Hakan Çalhanoğlu: Inter’s Turkish Orchestrator in Midfield

It has been two years since Hakan Çalhanoğlu suffered the rare fate of back-to-back runners-up finishes with two different clubs from the same city. Having finished 12 points adrift Inter, who thrashed the competition en route to their first Scudetto in 11 years, Çalhanoğlu opted to leave Milan and joined their crosstown rivals on a free transfer in the summer of 2021, only to end up missing out on the title on the final day of the campaign as Milan claimed their first league title in 11 years.


He would follow that up with a third-place finish in 2022/23 as well as two trips to two finals. They beat Fiorentina and claimed their second-straight Coppa Italia under Simone Inzaghi, but they were denied a Champions League title as Rodri’s late goal saw City narrowly prevail 1-0 in Istanbul. Today, however, Inter are enjoying their best season since their treble-winning campaign under José Mourinho, and one player who has proven vital in their title chase is Çalhanoğlu.



Born in Mannheim, Germany to Turkish parents, Çalhanoğlu began his professional career with Karlsruher SC in the 2. Bundesliga, and whilst he was unable to save them from relegation, his impressive form caught the attention of Hamburger SV, who brought him in on a four-year contract before loaning him back to Karlsruher.


With 17 goals and 14 assists in 40 appearances, Çalhanoğlu played a leading role in the club’s immediate return to Germany’s second tier, and his impressive form carried over to the top flight, providing 11 goals and 5 assists as Die Rothosen narrowly avoided relegation. 


Çalhanoğlu would only remain one season in Hamburg before controversially joining league rivals Bayer Leverkusen on July 4, 2014 for a fee of €14.5 million. He quickly became one of the first names on manager Roger Schmidt’s team sheet, establishing himself as one of the deadliest set-piece technicians in Europe and combining with the likes of Chicharito, Julian Brandt and Karim Bellarabi in attack.


His 2016/17 season came to an abrupt end on February 2 after receiving a four-month ban from FIFA for a breach of contract dating back to 2011, when he received €100,000 from Trabzonspor after agreeing to sign with the Turkish club, before extending his contract with Karlsruher. Nevertheless, that did not stop Milan from signing him in July for €20 million rising to €24 million, with the Turkey international penning a four-year contract at the San Siro.



His time in Italy got off to a rocky start, with Milan falling to as low as 11th place in the league and manager Vincenzo Montella getting the sack after a 0-0 draw to Torino. Gennaro Gattuso was brought in and managed to steady the ship, but he never quite managed to get the best out of Çalhanoğlu, using him almost exclusively as a left winger.


Marco Giampaolo replaced Gattuso in the summer of 2019, but he fared even worse in a deeper midfield role, with Giampaolo being given his marching orders on October 8 with the Rossoneri 13th in the table. Stefano Pioli took the reins, and whilst he originally used the Turkish playmaker on the left wing in both a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3, he switched to a 4-2-3-1 in February with Çalhanoğlu operating as a ‘trequartista’ behind Zlatan Ibrahimović.


After the COVID-19 pause, Milan returned to the pitch with a tiger in their tank, taking 30 of a possible 36 points, defeating the likes of Juventus and Lazio, and finishing 6th in the table. The Rossoneri continued their red-hot performances under Pioli in 2020/21 as Çalhanoğlu ran the show from the #10 position, playing ahead of Ismaël Bennacer and Franck Kessié and in the heart of the action. He was given the keys to the team’s attack following the summer departure of Giacomo Bonaventura to Fiorentina, and Milan reaped the benefits as finally began to deliver elite performances on a consistent basis at the age of 26.


“Calha is fantastic, he is intelligent, he can move well, he knows how to attack and he knows how to connect the game. He sacrifices himself,” said Pioli in a post-match interview on December 23 after Çalhanoğlu provided a goal and an assist to lead Milan past Lazio in a 3-2 victory. “The club, technical area, the player and I want the same thing, he has reached important levels and can still grow. He’s a player to bet on.”



And yet, despite Pioli’s best attempts, Çalhanoğlu became the latest in a string of players to depart Milan on a free alongside Alessio Romagnoli, Franck Kessié and Gianluigi Donnarumma. At 30 years of age, he is playing the best football of his career and emerging as the fulcrum of Inter’s midfield, pulling the strings from a deep-lying playmaker role and enjoying a mid-career resurgence in a newfound position following last summer’s sale of Marcelo Brozović.


Similarly to Andrea Pirlo, he started out as an attacking midfielder only to blossom in a holding midfield position, controlling the flow of Inter’s build-up and enabling his midfield partners Nicolò Barella, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Davide Frattesi the freedom to thrive and arrive in the box with greater regularity. Despite operating in a deeper role, he’s managed to chip in with 10 goals and 3 assists — the bulk of the goals being penalties — and help lead the charge for what is shaping up to be an epic season for the Nerazzurri.


Inter are the first team in Serie A history to score in each of their first 31 matches and the second to collect 82+ points from 31 after Juventus 2018/19 (84). They sit 14 points clear in first place with seven games remaining, and it’s merely a matter of when, not if, Çalhanoğlu gets his hands on the first league title of his senior career, before heading back to his native country for the summer.


Hakan Çalhanoğlu surpassed Şükrü Gülesin as the all-time leading Turkish scorer in Serie A history in November, and he’ll be looking to continue his stellar form and wear the captain’s armband for his national team as they get set to face Portugal, Georgia and Czechia in this summer’s European Championships in Germany. 


By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto