Gennaro Gattuso proving the sceptics wrong in turning AC Milan around
"I get a stomach ache when I see Milan playing in this formation, it's completely wrong," Silvio Berlusconi complained at the turn of the year. A fortnight later, it was clear Milan's former owner had had enough. "I don't watch them anymore," he huffed. "The formation goes against all the principles that made me the most successful president in the history of the game. They don't listen to my advice."
Gennaro "Rino" Gattuso knows this comes with the territory when you're manager of Milan. As a player "Ringhio" had heard Berlusconi make similar comments about all his bosses, even Carlo Ancelotti at a time when he had the team winning the Champions League over and over again. OK, Milan were not pretty. Gattuso understood that. "We still have a few pimples," he admitted before Milan travelled to Udinese at the beginning of February. "And we're still just as ugly as I am. We're not Brad Pitt."
That may be true. But the system Gattuso implemented back in mid-December has been getting results for some time now and although the wins have occasionally been ugly, Milan are now starting to look good.
Unbeaten in 11 games in all competitions, Gattuso has got the Rossoneri building momentum and gaining in confidence. Eighteen points behind Inter when he replaced Vincenzo Montella three months ago, the gap is now down to seven. The tables have turned. In fact, it increasingly looks like eliminating their "cousins" from the cup in late-December was the turning point in Milan's season.
Gattuso has spoken about how he feared for his job going into that derby. Results were getting worse not better. Milan infamously became the first team to drop points to Benevento, conceding a stoppage-time equaliser to goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli. Afterwards, Gattuso said it felt like a "stabbing." Milan lost to Rijeka in the Europa League and then there was the double-header with relegation-threatened Verona. People couldn't get their head around how in the space of three days Milan could win 3-0 in the cup and then lose 3-0 to them in the league.
One of the reasons for sacking Montella after a far from disastrous 0-0 with Torino at the end of November was the fixtures on the horizon. They appeared soft and would give a new manager the gentle start necessary to help Milan save face. Humiliatingly though, the situation deteriorated and the credibility of the entire project hit a new low.
Around the same time, La Gazzetta dello Sport received wind of UEFA's unwillingness to grant Milan a voluntary agreement. The decision to go all-in in the transfer market over the summer had been predicated on obtaining one. Only that way would Milan escape sanction for breach of FFP. However, UEFA's scepticism proved too great and this week's investigation into Li Yonghong's affairs by Il Corriere della Sera will have done little to change their mind.
Critics of the club continue to feel on the right side of the argument. Gattuso's detractors, on the other hand, are now being served some humble pie and have to admit they got it wrong. At his unveiling, the tired cliches about players throwing themselves into the fire for each other, spitting blood and playing with more passion left many with the impression of Gattuso as a motivator and little else. How far would that take Milan? You didn't go away thinking Gattuso would give this team any kind of edge from a tactical point of view.
But that was to underestimate him. Despite a horrible start, Gattuso has already accumulated more points than Montella, which is impressive when you bear in mind his predecessor had three more games in charge this season. He has turned a group of strangers into a team, imbuing Milan with a spirit they didn't have earlier in the campaign. The Rossoneri had never so much as recovered a point from a losing position when Gattuso assumed the helm. Whenever they fell behind or something went against them, their heads dropped. But not anymore.
Wins against Lazio and Sampdoria should not be unusual for Milan, particularly after the investment of €220 million in the summer. Psychologically speaking though, those results feel massive. They laid the ghosts of the reverse fixtures to rest. Both of those defeats caused management and the press to overreact and created great confusion. Montella seemed to cave into pressure to switch system and abandoned everything this team knew for the unknown.
For someone renowned for seeing red, Gattuso has shown great clarity and common sense in his thinking by going back to the 4-3-3 Milan played last season, practiced in preseason and started this season with. It sounds simple but deploying players in their natural positions and using a formation they have experience of playing actually works. Hakan Calhanoglu had never played 3-4-2-1 in his life. Fabio Borini was being asked to do a job as a wing-back. Making Suso play in the middle negated the strengths of Milan's most inventive player and meant he stepped on Franck Kessie's toes. Once muddled, Milan now have a logic to them.
Making the players comfortable was one thing. Improving their athletic conditioning was another. Milan were one of the teams that covered the least ground in Serie A when Gattuso took over. A sign that not all was right had come earlier in the season when Montella sacked his longstanding fitness coach. The team now has a full tank. Suso has spoken about Milan "training a lot better", upping the intensity and the number of sessions. It shows. The fitter you are the more lucid and better able you are to perform your duties.
Gattuso hasn't reinvented the wheel. But when you add it all up he has accomplished a lot. Milan are more solid now with Leonardo Bonucci and Alessio Romagnoli are playing together every week. They've kept seven clean sheets in 11 and four in a row in all competitions. Davide Calabria is now a regular first-team player and has made the spot his own. At least until Andrea Conti returns. Peripheral under Montella, Giacomo Bonaventura is back to the fore. And Milan are getting runners from midfield as well as goals. The team is less predictable now that Calhanoglu and Bonaventura are developing an understanding down the left to rival the one Suso and Kessie have on the right.
This has helped Lucas Biglia look the part as well. Up front, Gattuso hasn't been afraid to go with youth product Patrick Cutrone at the expense of big summer signings Nikola Kalinic and Andre Silva. That he is now getting Milan bang for their buck with all their other off-season acquisitions, aside from Mateo Musacchio, who still impressed Gattuso for the application he showed by warming up for 90 minutes at the weekend, is creditworthy.
Only Napoli and Juventus have better records than Milan in the second half of the season. Sure there is an element of the Rossoneri progressing to the mean after months of under-performance. And we shouldn't forget where they were in December, which dramatically lowered our expectations for them and explains why this all now feels so surprising when really it shouldn't, considering the players at Gattuso's disposal.
Milan are eight points adrift of the Champions League places with 13 games still to play. They have started to beat the teams above them, and that needs to continue this weekend when they travel to the Olimpico to face Roma. Not only do Milan have to sustain their current performance level to have a chance of making the top four, they also have to hope that another team joins Inter in free-fall. That or win the Europa League. Make no mistake it remains a tall order.
"I'm not Padre Pio," Gattuso said at his unveiling. A minor miracle is still on though.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.