MAX LOMBARDIA| 19th April 2020

We all know that defenders in Italy have always been a cut above the rest for years, thanks to their ‘catenaccio’ (the chain) style of counter attacking football, which starts from the defence. The term translates to door bolt in Italian and it is a philosophy that focuses on tightening the backline and ensuring that an extra defensive player operates as a sweeper, mopping up when needed and starting attacks from the back. Legends of the game such as Claudio Gentile, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini in Italian football have emerged as a result of this system; the list of players is endless. However, with free-flowing football becoming the norm, catenaccio has become a thing of the past.

Italy, as a footballing nation, have cemented their reputation as the world’s ultimate breeding ground for producing defensive gladiators and no other club than Milan have produced the best in the business during the time. After all, the 1993-94 season saw Milan win the scudetto, having conceded only 15 goals with the mighty Baresi and Maldini in defence, ‘Attack wins you games and defence wins you titles’ a famous quote from the mighty Sir Alex Ferguson rings true in this case more than others.

While Milan are a far cry from the force they once were, the rise of the 20-year old Matteo Gabbia is one that has given the Milanisti a host of exciting questions to ponder upon. “Is he the next big thing? Is he made from the same stuff as all the great Italian defenders?”

Emerging just this season into the first team, Gabbia has spent his entire youth journey at Milan’s Primavera. With injuries to Simon Kjær and Mateo Musacchio this season, he made his debut in the Coppa Italia on the 15th  of January this year against SPAL in a 3-0 win. He made a great impression on Stefano Poli and earned a starting place against Torino in Milan’s 1-0 victory, controversially starting ahead of Mussachio who was back from injury and clearly higher up the pecking order. That’s two clean sheets in his first two games of Serie A, a great start for the young lad. Gabbia formed a great partnership with club captain Alessio Romagnoli, straight away to form a young, all-Italian centre-back pairing, potentially paving the way for the start of a new defensive dynasty at Milan.

Typically young players in Italy don’t always get the chance to grow and mature because Italian teams are notorious for chasing results impatiently rather than following through with a project and a philosophy of play. Gabbia, who’s contract was recently extended until 2024 must have shown some positive signs to the Milan management to bestow this trust upon his fine talent. If the youngster can take the pressure at a club of the stature of Milan and get some regular playing time, this could be the beginning of a successful career for years to come.

If we look at Gabbia’s attributes, the young defender stands at 6’2 , extremely gifted in the air and a sound technique. He is able to switch the ball from left to right with ease and fits the bill of the modern ball playing centre-half. Being predominantly right footed, it is perfect when you consider Romagnoli is left-footed, which goes to show once again why their partnership is one that embodies balance and calmness, two qualities the club have lacked since their sharp decline from the top.

If one has to make comparisons to understand the Milan youth graduate’s style of play, Matteo is very similar to Lazio’s Francesco Acerbi in not only his approach to things, but how he shuttles about the pitch.

Gabbia seemed assured and extremely composed throughout his first two outings in Rossonero, often starting attacks from the back as well as soaking up pressure when the opposition areon the ball. The aspect that the Milanisti can take comfort in is that he seems to have his feet firmly planted to the ground and hasn’t let his performances get to his head which is indicative of a mature and elite mentality, perfect for a youngster full of promise.

Gabbia has represented Italy at youth level from the age of 15 and had recently been called up to the U21’s after his impressive performances for Milan. He’s also completed a loan spell at Lucchese in Serie C, with 29 appearances and one goal to grasp the invaluable experience of battling it out among the gritty and hardened troops of lower league football.

At Milan, you always have two very different sides of the coin with youth players. On one hand you have players like Gigio Donnarumma who get their chance at 16 and run with it, firmly establishing themselves as Italy’s and Milans No.1 and naturally, looks like one who the club will struggle to keep hold of. The other side of the coin results in no or very little playing time other than the Primavera and endless games on the bench for the likes of Bryan Cristante, Andrea Petagna, Manuele Locatelli or even Matteo Darmian at one point. These players show promise and are then sold off for a small profit rather than given the time to grow.

What’s for certain is that Gabbia Is absolutely full of potential and if he’s given the room to grow and has the right support and influence, he can flourish into a fantastic centre-back. If this happens Milan could be looking at a partnership in central defence that could last them the next decade. Along with Donnarumma in between the sticks, they could not just have Milan’s spine but also Italy’s for years to come. It’s far too early as well as unfair to start comparing Gabbia to the likes of Nesta and Maldini but why not let Milanistas dream of a reality where he can strive to reach such heights? . A defensive spine of Italian players at Milan would be something that the club haven’t had since the glory days.

Mattia Gabbia, the next Italian defensive powerhouse? There’s a lot of questions to be answered. Only time will tell.