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AC Milan: Transfer targets for the Rossoneri

In Milan, evolution is always in progress. While this season could be a significant moment in the chase of a first league title after 11 years, Technical Director Paolo Maldini and Sporting Director Frederic Massara are already looking ahead to strengthen the squad for next season.

As we witnessed last season, with Çalhanoglu’s and Donnarumma’s departures at the end of their respective contracts, the club’s board has followed a clear principle: everybody is important, nobody is essential.

The deal between Franck Kessié and Barcelona, then, doesn’t come as a major surprise. The Ivory Coast midfielder has decided to accept a more lucrative move to the Catalan city, turning down every proposal made by Milan‘s management. At the same time, rumours intensify around a potential move away from the Rossoneri for the current captain Alessio Romagnoli. In this case, his departure could be dictated by technical reasons, as the Rome-born centre-back is no longer central to Pioli’s plans. Therefore, not dissimilar to last summer, Milan could lose two important elements of the squad on free transfers. There is no need to panic for Maldini and Massara, however, with the two already setting their eyes on targets that could respond to the club’s (new) criteria. 

In this piece, we explore potential centre-back and central midfielder replacements and provide an analysis of the current situation.


After Pierre Kalulu’s impressive display when coming in for the injured Alessio Romagnoli against direct opponent Victor Osimhen in the recent game in Naples, Pioli asked the Frenchman to step up, once again, as a centre-back, alongside England international Fikayo Tomori.

Kalulu even managed to get on the scoresheet for the decisive goal against Empoli, with a controlled left-footed finish from outside the box while offering convincing defensive performances, both ended with a clean sheet. With just a few games to play until the end of the season, this could be the way forward for Stefano Pioli, thus anticipating Romagnoli’s departure at the end of the season. 

AC Milan rank first for defensive duels win % in Serie A. The improvised centre-back pairing Tomori-Kalulu could turn out to be as decisive as Ibra’s return or the performances of the left-side dynamic duo, Rafael Leão and Theo Hernandez. Tomori has imposed himself as the team’s leading centre-back, showing personality and drive rarely seen at his age. He is fourth among Serie A’s centre-backs in defensive duels won (74.59%) and performs better than the league average for defenders in tackles (2.34 vs 1.39), blocks (0.70 vs 0.65) and interceptions (1.64 vs 1.52), all calculated on a 90-minute basis. The former Chelsea defender is excellent when challenged in a 1vs1 situation but also possesses the level of confidence required to lead the defensive line. His pace and awareness allow Milan to defend higher up the pitch, put pressure on the opponents and recover more loose balls. 

On the other hand, Romagnoli’s inconsistency has partially led to Milan allowing too many goalscoring opportunities to the opposition. Although the current captain is the most reliable in the air and in ball distribution (he is 11th total in Serie A with a success rate of 65.85% in aerial duels and 78.57% in progressive passes), he has made some crucial mistakes. In some instances, he got the anticipation side wrong, allowing the direct opponent to skip past him and score a goal. 

Pierre Kalulu’s recent performances, though, have surprised many as the former Lyon defender was essentially signed by Milan to cover his natural position of right full-back. However, the manager has made the Frenchman his own “wildcard”, deploying him increasingly more as a centre-back, a position in which he has started several times this season in Serie A. It is still arguably a small “sample” but his numbers in that position are extremely positive: he is fifth in Serie A for successful defensive actions per 90 minutes with 13.19, third for defensive duels won with 75.38% and 11th for possessions gained after interceptions (8.17 p90). His bravery and composure are assets that could offer Milan more stability, an aspect in which the team is seeking to improve since Simon Kjaer’s season-ending injury.

Nevertheless, the club has been looking at the transfer market to find a suitable long-term solution. The first profile we look at is Milan’s main current target while the second is another player who could be a potential alternative worthy of consideration.

Sven Botman

Lille’s Dutch centre-back Sven Botman is one of the most sought-after under 23s on the continent. Milan attempted to reach a deal with Ligue 1’s current title-holders in the previous transfer window just to see it denied due to an excessively high fee. The situation is likely to be no different in the next months, but Maldini and Massara could make an exception to Milan’s quite restrictive recruitment strategy.

The young Dutchman has already accumulated significant experience at a high level, becoming the under 23 player with the most minutes played (3515) in 2020/21 across all top-five European leagues. On the pitch, the former Ajax academy player is a tall (195 cm) and strong ball-playing defender. For his age, skillset and potential he would represent a solid upgrade to Romagnoli: he is dominant in the air (he wins 73.86% of his 3.89 aerial duels per 90 minutes), reliable in 1vs1 defensive duels (73.64% success rate, 4.86 defensive duels per 90) and confident with the ball (82.34% in progressive passes %). He would form an outstanding partnership if paired with Tomori. However, they would need time to tune in and complement each other’s qualities. For example, the Englishman’s ability to cover the space in behind could compensate for Botman’s lack of acceleration and top speed. Similarly, Botman’s capacity in the air could give Milan presence in the box while allowing Tomori to press more aggressively when Theo Hernandez remains high up the pitch after a forward run.

Diego Carlos

Brazilian centre-back Diego Carlos is probably an underrated element of Sevilla’s strong backline. Lopetegui’s side is La Liga’s best defence with just 22 goals conceded (only behind Manchester City in the top 5 European leagues) and Diego Carlos is certainly a fundamental part of it. Similarly to Romagnoli, he excels in build-up play, having strong passing skills and the vision to make medium-long passes to advance play quickly and efficiently. He is first for long passes distance in the top 5 leagues in Europe, with an average of 47.14 meters, meaning he risks long passes with a low completion probability but he still maintains an acceptable efficiency with 53.92% long passes completed. 

