Just a few short months ago, Milan were a mess. After their takeover by Chinese investors took what seemed like a lifetime to complete, coach Vincenzo Montella was handed an entirely new squad in the summer, having overachieved the year before while there was no funding available for new players.
There were still doubts over the unusual nature of the income streams used to finance the project and the coach struggled with results as the newly-assembled side failed to gel.
By week nine their stated ambition of qualifying for the Champions League was in tatters as the Rossoneri languished in 11th place, and the slightly unfortunate Montella was sacked at the end of November. There was much skepticism about his replacement too, as former midfielder Gennaro Gattuso was promoted from youth team boss to take on the nightmarish project of the first team.
It is well known that “Rino” always gives 100 per cent to his work; his bluster and full-on personality a real way to motivate those around him both in the past as a player and in the present as a coach. However, his experience was not in keeping with the usual standard for the San Siro giants.
His only previous jobs in Italy were at Lego Pro and Serie B level with Palermo and Pisa. Furthermore, previous ex-Milan players including Pippo Inzaghi and Clarence Seedorf had tried and failed to restore the side to former glory, the job seemingly toxic from the start as a result of off-field issues.
A shaky start to life in charge seemed to confirm those fears, a 2-2 draw with Benevento giving the minnows their first ever point in Serie A while a 3-0 loss to strugglers Hellas Verona forced Milan to send the entire squad into ritiro, a crisis training camp to resolve the problems.
Yet under the tutelage of Gattuso, the side began to grow. The once disjointed bunch of players looking more and more like a unit under his fire-and-brimstone approach.
Indeed, Milan are unbeaten in 12 games in all competitions and have 19 points from a possible 21 in the last six league matches, the same number of wins they had managed in the previous 17 domestic encounters. Quiet optimism turned to more outwardly confident rhetoric coming from Casa Milan after a 1-0 win over an impressive Sampdoria side last month, especially from rejuvenated captain Leonardo Bonucci.
“A team has been formed, we are in better shape and it’s all down to him,” the former Juventus defender told Sky Italia after that win. “We’ve made a huge leap forward and now must continue like this. Gattuso has given us a mentality, a sense of belonging and fitness levels, basically everything we’d been missing. We weren’t a team before him and we were also lacking physically. We worked to become a unit.”
After arriving from champions Juventus in the summer with a mammoth reputation, Bonucci was ridiculed for a catalogue of comical and costly defensive errors that were at odds with what supporters had seen when he lined up in black and white. Now calmer under Gattuso, his performances have been much more in keeping with what fans had become accustomed to, and he isn’t the only one.
Midfielder Franck Kessié came with huge promise from Atalanta in the summer, but couldn’t replicate last season’s form which had attracted interest from several big European clubs at the beginning of his maiden Rossoneri campaign. Often going missing in matches, his anonymity was puzzling to say the least. Yet, slowly but surely, Gattuso has given Kessie confidence and transformed his midfield displays into those that the boss himself would have been proud of during his playing days.
Such has been the improvement that the young midfielder has increased his tackling rate – 1.5 per 90 on average even as opposed to 1.2 at Atalanta – in addition to an improved number of clearances, blocks and dribbles. The Ivorian has also scored four goals and provided three assists for team-mates this term and is taking more shots per game (increased from 1.6 at Atalanta to 2.3 at Milan).
Another signing criticised after a reported €24million move from Bayer Leverkusen was forward Hakan Çalhanoğlu. He is now creating 2.92 chances for his team-mates per 90.
The 24-year-old joins Gianluigi Donnarumma, Bonucci, Alessio Romagnoli, Kessié, Lucas Biglia, Giacomo Bonaventura and Suso as one of eight players who have found a regular starting place in the side as Gattuso has finally achieved some consistency.
“To be honest, I hoped Gattuso would do well, but I wasn’t certain,” said his former Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti in a recent interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport. “When you come in mid-season, there are always unknown quantities, doubts and obstacles to overcome. Rino did well to dribble the difficulties and have the players follow him.
“I see Gattuso as a real commander,” he continued. “He has the group in hand, the lads would walk into the fire for him, and that aspect is decisive in football and generally in life. Gattuso is the soul of Milan and the players put their knowledge and energy at the disposal of the team to reach success. This is the right path.”
Indeed, it seems like Milan are finally on the right path, on the pitch at least. While there remain doubts over the Chinese ownership, their coach is leading the players forward both domestically and in the Europa League where they are favourites in their last-16 tie agains Arsenal.
Sitting in seventh place, they remain eight points away from a Champions League finish. That goal may prove to be impossible, but you can be sure that Gennaro Gattuso will give it 100 per cent.