Silvio Berlusconi will keep his clippers in his pocket for the time being. The Milan owner informed Stephan El Shaarawy that he was granting the player’s Mohawk a presidential pardon during a recent visit to the club’s training facility. Now he may have to extend a similar courtesy to M’baye Niang after Milan’s latest punk-haired prodigy opened his account for the Rossoneri on Thursday night.
“He looks like Balotelli with that hair,” exclaimed Berlusconi at full-time of Milan’s 3-0 Coppa Italia win over Reggina, and he was hardly the only one drawing those comparisons. Niang’s narrow, cropped take on the Mohawk certainly called to mind Balotelli’s look, albeit the Milan forward had embellished his trim with a star shaved into the side.
The similarities, though, extended beyond grooming preferences. Balotelli had scored his first senior goal for Inter against these same opponents, on a December night, in the same round of the same competition. Niang was 17 years old, just as Balotelli had been. They each finished up on the right side of a three-goal victory.
Both players had reputations for being as much of a handful off the pitch as they were on it. Prior to Thursday’s game, Niang was known to many Milan fans first and foremost for having been caught driving in the city without a licence. A story went round that he had lied to police by claiming to be Bakaye Traoré, though Niang denied it on Twitter, saying he had simply informed them that was who the car belonged to.
Either way, it was not the first time he had got into trouble for such an offence. The Caen manager Franck Dumas had gone to significant lengths to try to discourage Niang from just this kind of behaviour. “One time I asked a friend of mine who is a policeman to stop him outside the stadium,” said Dumas. “I wanted to frighten him.”
Nor have his misdemeanours been limited to driving offences. Dumas recently recounted the story of how he had been planning to start Niang against Paris Saint-Germain last year, only to find out on the morning of the game that the player had been arrested the night before at a hip-hop concert after a fight broke out. “He didn’t hit anyone,” said Dumas, “but, as he was a minor, he wound up getting held overnight.”
Niang is presently suspended from representing France at any level, following an incident in October. He, along with four other players—Yann M’Vila, Antoine Griezmann, Wissam Ben Yedder and Chris Mavinga—had snuck out from the team hotel to go clubbing and consequently missed their curfew. All were banned until December 31st 2013, except M’Vila, who will be frozen out for an additional year on top of that.
But if Niang’s behaviour has been questionable, then his potential as a footballer is beyond doubt. Caen’s Under-19 coach Philippe Tranchant confessed he had “never seen a player like him” and Milan made getting his signature a top priority in the summer. After agreeing a reported €3m fee with Caen, the Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani flew out to collect Niang in a private jet.
“I know he [Galliani] made a personal bet on me, as did [the agent] Oscar Damiani,” said Niang after his goal against Reggina. “I will replay them with my actions.”
Certainly the club have been encouraged by what they have seen. Niang’s goal against Reggina might not have been the most elaborate but it was nevertheless expertly taken. The goalkeeper Davide Facchin spread himself well and had the shot raised off the turf at all would have had a good shot at blocking it. Instead Niang calmly slotted the ball under his falling body.
It was a moment that perhaps betrayed some of the differences between Niang and Balotelli. The Milan player does not have quite the same power to his game, the same violent explosiveness which defines his Manchester City counterpart. Instead he relies more on pace and subtlety, characteristics which drew him comparisons in France with a rather different player: Thierry Henry.
As Niang, himself, observes, though, “it is better not to make comparisons”. As well as anything, Niang is young enough to still be developing his own game, drawing on the examples he sees around him, from El Shaarawy to Robinho and Boateng. The former Brazil striker Ronaldo is his long-standing idol. “I fell in love with football at the time when he was at Inter,” said Niang. “He was the ideal attacker for technique, power and speed.”
Although clearly a very long way from establishing himself as a player of that calibre, Niang’s game is probably more rounded than that of his hero. Where Ronaldo was happiest playing close to the goal, Niang can also be deployed in a more deep-lying role. As well as scoring against Reggina, he also served up numerous inviting passes for team-mates.
The manager Massimiliano Allegri sought to temper expectations after the game, insisting that Niang still had much to learn, but more telling than any words will be the club’s transfer activity next month. Berlusconi has said that Milan will consider “three or four” signings during the January window, yet it remains to be seen if any of those reinforcements will be up front.
There is no question that Milan need to do more to spread the load in that department. El Shaarawy’s phenomenal season has covered up for many shortcomings, but his 14 goals represent almost half the team’s offensive output. The next highest scorer, Giampaolo Pazzini, has just six, and three of those came in a single game back at the beginning of September.
A failure to reinforce in that department would suggest that Milan are prepared to continue placing their faith in youth, as they already have in the case of El Shaarawy. Niang is not about to become a regular starter overnight, but the fact that he followed up Thursday’s goal by making his third league appearance off the bench suggests Allegri is ready to start increasing his workload.
It will be Berlusconi’s hope that Niang will let him keep not only those clippers, but also his chequebook in his pocket.