Gennaro Gattuso: A Conte-Mourinho Hybrid

Gennaro Gattuso

Gennaro Gattuso was one of the last great central midfielders to play at the top flight. Nowadays you cannot be a just a central midfielder; you are a playmaker, a defensive midfielder, or, if you are truly immersed in the world of Football Manager, you can play the regista role. But Gattuso had the rare ability of being a bit of everything. He could pass, shoot, tackle and generally seize control of a game, taking it by the scruff of the neck. He was a tenacious player, full of passion and aggression, on one heated Champions League match against Tottenham Hotspur, he literally did grab Spurs assistant coach Joe Jordan by the scruff of the neck. His career saw him battle for league titles in Scotland with Glasgow Rangers, lift domestic trophies and the Champions League with Milan, and win the World Cup with his beloved Italy. His playing career, while not particularly goal heavy, was certainly trophy laden, and he will go down as one of the greats in Italian football – his partnership with Andrea Pirlo being one of the most effective combinations of the modern era. But this article is not designed to pine over the glittering career of Rino. No, instead it will look at his managerial endeavours. The highs of guiding Milan to the Coppa Italia final in his first half season, to the lows of being turned down for the Hamilton Academical job in 2015.

He started his managerial career as a player-manager in Switzerland. After his contract expired with Milan, Gattuso joined FC Sion, who he turned out for 32 times as a player, scoring only one goal. In a chaotic season, Gattuso, who gained his coaching badges while at Milan, was given the managerial gig in February 2013, becoming Sion’s fifth manager of the season. Gattuso got his first win as manager just two days into his tenure. Gennaro consolidated Sion’s place in the league by finishing 6th, only missing out on European football on goal difference. Despite this admirable, Gattuso was relieved of his duties at the end of the season. Upon his dismissal as manager, he decided the time was right to hang up his boots and dedicate the next chapter of his life to full time coaching.

Gennaro wasn’t out of the game for very long, however, and by mid July of 2013 he had his first full time position as a manager. Back in his native Italy he took over at Palermo, a team rich in history and esteem who were going through a slump, having been relegated from Serie A that year. The job remit for Gattuso was simple: get promoted. He was afforded very little slack at the Stadio Renzo Barbera and was sacked after only six games. He won twice and earned a draw, but the learning curve was steep and in a league where teams face a constant struggle against financial crisis, the owners took the decision to make a change. They simply couldn’t afford to see their historic club languish in Serie B for longer than a season.

The managerial stock of Gattuso was falling faster than the stock market crash in 2008. Gattuso theorised that he could only live off the reputation of his playing career for so long and therefore felt that if he had any hope of getting his managerial career back on track then he would need to get back in the game. This perhaps explains the reasoning behind Rino taking up a job in the Greek Superleague. He didn’t join the relative powerhouse of Olympiacos or AEK Athens though, rather he found himself in the dugout with OFI Crete, a side that enjoyed some domestic cup success in the late 80’s, but who were in the midst of some real financial issues when the Italian general took charge in the summer of 2014. Gattuso lasted until October, this time leaving on his own terms.

Rumours circulated that the team weren’t being paid, which saw an expletive rant from the under pressure manager, claiming that money issues do not bother him, football bothers him. The football, and 100% not the crippling club debt, got to him by late October. He resigned, then, a day later, retracted his resignation. He claimed a meeting with a club supporters group changed his mind and convinced him to stay and fight. This change of heart only lasted a couple of months. By late December he resigned, permanently, stating that the financial position of the club was untenable.

In January 2015 Gattuso seemed to be nearing rock bottom. He applied for the vacant position at Scottish Premiership side Hamilton, available after Alex Neil left for Norwich, but hardly the most attractive of gigs. In a league known more for it’s ridiculous antics rather than the quality of its football, and a team on a shoestring budget, it would be a suicide project for the World Cup winner. Moving to Scotland wouldn’t be the most outlandish move from a personal level though. He played for Rangers for a couple of years in his youth, and he is married to a Scottish girl. The man that I believe is a unique blend of José Mourinho and Antonio Conte didn’t get the Hamilton job. The club opted to give it to then current player Martin Canning instead. Truly a kick in the crotch for Gennaro.

