Fresh from winning his maiden Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, Jannik Sinner has learnt throughout his young career that in order to take two steps forward, there needs to be a willingness to take one step back and absorb every ounce of knowledge from the best.
At 17, the Italian phenomenon had the opportunity to train with world No.1 Novak Djokovic in Monaco as he would ironically take down the Serbian in his backyard of Rod Laver Arena almost five years later.
With the long-term goal in mind and making the decision not to play at the Junior Grand Slams, Sinner realised that although he knew that he was going to win very few matches to begin with, those experiences playing against the top players would ultimately craft him into the star player we know of him today.
From a football perspective, Milan and the Primavera squad could take a leaf out of a proven champions’ book.
When the Rossoneri faced financial turmoil after the sales of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, youth development was considered an integral part of the club’s policy, but not important enough to look past older experience and free agents such as Michael Essien and Fernando Torres.
Mattia De Sciglio, Stephan El Shaaraway, and Patrick Cutrone all had significant hype after jumping from the Primavera to first-team action. Despite the impressive starts displayed by all three, their respective careers trajected down a path they weren’t hoping for – or expected.
Now led by former Milan right-back Ignazio Abate, the promising coach is at the helm of arguably one of the best Primavera teams that Milan has ever had.
Relegated in 2018-19 after finishing 15th, Abate’s young men currently sit fifth in the Primavera standings with the second-best goal difference and six points adrift of city rivals Inter – all on the back of a successful semi-final run at the UEFA Youth League last season to mirror the senior squad.
➤ Francesco Camarda (striker, 15)
➤ Jan-Carlo Simić (centre-back, 18)
➤ Davide Bartesaghi (left-back, 18)
➤ Álex Jiménez (left-back, 18)
➤ Kevin Zeroli (midfielder, 19)
Those are a handful of names listed from the Primavera that have tasted senior football under Stefano Pioli this campaign and have ignited a rejuvenated youth academy that has somewhat been left in the darkness for several years.
Without a significant financial takeover, Milan fully understands that youth is vitally pivotal to developing world-class players and has two options viable to them – selling for a profit and inserting youth into the first team for the long term.
So, just like Jannik Sinner evolved his serve and the mental side of the game to become a Grand Slam champion, what does Milan need to do to flourish further in the youth department?
Juventus and Atalanta have decided to already take the first initiative by registering their respective U23 squads to compete in Serie C. In 2018, Juve formed a Next Gen side to play against stronger and older opposition as Atalanta followed their lead in August to enter the third division.
After Juventus dismantled SPAL 4-0 in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals in January 2021 where three Under-23 players featured in the starting line-up, then-manager and former Milan player Andrea Pirlo reminded everyone of the importance of embracing the opportunity to compete in Italy’s third division with a ‘B-team.’
“Juve was the first and only club to create a B-Team and I think it was a great move for the development of these players,” said Pirlo.
“It’s one thing to pluck players from the youth academy, quite another to get them from a team currently in Serie C. I believe other clubs ought to open their minds a bit more.”
Already known for producing one of the best youth academies in world football, Atalanta have flexed their muscle so far this season with the Under-23’s to go above and beyond expectations, who find themselves fourth in Serie C – Girone A.
Having graduated at the home of the Azzurri in Coverciano, Atalanta international scout and professional coach, Domenico Gangemi, knows just how well-functioned the club is when it comes to youth development.
Now working in Australia to conduct his Worldwide Football Scouting Academy, Gangemi explained to SempreMilan the benefits of exposing youth teams to stronger competitions such as Serie C.
“Tougher competitions challenge young people to push their limits and strive for excellence,” said Gangemi.
“It helps them develop resilience, perseverance, and determination. They learn to handle pressure, overcome obstacles, and bounce back from failures. These experiences contribute to their personal growth and development, building their character, and preparing them for future challenges.”
Other components such as self-confidence and networking for young players are also advantageous according to Gangemi.
“Successfully navigating through tough competition always helps boost young players’ self-confidence and self-esteem,” he said.
“When they can perform well and achieve their goals in challenging environments, they gain a sense of accomplishment and belief in their abilities.
“Exposure to networking can open doors to new opportunities, collaborations, and mentorships to facilitate their personal and professional growth. Preparation for the big step up to Serie A is full of challenges, and demanding competitions like Serie C serve as a microcosm of the real football world.
“Clubs such as Atalanta, Milan, and Juventus produce many players who still require time to be ready, but instead of sending them out on loan, they can keep them in their environment and under their control to ensure clubs receive a return on their investment during their academy time at the club.”
On the contrary, if all other remaining Italian top-flight clubs were to follow down this path, it would open another can of worms as to how many clubs would be allowed entry into Serie C.
After all, imagine if you were a supporter of a club like Pescara, Catania, or Triestina and were forced to make way for a ‘B-team’ who are never allowed to gain promotion?
Will it turn out to be fair if there are spots available for the most powerful clubs in Serie A to exploit this opportunity but not for the lower clubs in Serie A?
These are questions and concerns that will no doubt rise to the surface in the coming years if this trend continues to progress with momentum.
In the meantime however, Milan must seriously consider seizing upon the chance that presents itself whilst it’s still available and take their prospering talent to the next level.