Five precedents which show Milan’s patience principle should also apply to De Ketelaere

By Lorenzo Raffaini -

Patience and football fans are a combination that seldom goes together, but when it is exercised the fruits that are produced are some the best and most satisfying.

Milan can be said to have utilised a patient approach ever since the Paolo Maldini, Ricky Massara and Geoffrey Moncada trio were formed, which is necessary with a limited budget. They often show loyalty and benevolence towards young prospects, knowing the course the club is on overall.

However, there is one player in particular – in the eyes of certain sections of the fan base and the media – for whom that rule does not apply. Charles De Ketelaere has struggled so far and he was the marquee signing after a Scudetto win, it is useless to deny the facts, yet there are precedents which offer the Belgian encouragement.

A number of young players have been brought in who all made significant impacts at Milan despite a tough start. These players were purchased for relatively small fees and have become integral parts of the team, providing the squad with energy, talent, and quality. Can De Ketelaere follow suit?

Sandro Tonali

Sandro Tonali, signed from Brescia in 2020, he has quickly become a fan favourite. Despite recently turning 22 years old, he has already established himself as an irreplaceable and core player in the team’s midfield.

He is known for his excellent passing, dribbling, and defensive skills, and he clearly has a bright future ahead of him. However, the start of his Milan career was not all roses.

Tonali made his debut for the Rossoneri on September 21, 2020, in a 2-0 victory against Bologna. He played the full 90 minutes and impressed fans and pundits with his performance.

It took some time for him to establish himself as a regular in the starting line-up. In fact, it is fair to say he struggled, which thinking back now seems a far cry from the almost Gattuso-like stalwart he is becoming. 

Again, in reality Tonali’s performances were well below par on his debut campaign and he faced much criticism for not being as influential as many had hoped. Some fans and analysts believed that he struggled to adapt to the pace and physicality of Serie A.

In total, Tonali made 37 appearances for Milan during his first season, scoring only one goal and providing four assists. He played in various positions, including central midfield and as a defensive midfielder.

Despite this, as we know the rest is history Milan decided to activate the option to buy in his loan deal, paying a reported €10m to Brescia to make the move permanent. This is where the patience comes in: Tonali is the beacon of what Milan is and will be for years to come. 

The club clearly saw potential in Tonali and believed that he could develop into a key player for them in the future. The patient approach and belief in such a raw talent has clearly paid dividends, to the point that we have still not seen the full potential of Sandro, and there are levels he can still aspire to and should reach.

Rafael Leao

Rafael Leao, signed from Lille in 2019 when he was only 20 years old and has since become the focal point in attack and the name most synonymous with Milan’s phoenix-like resurgence. 

Leao’s first season at Milan was somewhat underwhelming, as he struggled to adapt to Serie A and the demands of playing for a big club. He joined Milan from French club Lille in August 2019 for a reported fee of €28m, making him one of the most expensive signings in Milan’s recent history.

In his debut season, Leao made 31 appearances in the league, scoring six goals and providing two assists. He often looked lost on the pitch, lacking confidence and struggling to impose himself on games.

He was also criticised for his poor work rate and lack of defensive contribution, which are crucial aspects of Milan’s playing style. However, Leao’s struggles in his first season were understandable, given that he was just 20 years old and playing in a new league with different tactics and physical demands.

Many Milan fans were disappointed by his performances, as they had high expectations for the talented young forward. It took a couple of years for Leao to really find himself and show his full potential at Milan.

In the 2020-21 season, he started to make more of an impact, scoring seven goals and providing four assists in 30 Serie A appearances. He also became more of a team player, working harder off the ball and contributing to Milan’s pressing game.

Fast forward to last season Leao just became a different beast. Deservedly winning the Serie A MVP award and alongside Mike Maignan, Milan simply would not have won the Scudetto. To say that about a then 22-year-old is incredibly impressive.

Just like Tonali, Rafa’s success was not immediate, in fact it was slower than Tonali’s and even more frustrating, seeing as he cost more and at times didn’t look interested or engaged.

