In the summer of 2020, A.C. Milan announced the signing of Pierre Kalulu from Olympique Lyonnais on a free transfer, although the club did pay a compensation fee to the French club to ensure his arrival. Having never played a minute of senior football prior to the move, fans didn’t expect much from the defender, at least not in this first season. However, Kalulu has stood out when called upon and impressed as both a right-back and as a centre-back.
There have been many fantastic young players coming out of France in recent years, (Milan fans can testify to this, with 21-year-old Theo Hernandez proving to one of the team’s best and most consistent performers) so it’s not surprising that Kalulu has become another on a long list of names. However, it is surprising that he has become the most favoured right-back in the absence of Davide Calabria, (who recently sustained an injury, trauma to his right knee which required minor surgery and will sideline him for at least a month). Loanee signing from Manchester United Diogo Dalot has failed to make the impact expected of him in his natural position – as the season has progressed, the Portuguese has been used more often as a left-back, becoming vice-Theo Hernandez and Kalulu has emerged as vice-Calabria, although Dalot did get an assist last weekend too – reminding us that he may yet have an important part to play in the remaining 8 games.
Kalulu made his senior debut in the final game of the Europa League group stages – having come back to beat Celtic 4-2 in the previous fixture, the Rossoneri were already guaranteed qualification, meaning the game against Sparta Prague provided a rare chance for Stefano Pioli to rotate without the pressure of finding a result. Kalulu started next to Leo Duarte in the centre of defence, not his preferred role but he certainly didn’t look it. The most impressive thing about Pierre Kalulu was hands down just how seamlessly he fit into the team, initially being used out of position as a centre-back and even making his first Serie A appearance in this role, coming on for the injured Matteo Gabbia. He then got his first goal in the following match, a late equalizer against Genoa to salvage a point.
However, since the arrival of Fikayo Tomori, Kalulu has seen all of his action in his preferred role and for the first time in the season, Calabria has picked up an injury, giving the young Frenchman a chance to get a run in the team. Although Davide Calabria’s absence is sorely missed, Pierre Kalulu has filled the void admirably. Kalulu and Tomori are both textbook examples of the type of defenders Milan have been trying to bring in since Ivan Gazidis arrived at the club: young, quick and excellent in 1v1 situations – Kalulu is sometimes caught out of position but like Tomori, uses his speed to recover effortlessly. Although one might say that Simon Kjaer, arguably the best defensive signing in this period is over the age of 30 – he is the only exception. However, his speed in recovery is still impressive and he has arguably emerged as one of the best 1v1 defenders in Serie A.
Kalulu does of course have a couple of shortcomings, notably, his crossing ability often leaves a lot to be desired. However, his positioning and defensive attributes are that of a much more experienced player, and he has proven to be a useful servant throughout the season. He may not have been the biggest name player to arrive last summer, but he has proven to be an incredibly astute addition. This type of signing is something Milan fans should get used to seeing, with the genius of Geoffrey Moncada working alongside Paolo Maldini and Frederic Massara, fans will hope to see many more steals like this – low cost, high reward. Whilst Kalulu not only came without a large transfer fee, but he has also proven to be a quality Serie A level defender and a capable understudy with plenty of room to grow in the coming years.