It has undoubtedly taken longer than we would have liked in terms of seeing Hakan Calhanoglu hit his stride, but the Milan playmaker is finally showing signs of being a focal point of our future.
Since his arrival in 2017, the Turkish international has struggled to prove his worth on a consistent basis. While we’ve seen flashes of the obvious talent he possesses, it hasn’t been on show enough to silence his doubters.
Given the importance of the role in which he plays and the number on the back of his shirt, the standards are undoubtedly high and he has fallen short of matching them during his spell and he would arguably agree with that as he will know better than anyone that he is capable of contributing much more.
In the 2017/18 campaign, he managed six goals and nine assists in 31 Serie A appearances. Last year, he managed three goals and six assists in 36 league outings, but with one game to go this season, he has nine goals and nine assists in 34 games.
A key factor in that improvement has been his form since the restart, as he has been at the heart of our positive attacking play as we’ve scored 32 goals in 11 games overall, and he has added a decisive touch in the final third to actually make a tangible difference against top-class opposition.
Growing in maturity, confidence and belief
It’s important to emphasise the influence of two people in this ‘breakthrough’ for Calhanoglu. Stefano Pioli has played him in his more natural and effective role as a proper No.10 through the middle, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not only helped raise his level and boost his statistics by finishing off his assists, but the mentality and confidence seems to be rubbing off on his teammate too.
“Pioli is a very important person for me and for the team, he’s a coach who listens, wants to know what the player thinks,” he is quoted as saying by Football Italia. “I play in my role, the role I prefer. We are all happy that he renewed, it wasn’t easy for him either.
“The first year I arrived in Milan, I hadn’t played the six previous months, and it was very difficult to physically get back in shape. I had to learn the Italian language and the football, which is very different from the Bundesliga, there are many quality players here and tactically they try to watch all the movements.
“The second year I improved a bit with [Gennaro] Gattuso. The third year has been mine. I like to play in Serie A.”
Further, it’s also important not to forget that Calhanoglu is now 26. He was just 23 when he signed for Milan, and although he was experienced at a high level prior to his arrival, it’s still a lot for any player to come in and light things up in a new country, culture, league and squad with possible personal issues also distracting him during that process of adaptation and adjustment.
He’s now had time to settle, mature as a player and as an individual and earn the faith and support of those around him to take on that responsibility of being an influential figure in this side.
Make no mistake, there is absolutely still room for improvement and he can’t rest on this fine run he’s on and get complacent. He has to strive to get even better and it’s a constant process of proving himself when he’s at a club like Milan as we continue to try and get back to the top.
That said, he has shown the type of character and resoluteness which marks him out as a top player with the necessary mindset, and it’s hoped that by taking the momentum and confidence from this season into the next campaign, with Pioli still at the helm and potentially with Ibrahimovic still leading the line ahead of him, Calhanoglu is just getting started and there is much more to come from our No.10 moving forward.