Milan: From the falsest of dawns to the gamble on pure passion

Words By Stephen Tudor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 5, 2017

Should an Evertonian and Milanista encounter the other in a street and discuss their respective seasons so far it would swiftly resemble someone talking into a mirror. Above them would be a sky absent of sun after the falsest of dawns.

Each fan-base were significantly buoyed in the summer through their club’s lavish expenditure and, perhaps despite themselves, optimism was high for a landmark year ahead, with Everton widely tipped to threaten a top four spot and Milan desperate to reclaim Serie A prominence after several years of decline. In the event, the sixteenth most valuable club in the world (Everton) imploded on impact with 2017/18, while the fifteenth most valuable club in the world (Milan) are presently so far adrift of a Champions League berth that it makes their pre-season title aspirations farcical in hindsight.

Yet when viewed ultra pragmatically, the Italian giant’s results so far have not been wholly disastrous and if they hadn’t spent more in the last window than anyone other than Manchester City, PSG and Chelsea perhaps their campaign to this point would have been regarded as a familiar drama instead of a crisis. Vincenzo Montella would have presumably still been sacked – after all six defeats from fourteen games and a raft of disappointing displays is hardly acceptable from a club of Milan’s pedigree – but that could be balanced with the fact that each of those losses have come against sides above them in the league. After finishing 6th, 7th, 10th, and 8th in recent seasons the narrative might well have been that this regrettably was now Milan’s level; this was their stint in the shadows.

That €193.5 though, on players as sumptuous as Hakan Calhanoglu and as imperious as Leonardo Bonucci: there is just no getting around it. It’s become the noose that Milan has hung around its own neck.

There’s a joke doing the rounds through the peninsula – Bonucci’s shock move from Juventus to the rossoneri has made both teams defending worse – and there’s no questioning that the 30 year old’s failure to transfer his trademark authoritative calm from Turin has been a considerable reason why Milan have flailed instead of flew. Indeed, so integral was the towering defender to Montella’s masterplan that the coach even saw fit to change his side’s formation to three at the back when Bonucci’s struggles became apparent. Elsewhere Nikola Kalinic has toiled up front, deplete of confidence, while Montella’s team selections were widely criticised. As for the coach his early reckoning was that his team lacked mental strength – a claim backed up by a 4-1 capitulation to Lazio in September – while the man who was nicknamed ‘Aeroplanino’ as a player continued to fly the perfectly reasonable theory that the disjointed performances were largely a consequence of so many new players undergoing a settling-in period.

Naturally, in among the crushing disappointment of a much-hyped season gone awry there have been a scattering of positives. Suso has been impressive while in teenage striker Patrick Cutrone there is an Italian international in the making who can now expect more game-time under a manager not ninety minutes away from the boot. A straightforward progressing through to the knock-out phase of the Europa League is also worthy of inclusion even if it’s proven to be scant consolation amidst home losses to Roma and Juventus and a devastating last minute defeat in the Milan derby.

During the game ‘Rino’ was also heard from the touchline shouting at his young keeper Gigio Donnarumma, “Shout or I’m going to kill you”.

It is these positives that need to be accentuated now as the club look to write a second draft of a story that swiftly turned Dante-ish and they have begun their re-do with the appointment of a favourite son in Gennaro Gattuso. Yet if the sacking of Montella was inevitable, the selection of their former combative midfielder to guide them to clearer waters was an odd one given his lack of managerial experience and infamous short fuse. Here is a man with previous for stabbing team-mates in the hand with forks when teased and in keeping with the skewering theme his reaction to Milan’s draw with Benevento during his first game in charge this weekend – that was bizarrely concluded with the bottom of the league side’s goalkeeper scoring a last minute leveller – Gattuso claimed he would rather have been stabbed. During the game ‘Rino’ was also heard from the touchline shouting at his young keeper Gigio Donnarumma, “Shout or I’m going to kill you”.

Gauging which way such passion will go is pure conjecture at this early juncture, but at least the 39 year old has a relatively forgiving fixture list ahead in order to ease himself into his significant promotion from coaching Milan Primavera, the club’s under 19 set-up. The problem is – as anyone who ever witnessed his tackling during his thirteen years with the rossoneri will testify – Gennaro Gattuso doesn’t ease himself into anything.

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