Milan have been one of the most consistent Serie A teams in the 2021/22 season, which comes off the back of solid defensive performances and efficiency in possession. Despite having had to deal with a few injuries throughout the season, the manager Stefano Pioli still managed to form the perfect partnership in I Rossoneri’s back four.
After trying different pairs in central defence, he gave a chance to the 21-year-old Pierre Kalulu and employed him next to Milan’s other young defensive hope, Fikayo Tomori. The two of them showed great maturity despite their young age and stepped up in one of the most important seasons for the team of late.
The youngsters became crucial for Pioli’s side and allowed them to remain in the title battle, giving them the opportunity to stick to their strategy and be as effective in defence as they are in attack.
Kalulu has contributed well in all competitions and shows a great potential to be one of Milan’s next stars, despite lacking the experience yet. Coming from Olympique Lyon’s academy, he has developed great foundations by playing as a right-back, which now makes him a successful ball-playing central defender.
Finding the working solution
All of Pioli’s available centre-backs struggled with injuries throughout the season, except for Kalulu. The coach switched between Simon Kjær and Alessio Romagnoli, while Tomori had secured his starting spot, although he would constantly be moved from LCB to RCB. When it became clear that the most experienced player, Simon Kjær, would be sidelined for a large portion of the season due to a cruciate ligament rupture, the manager had the difficult task of finding the best solution in defence and a partnership that can keep up their solid performance.
He started experimenting and gave Pierre Kalulu and Matteo Gabbia a chance, testing out different variations and trying to answer the question of: who are the players that best complement each other’s movement? In March, he paired Tomori and Kalulu, and after a couple of solid displays, it seemed as though the manager had found the perfect match.
Tomori is a player who supports the build-up-play and helps the team retain possession in the early stages of their attacks, relying on lateral passing but also trying to progress the ball. His role requires him to be more involved defensively as he is more likely to stay behind the central area while Kalulu receives the freedom to move into more advanced positions due to his natural right-back position. The 21-year-old has a lot of similarities with his teammate defensively, which forms a solid partnership, but it is their actions in possession that offer Milan some dimension.
Due to his experience as a right-back, Kalulu is more likely to join his teammates in the opposition half. He can hold on to the ball, which allows his teammates to transition quickly and overload the advanced areas.
Both players’ defensive awareness allows them to drop back promptly, which provides security while their teammates press high and aim to win the ball back as quickly as possible. That doesn’t mean that they are not involved in ball recovery. The youngsters are quite successful in their direct challenges, although there is a slight drawback as they both can’t provide aerial stability, which is a vulnerability for the team when it comes to the centre-back pair.
I Rossoneri are a team that rely on their ball recovery efforts out of possession and most frequently stick to pressing high and trying to keep the opposition as far away from the goal as possible. With their press, they aim to win back possession and often use that to initiate counter-attacks (3.24 per 90).
Kalulu’s defensive impact
Kalulu shows impressive defensive maturity despite his young age. He is a well-rounded player, who despite his position in defence, has developed his technique, tactical understanding and spatial awareness.
That’s why he is so successful in his defensive interactions, as he can anticipate the opposing players’ movement and judge a situation correctly, so he decides whether to dive into direct challenges or just apply pressure to keep the opposition away from the goal.
While his defending style is rather aggressive, and he likes to step up in direct duels, his well-measured actions and flair allow him to interact with the opposing players and the ball clearly and avoid fouling, especially in dangerous areas. Kalulu and Tomori are among the Serie A centre-backs with the fewest fouls per 90 (0.56 and 0.6 respectively). That makes them both extremely reliable, especially when it comes to defending in their defensive third.
He averages 9.02 defensive duels per 90 with a 73.3% success rate, which is higher than most of the players in his position in the league. However, what sets him apart is that many of his successful efforts are done in the opposition half, which helps the team to block opposition attacks early on. He has contributed to Milan being the most successful team in Serie A in terms of winning defensive duels. Kalulu’s awareness and anticipation skills also result in him intercepting the ball 5.08 times on average per game, which affects Milan’s possession rate and time on the ball.
He is actively involved in pressing the opposition and recovering the ball. With his 10.15 recoveries on average per game, he gives Milan the chance to counter-attack and increases their efficiency in front of the goal. What makes his impact even bigger is his ability to recover the ball and directly attack it, making forward runs himself and getting involved in the attacking actions. His ability to hold onto the ball allows him to win back possession and quickly get the ball out of the danger zones. That’s why Milan often avoid conceding shots and sit in Serie A’s top three when it comes to fewest shots against per 90.
One of the reasons he is that successful in his ball recovery efforts is his positional awareness. He marks his targets tightly and can quickly react and recover possession, demonstrating his defensive intelligence.
Does he contribute in possession?
Starting as a right-back at Lyon, he was initially used in the same position at Milan. That developed his offensive awareness a lot as he became used to moving into advanced positions, and he has the technical abilities to progress the ball successfully.
While now, as a centre back, he is more focused on his defensive responsibilities, he still has the freedom to contribute to the actions in possession and support the build-up-play. Both he and Tomori tend to deliver the ball to the final third to give more time and freedom to their more advanced teammates to occupy the opposition half.
With 90.3% passing accuracy, he can release pressure by distributing the ball both laterally and forward often, managing to bypass the opposition press and retain possession.
With his movement on and off the ball, he gives passing options to the team, and his constant movement out to the wide areas provides width, which allows the right-sided full-back more freedom to move forward. His movement to the wide areas also allows him to average 1.21 crosses per 90 which give the team even more options in attack.
Pioli has found a good balance in central defence, and Kalulu fits his tactics perfectly, offering enough stability at the back but also providing some more options in possession.
Pierre Kalulu showed great potential as a central defender and proved that he might become a crucial part of the ambitious Milan team. Showing defensive discipline and awareness, while having offensive flair as well, brings balance between the lines and is beneficial for I Rossoneri, who have developed a recognizable playing style under Pioli. He became a crucial part of the title-winning season and helped the team in grabbing the trophy out of the city rivals Inter‘s hands.