How Grafting Gattuso Has Refashioned AC Milan in His Own Image

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 8, 2018

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 28: AC Milan head coach Gennaro Gattuso and Leonardo Bonucci with his teammates of AC Milan celebrate the victory after the TIM Cup match between SS Lazio and AC Milan at Olimpico Stadium on February 28, 2018 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

The transition from player to manager is accompanied by some important decisions. Will your tactics be proactive or reactive? Will you deploy a back four or a back three? Suit or tracksuit? Touchline tantrum-thrower or dugout arm-folder? Arm around the shoulder or kick up the backside?

Gennaro Gattuso wasted little time worrying about what kind of coach he would be when he set down his boots in 2013 and reached for the training cones. A clenched fist of a footballer, he has become a clenched fist of a coach, and it is those battling qualities that have enabled him to turn AC Milan's season around ahead of Thursday's showdown with Arsenal in the UEFA Europa League last 16.

Milan were at the latest in a succession of low ebbs when Gattuso took up the reins on November 27, promoted from his role as coach of the club's Primavera (under-19s) after Vincenzo Montella was shown the door.

Milan spent around €200 million on new players last summer, but Montella's constant chopping and changing prevented the team from finding any kind of rhythm. They were seventh in Serie A when he and the club "parted ways" (to use Milan's own euphemistic formulation), 11 points off the Champions League places and 18 points below leaders Napoli, having gone four home league matches without scoring.

"The team was in a state of confusion when Gattuso arrived. There was a sort of chaos," Alessandra Bocci, a journalist from La Gazzetta dello Sport, told Bleacher Report.

Gattuso's track record as a coach was underwhelming, the sole highlight a successful Serie B promotion campaign with Pisa in 2015-16. Expectations were low.

Milan made headlines around the world in Gattuso's first game in charge, although not in the manner he would have hoped. Benevento, bottom of the table after losing their first 14 games of the season, looked every inch the sacrificial lambs, only for goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli's flying 95th-minute header to earn the Serie A newcomers a famous 2-2 draw.

BENEVENTO, ITALY - DECEMBER 03:  Head coach of Milan Gennaro Gattuso looks on during the Serie A match between Benevento Calcio and AC Milan at Stadio Ciro Vigorito on December 3, 2017 in Benevento, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

Gattuso's home debut as coach proved no less forgettable, as a second-string Milan team slumped to a 2-0 defeat against modest Croatian side Rijeka in the Europa League. That Milan had already qualified for the knockout phase as Group D winners provided little solace. Gattuso's charges failed to register a single shot on target.

A 3-0 win over struggling Verona in the Coppa Italia was offset by a 3-0 loss to the same opposition just four days later in Serie A, which prompted Milan's directors to cancel the club's Christmas dinner and announce a ritiro (closed training camp) at Milanello. A club spokesperson denied rumours that Gattuso had offered to resign. A 2-0 defeat at home to Gian Piero Gasperini's slick Atalanta side meant Milan spent Christmas Day in 11th place, closer to the relegation zone than the top four.

Defeat against Inter Milan in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals on December 27 would have undermined Gattuso yet further, but instead the match proved a watershed.

Injuries to Gianluigi Donnarumma and Marco Storari obliged Gattuso to hand a debut to third-choice goalkeeper Antonio Donnarumma, Gianluigi's elder brother. He produced a crucial double save to thwart Ivan Perisic and Antonio Candreva late in the game—having earlier been spared by a video-assisted offside call after deflecting an effort from Perisic into his own net—before substitute Patrick Cutrone clipped the game's only goal past Samir Handanovic in the 14th minute of extra time.

Speaking before the match, Gattuso had described the derby as an opportunity to "change our season" when speaking to the club's TV channel. His words were prescient. Milan have avoided defeat in the 12 games that they have played since—the club's longest unbeaten run since 2009—and with eye-catching victories over Lazio, Sampdoria and Roma behind them, they are mounting an unexpected late charge for a Champions League place.

Milan also claimed Lazio's scalp in the Coppa Italia, the Rome club blinking first in last week's semi-final penalty shootout after 210 minutes of stalemate over two legs, with Alessio Romagnoli tucking away the decisive spot-kick against the club he supported as a boy.

