Back in December, when Benevento ‘keeper, Alberto Brignoli, scored that historic 95th minute equaliser against Milan, many thought it was already the beginning of the end for Gennaro Gattuso as manager. The header nestled in the goal, as did the all-too familiar feeling of dread and disappointment in the stomach of the rossoneri.
Another legendary Milan player-turned-manager who would last no more than a few weeks. A manager too hot-headed and not tactically intelligent enough for the role. The start of another mid-table season.
Instead, whilst there is a long, long way to go to fully justifying his appointment, Gattuso made a leap towards it with an impressive 2-1 win against Lazio. Over the past few weeks Milan have certainly improved, two wins following a draw with league-table rivals Fiorentina. Gattuso had decided enough was enough with this three-at-the-back malarkey, back to a 4-5-1 and focus put on defensive shape and discipline.
It’s fair to say after a few teething problems, his approach worked.
Milan are unrecognisable from the side that put in disorganised and sloppy performances week in week out. In the 3-2 derby defeat to Inter in October, Vincenzo Montella’s men played in such a mess, that it was genuinely impossible to say what formation they were playing. Strikers didn’t know whether to run in behind or come short, the back-line was in disarray after every long ball, and Fabio Borini was playing wing-back. The last one speaks for itself.
A three-man defense and expansive football is a noble aim, but whatever ideas Montella had tried to implement in training, what translated onto the pitch was a sense of cluelessness. Yes, there were games where Milan played fluid, attacking football, but more often than not this was against teams they were expected to beat, especially in the Europa League. In fact, European results were arguably what kept Montella in the job as long as he did. Top of the group masked the overall state of the squad – a team which was hesitant, passive and without real purpose.
Whether this was a criticism of the management or a reflection of the abilities and stubbornness of the players is hard to say. What is easy to see however, is that the new manager has scrapped it and gone back to basics.
Blood, Sweat and Rino
It’s nice to see Gattuso has not changed a bit since his playing days. If managers were measured for distance covered the same way players are, he would be right up there with the wingers.
In fact, the things we know and love Rino for; passion, grit, effort, are the same qualities the Milan players are showing that was chronically lacking before his arrival. Against Lazio, the rossoneri were first to every ball, a desire to tackle, header and deal with any threat with far more conviction than before managerial switch. The stats prove it, Milan won more duels (53% to 47%), more tackles (29 to 19) and won a bigger proportion of them (70% to 30%).
No doubt Rino runs a tight ship, Hakan Calhanoglu ran more against Lazio than he did the majority of the season. Whilst it’s often said effort should be a given at this level of football, the visible difference in distance covered is testament to the standards which Gattuso expects from his players.
At last count this is Milan’s third new-look in a year, however, the quality in the team which was suppressed earlier in the season, has been allowed to flourish under new management. Under a system where players know at least where they are supposed to be, the mercurial talents of the squad such as Suso, Jack Bonaventura and Calhanoglu are finally able to express themselves. Credit must also be given to Gattuso for the confidence he has given the players as a by-product of his own personality.
Gattuso’s passion and larger-than-life persona has had a visible effect on the fans too. Before kick-off with Lazio, there was a feeling lingering around the San Siro, in amongst the tifosi and hidden in the fog which descended over the city – an intangible sense that this could be the big result Milan were waiting for.
As the fans know well enough, it’s easy to get carried away and lose sight of realistic targets. The club currently sit seventh, ten points away from Champions League football. At the start of the season following the huge investment into the squad, consecutive seasons in the Europa League would feel like a lack of progress. Now, it looks like a minor miracle.