That as clearly changed and Leao is a star on the precipice of really exploding to the world. People now associate Milan with Rafa, he is the Rossoneri’s new poster boy, liking to Kaka and Pato of old, to name but a very small sample.

Let’s hope all progresses well with the renewal – as confidence is truly growing and growing and an extension for the first time every genuinely feels more likely than now – and that Leao continues to improve and reach his Ballon d’or level potential. 

Ismael Bennacer

Bennacer was signed from Empoli in 2019, and he has also becom a key player for the Rossoneri. He was only 21 years old when he joined the club but as is the common theme of this feature, his first season – the 2019-20 campaign – was a mixed bag.

The Algerian joined with the presumption from all that he was a promising talent who could bring creativity and energy to Milan’s midfield. Bennacer started the season slowly, struggling to adapt to the pace and demands of a big club in Italy’s top flight, and his disciplinary record showed.

He also faced stiff competition for a starting spot in the midfield, with Lucas Biglia, Franck Kessie, and Giacomo Bonaventura all vying for playing time. Yet, as the season progressed, Bennacer began to find his feet.

He gradually established himself as a regular starter, impressing with his ability to drive the ball forward and his tenacity in the tackle. The former Arsenal academy man also showed an excellent range of passing and a willingness to take risks in the final third.

By the end of the season, Bennacer had become an integral part of Milan’s midfield, helping the team to a sixth-place finish and qualification for the Europa League.

He had shown flashes of brilliance during his time at Empoli, but it was only after moving to Milan and experiencing the demands of a bigger club that he was able to fully develop his game.

In his second season at Milan, which was the 2020-21 season, Bennacer continued to impress. He formed a formidable partnership with Kessie in midfield, helping Milan to a second-placed finish in Serie A and qualification for the Champions League for the first time in seven years.

Bennacer has quite simply become an immovable part of Pioli’s Milan. It could be easily argued that along with Mike Maignan, Leao and Theo Hernandez (more to come on him), without Bennacer the team suffers immeasurably.

This is especially true as he is a midfielder, the part of the pitch where games are won and lost, and this is no truer than his recent game winning goal against Napoli in this year’s UCL quarter-finals.

The now 25-year-old continues to be a more silent but vital part of Milan’s continued growth. His ability to control the tempo of the game, break up opposition attacks, and provide creativity in the final third make him an invaluable asset to Milan and a player to watch in the years to come.

Pierre Kalulu

Kalulu is slightly different to the players mentioned so far, because he was a complete unknown when he arrived. He was signed from Lyon in the summer of 2020, being only 20 years old when he joined, but what makes Kalulu stand out was the fact he had never played a senior game prior to joining.

When Milan signed Kalulu it was seen as a relatively low-risk move. He was a young and unknown player, while the ‘transfer fee” paid by Milan was reportedly around €500k which is simply a development fee, a very low amount for a player with his potential.

At the beginning of the 2020-21 season, Kalulu struggled to find his place in the team and was mainly used as a back-up option for the starting defenders. However, he was given some opportunities to play due to injuries and suspensions to other players.

In those games, the Frenchman showed glimpses of his potential, with his pace and physicality standing out. Despite the lack of expectations, Kalulu has shown that he has the talent and the determination to succeed at Milan.

He made his senior debut for the club in a Europa League match against Sparta Prague in October 2020. Kalulu’s versatility has been a key asset for Milan, as he is capable of playing in multiple positions across the backline.

He has been used primarily as a right-back, but has also played as a centre-back and a left-back when needed. As the season progressed, Kalulu’s performances became more consistent, and he began to earn more playing time.

The Lyon-born defender was particularly impressive in Milan’s Europa League campaign, where he played a key role in helping the team reach the knockout stages. His athleticism and speed make him a difficult player to beat, and he has shown a willingness to get forward and contribute to the attack as well.

The way he slotted into the current Milan team as if he was a seasoned player who had seen it all – when in fact he was the opposite – highlights his maturity for his age and his ability to develop and improve very quickly. 