Overall, his precision when passing the ball is still relatively high (89.83%) despite attempting longer passes than average. Off the ball, the Brazilian is a physical defender who likes to mark tightly his opponent and win duels. His success rate in both defensive (71.82%) and aerial duels (66.09%) is high, showing his ability in 1vs1 and in the air. However, his lapses in concentration have occasionally appeared when rushing to close down his opponent, particularly in the defensive third (he has made 2 mistakes leading to goal this season). Although he has reduced his errors in the second part of this season, he still sometimes commits to the challenge in dangerous situations where he would be better off staying on his feet. Apart from individual mistakes, his persistence allows him to show determination and leadership — often highly rated by managers to lead the defensive pack. He would therefore be an important addition to Milan’s squad in terms of mental strength and attitude — aspects that Pioli has often spoken about in his post-match interviews.

Central Midfielder

More doubts and uncertainties are condensed above Milan’s midfield set-up. Despite his below-standard campaign, Kessié’s departure will leave a significant gap in terms of leadership and balance. The Ivory Coast midfielder is still Milan’s best central midfielder for non-penalty goals (0.15 per 90) and for pass completion (90.56%). At the same time, Tonali’s rise and Bennacer’s return to full fitness and expected levels represent an insurance policy on Milan’s present and future. Considering Pioli’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system and Kessié’s ability to occupy both positions of central and attacking midfielder, Milan could look for options in either area of the pitch. The arrival, next June, of French ball-winning midfielder Yacine Adli will give Milan more presence in the middle of the pitch. However, we can make a case for potential targets to be added to the squad. 

Bearing in mind that finding a single player to replicate Kessié’s qualities is hard, if not certainly expensive, Milan could try to recreate a strong central department through sensible recruiting in both identified positions. 

Once again, Milan’s main target could be an element of the French champions, Lille. The good relationship with the club from the north of France (in particular thanks to Milan’s Director of Football, Frederic Massara) has allowed Milan to sign important players like Mike Maignan and Rafael Leão over the last few years and the trend seems to be continuing.

Renato Sanches

In central midfield, Milan have eyed Renato Sanches, a polyhedric athlete, born in 1997, with excellent ball carrying skills and technique (3rd in Europe for total accelerations among midfielders with 2.43 per 90). After an unsuccessful spell at Bayern Munich, he has been able to establish himself as one of the best midfielders in Ligue 1 over the last two seasons. His physique is more compact (176 cm / 75 kg), more mobile and quicker than Kessié, although he doesn’t offer the same level of defensive contribution as the Ivory Coast midfielder according to statistics.

The Portuguese likes to have the ball at his feet to advance play with accelerations and get out of traffic with quick turns and dribbles. He is, impressively, in the 99th percentile for dribbles completed when compared with central midfielders from Europe’s top-five leagues, with 6.49. In the final third, Renato Sanches has improved his ability to choose the correct time and space to deliver effective passes and break the opposition’s defensive line (he is 10th across the top 5 European leagues with 3.91 per 90 and in the top 20 for key passes with 0.74 per 90). 

On the other hand, this risky playing style can lead him to lose possession in the central area and allow a counter-attack for the opposition (23.6% of his total 10.32 losses per 90 come in the own half). His off the ball work is not as effective as it should be (he makes 1.1 fouls every 90 minutes, relatively high considering he has only 2.29 interceptions). Therefore it’s clear that the Lille midfielder would be an option that Milan could explore to widen the choice in the midfield rather than finding a like-for-like Kessié replacement.

Nedim Bajrami

An alternative, perhaps cheaper option for AC Milan would be to reinforce the advanced midfielder position. After getting promoted from Serie B with Empoli, Albanian attacking midfielder Nedim Bajrami has demonstrated the ability to successfully adapt to the top Italian tier. He has recently turned 23 and would tick off many boxes in regard to Milan’s recruiting strategy. On the pitch, he has shown a mix of creativity, final product and will to work for the team that could benefit Pioli’s tactical setup. Data shows his multifaceted style of play: he is 4th among all advanced midfielders in xA per 90 with 0.31, 2nd for % of defensive duels won with 72 and just outside the top 20 for open-play key passes with 0.84 per 90. 

Despite playing for a team such as Empoli which requires heavy application off the ball, Bajrami remains effective in the final third, possessing the ability to move around the whole width of the pitch to find space and deliver precise crosses (he is 13th overall for total crosses per 90 with 2.97). Furthermore, Bajrami is a formidable set-piece taker; regardless of the distance from goal, he delivers effective curled balls which often leads to opportunities for his team (he averages 1 shot-creating action originating from dead balls per 90 minutes). 

He still has room for improvement when it comes to 1v1 dribbling, although his 4.11 dribbles per 90 are just below Brahim Diaz’s numbers (4.48). Considering the Spaniard’s downturn in form in the second part of the season, Bajrami could represent an underrated candidate to occupy the position of advanced midfielder in Pioli’s favourite 4-2-3-1.


Even if the season is still ongoing and Milan have the chance to win the league, the managers are looking to strengthen their team for next season. By doing so, they will try to find the perfect replacements for players that may leave the club. While Botman and Sanches are already linked with the Italian club, a transfer of Diego Carlos or Bajrami could be a surprise. At the same time, both options would be the cheaper version saving Milan money to further look at other positions in the team.