The rejection evidently stung Gattuso, who took some time away from the game to consolidate his thoughts and reflect on his own coaching style. It August 2015 he took over the reins at Pisa, in the Lega Pro North-Central division, one of three divisions below Serie B. It wasn’t the most glamorous of teams, a long way from the heady heights of the San Siro, but it was a project. A project that Gennaro thrived under. In his first season there, and the first time he was afforded the entire season at a team, he guided them to second in the league. He won seventeen games, drew twelve and lost only five, scoring 42 goals and conceding only 26. It was a very strong season, and one which helped raise his stock a bit.

Finishing second in the league allowed Pisa to participate in the playoffs. They beat Maceratese 3-1 in the first stage. They dispatched Pordenone 3-0 over two legs in the semi finals, then, in a two legged final, beat Foggia 5-3 to gain promotion to Serie B on the 12th of June 2016.

After the elation of gaining promotion to Serie B, Gattuso sensationally quit Pisa several weeks into pre season. He claimed that there were “serious, constant and unacceptable problems” within the club, and that he couldn’t work under such conditions. The club released a statement saying they were shocked and surprised at the decision, that their ex-manager had told the press of these issues before them, and that they had stretched her own budget to the max to provide Gattuso with the tools to succeed.

Gattuso returned to the Pisa set up a month later, both him and the club swallowing their pride for the greater good of the club. His team were deducted four points throughout the season for financial irregularities. This certainly wasn’t the difference between relegation and safety, with Pisa finishing bottom of the league in 2016/17, fourteen points adrift, but it certainly hampered them.

Gattuso’s team became a bit of an internet sensation that season, accomplishing a remarkable feat. They finished bottom of the league, despite conceding only 36 goals, the second lowest amount in the league. What they lacked was a goal scorer, someone to dig them out of a hole when the going got tough. They lost fifteen matches that season, and won only six. It was the draw statistic which was bizarre, with Pisa amassing 21 draws. A decent goal scoring outlet could have turned those draws into wins, shooting Pisa up the table, but sadly for Gattuso and Pisa, this never materialised. Gattuso gained a lot of plaudits for the tightness of his defence though, and the passion he instilled amongst his players.

After overseeing his side suffer relegation, coupled with a tenuous relationship with the Pisa board after a couple of seasons of financial insecurity, Gattuso left, taking up a place in a coaching capacity with Milan. After five years of playing and managing elsewhere, Rino was home. He took up the role of head coach with the under 19 team, where he guided his youthful side to 3rd after ten games. On November 27th, his life would change. He got the call from the board. Gattuso was getting a promotion. He was the head coach of A.C Milan.

It was undoubtedly a risk employing Gattuso. Milan have had a bad pattern of employing former Serie A players over the past few years, several of them being Milan legends. Since the successful Massimiliano Allegri was sacked in 2014, Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi, and Cristian Brocci have are all ex Milan stars to have taken up residency in the dugout, while Siniša Mihajlović and Vincenzo Montellla have also tried, and failed, to recapture the glory days of the Rossoneri. So what does Gennaro have that Clarence, Filippo, Siniša, Cristian and Vincenzo all didn’t?

Passion is what Gattuso is all about. Look back to his playing days. Think of midfielders between 2000 and 2010, the top tier. Lampard, Gerrard, Pirlo, Xavi, Iniesta, Zidane and so on. Gattuso was good, but he wasn’t in that top tier, not on ability anyway. He was there because he cared. Because when the going got tough, Gattuso was the sort of player which would dig deeper than most to grind out a result. He is a passionate, and it shows in his work. He undoubtedly cared at every project he was with, but it’s hard to imagine him evoking the passion at FC Sion and OFI Crete that he has for AC Milan.