Looking at an economic perspective, Kalulu – other than a Milan Primavera player going up the rankings – would signify one of Milan’s biggest success stories and capital gains if he were ever sold.

Having been bought for such a nominal fee as discussed above and now boasting a value of well over €30m (as per Transfermarkt) he has quite simply been nothing short of a blinding success. 

Theo Hernandez

Finally, we come to Theo Hernandez, a left-back signed from Real Madrid in 2019 who has been one of the most important players for Milan in recent seasons.

He was only 21 years old when he joined the Diavolo, and he has since become one of the best left-backs in the world because of his attacking prowess, pace and defensive new-found defensive skills, but it wasn’t always that way.

It would be fair to say that he took some time to adjust to life in Serie A. In his first season with Milan, he played 28 league games and scored 6 goals, but he also struggled defensively and received a total of 9 yellow cards and he was even behind Ricardo Rodriguez in the pecking order at the start.

It was in his second season however that Hernandez really found his feet. He was a key player in Milan’s strong start to the 2020-21 campaign, contributing 6 goals and 2 assists in the first 10 games of the season. He also improved defensively, making more tackles and interceptions than he had in the previous year.

As the season went on, Hernandez’s performances continued to impress, and he finished the campaign with 7 goals and 4 assists in 31 league appearances. He was named in the Serie A Team of the Year and also won the award for the best left-back in the league.

In the current season (2022-23), Theo has continued to be a standout performer for Milan. He has scored 3 goals and provided 5 assists in all competitions, and his defensive contributions have also been impressive he also still can get even better.

He is often praised for his pace, dribbling ability and attacking threat, but he has also shown improvement in his positioning and decision-making.

The Frenchman’s first couple of seasons at Milan were a period of adaptation and development, but he has now become one of the team’s most important players and one of the elite in his position.

If Leao or Tonali already had large hype and high expectations, then Kalulu was a rough diamond and an unknown, Theo probably falls in between. However, Paolo Maldini knows talent when he sees it and his mission to Ibiza proved to be a worthwhile one.

Charles De Ketelaere

Before talking about De Ketelaere, an honourable mention must also go to Rade Krunic,who epitomises the notion of ‘going under the radar’. A player bought for less than €10m back in 2019, he has been described on numerous occasions as Pioli’s ‘Swiss Army Knife’.

He has played in almost every position on the pitch and has grafted hard to prove his worth and value to the team. Not a young player like the others (as he was 25 when Milan bought him), but an air of patience and trust has allowed Krunic to perhaps in time become a really useful player.

To conclude, Milan’s recruitment team deserves credit for identifying and signing such talented young players who have become integral parts of the team. Ultimately, what we can learn from this is that perhaps the same discretion and patience should be applied to De Ketelaere.

In comparison to Tonali and Leao’s first seasons the Belgian has arguably been worse, and he represents a huge economical investment from Milan, but he admitted himself that adapting to a new club in a new league with a new language in a new country is difficult for a 21-year-old.

With the success stories outlined above and with the management able to utilise a patient approach effectively, we know CDK has the potential to be great. It may be that 2022-23 is not his season, but 2023-24 could well be.

Tags AC Milan Charles De Ketelaere


  1. Comparing Theo’s first season with CDK’s? Really?
    CDK didn’t show anything until now while Theo was a train even then. Of course, he made some mistakes, but was one of our best players.
    The other comparissons are a strech as well. Except for Brahim Diaz, I can’t think of any other player who repeatedly failed to bring anything to the team but still got playing time. Leao, Tonali etc all showed glimpses of their skills and had some good games from time to time, or at least did not completely suck every time.
    I’m sorry to say this, but for CDK it’s been all downhill. I hope it will change, but I doubt it.

    1. Exactly. All the others showed something. CDK hasn’t showed anything at all. I can only defend CDK for so long before one has to really evaluate and truly figure out if he can ever be like the others. Only time will tell but that’s alot money to be spending for time will tell with what we’ve seen so far
      Btw surprised Kessie not on the list too, he should be there. He didn’t start off well but we knew what he could do at Atalanta and glimpses in Milan in his first season

      1. Kessie should be there, instead of Isma. Hakan should be there too. But it looks like the list only consists players who are still playing for Milan.

