Former Chelsea centre-back Fikayo Tomori has won the admiration of fans, Italy’s greatest players and the press in a stunning season at AC Milan.
It is a remarkable feat for a young man to be revered as a defender in a country that considers defending an art form.
But the 24-year-old, who was schooled at Chelsea’s academy, is now rated as one of the best in Serie A, leading the Rossoneri’s charge for their first league title in more than 10 years.
Fikayo Tomori has impressed coaches, fans and media since his move to AC Milan
Milan sit top of the league with four games to go, two points clear of city rivals Inter, who fluffed their lines and lost their game in hand 2-1 away to Bologna on Wednesday. But the battle will be re-joined today when Milan host Fiorentina and Inter go to Udinese.
No one has done more to propel Milan back to the Serie A summit than Tomori, after a barren decade for the Rossoneri, and in his 14 months at the San Siro his value has doubled, according to the website, Transfermarkt.
So, while Chelsea’s decision to let Tomori make his loan move to Milan permanent for £25million last summer – with no buy-back clause – is surprising, it is utterly perplexing that he cannot secure a place in Gareth Southgate’s England squad.
No one has done more to push Milan towards a league title and he’s trusted by Stefano Pioli
Legendary Italian players line up to praise him. Paolo Maldini admires his intensity; for former England manager, Fabio Capello, it is his speed; Franco Baresi has highlighted his fearless determination; while his manager Stefano Pioli says he has been ‘a positive surprise in every way’.
Italian football journalist Mina Rzouki captured the prevailing mood when she declared on Twitter: ‘I’m simply in love with Tomori.’
Tomori has played more minutes than any Milan player this season, winning the most aerial duels and tackles. Put bluntly, the team does considerably better when he is in it.
Of the 27 matches Tomori has played in the league during this campaign, Milan have conceded just 0.7 goals per game; in the seven he missed through injury and illness that figure rises to 1.6.
Tomori has built a reputation as a fast and powerful defender, who has been dubbed ‘the wall’
He has also been in the side for 12 of the club’s 14 clean sheets this term. No wonder the Italian media have dubbed him ‘the wall’.
This is just what the serious and single-minded Tomori hoped for when he gambled on a loan move to Milan in January 2021, after being frozen out at Stamford Bridge following 27 appearances, including 17 in the Premier League, ahead of Thomas Tuchel’s arrival.
And while he targets the title on the pitch, Tomori has already achieved one ambition – to learn the language – and he has sufficient fluency to give interviews in Italian, to the delight of supporters and journalists.
It is significant, the first word he learned was ‘Scudetto’.
‘When did I learn it? Practically immediately!’ Tomori told Sky Italia.
Tomori has become a fan favourite, not least because Milan perform better when he plays
‘When I arrived here, I knew I was joining a strong team that could do something special. This year we can do it.’
As well as his desire to succeed for himself and his club, Tomori sees winning the Scudetto as a way back into Southgate’s plans with the World Cup just seven months away.
Off the pitch, Italy has worked its magic on the Canadian-born defender, who moved to Kent as an infant and attended the Blues academy at Cobham from the age of seven.
His sister insists he is ‘smilier’ than he used to be.
‘She said: “You just seem a lot calmer…”‘ Tomori explained to The Guardian last month. ‘I think that’s probably the way Italy is.
‘Everything is a bit more chilled. In England, everything is so rushed and hustle and bustle. In Italy, everyone’s walking a bit slower. Everything’s just a bit calmer.’
The ex-Chelsea defender has excelled on the pitch and impressed off it, mastering Italian
Tomori is enjoying his football at AC Milan and he is loving the culture of Italy, where he has discovered the sweet treat, sfogliatella
Tomori encouraged his erstwhile Chelsea team-mate, Tammy Abraham, to join Roma last summer and the pair, who speak often, share a similar experience in Italy.
Both have spoken of how they no longer rush home from training, taking time to enjoy their surroundings. Tomori has fallen into the habit of relaxing on the terrace with team-mates and friends, and like the Milanese, he drinks a macchiato after each meal, whereas before he never drank coffee.
Italians, like all football fans, demand performances from their players, but they are desperate for imports to love their country and culture, too.
And for Italians language and food are two key themes. Having nailed the former, he was captured on film enjoying the latter in a recent YouTube short that went viral.
On a team flight home following a 1-0 win at Napoli in March, a sceptical Tomori was offered a tray of sfogliatelle, a Neapolitan pastry, filled with cream, custard or dried fruit.
After eyeing the popular treats suspiciously for some time, Tomori carefully tucked in before showing enthusiastic appreciation, to the delight of social media.
‘The sfogliatella is good. Great Fik,’ greeted one enthused fan, Ilenia Biancaniello.
At Chelsea, Tomori’s opportunities became limited, but he has embraced life in Italy, including one of the country’s favourite desert snacks, sfogliatelle – a video of him trying it went viral
Italy’s football culture is also shaping Tomori. Serie A has produced some of the world’s best defenders and the former Gravesend Grammar School pupil is now learning from that wealth of experience, which can only benefit England when he is finally given the opportunity to add to his two caps.
