When Malick Thiaw joined AC Milan from Schalke 04 in August 2022, just a couple of days before the summer transfer market closed, both the timing and the cost of the signing suggested the German centre-back was just a cheaper alternative to the more lucrative Sven Botman, a player that sporting director Paolo Maldini had been following closely in the previous months, only to see him being eventually poached by Newcastle United.
But while Botman was being considered as an addition who would be able to make an instant impact in Serie A, as he then proved by becoming a regular starter for the Premier League side, it wasn’t the case for 21-year-old Thiaw, whose 26 Bundesliga appearances with his former club were not enough to win Stefano Pioli‘s trust from the very start.
Signed for as little as €8 million, Thiaw had to endure a forced and long apprenticeship before he was given a proper chance to prove his worth – since that moment, his meteoric growth left many rubbing their eyes in bewilderment, as it was hard to believe such a talented and focused defender was kept on the bench for so long.
Malick Thiaw: Plan B after Sven Botman?
When Newcastle jeopardised the deal that was meant to bring Lille‘s Sven Botman to the Stadio San Siro, AC Milan opted to reconsider their strategy in the transfer market, eventually deciding to prioritise the signing of Charles De Ketelaere over a centre-back.
Such a choice was supported by evidence – after all, the Rossoneri had just been crowned champions of Italy boasting the best defence in Serie A, meaning that the likes of Pierre Kalulu, Fikayo Tomori and Simon Kjaer were trusted enough to encourage the club to strengthen their rearguard by signing a young player who would have to be given time to develop.
Such credentials could arguably explain why Thiaw had to wait until mid-October before making his debut in the Rossoneri shirt, as he came off the bench to play the closing seven minutes against Verona. He then started two consecutive games a few weeks later, but he never played the full 90 minutes before the World Cup break.
Pioli’s tactical tweaks paved the way for Thiaw’s growth
Thiaw’s turnaround moment came right after the turn of the year, when AS Roma came back from two goals behind at the Stadio San Siro in the space of three minutes, sparking a winless streak that saw Milan drawing at Lecce before two consecutive heavy losses against Lazio and Sassuolo, conceding 11 goals from three games.
The German defender was left watching from the bench as the reigning champions lost ground on Serie A leaders Napoli, but his presence for the final 20 minutes of the Derby della Madonnina was the first sign things were about to change, despite a third consecutive Serie A defeat.
In an attempt to turn the tide and help a side that seemed to have lost all certainties, Pioli switched to a 3-5-2 system, the defensive trio being undoubtedly the most significant and delicate change.
From the following home game against Torino, Thiaw would finally make the starting XI to give a major contribution to the Rossoneri’s first clean sheet of the year, a coincidence that Pioli did not overlook.
Thiaw’s rise made AC Milan solid again
Even though Milan didn’t look fully at ease in their new tactical setup, their defence was clearly the section that benefitted the most from Pioli’s tweak, as the back-three allowed for better coverage of spaces, which was crucial for a team that were struggling to play their trademark high-paced and aggressive football.
Playing alongside Kalulu and Tomori, Thiaw suddenly thrived and completed a rock-solid package that helped Milan keep four consecutive clean sheets across Serie A and Champions League, a prospect that was unrealistic to say the least just a few weeks earlier.
Thiaw’s most impressive display came during the Rossoneri’s most defining night of the season against Tottenham, as the centre-back did not shy away from the cumbersome task of marking Dejan Kulusevski, showcasing all his anticipation skills and perfect timing for take-ons that were crucial for Milan in order to keep their line high and pile constant pressure on Antonio Conte‘s outfit.
However, that was just a taste of the stunning display that Thiaw pulled off during the Diavolo’s 2-0 win over Atalanta, which saw the German win five duels out of seven and made look a rampant Rasmus Hojlund like an ordinary forward. But his contribution was not limited to defending, as Thiaw also showcased amazing quality with the ball in his feet, playing five accurate long balls and boasting an impressive 89% in pass accuracy.
As much as it was unexpected and long-awaited, Thiaw’s inclusion in the starting XI proved pivotal in helping AC Milan rediscover their defensive compactness. And for just €8m, this is the kind of deal that every Italian club should look at.