2020/21 is a season that has seen a resurgence of creative number 10s across Europe. Whilst the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Jack Grealish have rightfully dominated all the headlines in the English Premier League, in Italian football, the natural home of the number 10, Hakan Calhanoglu has been the outstanding player in AC Milan’s title charge.
Calhanoglu's distribution and shooting are stand-out. He, moreover, has a distinguished understanding of when to change directions when on the ball. This makes him especially dangerous in central half-spaces in the opposition half as defenders find it hard to close in on him. Notably, his defensive contribution often goes unnoticed and provides an integral fluidity between Milan’s defence and attack.
In this scout report, we will produce a tactical profile of the Turkish maestro. Following a brief positional summary and statistical outline, looking at areas such as his killer passing and set piece prowess, we will elaborate on his ability to break lines and increased appetite to work for the team without the ball thus coming into tactical favour for his club.
In previous seasons Hakan Calhanoglu, featured in a variety of formations but usually operated from the left and at some times as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3. This season he has been handed the keys to the number 10 position and asked to run the show. It is a great deal of responsibility but he has thrived and gone up levels in terms of his influence; his average performance ratings have gone up albeit he has not been registering as many goals.
In terms of where he operates more specifically in terms of pitch areas, he still tends to gravitate towards the left side of the pitch but now he has the freedom to mix it up should he feel it is necessary to do so. With his ambidextrous ability and super fluent ball-carrying style, there is no real tactical reason why he should limit himself to one side of the pitch but it is probably a force of habit, as it is down the left where he has developed for the most part of his career.
The above plot shows the ratio of a midfielder’s Assist to Expected Assists (xA) in Serie A this season. While the majority of his peers are concentrated on the bottom left of the plot, Calhanoglu is among the best performers in the above metrics. He has 5 assists (more than Rodrigo De Paul) and 6.65 Expected Assists (more than Henrikh Mkhitaryan).
Calhanoglu’s striking of the ball in his passing, as well as shooting, is outstandingly clean. He has a total pass success rate of 83.5%. This is especially impressive as he attempts a high volume of vertical key passes, averaging 3 key passes per game in all competitions. Moreover, Calhanoglu is certainly one of the more gifted shooters of the ball in Europe. His average of 2.6 shots per game is backed up by often beating the keeper from difficult angles. This diversifies Milan’s attacking repertoire.
His expert ball-striking technique is also evidenced through Milan’s set-piece success this season. The Rossoneri have scored 7 goals from set-pieces so far. This is expected to be notably higher than the 10 they managed for the entirety of last season. His corners almost routinely beat the near post and pose probing questions to the opposition. The Turk has, additionally, caught the world’s eye with the quality behind his direct free-kicks.
To illustrate the differentials that the Turk brings to the table, the above graphic compares him to two of the most impressive performers in Serie A this season - Rodrigo De Paul and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. On the one hand, Calhanoglu has a similar output shape to De Paul on the radar chart on the left. This could be a foundation for the analyst to explore similarities in their roles for their respective teams. However, the Turk edges De Paul in the outputs of goals, assists and possession chain values bar xA per 90.
Conversely, Calhanoglu’s radar chart is quite distinct from that of Mkhitaryan - who is certainly a candidate for Serie A’s player of the season. Mkhitaryan plays a significantly larger role for his team’s possession chains with an xGChain per 90 and xGBuildup per 90 of 0.91 and 0.41 respectively. The Armenian outperforms Calhanoglu in goals and assists as well, which underlines the stellar form he’s been in this season. However, Calhanoglu significantly outperforms Mkhitaryan in terms of shots per 90 and key passes per 90 - two metrics that have been the Turk’s bread and butter in his resurgence for Milan.
In the following sections, we elaborate further on how Calhanoglu breaks lines through his superior striking of the ball and understanding pressure points of opposition. This makes him a strong progressor of the ball.
Calhanoglu has the innate ability to control when the ball dips and bends. Additionally, his distribution must be supported by the fact that he is a highly positive player. In other words, he is always looking to probe and make something happen. Part of his effectiveness this season, as opposed to previous seasons, has been the creative freedom given to him. Stefano Pioli's version of the 4-2-3-1 tends to protect and underline Calhanoglu's skill set.
In the above image, Milan's forward players are positioned quite centrally. A rotation from the striker prompted the opposition centre-back to lunge forward. This allowed a pocket of free space for Calhanoglu to operate from. The Turk is especially dangerous in central spaces 5-10 yards from the opposition box due to his passing and shooting abilities.
