serie A table than usual, Keisuke Honda could be relied upon for deadly deliveries. And now it’s the turn of Çalhanoğlu to step up.
Although not a free-kick, his first goal for Milan – in a group stage win over Austria Vienna – shows what he’s capable of.
Çalhanoğlu’s set-piece technique has often been compared to that of a man whose name alone gets 2000s nostalgists all misty-eyed: former Lyon man Juninho Pernambucano.
The Brazilian reminds us of a time when yes, there were wealthy clubs in the competition, but the (relatively) little guy could put them to the sword.
Indeed he was part of a team which ran peak-era Milan dangerously close in 2006 before succumbing to two late goals at the San Siro.
The resemblance was even clearer before his Leverkusen days, when he was wearing the Lyon-esque white and blue of Hamburg, to the point where anyone squinting could be mistaken for thinking some of his strikes were vintage Juninho.
Take this example from a game between Brazil and Greece…
And now this Çalhanoğlu effort against Borussia Dortmund back in 2014…
Milan might be too wealthy to be considered ‘the little guy’, even now, but they have been out of the picture long enough for the next generation of fans to consider them ‘of another era’, in much the same way as Ryan Sessegnon made us all feel old by talking about growing up watching players like Luke Shaw.
Part of that came from having iconic players with iconic shirt numbers and – with respect to Honda and Kevin-Prince Boateng – they never reached the levels of predecessors in the No.10 shirt like Clarence Seedorf and Rui Costa.
Another No.10 to idolise
Çalhanoğlu isn’t near that level either, and indeed few are, but there’s something intangibly iconic about that Milan No.10 shirt.
The appeal, indeed, comes precisely from the fact that it wasn’t worn by more eye-catching and long-serving players like Paolo Maldini or Andriy Shevchenko.
For years, your favourite player being the one in the No.10 shirt meant two things: you weren’t a local with that special bond with Maldini, and you probably weren’t even a Milan fan invested in their most prolific scorer. You watched Milan specifically for the man wearing 10, and for the magic he was capable of producing.
Çalhanoğlu has the magic in his boots to be that man.