Rewind to the summer of 2017. Subdued optimism surrounded the red half of Milan following the Rossoneri’s sixth-place finish in the league – their highest in four years.
Vincenzo Montella’s reward was a contract extension, while also being handfed new players like a kid being treated in a candy store as an extreme squad overhaul was conducted by the newly-appointed Massimiliano Mirabelli and Marco Fassone.
Among the 11 new signings that off-season was 23-year-old Andrea Conti. The right-back, who had played an integral part in helping his Atalanta side achieve a top four finish and had two months prior won his first Azzurri cap, was set to become a mainstay in the Milan defence, with his reported €27m deal making him, at the time, the second-most expensive Italian defender behind Alessandro Nesta.
He’d hold that title for just seven days before Leonardo Bonucci’s ill-fated one-year spell as his teammate at San Siro pushed him down that lucrative list.
With Mattia De Sciglio swapping the red stripes on his shirt for trophy-laden white ones instead, Conti’s pathway to a certain starting berth seemed as clear as day.
Standing in his way was aging stalwart Ignazio Abate and a 20-year-old Davide Calabria, still proving his worth after being promoted from the youth sector in 2015, with just 14 Serie A starts to his name.
Yet just a month after signing, disaster struck for Conti as he suffered a cruciate ligament injury which would rule him out for the rest of the season, and the first half of the next.
Neither Abate nor Calabria would cement their spot on the right side of defence during the star signing’s injury absence as both were used interchangeably, along with a sprinkling of Fabio Borini when the system and coach in charge saw fit.
Promising youngster Calabria would however enjoy the majority of game-time across the 2018-19 season.
His 22 league starts – the highest in his career to date – meant he was the preferred option at right-back, yet was still raw and error-prone, and had done little to convince the club of his long-term reliance in that position.
Despite whispers of a possible departure, and even with Conti fully fit, Calabria started last season as the first-choice right-back, but did himself no favours in earning two disciplinary suspensions – a red card and accumulation of five yellow cards – in just the first eight matches of the campaign, as those early whispers turned into murmurings, and then fully-fledged discussions.
It made sense: Conti had been brought in with big money and had yet to live up to his potential due to injury, whileas a product of the Milan youth system, Calabria would represent a sizeable capital gain should he be sold.
Clubs in Spain were reportedly showing interest, and with the youngster’s sporadic and inconsistent showings, where he was at fault for several costly errors and lapses in concentration, he seemed destined to depart his boyhood club.
As a diehard Milanista though, having been at the club since the age of 10, Calabria refused, and vowed to fight for his place.
In a Serie A clash last July while trailing 1-0 against Parma – the team the injury-prone defender would coincidentally join half a year later – a miserable first-half performance saw Conti hauled off at the break, and replaced by Calabria in what in hindsight can be viewed as a literal changing of the guard.
Calabria would start, and even score, three days later in a 5-1 thumping of Bologna, yet was surprisingly back on the bench in Milan’s next encounter as Conti made the starting line-up against Sassuolo.
Yet just ten minutes into the clash against, Conti had to be substituted due to injury in what would be his final league start in a red and black shirt.
Since that 2-1 victory over the Neroverdi last summer, Calabria has been a player transformed, starting every single Serie A game to date.
Having worked off his youthful immaturity, the 24-year-old is now a vital cog in the Milan machine, churning out stellar performances on a weekly basis as he commands the right flank on both ends of the pitch.
Reading the situation well while taking up good defensive positions when his side are under threat, he has improved his tactical awareness and ability to track back – a common fault he was called out for in his younger days.
Always keen to contribute to the attack, he is often seen bombing up the pitch, his overlapping runs ensuring his opposite number is kept at bay.
His forward forays have been rewarded with an assist and two goals so far this season, including a wondrous strike in January’s 3-1 loss to Juventus in a match where he further proved his worth. With Sandro Tonali suspended, Ismael Bennacer injured and Rade Krunic out with COVID-19, Calabria was fielded in an unfamiliar central midfield position, showcasing his versatility and commitment to the team.
As Milan’s most-used player in the league so far this season, the 24-year-old has averaged 3.6 tackles per game, winning more tackles than any other player in the Milan team – notably ten more than highly-rated teammate on the opposite flank, Theo Hernandez.
He has also produced the most blocks of all his teammates, while averaging an impressive 1.3 interceptions and 2.1 clearances per match.
The ever-improving defender admits to previous distractions, but is delighted with his current form under influential coach Stefano Pioli.
Today against Crotone he was once again among Milan’s best players on the pitch, even if he is going to be suspended for the next match against Spezia.
The 24-year-old was one yellow card away from suspension and was booked against the Sharks. At least, he won’t take the risk of missing the following Serie A clash against Inter.
“I put behind me what was bothering me to focus only on football and this has helped me and the whole team because we are all doing very well,” he said earlier this season.
“It’s really important to play with a clear mind. The coach has shown his trust in me, allowed me to play more offensively and we are all seeing the results of this and I hope we can continue like this.”
Calabria was rewarded for his efforts with a first national team appearance in November last year, and while it might take some doing to topple Alessandro Florenzi as the Azzurri’s first-choice right-back, his recent performances are doing little to damage his chances of travelling to this summer’s European Championships as a more than capable back-up.
A contract extension with the Rossoneri is reportedly on the horizon, with the hard-working defender set to double his wages – just reward for both his loyalty and the immense effort made in improving as a player over the last year, just months after the exit door had seemed more of a probability than a possibility.
He is far from being Milan’s star, yet Rossoneri fans can all agree that Calabria’s impressive performances have made an immense impact in helping his side to their current position at the summit of Serie A, as he continues to run his heart out for his boyhood club.