Following the latest false Milan revival at the beginning of this season, I can recall looking at their situation and thinking how they needed a coaching saviour to take on one of the most difficult jobs in football.
Further financial splurge was not an option after a complex buy-out and the restrictions of FFP, so it needed someone with great personality and coaching prowess to get Milan out of a mess and back on the up. Someone, ideally, who could also tap in to the club’s under-appreciated yet very productive academy.
The problem was that Milan had become the sort of club that many top Coaches would no longer risk their reputation on. Names like Ancelotti and Conte were mentioned but with their stock so high it would have been extremely difficult to persuade them, or others like them, to gamble their reputations on a job which comes with huge pressure, scrutiny and expectation, yet far less in terms of the guarantees that come with other jobs of comparable size.
I’ll hold my hands up and say Gennaro Gattuso was not a name that immediately sprung to mind. And if Milan fans are honest, I doubt many of them were truly inspired by his appointment and promotion from the Primavera side in late November.
Described by Carlo Ancelotti as “the soul” of his Milan side, there is no questioning Gattuso’s playing achievements. He won 10 major honours with the Rossoneri, including two Serie A titles, and the Champions League twice – not to mention a World Cup with Italy.
But his coaching CV, although still in its infancy, was nowhere near as impressive. His first two appointments at FC Sion and Palermo spanned just 11 games between them – he lasted 17 matches at OFI Crete and ended up being relegated from Serie B with Pisa in May 2017, despite having the league’s best defensive record.
All this hardly seemed ideal preparation for what’s still one of the biggest jobs in European football, yet his short-term impact has been nothing short of remarkable. He’s taken a playing staff of confidence-deprived individuals and, within a few months, transformed them in to a well-functioning unit – a united team of footballers who, without exception, buy into the tactics and the system they are being asked to implement… and it’s getting results.
The Rossoneri are now 13 games unbeaten in all competitions, winning 10 of them – they’ve kept six clean-sheets in a row – they’re through to the Coppa Italia Final and they’ll meet Arsenal in the Europa League’s last 16.
Leonardo Bonucci is starting to look like the Ballon d’Or nominated defender we all knew he was, as his partnership with Alessio Romagnoli gets better with every game. Giacomo Bonanventura looks rejuvenated, Davide Calabria is seriously kicking on. Franck Kessie is developing well under a Coach to whom he can truly relate, Patrick Cutrone is drawing comparisons with Pippo Inzaghi and Gianluigi Donnarumma is celebrating not conceding goals in the way we’ve seen Gigi Buffon do for years.
Many more individuals are also worthy of a mention, but the crucial thing to emphasise here is that this is now a team. For the first time in years, I look at Milan and see a group of players who are all in it together and who all believe in the Coach. The defending, if you can appreciate that side of the game, is exceptional at times – as is the organisation, the energy and the tactical discipline.
These are all qualities many would associate with Antonio Conte, and in fact Bonucci has already said Gattuso reminds him of the former Juventus Coach. A man who took over the Bianconeri in a difficult period, without a league title in eight seasons (officially), Juventus had finished seventh in the two seasons prior to Conte’s arrival. A bit like the Milan of today, Juve took a chance on an emerging Coach and club legend who oozed charisma, determination and ferocity. Many will point out Conte also had the head start of two Serie B promotions under his belt. But for me there are undoubted parallels, and if Gattuso can have even half the impact that Conte did at Juventus, then he’ll have done very well indeed.