AC Milan’s improvement in recent weeks was halted by a goalless draw against Sassuolo at the weekend. It was the Rossoneri’s second clean sheet in three games but it was also the first time since their Juventus loss that they didn’t score a single goal. The key to this mini-turnaround has been Hakan Calhanoglu.

The Turkish international has been a much-criticised figure at the club in recent months. He has become the butt of jokes and the centre of many wrongs at the club. Since his arrival from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer of 2017, he hasn’t really hit lofty heights.

While his fee was only €20 million, the quality he showed at Bayer Leverkusen was promising but the midfielder has been failing to replicate any bit of that.

Since his arrival, Calhanoglu has played a total of 106 games in all competitions. He has a goals tally of 14 goals and 24 assists. At Leverkusen, he played only nine games more and had double the number of goals. His set-piece taking ability fetched him many goals too – and that’s something which has faded at Milan.

As much as the performances early in the season were underwhelming, he wasn’t the only one since that was generally the case with most of the team. But Stefano Pioli is slowly laying down a foundation for the club as players like Calhanoglu are making slow improvement because of this.

In the last three games, he has been better than he was before. Against Parma, Calhanoglu was probably the best player on the pitch. Playing on the left of a 4-3-3, Calhanoglu had as many as six key passes to his name against Parma.

He was constantly picking passes in the final third and this was leaving the opposition back-tracking as well. He won two tackles out of a possible three. However, his lack of pace has always been an issue, as he completed one dribble.

In Milan’s 3-2 win over Bologna, Calhanoglu wasn’t the best player. But he wasn’t the poorest either.

He had one key pass to his name. He won three aerial duels, completing one dribble as well. He had the second-most touches of the ball for his team – 64. Goals from Krzysztof Piatek, Theo Hernandez, and Giacomo Bonaventura won Milan the game.

In the recent draw against Sassuolo, Calhanoglu was one of the better players. Now finally with a constant position, he started on the left with Piatek and Suso in the frontline.

He came up with two key-passes, completing two shots on target too. For a player who would play as an attacking midfielder most of the times in Germany, these are only developing numbers. Out of a total 115 games, Calhanoglu played centrally for a total of 65 games – nearly half of the whole season.

At Milan he has played as an attacking midfielder or as a second-striker only eight times. He has been used as a central midfielder 32 occasions, but that hasn’t been his position.

Pioli knows he isn’t a typical winger. Before the Sassuolo draw, he told reporters (via SempreMilan): “He’s a very strong and important player, I don’t think he’s a pure winger, he must play across the board, collaborate with Theo and Bonaventura, we must be good at covering the whole field.”

Perhaps, it is in this flexible role that Pioli wants Calhanoglu to play. He has some freedom to roam and dictate – something a playmaker like him would always like. If that’s the way forward, Calhanoglu can only get better.

Kaustubh Pandey