Gareth Southgate was trending on Twitter as Sunday bled the start of the working week. It’s not an uncommon occurrence for the England manager, but it was the latest sign of the clamor for a certain centre-back to make the national team.
A thousand miles away, Fikayo Tomori spent Sunday night convulsing happily around the Mapei stadium in northern Italy. He had just helped AC Milan clinch their first Scudetto since 2011 with a crushing 3-0 win at Sassuolo.
After being dumped unceremoniously by Chelsea, Tomori took the opportunity to spread his wings and grew up in his own skin at the San Siro.
Tomori was a central part of a Milan full-back who achieved their best defensive record in a decade – they conceded two goals in their last 11 league games – and formed a tight partnership with Pierre Kalulu.
No wonder he’s being touted as the future of the Milan defence. And the Italians know about defense.
Alessandro Nesta said that Tomori and Kalulu are “two modern centre-backs who put the pressure high on the pitch and leave a lot of space behind them – it keeps the team high, which is fundamental these days”.
For notoriously hard-to-please Fabio Capello, the pair represent ‘the future of Milan’.
While Mauro Tassotti, who formed one of Milan’s great defenses alongside Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, said: “Tomori is good at winning the ball, his speed is impressive. He anticipates a lot and he is always aggressive.
While Harry Maguire has endured a torrid season at Manchester United and John Stones hasn’t guaranteed a starting spot at Manchester City, there’s an argument that Tomori has been the standout England defender in 2021-22.
His exclusion from the March squad was baffling, with Southgate justifying Tomori’s omission by explaining he wanted to keep England’s success at Euro 2020 going.
That explanation will become thin if Tomori isn’t chosen for June’s Nations League fixtures – and the World Cup later this year.
Tomori’s status in Italy was not altered by his eagerness to embark on Italian life.
Determined to learn the mother tongue, the defender is now fluent enough to hold press conferences in Italian. And life on the peninsula clearly suits the 24-year-old.
“My sister said, ‘You just seem a lot calmer…'” Tomori told the Guardian last month. “I think that’s probably how Italy is.
“Everything is a little cooler. In England, everything is so rushed and hectic. In Italy, everyone walks a little slower. Everything is just a little quieter.
Roma record breaking Tomori and Tammy Abraham explained that they no longer rush home after training and take time to enjoy their surroundings.
The former Chelsea defender has taken to relaxing on the terrace with his teammates and friends, and like the Milanese, he drinks a macchiato after every meal. He never drank coffee in England.
And how can we forget the pastries?
Tomori went viral in March after being offered a platter of sfogliatelle (a Neapolitan pastry, filled with cream, custard or dried fruit) on a flight home from Naples. After watching the popular treats warily for some time, Tomori carefully put away before showing an enthusiastic appreciation of his new treat.
All of this behavior appealed to Italians, desperate for their foreign imports to embrace their country’s traditions and immerse themselves in Italian culture.
Long gone are the days when English footballers bemoaned the absence of Rice Krispies from supermarket shelves.
😋 Fikayo #tomori carried the sfogliatelle by the prima volta
⁉️E voi da che parte state: meglio la riccia o la frolla? pic.twitter.com/P7MtTVi8CZ
– calciomercato.it (@calciomercatoit) March 12, 2022
Coffee and pastries are fine, but it’s worth pointing out how impressive Tomori has been on the pitch for Milan this season.
Only goaltender Mike Maignan has played more minutes than the Canadian-born defender. No one has won more aerial duels and tackles in the famous black and red stripes than Tomori. Milan look noticeably better when they’re on the pitch.
Comparing Milan to title rivals Inter, no player from either club has won more tackles (73) or made more interceptions (45) than the 24-year-old . Only experienced Inter Milan defender Skrinar has made more than Tomori’s 77 clearances.
Let’s not forget the differences between football in England and Italy. While the Premier League has become more tactically refined, it is still significantly more energetic and basketball-like than its continental rivals.
Serie A, even today, places more emphasis on tactical intelligence, game management rather than all-out attack. Tomori thrived in this environment.
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READ: A tribute to five wonderful Serie A defenses: Milan, Parma, Inter, Juve…
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Stefane Pioli is a relentless coach, constantly dissecting performances to highlight the small details necessary for success. In other words, the perfect mentor for a player who isn’t quite there yet.
Pioli likes Tomori for his ‘aggressiveness, pace and ability to read the game’, but he wants him to curb his instinct to anticipate the game too soon and wait longer for attacks to unfold – somehow something that is foreign to a Premier League Defenders host.
Maldini also lent his expertise. Milan’s technical director gave lessons on body form in crucial defensive moments and anticipated the reaction of opposing forwards.
Never mind Cobham University, Tomori received a doctorate in defense from some of the best teachers in the world. No wonder he speaks with authority on the subject these days.
“When the ball is there, I have to be there,” he told the Daily Mail in April. “When the ball goes, I know I have to be two meters in that direction, or look for that particular player… OK, the ball is there, where is my teammate? Where is the opposition?
“If the ball goes over I need to be in a position where I can leave the striker and get there, but if the ball goes in the feet I’m able to go and press.”
It seems frenetic, revealing a profession that requires total concentration and where any slippage could prove costly. But Tomori is dedicated to his task and is a very ambitious individual who didn’t just fester on the bench at Stamford Bridge.
“I hope to become the strongest defender in Serie A,” he said recently. “I work every day to try to reach certain levels. The most important thing for me is to win with Milan.
He certainly filled in the last part, with the Scudetto tucked away in Milan’s trophy cabinet. And he is also on his way to becoming the best defender in Serie A.
That leaves only Southgate to win. But, with Tomori’s game improving significantly over 18 months in Italy, it seems like a matter of time before Tomori represents his country again.
The defender has won two England caps so far. Expect that total to swell over the next two years.
By Michael Lee
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