In this scenario, his shot beats the keeper and hits the post. It is noteworthy that the Expected goal (xG) from that zone is not very high. However, Calhanoglu can't be afforded this type of space as he excels in long-range shots. It further appears as though Milan’s forward line tend to often guard the Turk and work towards routinely relaying it to him in these areas.
Furthermore, Calhanoglu’s vision lies in his ability to understand the pressure points of the defence. He breaks lines through lane-cutting while dribbling as well as passing. In the above image, Calhanoglu plays against the direction of the opposing defenders’ strides. Upon a first glance, a right-footer like Calhanoglu would release the ball onto the pocket of half-space on his left.
However, after considering that the defenders were running towards his direction, his left-footed through-ball onto the right-hand side broke the lines and released the striker into the penalty area. His ambidexterity and the ability to find a better pass is commendable. Moreover, Calhanoglu doesn’t always have to rely on receiving the ball in his favourite areas. His ability to shield the ball and progress it through some neat dribbling often prompts defenders to leave their zones and lunge in.
In the above position, the midfielder’s quick progression of the ball was unanticipated. Despite having three players pressing, Calhanoglu managed to assist Rafael Leao with a perfectly weighted through ball. Despite it clearly being a 5 v 2 disadvantage for the Rossoneri, Calhanoglu managed to create something out of nothing. And while most managers would frown upon the audacity of the decisions he makes, Stefano Pioli welcomes it as he recognizes the Turk’s quality.
This is reminscent of the way Grealish uses his ball carrying to attract opponents whilst at the same time keeping his eye open for movement around him and having the composure and vision to play the ball to a colleague. In terms of risks, he is perhaps a more riskier passer than a Grealish and more prone to error as a result but its an area of the game in which he has a great deal of potential and I envisage it maturing with the passage of time.
While there are established analysis of Calhanoglu's presence in the attack, his defensive contributions are understated and have significantly contributed to his resurgence. The majority of Calhanoglu's defensive actions are from positions where he faces his own goal. He excels in applying pressure from his opponents' blindspot. Consider the above positions.
In both situations, the opposition player in possession is not aware of Calhanoglu’s challenge. As tackling from behind is a particularly risky approach, his body positioning and technique in doing so is commendable. Furthermore, in both scenarios, Calhanoglu’s successful challenge led to a dangerous counterattack for Milan on the other end of the pitch. Having a defensive presence in conjunction with Franck Kessie and Sandro Tonali has been an integral factor in the transformation of not only Calhanoglu’s game but also AC Milan’s synergy. Calhanoglu contributes to connecting his team’s attack and defence.
Until recently, having an out and out number 10 was out of tactical fashion due to the industriousness of counter-pressing. Whether it was having an extra midfielder in a 4-3-3 or playing with a false 9, the creative responsibility of a number 10 had arguably been diluted in system-heavy teams. These system-heavy teams rely on a predetermined tactical formula of progressing the ball and attacking. They essentially play in a way that aims to optimise their xG. However, the downside of trying to control the chaos on the pitch is a certain predictability that comes with it.
Giving a player like Calhanoglu the creative freedom to problem-solve on the pitch makes Milan unpredictable. Furthermore, his inherent quality as highlighted above tends to supersede xG at times. For instance, taking a shot from 25-30 yards will yield a low probability on the xG scale. However, Calhanoglu has beaten the keeper so many times from such positions that it then becomes tactically relevant.
Whilst the Turk is now afforded significant creative freedom, it is his improvement in tracking back that has been the biggest reason why he can thrive in the luxurious number 10 position. Calhanoglu’s lacklustre time as a central midfielder in Gattuso’s 4-3-3 paradoxically helped him improve aspects that permit him to play his all-round game today and not become a tactical liability.
Studying Calhanoglu’s style of play is certainly a breath of fresh air. His command over the ball in conjunction with the risks he takes puts him alongside the likes of Bruno Fernandes and Jack Grealish although he has struggled to match them for output this season. He has been in Milan for several seasons and was on brink of leaving the club at one point. However, his ability to influence proceedings, in particular the tempo, over the past year has made him a bit of a cult-favourite.
His ball-striking is also very special and when you consider how the likes of Beckham and Pirlo were able to entrance the world with the beauty of their kicking, the Turk is blessed with a similar aesthetic elegance in the way he produces passes and shots on goal. A special player who has the talent to be the icon of Serie A but he needs to rediscover his scoring touch and ally it with his improved ability to playmake and dictate proceedings.