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FINDING THE BACK OF THE NET in today’s era of plastic footballs and packed defences has become a tailored art and relies as much on speed of instinct as it does on outright finishing ability. A split-second off here and an inch too slow there could make all the difference for a striker in a tight affair. These challenges are like no other in sport and are what make scoring goals so rewarding, especially at the very highest level. For the best strikers in the world, goals become an obsession.

Patrick Cutrone, while still in the early stages of his career, has demonstrated an abundance of hunger in the 18-yard box and this aforementioned obsession. Whether scoring with regularity for AC Milan’s primavera side or making a mockery of youth defences with Italy, the Como-born striker has always had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Anyone who’s followed the Milan man closely, however, will tell you that his impressive goal tally is no coincidence. In fact, they all say the same thing. Cutrone only has two things on his mind: Milan and scoring goals.

Cutrone entered the footballing world at a young age and began playing kids football with his local five-a-side team, Paradiense, aged five. Just three years later, the striker was snapped up by Milan and made his way through their youth ranks, impressing at almost every turn, his rise to the top seemingly a formality. Before being promoted to the first team last year, Cutrone had a lethal track record, scoring 43 goals in 67 appearances and helped Milan win the Viareggio Cup for the first time in 13 years in 2014.

Initially, his poacher-like abilities drew comparisons to a former Rossonero great and a former youth coach of his, Pippo Inzaghi. After recently scoring a brace against SPAL, Milan boss Gennaro Gattuso resurfaced those comparisons: “Cutrone’s got that venom inside him when he gets close to goal,” said Gattuso. “He reminds me of Pippo.”

Having been under Inzaghi’s tutelage from 2012 to 2014, it’s clear that Cutrone picked up some tricks of the trait from the striker and moulded aspects of his game to mirror the former Azzurri hero. Treating every game like he hasn’t seen the light of day in years, it didn’t take long for the Milan faithful to warm up to the passionate young man and give him the nickname ‘Cutrogol’. After winning promotion to the first team in January 2017, the 20-year-old made his debut in a 3-0 win over Bologna.

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He demonstrated glimpses of his potential in cameo appearances, but it was never Milan’s plan for Cutrone to be their starter this season. After all, the Rossoneri – still, it seemed, no convinced of his ability to lead the line – opened their chequebooks and dropped over €60m on Nikola Kalinić and André Silva to revitalise their attack.

In theory, both additions were decent options at the time. The Croatian had Serie A experience with Fiorentina and was familiar with Vincenzo Montella, while Cristiano Ronaldo himself went as far as labelling André Silva as his heir. Reality, however, was a completely different animal and both strikers failed to acclimate themselves to life at a big club, struggling for consistency.

Their dry spell in front of goal presented Cutrone with the opportunity to make the starting role his own and the 20-year-old took the bull by the horns. Since being handed the task of leading the front line, Cutrogol has scored 11 goals in 25 appearances in all competitions and has propelled Milan into an unlikely race for the top four.

The striker wet his feet in calcio by scoring against the mid-table sides and in Europa League affairs, but has recently begun finding the back of the net against Serie A’s top dogs. With the score deadlocked at zero in a recent edition of the Derby della Madonnina, Cutrone put the tie to bed in extra time after latching onto an early cross from Suso and firing home, effectively sending Milan to the Coppa Italia semi-finals at the expense of arch-rivals, Inter.

Despite looking up to Álvaro Morata and Andrea Belotti, Cutrone has his own style of play. Physical by nature, the 20-year-old is at his best when he is making runs beyond the opposition’s defence, making the most of his aerial ability and movement. Comfortable playing with a defender on his back, Cutrone is able to take the majority of his chances due to his instinctive positioning and ability to finish off either foot.

Currently averaging two shots a game, Cutrone plays the game with his heart on his sleeve and demonstrates a burning passion for the red and black, something not lost on the fans and clearly necessary after more than a few years of mediocrity. However, at times he is guilty of giving the ball away too cheaply, something he admits to. In order to take the next step in his career, he must work on this aspect of his game and improve on his link-up play, especially when facing the defending on the counter-attack.