  2. I agree with article, good points. A little bit exaggerated concerning Theo, but correct about the others. In short: CDK will succeed.

  3. The differences between CDK and the players mentioned in this article, is that both Leao, Tonali, Theo & Bennacer showed their brilliance in moments before exploding.
    CDK has not shown anything in nearly a full season, which is very concerning. Ultimately, I believe it is due to out tactics.
    CDK just doesn’t seem to fit into our play at all. If he is to become a star, I think he needs a loan move for it to happen…

  4. Cdk will become a
    Very useful player for Milan ,patience is required ,he is talented and showed it in the earlier days wen he came to the club

  5. All the players mentioned were not amazing at the start. Some good, some bad, some middling etc. All became excellent. However every single one of them showed glimpses of what could be. CDK has shown nothing. Literally nothing. Maybe a good pass or two… I hope you’re right but I’m not sure.

  6. Pato was Barbara’s poster boy, he was never the Milan poster boy or team’s best player. Leao surpassed him last season.

    1. Pato wasn’t our best player only because the team was full of superstars at the time. He was actually amazing, only injuries kept him from being one of the greats.

  7. Stop. Just stop. To compare to Leao is completely absurd. Leao’s talent and Physical abilities are exceptional and were always there for everyone to see. It was just a matter of consistency and mentality. CDK has shown no moments of brilliance and does not have particularly good physical ability. He’s on the slow side and that’s not going to change. On top of that he has shown to be fragile emotionally and just throws his hands up and hangs his head every time he fails. He gets worse the more he plays. It’s best if Milan just except that this was a mistake and move on while they maybe can still get something for him.

  8. Be patient with CDK give him another season. Remember Richardlison who came for almost 60 Million but end up scoreless in the league.

  9. Remembered 2 seasons Leao was ditched alot by the fans, his too lazy, lackluster, incompitent and would jump to every opportunity to sell him, same goes to diaz. Pioli hv CDK’s back and his convinced to bring the best in him. As long as we are solid in and off the pitch, pretty sure he’ll be on fire next season

    1. I remember it very clearly, when wolves were rumoured to have made a 20m offer a lot of these fans were begging us to sell him. Same ppl are doing it with CDK. He should have had at least 6 assists in the 1st 10 or so games of the season but other players missed the chances he created, he also had a goal ruled out because of giroud. If those things had gone on his favour he could easily have had 7-8 assist and a few goals to his name which is respectable for a 1st season. He will be much better next season imo.

  10. CDK showed flashes in the pan on his debut match by providing an assist. That was where all bopes ended.He shows zero confidence.However, he was not bought for 35 million euros for nothing. Let’s hope he explodes on the scene next season. Let’s just hope.

  11. Leao’s first season 2 goals? Really? Where did the writer find such stats? He scored 6, and yes there were many ups and downs (along with many matches seemed like he’s not there mentally) but we all could understand his talent.

    And bringing Kalulu and comparing him to the signing of CdK is just nonsense in every angle. 500k vs 32 mil? The initial expectation was million miles (or euros) different. When you signed players for 32 mil, and only for 5 seasons, of course you want to see your investment pays off right from the start, or at least some glimpse of it here and there. And that’s not what happen with CdK. The sooner we admit it, the better.

    And also if you write about Tonali, don’t forget to write on how he’s willing to accept lower salary just to smoothen his permanent move to Milan. That kind of mentality was made us truly believe he’d excel. That kind of mentality was not taught in school.

  12. Absurd comparisons. Let’s not forget also that a few years ago we were still in the banter era, so our few good players didn’t have the same support to prove themselves, and they still did much better than CDK. How many articles has this guy written about CDK? Just let it go, dude. We need to loan him out or cut our losses and sell him. He’s done NOTHING for us for $32M, he doesn’t even look like a professional player.