Pioli is a hands-on coach, dissecting performances to highlight the fine details that are needed to succeed. He loves Tomori for his ‘aggression, pace, and a capacity to read the game’, but he wants him to curb his instinct to anticipate the play too early, and wait longer for attacks to unfold.
Maldini, Milan’s technical director, who played in 902 matches for the Rossoneri, winning 26 trophies in 25 years, also shares his knowledge generously.
Among Maldini’s tutorials have been lessons on body shape in crucial defensive moments, the speed with which the ball must travel through the team’s back line and intriguingly, how Italian strikers react to defenders’ movements, which requires better positioning and scanning than in the English game.
Tomori has highlighted the value of experienced team mates like Olivier Giroud in the team
Maldini was influential in encouraging Tomori to make the move to Milan, emphasising the significance of the club in Italian football.
‘When I go to the training ground and see the pictures and names on the wall of people who have set records, like [Andriy] Shevchenko, Maldini, Kaka and [Clarence] Seedorf, and I’m thinking that they’ve all been here, they’ve all sat in these changing rooms, played on these pitches,’ he told The Times last year.
‘All those moments fill you with pride. You breathe it in.’
Tomori now speaks with authority on defending. He likens the Premier League to basketball, an end-to-end encounter of constant transitions, but Serie A, he says, is more like American Football, with set plays designed to trap defenders into mistakes and which require precise positioning to repel.
‘When the ball’s here, I need to be here,’ he said. ‘When the ball goes, I know I have to be two metres over in that direction, or be looking for this particular player… OK, the ball’s there, where’s my team-mate? Where’s the opposition?’ If the ball goes over the top I need to be in a position where I can leave the striker and get there, but if the ball goes into feet, I’m in a position to go press.’
Tomori says he is conscious of the expectation and past glories of Paolo Maldini and AC Milan
Now technical director, Maldini, was pivotal in bringing Tomori to Milan and helps advise him
It has not all been plain sailing. Italy’s love for defending means everyone is ready with an opinion when something goes wrong.
Tomori was criticised following the second leg of the semi-final of the Coppa Italia, which Milan lost 3-0 to Inter, after he struggled to contain Lautaro Martinez.
But his attitude to learning should mean the experience will only make him better.
‘Given how much faster he is than the average defender, sometimes he takes too many risks trying to anticipate an attack too early,’ Pioli told The Observer.
‘He could wait a tiny bit longer and, instead of acting on the expectation of a certain play, he would wait for that play.
‘But being such an intelligent lad, he will get better at that too.’
And Tomori himself finds knowledgeable teachers throughout AC Milan.
‘We are a young team, but we have players like [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, [Olivier] Giroud, [Simon] Kjaer and [Mike] Maignan who have already won. We are at Milan to win something,’ he told MilanNews.
The Milan players are sticking together in their quest for the league title, as Inter push hard
‘I hope to become the strongest defender in Serie A, I work every day to try to reach certain levels. The most important thing for me is to win with Milan.’
Goalkeeper Maignan won the French championship with Lille, Giroud is a World Cup winner with France, while according to Tomori, as well as winning Serie A (with three clubs), Ligue 1, La Liga and the Eredivisie, Ibrahimovic simply has a ‘crazy mentality’.
‘Since I arrived, he has only repeated one word to me: to win. His voice always makes itself heard, spurs us all the time,’ Tomori told the club website.
In an interview with Sportsmail last year Tomori gave some insights into Ibrahimovich’s desire to win.
‘He’s all about winning,’ said Tomori. ‘Even in foot-golf, he’s telling us, “we can’t lose, we can’t lose”, and we ended up winning.’
And Tomori’s focus now is laser sharp. Inter have the easier run in, the average position of their opponents in the four remaining games is 15th, compared to Milan’s opposition, who sit eighth on average.
But that does not appear to affect Tomori, who helped Milan to six clean sheets in a row before conceding in their last game – a 2-1 win away to Lazio – when Serie A’s top scorer, Ciro Immobile, scored.
‘In my view we must focus only on ourselves, on our games,’ Tomori said in an interview with DAZN, even before Inter slipped up at Bologna.
‘We are first… but we must continue to play for it and believe in it.’
However, regardless of the outcome of the title chase, Southgate must surely find a way to accommodate this passionate, powerful and deep-thinking defender in England’s next squad, which will be summoned for the UEFA Nations League fixtures in June.
England’s Gareth Southgate has a decision to make on Tomori’sinclusion in his next squad
Southgate justified Tomori’s omission from the most recent squad in March by explaining he wanted to keep continuity from England’s success in Euro 2020.
But the England manager acknowledged Tomori’s potential and identified him as someone ‘who can challenge the four who’ve been with us’.
Tomori is challenging hard and deserves his chance. If he can impress the Italians, he must be doing a lot right. And Chelsea must wonder why they let him leave.