He had passion to succeed for himself, which was obviously a strong motivation at his other clubs, but at Milan the desire to win was much, much larger than himself. He seemed to lose focus of his own career, he wanted to win because he wanted Milan to win. He wanted to win because he knew how much it meant for every single fan that filled the iconic San Siro.

You may think it odd that I compared Rino to Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, neither of those managers suffered the relegations and indignities which Gennaro has undergone. Both are infinitely more experienced than Gattuso, but there is reason to my musings.

Firstly, to Antonio. We see him at Stamford Bridge with Chelsea every week. He is a madman there, but think back to his time at Juventus, or even better, his time as Italian head coach. He screams, he shouts, he rants and he raves. He is a lunatic. His passion and motivation and sheer desire to win are second to none. He must be the worst nightmare of the officials. He must be a nightmare to his players at times. But he just seems to have this quality about him which makes you want to believe in his hype and passion. Now look at Gattuso, the parallels are there.

It isn’t anger for angers sake though. Gattuso has a fire in his belly and won’t be happy until his players match that. There are thousands of talented football out there, and the lucky few that represent Milan over the years seem to have forgotten what it means to be part of the teams historic tapestry. Gattuso has made it his mission to remind these players that they are living out a dream every day of life. He was quoted recently saying “as long as my players show respect – not for me, but for the locker room, their teammates and the club – I will tear my heart out of my chest and let them play keepy-uppy with it.” He makes it his job to ensure they give 100% from the first to the last whistle, regardless of whether you’re a multi million euro signing or an unknown youth product.

The Mourinho aspect comes from his strict approach to games. He is a firm believer in keeping things tight at the back, the anti-Klopp philosophy. If you don’t concede, you don’t lose. This was evident at Pisa, and is being shown now at Milan. At the time of writing, he has seen his side concede only fourteen goals in all competitions since his appointment in late November. This is very similar to the Mourinho mantra, where you focus first on staying tight, then pushing for goals on the counter. In Gattuso’s first game, a 2-2 against Serie A struggles Benevento, Milan conceded a late equaliser. This hurt him deeply, even more so as it was scored by the opposition goalkeeper, Alberto Brignoli. After the game he stated how much the game hurt him, and that “I would rather be stabbed.

A further similarity to Jose Mourinho is that Gattuso knows the value in a point. So often when games are equal, teams will throw all they can to grab a win, oftentimes risking conceding on the counter. Jose is infamous for his happiness to take the point. Three is ideal, but points show progress at least. He may get pelters for being “boring“, but his so called boring teams win trophies. Gattuso certainly made this an issue at Pisa, when he drew a staggering number of games. He has also drawn five games out of his fourteen matches.

While Gennaro Gattuso does possess a couple of key traits from Conte and Mourinho, it is worth putting a lid on the expectations. He has failed at a number of teams as a manager. Even at Milan there have been some questionable results. Every team in the world seem to believe that just because Barcelona had success in employing a former player in Pep Guardiola as a manager that they will do the same, often to little or no success. Milan have found this to their mistake several times over. I genuinely believe that it is the personal connection between Rino and Milan that drives his success. He wants to do well for the fans, for the city and for the team, putting all above his own desire to win. If he can keep this fire burning within himself and continue to get the best out of his players then there is every chance that he could go on to achieve great things at the San Siro, but everyone could do well to hamper expectations. Rino has failed as a manager, and now he is going through a good patch. He has a good philosophy of defensive minded play and with the leaky defence of Milan, it is certainly a good place to start. He undoubtedly has an aggressive streak, and is over exuberant in his behaviour. This works when the wins happen. If their form nosedives then the players could revolt, then his strategies will be truly put to the test. I have always been a big fan of Gattuso as a player, and I for one truly hope that he can succeed as a manager too.