On July 3, 2017, Hakan Çalhanoğlu signed a four-year contract with Serie A club Milan. Since then, he scored 23 goals and made 38 assists in 132 appearances. His performances have raised various doubts during this period, especially in finding his position and shape within the team. As a matter of fact, he played in various roles across the middle of the park in the last three years.
Vincenzo Montella played him as an offensive left winger in a 4-3-3 formation. It gave him the chance to operate on his loved left-side where he also played under Roger Schmidt at Bayer Leverkusen. This allowed him to cut into the left half-space using his great tactical intelligence.
Gennaro Gattuso changed Çalhanoğlu to a left interior midfielder, with box to box tasks. Marco Giampaolo also preferred him in the midfield, with a low action range compared to Suso, that was the attacking midfielder. It’s really important to do this tactical analysis, in the form of a scout report, in order to understand how Çalhanoğlu changed Milan under Stefano Pioli.
Çalhanoğlu, the “everywhere” player
Since 5 October 2019, Pioli stepped in the dressing room, and Çalhanoğlu has become an “everywhere” player. With the new manager, the Turkish international played in a lot of positions before finding his perfect shape, which from a tactical point of view means abandoning the use of three midfielders.
This astonishing turning point reflects Pioli’s decision to play with a 4-2-3-1 formation. The first time was in the derby against Inter. After a tremendous first half – two goals for Ibrahimovic and the sensation of dominating the game, Inter got back and won the game. Despite the loss, this option maximized Milan’s balance and attacking force, primarily regarding the left side.
Theo Hernandez and Ante Rebic were two important factors in the Rossoneri’s rebuilt. Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessie were, and are also in this season, the two static midfielders while Çalhanoğlu excelled as a central playmaker. His vision and technical quality have come to the fore as he has been a focal point in the impressive attacking play while adding a decisive end product too. From the derby going forward, Milan collected 14 wins six draws and only two defeats.
Çalhanoğlu is a great passer – 84% of accuracy per game, good ball control, and flawless first touch. He is extremely lithe in tight areas and manages to find a pass even if he is under pressure from an opponent. He is the perfect man to sit behind the striker. Especially if the striker is Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
In the images below we can see the comparison between his last-two season’s heatmaps (2019-20/2018-19). It is very significant and shows us how he is involved in the various stages of his team’s build-up phase but above all how Çalhanoğlu is important in replenishing Milan’s attacking force. A good overall analysis: 59.8 touches, 13 chances created, 75% of pass accuracy in the opposition half, and two key passes per game represents the centrality of Hakan in the Rossoneri’s engine.
Ibrahimović-Çalhanoğlu, the fantastic duo
Milan have slightly changed their play mode and tactics after lockdown. Pioli decided to lower the centre of gravity playing on long transitions. A style of play that exalts Çalhanoğlu, his dynamism, and his capacity of playing long balls. His creativity was also brought out: after the quarantine, Çalhanoğlu made 30 key passes in 12 games, against his 39 in the last 24 games. When Çalhanoğlu can run on open play, he is surely one of the best of the world for pass accuracy, selection choices, and key passes.
Pioli changed the Rossoneri. They became a more vertical team that loves transitions and takes advantage of every single player such as Ante Rebić, Ismaël Bennacer, and precisely Çalhanoğlu. In this context, the Turkish can hide his defects: poor readings and overthinking with the ball.
Obviously, everything changed thanks to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Despite the age, the Swedish is central to Milan’s project. The verticality is obliged by the presence of Zlatan. When he has the ball, he becomes an offensive playmaker being able to trigger the wings and Çalhanoğlu. In the image below we can precisely see it.
Milan scored 63 goals last season, but it must be remembered that the less-than-goal-a-game in first-half pace they set means that 63 is actually a pretty good return, with 35 coming in the 12 Serie A games played after lockdown. And Çalhanoğlu was extremely productive in the second half of last season, finishing with nine goals, six after the quarantine, and nine assists.
His stats are not the same but similar compared to the last two seasons. He touches more balls but he creates less long balls – especially because there is no Suso anymore. He is incisive. But someone talk about personality: a player mentally weak that is able to express himself only without the pressure of playing in San Siro.
Is Çalhanoğlu the best attacking midfielder of Serie A?
In the radar below we can see some interesting Çalhanoğlu’s data about last season. Compared to the best central playmaker of the last Serie A season, Luis Alberto, Çalhanoğlu beats Alberto in non-Penalty xG and non-penalty xG/Shot. The progressive distance is 68.6 for Lazio’s player while 66.1 for the Turkish international. The distance between pass completion (%) is only one point (78.2 vs 79.2) whereas in terms of successful dribbles Alberto wins (2.08 vs 1.30 per game).
However, Çalhanoğlu has better stats compared to Lorenzo Pellegrini. Roma was fifth last year, four points over Milan. In this case, Çalhanoğlu wins in dribble success (66.1% vs 46.6%), pass completion (78.2% vs 75.1%), and successful pressures (5.26 vs 4.38 per game). Whereas the Italian defeats the Turkish only in pass accuracy and progressive distance.
The last radar is the comparison between Çalhanoğlu and Kai Havertz. Chelsea signed Kai Havertz for a price that equals £70 million after playing with Bayer Leverkusen. A record price for the 21-year-old attacking midfielder. But Çalhanoğlu beats the German in successful pressures per 90 (4.68 vs 3.94), yards progressed per 90 (388 vs 295), and xA per 90 (0.23 vs 0.20), passes into box per 90 (1.52 vs 1.22). Havertz defeats the Turkish in non-penalty goals, xG and xG/shot. Moreover, the German has better stats in dribble success (%) and pass completion.
New season, same Milan
Milan started the season well. Three wins in the league and qualification to Europa League group stage. Çalhanoğlu is a specialist player between the lines and he does that in order to exploit the half-spaces by making wall passes and creating positional superiority. He is surely the centre of gravity. In the images below we can see how Milan found the second goal against Crotone last Saturday. Çalhanoğlu moved ahead of the opponent while Alexis Saelaemakers was looking for the ball. The Turkish conquered the ball and restarted quickly.
Çalhanoğlu did not look at his right but he “smelled” the existence of Saelaemakers on the right. The latter created a simple overload on the wing and then he attacked the space. And then Brahim Diaz scored for Milan.
One of the biggest factors behind his turnarounds has been playing him in his more natural and effective role, while the system and general style of play implemented by Pioli has also suited his characteristics.
Last Sunday, Milan played against Spezia. Rossoneri won 3-0 and Çalhanoğlu was fundamental to win the game. He played the second half and made the assist for Rafael Leao’s goal. 50 touches, 85% of pass accuracy, three key passes, two duels won, and three successful dribbles.
For the first time in his Milan journey, Çalhanoğlu is in the right context and he is managing to express himself. The concept is simple: there are no poor or big players in an absolute sense. Their value is always determined by the context. An idea that gets to be worth some players rather than others.
Çalhanoğlu has never had a huge talent but he is a particular number 10. He has his qualities and his limits. His style of play is so interesting because no one plays like him. An attacking midfielder that runs like a center-half.
This season is going to be his season. Milan’s goal? The return to the Champions League.