AC Milan, 2015–
Having made his competitive debut for Milan at just 16 years and 242 days old, Gianluigi Donnarumma broke through at an astonishingly young age. Even more remarkable than that, though, was how quickly he established himself as his club’s first-choice goalkeeper ahead of the hugely experienced Diego López and Christian Abbiati.
In a position in which experience is often valued over the enthusiasm and freedom of expression of youth, Donnarumma’s rise is particularly impressive. Before his 20th birthday, he had established himself as first choice for the Italy national team, with the Azzurri head coach Roberto Mancini describing his number one as “the strongest goalkeeper in the world.”
Donnarumma was named Serie A’s goalkeeper of the season in 2020/21 and, with so much of his career still ahead of him, he already appears to have a chance of breaking legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon’s Serie A record of 656 appearances, as well as his record 176 Italy caps.
Donnarumma is a physically-imposing goalkeeper who dominates his penalty area and provides a significant barrier in front of goal. He oozes confidence – perhaps owing to his breaking through as a professional at the top level at such a young age – and is always ready to come off his line and take action to keep the ball away from goal.
He plays on the front foot, and will often start with a high position, primed to step out and catch the ball. He is decisive in making calls as to when to come off his line, and once he has committed to leaving his goal he will usually achieve what he set out to do. Often, this is catching the ball and holding on to it, but Donnarumma is also very effective at punching the ball clear. He is such a powerful figure that he is able to push past players who are in his way before stretching out a long arm to get a fist on the ball.
He shows brilliant hand-eye coordination in these situations, able to get good contact on the ball and impressive distance on his punches even when it appears as though he has little chance of reaching the ball. He often starts a few yards further away from his line than other goalkeepers, who might take a little more conservative approach; his starting position will often give him an advantage in any attempts to come off his line (above).
It is, of course, his shot-stopping ability that he stands out most for. He has exceptional reflexes and is adept both when facing close-range shots and shots from distance. As an opponent sets themselves to shoot, Donnarumma will get into a low position and make sure he is on his toes as the shot is taken (below). This gives him the best chance of reacting to the shot, and he is capable of using his arms and his legs to keep shots out. His technique is particularly useful when facing shots from close range, and he keeps out an impressive proportion of the shots he faces and regularly catches the eye with stand-out saves.
When it comes to long-range efforts, it is extremely rare to see Donnarumma beaten. At 6’5” and with a broad frame, he already takes up a lot of the goal, and he has a vast reach, too. On top of all of that, he is extremely agile, and he shifts his weight well to spring across goal and cover every corner of the net. He has very good footwork, too; all of these attributes add up to a goalkeeper that is very difficult to beat from distance.
If he was to have one weakness, it is that he will very occasionally overcommit when making an attempt to win the ball. Though he has a lot of success when claiming aerial balls, he does sometimes struggle down low. There have been occasions when he has dived at the feet of an onrushing attacker in a one-on-one situation in an attempt to smother the ball when he would be better off staying on his feet and the opponent has been able to dribble around him. He also too readily attacks low crosses when it would be better to stay on his line. His judgement of the ball’s movement when it is down low is far worse than when it is up high.
Role at AC Milan
Donnarumma is a leader for Milan despite his age, and he is a vocal player who issues instructions to his defenders constantly and organises his team to give his goal the best possible protection. He commands his area and provides important security at the base of the team. In a team that concede a rather large number of shots – Milan ranked 10th in Serie A for shots allowed in the 2020/21 season; making them a mid-table team in that regard – Donnarumma plays a hugely important role in the team’s attempts to keep the ball out of the net.
Towards the end of 2020/21, one way in which teams attacked against Milan was by exploiting the space inside their full-backs. This often required the centre-backs to push out wider, especially when Milan’s full-backs had been beaten or were out of position. As a result, many efforts on goal stemmed from moves through the inside channels, with shots coming across the Milan goal. In these instances, Donnarumma showed is how effective he is at closing down an opponent and limiting the angle which the attacker can then shoot from.
He is quick off his line to close down the angle, and gets a strong wrist behind the ball to parry efforts well away from goal. Some goalkeepers can lack the strength to push the ball away from the centre of the pitch, where another attackers can follow up, but Donnarumma avoids this through his quick reactions and good positioning (above).
In possession, Donnarumma is extremely calm, and willingly receives the ball before recycling play out to the other side with a short pass. His teammates know they can trust him under pressure and regularly play through him.
He uses his ability on the ball to help his team out further forwards. Unlike many goalkeepers who will distribute the ball as quickly as possible after receiving it, Donnarumma will often draw an opposition forward in towards him, even when he is very close to his goal, because doing so means a teammate will be free further forwards (below).
Him pausing on the ball helps create space behind the opponent’s first line, which makes it ideal for Milan’s deepest central midfielders or a full-back who has pushed up high and wide, to receive. He is also capable of spotting a spare player even further forwards and has also managed to start a Milan attack with a well-weighted ball into a player beyond the opposition midfield. His accuracy with long balls is also useful in trying to find a centre-forward to win a flick on – the presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic has helped in this regard.
Donnarumma is an exceptional talent who will go on to have a long career with Italy, and has every chance of matching Buffon’s success at club level, too. Still in his early 20s, he is a legend in the making.