AC Milan's Gennaro Gattuso proving to be a hit at Serie A club - literally and figuratively
Former Italian midfielder continues to channel his aggression in a positive way, this time as manager, and his club are benefiting from it at the moment
You could think of quite a few footballers who would have liked to thump Gennaro Gattuso at various points during his long, famously pugnacious playing career.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for instance, who he made a habit of confronting in AC Milan matches against Ajax, or Inter Milan or Juventus. Or Joe Jordan, the craggy former Scotland striker who Gattuso headbutted as Jordan, then a coach at Tottenham Hotspur, squared up to him on an evening Gattuso had spent needling the giant Peter Crouch.
Gattuso, who measures 1.75 metres, never made a policy of picking enemies his own size.
So when Gattuso invited the Milan players he now manages to form a circle around him at San Siro on Sunday, and asked them to actually land punches on him, several men in their late 30s and early 40s would have envied them. It was a peculiar scene, and though some of the Milan players, delighted at a 2-1 win over Lazio, did give their boss a slap, their did it with hesitation, gingerly.
“It was mainly for the lads I left on the bench, so they could express their anger with me,” Gattuso explained of his novel man-management technique.
It is far too soon to declare Gattuso-the-manager a big hit in his first stab at coaching in Serie A, but January has been an excellent month for the warrior. Milan take on Lazio again on Wednesday night in the first leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final.
They do so on the back of three successive league wins that have marched the club from the bottom half of the table to seventh position, into the frame for European qualifying. That is the least of expectations for a Milan who won the Uefa Champions League twice while Gattuso was providing the heavy voltage in their midfield between 1999 and 2012.
Aggression was so much part of Gattuso’s game that sometimes the skill in his play was obscured, and his nascent managerial career has certainly been more conspicuous so far for its up-and-at-‘em motivational style than great tactical finesse.
He was promoted to take charge of the Milan first team after the dismissal of Vincenzo Montella in early December, recommended more on the basis of his galvanising influence as a Milan player than a mixed record in coaching at Serie B and C levels with Pisa and Palermo and brief stints at clubs in Switzerland and Greece.
There was an inauspicious start: Milan were held to a draw on Matchday 1 of the Gattuso reign by then pointless Benevento, whose last minute equaliser was scored by their goalkeeper. Gattuso took four points from his first four games, but the winter break, during which he turned 40, seems to have given the squad clarity.
Perhaps buoyed by victory over Inter in the quarter-final of the Coppa Italia, 10 points have come from the last four league outings, many of those points retrieved from losing positions. They came from behind to draw with Fiorentina, and from a goal down beat Cagliari 10 days ago.
Though television replays suggest Milan’s first goal against Lazio on Sunday was scored by Patrick Cutrone’s arm - and not his head - they rallied again once Lazio had equalised.
Most pleasing for the Milan owners who spent substantially last summer, several of the newer recruits are flourishing. Franck Kessie and Lucas Biglia lent a steel in the midfield that Gattuso would regard as a key quality, and Hakan Calhanoglu, the Turkish international proving the sort of accurate delivery he was brought in for.
Gattuso has not yet been able to coax the best out of Andre Silva, the 22-year-old Portuguese striker signed in July for close to €40 million (Dh182.5m) from Porto. But word is he has been patient and encouraging in his training ground work with Silva, who is yet to score a Serie A goal.
Playful he may be with his mock punch ups, but Gattuso is determined to remain grounded.
“What I don’t want is that the story of every match is taken as some sort of watershed,” Gattuso said. “Each game is a challenge in itself. The club have spent a lot of money and we have been through some problems.
"But I’m pleased for the players because they are strong psychologically at the moment.”
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Updated: January 30, 2018 05:48 PM