On Sunday evening, Gennaro Gattuso will face Milan as an opponent for the first time in his coaching career. It’s not just any game, as his Napoli are direct competitors for fifth place and a reminder of how little his old club has genuinely progressed since he left.
Going into the final game of last season, Milan stood their best chance of the qualifying for the Champions League since the Max Allegri era ended four-and-half-years earlier. All they needed was to beat SPAL and hope that one of Inter or Atalanta dropped points.
It wasn’t to be. In spite of securing that victory over SPAL, Inter and Atalanta won both of their games, meaning I Rossoneri missed out on a top-four finish by a mere point. Nevertheless, Milan had achieved their best league finish since 2013.
It was a testament to the progress this team had made under Gennaro Gattuso. He initially endured a difficult start after succeeding Vincenzo Montella in November 2017, with just one victory in his five opening games, but improved with time, winning 11 out of his 19 remaining fixtures to secure a sixth-place finish in his debut season.
For his efforts, he was rewarded with a contract extension to 2021 – a clear sign that the Milan hierarchy had faith in his abilities. With a sense of stability and signs of progress on the pitch, I Rossoneri would further improve in Gattuso’s first full season in charge, competing for a Champions League spot for most of the campaign. They would eventually miss out on it, of course, but his Milan side were – at that point – performing better than the one he had when he first arrived.
Despite this, Gattuso left the club by mutual consent just two days after the SPAL victory. He stated that it was a “difficult, but thoughtful” decision and waived compensation for the final two years of his contract – a symbol of his love for the club and his humble nature.
Milan replaced Gattuso with a more reserved figure in the form of Marco Giampaolo. Even at the time, they seemed like an odd match. Giampaolo was a journeyman Serie A manager and his previous job – managing Sampdoria for three seasons – was by far his biggest. His Blucerchiati side were performing well and did employ an exciting brand of football. However, his overall managerial record perhaps indicated that he wouldn’t be suited to managing an elite club such as Milan.
This quickly became evident. Giampaolo’s Milan were lifeless and bereft of ideas, losing four of his seven games in charge. The Rossoneri hierarchy were quick to realise their mistake and dismissed Giampaolo after just five months. He left them in 13th place, already four points away from the Champions League places.
In the space of just seven games, Milan’s progress under Gattuso was undone. The 18 months of hard work and gradual improvement, all for nothing. They replaced Giampaolo with Stefano Pioli, who was more experienced in managing elite clubs than his predecessor. He was initially unpopular with the supporters, but has whipped Milan back into shape, with the club now likely to achieve Europa League qualification.
Pioli was never going to be a long-term option for Milan, however. He has done the job with dignity, laying solid foundations for the man who will probably succeed him – Ralf Rangnick. The Rossoneri’s pursuit of the German tactician is an indication that the club – at least on a boardroom level – is now thinking strategically. One can’t help but wonder what Gattuso could’ve achieved if he was afforded the same opportunity, however.
Gattuso’s achievements at Napoli – completely reversing the fortunes of a crisis-stricken club – is clear evidence of his managerial abilities. It proves that Milan didn’t have to go back to square one with Giampaolo and Rangnick – they could’ve built on the progress Gattuso had made.
It’s an easy thing to say in hindsight, but Milan should’ve fought tooth and nail to keep Gattuso. Adored by the supporters and evidently a highly-talented, hungry, young manager, he could’ve been the perfect coach to restore Milan to their former glories. His immediate future seems to be with Napoli, however, and Rossoneri fans can now only wonder what might’ve been.