Forza Italian Football’s ‘Next Generation’ series takes an in-depth look at some of the most exciting players on the peninsula who are yet to make their breakthrough. To qualify, the youngsters must be under 21 and have made a maximum of five Serie A appearances.
“I always saw the San Siro as a dream, which was realised tonight.”
Matteo Gabbia didn’t mince his words after coming off the bench to make his Serie A debut for AC Milan against Torino in February.
It was the reward for years of blood, sweat and tears that had been channelled towards one objective – making his childhood ambition of pulling on the Rossoneri shirt a reality. A shirt he grew up watching the likes of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Kaka wear.
But there was no emotion behind Stefano Pioli’s decision to hand Gabbia an opportunity. It was the culmination of a path that began at the age of six, when the local boy from Busto Arsizio, a stone’s throw from Milan’s Malpensa airport, first stepped into the world of calcio.
Gabbia spent his formative years at Fagnano, Roncalli, Como and Lecco before being snapped up by Milan aged 14. Since then, his rise at club and international level has been unstoppable.
Originally a midfielder, Milan Under-17 coach Riccardo Monguzzi spotted the youngster’s suitability to a centre-back role thanks to his blend of tactical intelligence, positional awareness and physicality.
He quickly became an important part of the youth setup, making 67 appearances between the Under-17 and Primavera sides over three seasons, while helping Italy’s Under-19 team to second place at the 2018 European Championship.
Then-Milan coach Vincenzo Montella spotted 17-year-old Gabbia’s potential in August 2017 and decided to throw him into the mix under risk-free conditions, handing him a senior debut from the bench in the second leg of the Rossoneri’s Europa League qualifier against Skendija in Macedonia, which they already led 6-0 on aggregate.
Gabbia’s first-team bow came in a holding midfield role, but he would have to wait another two-and-a-half years to get his next opportunity.
In 2018/19, the teenager was offered his first taste of regular senior football when he was sent on loan to Lucchese in Serie C.
It wasn’t exactly a calm time for the club, who were docked 23 points for financial reasons but somehow dodged relegation through a play-off, only to then be declared bankrupt at the end of the season and ultimately reborn as S.S.D Lucchese in Serie D.
Off-field turmoil aside, it proved to be a productive year for Gabbia, who earned plaudits as one of the best defenders in the division as he racked up 29 league appearances.
That form earned him a place in the Italy squad for last summer’s Under-20 World Cup in Poland, where he featured in every game as the Azzurrini finished fourth, and was handed the captain’s armband for the third-place play-off defeat to Ecuador.
The efforts of the Under-20 side, and Gabbia, hadn’t gone unnoticed back home and new Rossoneri coach Marco Giampaolo decided he wanted to see more, taking the youngster on tour to the USA with him, where he performed well in outings against Bayern Munich and Benfica.
It was enough to convince Giampaolo that he should be handed a first-team squad place. Chievo, Brescia, Livorno, Pescara and Crotone were all rebuffed in their efforts to sign the defender on loan.
Despite the show of faith, by January the coach had been sacked and Gabbia still hadn’t seen any first-team action other than eight minutes from the bench in a Coppa Italia win over SPAL.
The longed-for Serie A bow eventually arrived courtesy of a stroke of luck. Simon Kjaer limped off the San Siro pitch on the brink of half time with Milan leading Torino 1-0, and Mateo Musacchio was sent to warm up.
But the Argentine grimaced on the touchline as a muscular niggle of his own flared up, and Pioli turned to Gabbia with no other options remaining.
The No.46 strode onto the field, and proceeded to put in a measured performance that had the home fans purring.
“I train every day to be ready for this,” he said after the game.
“I’d like to thank my teammates at Lucchese for helping me grow last year, and my current teammates who help me day after day.”
Pioli then handed Gabbia a starting spot against Fiorentina at the Artemio Franchi a week later. It finished 1-1, but the youngster earned more positive reviews for a characteristically composed and attentive display.
The often unforgiving pagelle of the national press were full of praise, with Corriere dello Sport and Tuttosport handing the youngster a 7/10 rating and Gazzetta a commendable 6.5.
But while luck had been on Gabbia’s side for his league debut, it soon ran out. He started again the following week, a 2-1 defeat to Genoa, and looked set to tighten his grip on a place in the Milan XI, only for the coronavirus crisis to abruptly halt his progress with the suspension of all games.
There is plenty for Gabbia to be cheerful about, though. He penned a new contract until 2024 in February, and the prospect of a long-term partnership with Alessio Romagnoli is an enticing one for him – and the Milan fans.
The Lombard local has name-checked Maldini and Thiago Silva as “role models I try to take something from”.
While he has a long way to go if he wants to live up to the standards set by that celebrated duo, he has started in the right way with his relentless progress and ability to step up to seemingly any challenge thrown at him.