Milan will face Juventus in the final on May 9, when Gattuso could become the first Rossoneri coach to win a major trophy since Massimiliano Allegri last brought the Scudetto to San Siro in 2011.

One of Gattuso's first moves after taking charge was to change Milan's shape, jettisoning the 3-5-2 configuration that Montella had been working to introduce and installing a back-to-basics 4-3-3 system that has returned square pegs to square holes.

Romagnoli and Bonucci
Romagnoli and BonucciEmilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Where Montella's first instinct was (and always has been) to attack, Gattuso has built from the back, anchoring his team—in the finest Rossoneri traditions—upon the centre-back pairing of Romagnoli and Leonardo Bonucci. He has also exploited the creativity of wide players Hakan Calhanoglu and Suso on the counter-attack. Milan have conceded only four goals during their unbeaten run and have kept clean sheets in each of their last six matches in all competitions.

Milan have become a much fitter side under Gattuso as well. The team looked undercooked in the season's early weeks, and in September Montella made the unusual decision to publicly sack his longstanding fitness coach Emanuele Marra. Upon taking up his role, Gattuso was surprised when the players requested double training sessions. He has stepped up the intensity at the training ground and as a result, Milan now pack a much harder punch on the pitch.

"I think the coach has found something that we probably were missing before," Spanish winger Suso told Milan TV. "I think we have all seen that we couldn't go on like that. We all started to work harder, and we are now in a positive moment."

Gattuso has also shown respect for Milan's traditions by placing his faith in youth, with Cutrone, Gianluigi Donnarumma and right-back Davide Calabria all flying the flag for the club's academy in the first team and thereby helping to keep alive the legacy of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta.

Cutrone, 20, has been one of this season's revelations. The strapping, old-school No. 9 is top scorer for Milan with 14 goals in all competitions and keeping summer signings Andre Silva and Nikola Kalinic—recruited at a combined cost of €63 million—out of the starting XI.

Milan's supporters have learnt to be wary of celebrated former players returning to the dugout following unhappy—and short-lived—experiences with Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi and Cristian Brocchi in recent times. Gattuso, though, has taken on his role with no pretentions, relying instead on the same combination of graft, aggression and humility that brought him 10 trophies—including two Champions League crowns—during his decorated 13-year career as resident Rottweiler in the Milan midfield.

"The supporters are very close to Gattuso because they were very close to Gattuso in the past," says Bocci. "They saw him as a man who gave everything for the team. For them, Gattuso is 'one of us.'

"Everybody in Milan remembers Gattuso as a fighter. It's good for him because nobody expected anything else—not good, attacking football, not loads of goals. Only to fight and have spirit and a sense that at Milan, you belong to the club and you have to remember that the shirt is very important.

"Everybody knows that he was a good player not because he was a talented player, but because he worked very hard. The message is that maybe you are not so talented, but it's not important. What's important is that you work hard."

Gattuso with Crutone
Gattuso with CrutoneMarco Luzzani/Getty Images

Gattuso, 40, has attempted to foster a connection between players and supporters, establishing a post-match ritual in which he addresses his squad on the pitch before bidding them to go and salute the fans. After the win over Lazio in January, he formed his players into a huddle and encouraged them to slap him.

Though renowned for his bluntness, he has worked hard to open up avenues of communication within the squad, regularly pulling players aside for one-on-one conversations and inviting all of the players at his disposal—from first-team regulars to peripheral squad members—to travel as a group to matches.

Gattuso will be rubbing his hands at the prospect of tackling Arsene Wenger's fragile and feeble Arsenal. Should Milan prevail, it will be the first time that the seven-time European champions have reached the quarter-finals of a continental competition since 2012.

Success in the Europa League, of course, would yield a return to the Champions League, but Gattuso, naturally, has no time for talk of a return to European football's sunlit uplands.

"I fear the idea some could think we're suddenly fantastic and forget where we started from," he said last week. "We've done nothing yet and still need to become a team.

"I will keep smashing them with that, even if they glare at me and can't stand it anymore. I will continue hammering at that nail."


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