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Man of the hour: How Romagnoli became AC Milan's unexpected captain

There were plenty of reasons to leave AC Milan in the summer. Majority shareholder Yonghong Li was about to default on his high-interest loan, and a ban from European competition loomed large. Meanwhile, high-profile center-back Leonardo Bonucci, signed only a year before, privately plotted his return to Juventus.

But something happened amidst all the doom and gloom. Alessio Romagnoli decided not only to stay, but to double down on his commitment to the Rossoneri, renewing his contract until 2022.

“He didn’t bat an eyelid in tying himself to Milan for such an important period of time,” then-sporting director Massimiliano Mirabelli said in June. “He didn’t listen to any of the sirens, even though there were a lot of them.”

At just 23, Romagnoli had suddenly become the pillar of Milan’s future. Little did he know three years prior he would become captain as well.

The bet that paid off

One of the final signings of the Silvio Berlusconi era, Romagnoli arrived in 2015 from Roma for €25 million. It was at the time the second-highest fee Milan had paid for a defender, behind Alessandro Nesta.

Critics saw the deal as expensive and risky. Romagnoli had played only one full season in Serie A – on loan at Sampdoria – and offered no short-term fixes. But Sinisa Mihajlovic had a different point of view. He had coached Romagnoli at the Luigi Ferraris, and made it a priority to recruit the player when he was appointed Milan manager.

Due to a lack of options at center-back, Romagnoli was chucked straight into the lineup. There were growing pains and mistakes, notably a sending off in his first month at the club. He had trouble marking attackers and detecting runs in behind. But without someone like Paolo Maldini by his side, or any kind of totem pole, Romagnoli had to learn on the go. He had no choice.

Claudio Villa – Inter / FC Internazionale / Getty

“I just wanted to show that I was worth the money,” he told Corriere della Sera.

That steadfast determination gave Romagnoli the backbone to withstand waves of criticism and turbulence. He lost an ally in Mihajlovic when the Serbian was fired midway through the 2015-16 season, and lived through dramatic personnel changes in the years that followed. Developing an understanding was difficult knowing that managers, as well as teammates, would last little more than a season.

But if the results weren’t coming, Romagnoli was gaining valuable experience.

Lessons from Bonucci

After replacing Vincenzo Montella as manager in November 2018, Gennaro Gattuso set out to correct Milan’s calamitous defense. Neither Bonucci nor Romagnoli looked comfortable in Montella’s back three, lacking the shape and structure that a defensive formation requires.

Gattuso reverted to a back four, and Bonucci, after struggling in the first months of the season, found his footing. He made crucial clearances, kick-started plays, and executed a more attentive overall game. Bonucci’s return to form benefitted Romagnoli more than anyone else, giving the youngster a reference point he’d never had before.

Nicolò Campo / LightRocket / Getty

“Romagnoli has been a true professional in the last nine months,” Gattuso told reporters, according to Milannews.it. “The arrival of Bonucci did him well because he left something in him, teaching him how to work. The fact he had Leonardo at his side helped him a lot.”

Despite his short-lived stay at the San Siro, Bonucci had an effect on Romagnoli, showing him the merits of playing out from the back and ways to deal with pressure. Romagnoli also developed a finer sense of positioning beside Bonucci, winning tackles cleanly and aerial duels regularly. It was a necessary, if brief, education.

But it wasn’t as if Bonucci turned Romagnoli into the secure defender he is today. He always had the technical skills to clear the lines. Bonucci’s presence simply allowed Romagnoli to tap into that skill set and express himself with more confidence.

What Bonucci didn’t have, however, was Romagnoli’s sense of commitment.

The perfect choice

He’s been indebted to Milan since they signed him three years ago, admitting early on in his career that Milan saved him from spending a year on Roma’s bench. They believed in him when Roma didn’t.

And he believed in Milan when it was acceptable – even fashionable – to abandon ship.

So when it was time to name a new captain, Romagnoli was the “perfect choice,” according to La Gazzetta dello Sport. It was clear to Gattuso that the players felt Romagnoli was ready to lead.

It wasn’t that he was the loudest player or the highest-paid. But he was the most respected. He won the dressing room through hard work and dedication.

Gabriele Maltinti / Getty Images Sport / Getty

“Romagnoli was the only light at the end of the tunnel in the two most delicate months of (the) Rossoneri’s summer, and fans love him a lot,” Milan said in a statement shortly after his renewal. “The reputation he enjoys in the locker room is directly proportional. Alessio is sober, serious, and disenchanted outside the pitch, just like Nesta. It is not a technical comparison, but a personality one.”

Romagnoli is by far the most popular and deserving of Milan’s captains in recent years. Considering the likes of Sulley Muntari, Philippe Mexes, and Riccardo Montolivo wore the armband – each unfit for the part – a worthy candidate was long overdue.

No one is holding Romagnoli’s age against him. It doesn’t matter that he’s the second-youngest player in this season’s Serie A to captain a side. What matters is the way he handles himself on and off the pitch, and it’s more than exemplary.

The new role requires some sacrifices – he has to do far more interviews – but he’s overcome his shyness for the good of the team. He’s also measured and composed in the face of referees, putting his arms out to protect angry teammates from bookings.

Alessandro Sabattini / Getty Images Sport / Getty

It’s the little things that prove Romagnoli is the man for the job. And if there were any doubts, they were put to rest when he scored twice in second-half stoppage time to deliver late victories.

His winner against Genoa could be considered fortunate, but the heroics at Udinese on Nov. 4 was the stuff of legend. As the clock counted off the final minutes of a seemingly inevitable 0-0 draw, Romagnoli abandoned his defensive post in search of a breakthrough. He saw a chance to dispossess Udinese counterpart Nicholas Opoku and did so with the kind of challenge that would make Nesta proud. He then joined the attack and laced a powerful shot to spark jubilation. It was that bit of extra effort, that undying belief, that powered Milan to victory.

“When a player gives everything on the pitch, he becomes a favorite of the public, and Romagnoli has become one in recent months,” wrote Antonio Vitiello of Milannews.it. “It’s not just the goals, it’s the continuous reaction, the continuous desire to improve.”

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