Milan duo emerge as most improved players last season to cement places in Pioli’s XI

Kessie Calhanoglu AC Milan Atalanta

As the assessments and analysis of Milan’s 2019/20 season continue to roll in, there should be a lot said about the improvement from Hakan Calhanoglu and Franck Kessie.

Both men arrived at the club in 2017 as part of our rebuild under previous ownership, with Calhanoglu aged 23 at the time he signed while Kessie was just 20.

READ MORE: AC Milan 2019/20 Season Review: Player of the Year, highs and lows and rating for campaign

In his first two seasons combined, the Turkish playmaker contributed 12 goals and 27 assists in 91 appearances, while he bagged 11 goals and nine assists in 38 games this past season.

As for Kessie, he struggled in a similar fashion to showcase his talent and entirely convince, as while he was energetic and combative, there wasn’t enough quality from him on a consistent basis to back up what he had displayed at Atalanta previously.

This year though, both players have kicked on and come a long way under Stefano Pioli…

Settled, natural roles and results arrive

Perhaps one of the biggest factors behind their respective turnarounds has been playing them in their more natural and effective roles, while the system and general style of play implemented by Pioli has also suited their characteristics.

After two years of largely playing out on the left flank, Calhanoglu has excelled this season through the middle as a central playmaker, where his vision and technical quality has come to the fore as he has been a focal point in our impressive attacking play while adding a decisive end product too.

Meanwhile, Kessie has dropped back into a deeper role in midfield and has formed a superb partnership with Ismael Bennacer in a double pivot in front of the defence in the 4-2-3-1 system.

The Ivorian’s effort and drive was never in doubt, as he always did an important job from a defensive perspective. However, the lack of improvement and development of his game was in the final third, as he didn’t look entirely comfortable as a box-to-box midfielder as he lacked composure and quality in dangerous attacking positions.

In his new role, the 23-year-old can now focus on being a disruptive force against the opposition by imposing himself on games in the heart of the midfield, but his powerful, penetrative runs have more of a purpose now whether it’s outnumbering teams on the counter attack or posing a direct threat himself.

Both Calhanoglu and Kessie are fundamental to our desire to play at a higher tempo with our intense pressing and pressure off the ball, but they’ve also become absolutely vital to our efforts in attack as while Kessie does brilliantly in helping us transition from defence to attack quickly, Calhanoglu is now scoring goals and providing assists on a more regular basis, particularly after the restart.

With that in mind, both players are set to be indispensable pieces in Pioli’s XI moving forward and it was a huge boost to see them deliver as they did after the lockdown.