Rarely a player reaches their pomp at 19. If a teenage left-back is caught out of position, it’s expected. If an 18-year-old right-winger takes too many touches and loses possession, he’ll learn. But with a goalkeeper, a mistake is magnified ten-fold, and when that inevitable error does occur, the criticism and disparagements are more vociferous – particularly at a club like Milan.
Gianluigi Donnarumma, a player thrust into the limelight at such a young age, has experienced his fair share of criticism in his fledgling career. The teenager who is burdened with the task of being the heir to the exceptional Gianluigi Buffon, the person responsible for safeguarding the Milan and Azzurri goals, has had a mixed start to his professional career.
Commanding performances, fantastic saves and composed displays have been interspersed with disappointing errors, fumbled shots and misread crosses. This is not abnormal for any youthful keeper, but when they play for a team with the stature of Milan, the spotlight shines down intently.
In five years’ time, Donnarumma may look back on this as a fantastic learning curve, a baptism of fire, the best experience a young goalkeeper could possibly want. Or he may look back on it and wish his path had taken a slightly different course.
Though he had a decent month prior to the derby incident – where he misjudged a cross in the last moments, which Mauro Icardi gratefully capitalised on – there have been calls from certain sections of the supporters for Pepe Reina, the former Liverpool and Napoli stopper, to replace him.
From the perspective of the Rossoneri, this may eliminate the inconsistencies temporarily. A composed, proven, Champions League winner, who has played at the elite level for many years, could come in and provide a solid base from Milan to build. But from the viewpoint of Donnarumma’s development, this may prove detrimental, which in turn will hinder Milan long-term.
Player’s learn from their mistakes and come back better, supposedly anyway. A lot of faith has been placed in Donnarumma’s potential ability and the fact Milan have kept him, and have made him the main man, means they have to stick with him through the difficult moments – which in fairness they have done… so far. But with the pressure that comes with being the first-choice keeper at a European giant, you must be mentally strong to recover from errors.
In the last few years, Donnarumma does not seem to be eradicating them. As soon as he goes on a consistent run, a mistake rears its ugly head, and the same questions get asked of him again.
Although there is clear talent there, and it is understandable why they wanted to keep him and fast-track him as their number one, it may have been prudent to send him out on loan when he first burst onto the scene. Taken him out of this highly pressurised environment and let him develop at a smaller club. Then, when he makes the inevitable mistakes, the blowback would be less severe, his confidence would not be knocked as badly, and he could dust himself off and go again.
A few years plying his trade elsewhere, before making his ascendancy to the Milan number one spot, could have eliminated many of the errors which are a recurring source of frustration and ire for many of the Milanese fans.
Alas, he has been, and will be, their No.1. Would it be beneficial to bench him for a few games, to give him some respite, to hide him from criticism temporarily so he can regain some confidence? Perhaps. But Milan may have missed a big trick in not farming out in loan. Long-term, it could be a great decision, it could be a poor decision, we will never know. But certainly, the pressure on him would have been less and, in that environment, he could have flourished to an even greater extent.
Hopefully he matures into the world class keeper he promises to be. Hopefully the pressure does not consume him. For Milan and Azzurri fans, everybody is keen to see him succeed. But patience is a virtue which not everyone possesses.