AC Milan's young Italian duo building a foundation for success
During AC Milan's struggles in recent years, club President Silvio Berlusconi continuously promised supporters that a clear strategy was in place. It was essentially to build the squad around a core of young homegrown players that would eventually usher in a new era of success.
After seemingly neglecting that vision for some time, coupled with several failures in the transfer market, that idea is now firmly taking shape at the San Siro.
A closer look at the Rossoneri's squad shows that half of the current group is Italian with an average age of 26, and so finally there is evidence that there is substance behind Berlusconi's comments.
The hierarchy remains widely unpopular with the supporters given their general poor decision-making and mistakes both on and off the pitch in recent times, but there is growing optimism that coach Sinisa Mihajlovic is heading in the right direction with a solid unit of players.
A six-game unbeaten run in Serie A has coincided with Milan moving up to sixth in the table and to within six points of third-placed Fiorentina in the race to qualify for the Champions League.
While certain individuals have been more influential than others in the turnaround since the start of 2016, two in particular deserve credit for their contribution in the Rossoneri's back line.
Forward Carlos Bacca and midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura rightfully receive plenty of credit, as the pair have been key to Milan's success from an offensive point of view, but looking at the defensive aspect of the team's performances, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Alessio Romagnoli stand out.
Much has been made of Donnarumma's age since he broke into the side, with the 16-year-old building on his preseason displays during the summer to displace Diego Lopez and establish himself as Milan's No. 1. To thrust a teenager into the limelight was a risky call from Mihajlovic. However, the 46-year-old has seen his faith repaid by his young custodian who continues to display maturity and composure beyond his years.
Milan have improved as a whole defensively, which in turn has made Donnarumma's job easier. Having settled into a 4-4-2 formation, Mihajlovic has seen the players buy into his philosophy and style of play, and it has made them a more difficult team to break down. However, as seen in the draw with Udinese last weekend, Donnarumma is more than capable of pulling off key saves; he remained switched on and fully focused on his job throughout the encounter.
The youngster has kept six clean sheets in 16 league games this season, while conceding just 12 goals in the other 10. As he continues to benefit from working alongside the likes of Christian Abbiati and Lopez day in and day out in training, Donnarumma certainly has a bright future ahead of him if he can continue to produce this level of consistency.
Meanwhile, after arriving in a £19m deal from Roma last summer, Romagnoli was immediately put under the spotlight to live up to his price tag. Tipped to be a permanent fixture in the side with aspirations of following in the footsteps of the likes of legendary defenders Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, it could have been a difficult situation for the 21-year-old to deal with.
Instead, with 26 appearances in all competitions under his belt so far this season, Romagnoli has grown in confidence, stature and belief as the campaign has progressed and it has led to him being a commanding presence in the heart of the Milan defence.
Although there is a concern over his lack of pace at times, the youngster's tactical awareness and sense of positioning allow him to make up for it. Coupled with his assuredness in possession and ability to build from the back, it has undoubtedly become clear why Mihajlovic was so insistent about signing him after previously working with the player at Sampdoria.
Consistency and development will be key for the pair moving forward. If they aspire to become club icons, they must produce every week. With Milan still chasing dreams of the Champions League, Donnarumma and Romagnoli will be pivotal to their success in the coming weeks and months.
Sumeet Paul covers AC Milan for ESPN FC. Twitter: @SP_Calcio.