  13. That’s like saying if one bets 500 to 1000 euro several times on a casino table and they are profitable, then their next 3000 euro bet will also pay off… just keep playing.

    For every player who excelled after a slow season there’s one who didn’t.

    Players should be evaluated individually based on criteria such as employment cost vs future value and current squad utility. Not performance of other players.

  14. They all had difficult starts when they transfered to ACM but still scored goals, made assists and contributed to the team. DeKetelaere had disastrous start with zero goals and zero assists, literally no contribution at all, and he got a lot of chances to prove himself. I think this time Maldini and Massara made a big mistake. a 35 million big mistake.

  15. Precedent is a much more nuanced concept than it is assumed to be.

    Just because a player has worked out after a few years does not mean that it can be assumed of all players, that there is a formula to follow.

    But, if there is a precedent or a formula, it is that with the minimum of 2 to 3 completed seasons, with at least 75% game time in year 1, playing in the correct position, a young player will develop into a player that will start to realise potential.

    Bennacer has been in Italy since 2017 and the Serie since 2018. So last season was year 4 in the Serie A (year 3 at Milan). If we’re thinking about Bennacer in the sense that he’d vindicate a $35m price tag he is now that player, in his 5th season of Serie A, 4th at Milan and 6th in Italy.

    Leao has been at Milan since 19/20. That’s 2 completed seasons before he broke out in 21/22. Having broken out, he has also been very inconsistent in this season 4 in the Serie A. He is also as talented a player as there is on the planet and, as such, is a very bad example of a general rule.

    Tonali played a full season at Brescia , during which he ran the show, and then 75% of a full season while on loan with Milan. He had a great season 3 but has been very inconsistent in season 4. As a local it’s pretty different for him.

    Theo got to ‘the level’ in year 3. With 3 seasons of La Liga already under his belt.

    Kalulu arguably did it in year 2. He’s also not starting at the moment and probably wont be in the foreseeable future.

    So, as a rule, and having regard to CDK showing extremely little, not even just the athletic traits of Leao, Kalulu or Theo, and the reality that we don’t even play him in the position in which he had 1 good season in Belgium, CDK will likely be a write off next season and will start to come good in 2024/2025. In all likelihood it will be 2025/2026 before it becomes evident that he is the player he would need to be to persist with that for long.

    As I see it there are 2 questions:

    1. What is CDK’s capacity? It is an extremely difficult thing to assess. There is nothing obviously good about his game. That is not to say there is nothing good about his game but the level should be a side aiming to live in the Semi Finals of the UCL.

    2. Can we actually justify waiting another 2 seasons to find out how good he is? With all of he issues we have spending money on quality players.

    All indications are that we got sucked into a bidding war with an EPL team and played about twice the value the player was worth.

    Sell him, replace him with someone we can rely on in the next 2 years because there are Scudetti and CLs to be won. There are plenty of other fish in the sea.

    I say it should be Zaniolo. Some say it should be SMS from Lazio (who I don’t think we could afford but who I’d take in a heartbeat). The name of the replacement isn’t the point. We have a patchwork squad from which Pioli is getting pretty amazing results. Why would we limit that waiting for a player we paid too much for?

  16. Milan should put CDK to become mentee under Krunic. Krunic might not be thr best player, but he is like the smartest among them all.

    Cdk just need to learn to mark, press, and rotate to space if teams get caught. Thats the only reason why pioli havent played him (or adli) yet.

    Still i think pioli system is very hard to master, thats why players having trouble to adapt (mentally and physically with lots of training injuries). It is very high impact and tiring, with each players having to run 10km+ each game except for the striker. Thats why we are suffering abit this season, with many games to play, all in short breaks and unreliable bench members

    Im quite sure pioli would prefer if we have a striker with pressure ability. And for this i dont think we will ever sign fragile players like zaniolo. Thats why we sign origi in first place, as liverpool plays the same system. But damn origi cant rival old girourd

    I hope we can find a balance soon. Maldini and massara has been good before this, only this season they flopped abit

    Trust in the system

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