Serie A

The Pitbull has Milan looking surprisingly stylish

 • by Mark Thompson
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The most relevant video on YouTube when you search for Gennaro Gattuso is a fairly standard highlight reel; tackles, celebrations, mouthing off. It has 1.5 million views.

The second-most relevant video is ‘Gennaro Gattuso: Best Fight Moments’. Four million views.

For many, those two videos highlight Gattuso the player. Blood and thunder. Attitude and anger.

Gattuso the manager is, however, very different. This season, Milan make almost 500 accurate passes per game, the 12th-most in Europe’s top five leagues and the third-most in Serie A.

They also lead the Italian top flight for the average number of passes per sequence of possession.

“Gattuso forgot what he was as a footballer to question himself as a coach,” Milan’s former sporting director Massimiliano Mirabelli said recently. “He was seen only as a fighter but as a coach he is an innovator.”

The new Milan, the new Gattuso

Granted, Milan are also third in Serie A for the most tackles per game, but few expected ‘The Pitbull’ to be so preoccupied with possession when he took to coaching.

And the third goal in a 4-1 away win at Sassuolo showcased this passing style at its sumptuous best.

A 13-pass move – amid a period when Milan were generally dominating possession – kept the ball moving quickly before it could be shifted to the left flank, where Hakan Çalhanoğlu received in plenty of space.

Çalhanoğlu passed the ball onto Samu Castillejo, who was hanging in space as the Sassuolo defence struggled to move across the pitch.

The Spaniard turned, took a couple of touches under no pressure, and fired the ball past the Sassuolo keeper.

This is less about the great finish and the length of the passing chain leading up to it, and more about why Gattuso’s Milan were passing the ball.

It was expressly with the aim of trying to move the opponents and find a team-mate who had the space and time to do something dangerous.

This isn’t the most ‘stereotypically possession team’ sequence of play that AC Milan have shown to the world this season, though.

Against Napoli, central defender Mateo Musacchio passed the ball back to goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma in order to maintain possession.

So far, so normal. But not when you see the goalkeeper’s starting point and where he moved to receive the ball.

The young Italian immediately returned the ball to his centre-back, but instead of moving quickly back to a position between his two goalposts he retreated to the far corner of the box to, again, offer an angle for a pass.

It’s brave from the Milan players and highlights perfectly the lengths Gattuso wants his side to go to in order to keep the ball.

This style of play may be pleasing on the eye but the table doesn’t show much reward for it. Yet.

While Milan are in tenth – ahead of a tasty-looking derby against third-place Inter – they have a game in hand over most of the league. A win in that would move them up to fourth.

But given how packed that area of the Serie A table is at the moment, tenth seems to be about right for the Rossoneri.

Their expected goals per game is around midtable, while their expected goals conceded is fourth; somewhere in between the two in the ‘in real life’ table would appear to be fair.

Yet things appear to be on the up. Before the Sassuolo game, Milan had only won one of their first five matches of the season. They were 14th then and questions were being asked about Gattuso’s management – Milan still had a game in hand, after their opening-day fixture against Genoa was postponed out of respect for the Genoa bridge collapse victims.

Two wins in a row mean the murmurs of disquiet have all but dissipated; Gattuso is back to being a club legend, the man who guided Milan away from the bottom of the table last season after taking charge in November 2017.

A win in the Milan derbythis weekend would be a sweet victory, and justification of the appointment and style of this current side, marrying the steel of the Pitbull with the possession-mentality of the modern age.

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