Serie A

Arsenal, beware! General Gattuso has AC Milan firing again

12:00 EAT 04/03/2018
Gennaro Gattuso AC Milan Inter
After a slow start, the former midfielder has transformed the club's fortunes ahead of Sunday's Milan derby and next week's meeting with the Gunners

When Fabio Borini netted for AC Milan during the first half of the second leg of their Europa League tie with Ludogorets at San Siro, Patrick Cutrone turned to the crowd to celebrate his assist rather than running to congratulate his team-mate for converting his cross. 

Rossoneri boss Gennaro Gattuso was furious and his rage hadn't subsided by the time the full-time whistle blew. He immediately informed the new darling of the Curva Sud that such egotistical behaviour was anathema to everything he believes in, both as a former player and now as a coach.

At Gattuso's Milan, the team always comes first. When it was reported that he might be sacked in December, just a month after succeeding Vincenzo Montella at the helm, the Calabrian insisted that he didn't care about his own position.

"The important thing is not whether or not Gattuso is on the bench," he explained. "What matters is Milan.

"I have been given this great chance. It is an immense honour and a dream that I hope will last as long as possible."

Gattuso is certainly going the right way about extending his stay at San Siro beyond the end of the current campaign. 

When he took over, Milan were a laughing stock – again. After a summer spending spree by the club's new Chinese owners, there had been giddy talk of a title challenge. At the very least, it was expected that the Rossoneri would secure a return to the Champions League for the first time since 2014.

By the time Montella was sacked, though, Milan were seventh in the Serie A standings, having lost six of their opening 14 matches. They were not only 18 points behind leaders Napoli but also 16 adrift of city rivals Inter and, most importantly of all, 12 points off the fourth and final Champions League berth.

Almost exactly three months on, Milan remain seventh but their situation has been completely transformed.

After a dismal start to Gattuso's tenure, which yielded a run of five points from four games, Milan are now on their best unbeaten run in nine years (13 matches), have won six of their last seven Serie A games, set up a Coppa Italia final clash with Juventus, and reached the last 16 of the Europa League, where they will face Arsenal, with the first leg to come at San Siro on Thursday.

Even more significantly, they are now just seven points behind Inter, whom they tackle in the Derby della Madonnina on Sunday evening. 

Dino Zoff pretty much spoke for everyone in Serie A last week when he confessed, "Gattuso is very much astounding me." Not even Milan CEO Marco Fassone anticipated the former midfielder capable of making such an instant impact. 

"We can only take our hats off to his work," he confessed. "I also have to congratulate [sporting director Massimiliano] Mirabelli, who pushed me to make this choice."

Mirabelli, for his part, has already insisted that Milan are no longer looking for another, more experienced coach to take over the summer, boldly proclaiming that Gattuso could stay at San Siro for another 10 years.

Such talk is obviously premature but given the previously patchy nature of his coaching CV – he was sacked by both Sion and Palermo, walked away from OFI Crete, and his most notable success was earning promotion to Serie B with Pisa – the Rossoneri's former Primavera coach has undeniably done an excellent job to date.

He inherited a squad in poor shape, physically and mentally. So, he put them through a rigorous fitness programme, while at the same trying to explain to players that representing Milan is a privilege, meaning that nothing less than 100 per cent effort is required on a daily basis.

His aggressive, demanding approach has prompted comparisons with Diego Simeone's 'Cholismo', with team manager Christian Abbiati joking that 'Gattusismo' probably means "training every day at 100kmh!" The man himself, meanwhile, admits, "My work is to be the players' nightmare until the end of the season." 

However, despite the drill-sergeant persona, Gattuso has been wholeheartedly embraced by a squad left confused and bemused by Montella's muddled methods. 

Franck Kessie, Cutrone and Davide Calabria have all publicly praised their new boss for focusing on their previously poor fitness levels and psychological failings.

Gattuso recently stated: "Perhaps I am the worst coach in Serie A but I always want to win, even playing in the garden with my son."

However, the world champion has not just instilled a winning mentality at Milan. He is proving more than just a motivator, having also impressed with his tactical acumen, particularly from a defensive perspective. 

Milan had been playing with three at the back under Montella, as it was believed to be the best way to get the best out of former Juventus ace Leonardo Bonucci, but Gattuso switched to a 4-3-3 and the Italy centre-half has flourished alongside Alessio Romagnoli. 

Elsewhere, Calabria suddenly looks like a top-class right-back, forward Hakan Calhanoglu has finally settled, while 20-year-old striker Cutrone has been a revelation up front, fully justifying Gattuso's decision to bench two of Milan's most expensive summer signings, striking duo Andre Silva and Nikola Kalinic.

Gattuso has joked that he stole most of his methods from Sampdoria boss Marco Giampaolo, with whom he took a coaching course, and his mix of self-deprecating humour and brutal honesty has got an initially sceptical press on his side.

However, he has also shown himself to be a man of ideas, and one with the requisite courage to implement them.

His decision to stick with the same formation and more or less the same players has resulted in a stability and consistency not seen at Milan in years. Only Napoli (21) have picked up more points since the midway point of the Serie A season that the resurgent Rossoneri (19), while they haven't conceded a goal in 584 minutes in all competitions.

The performances have not always been easy on the eye but, for now, Gattuso wants points not plaudits. 

"We're not Brad Pitt," he conceded. "But we've got to continue being as ugly as me and my beard, with dark circles under our eyes!"

Making Milan a very scary proposition for Inter, Arsenal and anyone else for that matter.