Made in Milan: How Tomori went from Chelsea reject to England's obvious Maguire replacement
It didn't take long for Fikyao Tomori to prove his worth to AC Milan. Barely two months after his arrival on loan from Chelsea during the 2021 January transfer window, some supporters began seriously considering starting a crowdfund to make his move permanent.
In the end, Milan needed no help – or encouragement – when it came to taking up their obligation to buy the centre-back that summer for €28 million (£25m/$28m).
That was wholly unsurprising, of course. Paolo Maldini obviously knows a thing or two about good defenders but, as he has shown since returning to San Siro as a director, he also has a keen eye for a bargain.
Indeed, Tomori is already regarded as one of the best buys of Milan's recent history, utterly integral to a stirring revival that resulted in a surprise title triumph last season.
The Englishman’s almost instant impact at San Siro is a source of immense regret at Stamford Bridge, though – particularly among supporters, who had hoped to see him become a first-team regular alongside other homegrown products such as Reece James and Mason Mount.
The fans' frustration only intensified during the summer transfer window, as a panicked Chelsea ended up paying a staggering £70m ($80m) for Wesley Fofana after losing two centre-backs on free transfers, Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger.
So, while Tomori will undoubtedly receive a warm reception when he returns to Stamford Bridge with Milan on Wednesday, for a crucial Champions League clash with Chelsea, many home fans will doubtless be wondering what might have been.
Tomori has admitted himself that it will be nice to see some familiar faces and show how much he has developed over the past 18 months. However, he also has a timely opportunity to prove a point ahead of the World Cup.
This Champions League double-header against his former club won't be the only factor in deciding Tomori's fate, but it could undoubtedly strengthen his case for inclusion, if not in England's starting line-up in Qatar, then at least the travelling party.
Because, right now, there is more than a little uncertainty surrounding Gareth Southgate's squad, particularly in defence.
Trent Alexander-Arnold's place has long been under threat, but now Harry Maguire's participation is a major topic of debate too.
Indeed, after the latter produced another defensive disaster-class in last week's Nations League draw with Germany, many wondered why on earth the Manchester United defender, who is no longer a regular at Old Trafford, is still starting for England?
Gary Lineker even weighed in online, pointing out that Southgate already has an obvious replacement available to him: "There's a guy called Tomori who has excelled at AC Milan..."
As the former striker intimated in his sarcastic tweet, there remains a little bit of a blind spot among England followers when it comes to players plying their trade outside of the Premier League, particularly when it comes to Serie A.
However, while the Italian top flight may not be what it once was, particularly in terms of economic strength, it remains at the forefront of the game when it comes to tactical excellence.
It's certainly no coincidence that so many top coaches come out of Italy, and Tomori has clearly benefited enormously from playing under Stefano Pioli, who has taken the 24-year-old’s game to a whole other level.
Tomori has freely admitted that the intensity of the game is higher in the Premier League, arguing that whereas English football is like basketball, with end-to-end action played at a relentless pace, Serie A is more akin to American football, with more regimented plays.
Consequently, his understanding of the game and positional play have improved immeasurably since arriving in Italy, and now he is relishing the chance to demonstrate all the ways in which he has improved when he returns to Chelsea.
Of course, he will be under pressure to perform at Stamford Bridge. He won't get a better platform on which to impress an English audience before the World Cup gets under way in just over a month. But Tomori – who was in Southgate's most recent squad but didn't see a minute of game time during last month's international break – is unlikely to be affected by the importance of the game.
He is such a humble and grounded character that there has always been a temptation to believe that he might be overawed by grand occasions. He could barely believe that Milan even wanted to sign him on loan. When he walked around Milanello for the first time, taking in all of the photos of legendary teams and players from the past, he was blown away by the history of the club.
What was happening only began to sink in after signing his contract, when he was given a bag with the Milan crest. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m here! This is real!” he told Champions Journal.
However, while he has often struggled to take it all in – he says he’s never seen anything like the celebrations which greeted Milan’s Scudetto success – he has never once looked overwhelmed on the field.
And that’s in spite of the fact that each and every move he makes on the field comes under the watchful eye of the man he considers the greatest defender of all time, Maldini. Tomori has confessed that he was starstruck the first time they met.
However, Maldini’s presence didn’t prove a hindrance, but a help. The Italy icon has become a source of advice and inspiration.
“When he was first speaking to me I was like: ‘Woah, it’s Paolo Maldini!’” he admitted. “So, there is that kind of pressure knowing that he’s at every game and at the training ground every day, but, for me as a defender, I just want to impress him.
“When I was midway through the end of my loan last season – so about April time – we had a chat and I was speaking about what he thinks about my game, what I need to improve...
“He’s really engaging. Having a legend like that there, when he says something you’re going to listen, so it’s definitely a nice thing to have him around and he’s been a really big help.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has also played a part in Tomori's development. Just going up against the giant Swede in training is a challenge in itself, and Tomori says Ibra has taught him to be more physical, "cleverer" and borderline "nasty" in order to hold his own.
The net result is that Tomori is even less likely to shy away from a challenge than he was when he first left London.
He has embraced life in Italy like few others. He didn't used to drink coffee, now he can't do without a macchiato. He is also reaping the rewards of throwing himself into language classes right from the off and now conducts some post-match interviews in Italian.
"I'm really comfortable here,” he told DAZN. “Life is very different. In England it feels like people are always in a rush. Things are travelling very fast. But everything's a bit more relaxed here.
“I think it's just the Italian way. After training, you have a nice coffee. Everyone walks very slowly. And I remember when I first saw the Duomo, I was like 'Wow, this is something special.'"
Hardly surprising, then, that despite all of the talk of a return to Chelsea, he has no intention of leaving his adopted home anytime soon. And Milan have no intention of letting him go either. He is one of the first names on Pioli’s team sheet and has just signed a new five-year contract.
Tomori, then, doesn't need to prove his worth to anyone in Milan. However, he could do with giving a timely reminder of his quality in London on Wednesday night. His World Cup hopes might depend on it.