Read  |  How Spaniards José Callejón and Suso reinvented their careers in Italy

While the comparisons to Inzaghi are plentiful due to their similar attitude towards scoring goals, Cutrone wants to quash that talk for now, highlighting his humble nature: “I am pleased because he was a great Milan striker, but it’s still too early for that sort of comparison,” said Cutrone in an interview with Sky Italia.

Since he has assumed the reigns of the front line, Milan have had an upturn in form and are unbeaten in their last 10 clashes in all competitions, including wins over the likes of Lazio, Sampdoria and Inter. Gattuso has been able to get the most out of his young striker by flanking him with two creators in the form of Suso and Hakan Çalhanoğlu. The duo have worked wonders for Cutrone’s game and give him a constant supply of crosses and through balls to attack. With Milan only a win away from a Coppa Italia final and making up ground on the top four every week, they will need their academy graduate to be firing on all cylinders to close off the season.

Internationally, Cutrone has represented Italy across all levels, starting from their under-15 setup. Before being promoted to Gli Azzurrini, the 20-year-old found the back of the net 27 times in 57 appearances. Since debuting for the under-21 side in September 2017, Cutrone has four goals in five games, showing just how lethal he can be.

After missing out on the World Cup for the first time in over half a century, Italy now find themselves rebuilding from square one and could use a natural goalscorer spearheading their setup. Belotti and Ciro Immobile have phenomenal track records in the league but they haven’t been able to translate that form to the national team – an issue best highlighted in Gli Azzurri’s two-legged affair in the World Cup playoffs against Sweden, where they failed to find the back of the net.

Cutrone, on the other hand, has been scoring goals for Italy at almost every level, albeit with the youth teams, but if his Milan career is anything to go by, he won’t be out of place in Italy’s famous blue. As long as the supply is there, he’ll be among the goals.

Read  |  How Ciro Immobile reclaimed his status as one of calcio’s deadliest goalscorers

With Luigi Di Biagio – a manager who is familiar with Cutrone – being handed the senior setup on an interim basis, expect the Milan man to make his debut sooner rather than later. “He’s been with us since the under-15 level, we’ve known him for a long time,” said Di Biagio. “His strength lies in his hunger, desire and training like he’s preparing for his last game,” added the manager.

Italy’s first game since falling at the hands of Sweden comes at the end of March at Wembley against England. If Cutrone keeps scoring, there’s no reason why he won’t be among the call-ups. After all, he’s earned it and representing his nation would likely bring the best out of him.

Currently, Italy’s leading scorers are long-serving squad members Daniele De Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini on 21 and eight goals respectively. What this highlights – more than anything – is how inconsistency has marred the Azzurri’s offensive ranks in recent years and underscores the need for a long-term solution up front. Where Mario Balotelli, Immobile and Belotti have tried and failed, Cutrone could thrive.

Gone are the days of Giampiero Ventura’s tactically rigid 4-2-4. Italy’s creative forces may finally realise their potential in a free-flowing three-man attack and regain relevance on the international scene. Without the shackles imposed on them by the former Torino boss, there’s no saying how lethal a front three of Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi and Patrick Cutrone could be. Like at Milan, the Como-born striker would flourish playing between two dynamic, pass-first wingers and would have plenty scoring opportunities.

With Milan looking to return to their past glory days and in dire need of a true bomber up front, Cutrone’s emergence could not have come at a better time. While calcio fans would be wise to temper their expectations in the short term, considering how many breakout stars have fizzled out in recent times, the 20-year-old’s rise feels different. It feels inevitable.

As the Italian national team looks to pick themselves up from their latest fall from grace, they will be able to do so with a consistent scoring threat for the first time in years. It may still be early days but all signs are pointing to one thing: Cutrone is well on his way to becoming Italy’s next great number nine. 

By Gregory Caltabanis