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A Look at Gattuso’s Milan

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How has the snarling dog shaped the Rossoneri in his image?

Roma v AC Milan Photo by Newpress/Getty Images

While we’re all unabashed Roma fans and will defend the honor of nearly every man to wear the shirt, there are certain non-Roma players that capture your attention and in some instances compete for your affections. Had these players ever worn Roma colors, you may have even forsaken your friends and family for them. They were the ones you immediately purchased on FIFA, the ones you secretly put as your desktop background. So while they’re never quite ‘the one’ for you, you couldn’t help but root for them in secret, to admire them from afar.

Whether it was Ronaldinho’s sublime skill on the ball, Arjen Robben’s uncanny ability to destroy teams with literally the same move over and over, or Thierry Henry’s rare combination of size, speed and skill, we all had one or two guys that met certain needs Roma left unfulfilled.

For me, one of those guys was Gennaro Gattuso, the snarling dog (I also loved Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane and Figo). From his diminutive stature to his trunk-like legs, Gattuso made the most of his physical gifts, supplanting his supposed lack of skill with a level of ferocity and intelligence that was seldom seen outside of Italian midfielders. He was one of those players who made you think, “yeah, I could probably do that, too!” which I don’t mean with even an ounce of disrespect. Gattuso was relatable because of his dedication, because of his passion and because, let’s be honest, he wasn’t the most gifted player, but he honed his craft to such a degree that he willed himself into being one of the best defensive midfielders in the game. In many ways he provided the blueprint for Daniele De Rossi, though DDR was arguably blessed with greater physical gifts.

And now the snarling dog is a manager, believe it or not, and much like he did during his playing days, he’s quickly converting doubters into devotees. Since taking over for Vincenzo Montella in late November, Milan has surged...and I mean surged...winning nine of sixteen matches in all competitions since Gattuso took the helm, including five of their last six domestic matches. Gattuso has already exceeded Montella’s point total from this season in three fewer matches.

It’s been quite the turnaround indeed, but what exactly has been the catalyst to this sweeping success?

Well, quite simply a change in tactics, words that are never far from a Roma fan’s lips. Under Montella, Milan used four different formations, focusing largely on variants of the three man backline. Through his 14 matches in charge, Montella’s Milan was solid, albeit a tad underwhelming, but definitely not worthy of the substantial investment their now bankrupt owners made over the summer. Montella’s side racked up 20 points in 14 matches while averaging 12 chances created per match and holding a +1 goal differential.

Now, none of this was terrible, and in fact they were among the top five in chances created and fewest goals conceded per match, but much like Roma’s winter swoon, Montella’s Milan was done in by their shot accuracy and poor finishing. Still, Milan was in 7th place, so it’s not as if they were in danger of getting the boot, but when you invest the GDP of a small island nation in your squad in one summer, you expect more dramatic results.

So, what’s changed since then? Milan is still in 7th place, right?

Well, Gattuso threw away all of Montella’s three man mishegoss and went with the tried and true 4-3-3, and if last week’s performance against Sampdoria was any indication, he’s working that thing to a T.

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I mean, look at that balance, look at the triangles on both flanks, look at Lucas Biglia and Patrick Cutrone serving as reference points at the back and front, look at the spacing between Alessio Romagnoli and Leonardo Bonucci, its practically picture perfect. Even in a match in which they didn’t come close to their expected goals total, Gattuso’s Milan showed impressive balance, working triangles on both flanks to attack the Sampdoria defense.

So when we ask how will Gattuso’s side attack Roma this weekend, look no further, and if their performance against Shakhtar was any indication, they’re in for a long afternoon. Imagine that passing network exploiting Alessandro Florenzi or Bruno Peres down the left flank...yeesh. And if EDF follows suit, he’ll have to shift Radja Nainggolan over to provide defensive cover, robbing the attack of it’s own reference point, thereby stranding Edin Dzeko alone up top—this could be the perfect storm for EDF’s tactics.

All of which is to say, don’t be shocked if he reverts back to a 4-3-3 to counteract Milan’s approach. Jamming the middle of the park with three midfielders might be the only way to compensate for Roma’s sieve like defense on the flank.

While Milan is roughly in the same position as they were when Montella left, Gattuso has undeniably changed the direction of this team, putting them on a far greater trajectory than they were several months ago. This is definitely not the same Milan side Roma ran over in the fall, and it’s all thanks to Rino.