Patrick Cutrone surprisingly leading Milan charge in stellar breakout season
For all the money spent on 11 new players last summer, there is something refreshing about the fact it's an AC Milan youth player in Patrick Cutrone who continues to deservedly capture the limelight this season.
After joining the club at just 8 years of age, he proceeded to impress through the youth levels before making his senior debut last May. From that point onward, the 20-year-old has gone from strength to strength.
With 12 goals in 28 appearances in all competitions so far this season, only Paris Saint-Germain phenom Kylian Mbappe can boast a better goal-scoring record for a player aged 20 or under in Europe's major leagues.
However, there's much more beyond the numbers and statistics that suggest Cutrone is capable of establishing himself as a key figure for the Rossoneri for years to come.
For such a young player, his positional play in the box and his ability to sniff out a goal is hugely impressive. Cutrone seemingly has that killer instinct in front of goal that takes others years to perfect, and naturally it had led to early comparisons with a Milan hero: Filippo Inzaghi.
It's undoubtedly a natural gift that he possesses, and despite seeing significant competition arrive last summer in the form of Andre Silva and Nikola Kalinic, it's the youngster who has continued to be a fundamental piece in the puzzle for Gennaro Gattuso.
Silva and Kalinic have 12 goals combined in 51 total outings, so that just goes to show how important Cutrone has been. His brace at the weekend in the win over SPAL kept Milan on track as they try to force their way back up into the European qualification spots.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Cutrone's emergence has been that he has been able to pair his youthful exuberance and energy with quality. It's one thing as a young player coming on in games and working hard for the team, but he has consistently made a positive impact in the final third.
His intensity and work ethic set the example from the front, and it could even be argued that he now provides his teammates with a lift whenever he takes to the field, setting the tone for the rest and delivering goals in key games.
From his extra-time winner against Inter in the Coppa Italia, to three goals in his last two Serie A games to help Milan secure maximum points, he has made his case to be a regular starter for Gattuso. And despite splashing out on Silva and Kalinic last summer, there is a strong argument to stick with young Cutrone.
At this stage of his career though, there are unsurprisingly areas in which he can improve. The Milan youngster possesses a real cleverness on the pitch, which can be seen in his movement off the ball, but he must add more to his game overall.
From his hold-up play to linking things together rather than being a mere predator in the box, he'll have to become a complete package, especially if Milan continue to play with a sole striker in a 4-3-3 system.
Nevertheless, the Rossoneri are seeing more of his quality on the ball as he can use his pace and skill in possession to run the channels and take on a defender. In turn, there is plenty to work with in the short-term while also continuing to develop his talent for the future to ensure he isn't one-dimensional.
While new signings always provide a boost and lift spirits, they can't replicate the feeling of when a club sees "one of their own" make a breakthrough and establish themselves as a key figure.
Manuel Locatelli has dropped off from his impressive campaign last year, but there will be hope that he can still be an important part of Milan's future. Meanwhile, Davide Calabria and Gianluigi Donnarumma are two others hoping to keep up the tradition of youth players going on to become first-team stalwarts.
However, they've all had to take a step back behind Cutrone so far this season, and Milan will undoubtedly be hoping that he can continue to deliver in the coming weeks as they make their charge for a Champions League spot.
Sumeet Paul covers AC Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @SP_Calcio.