As he's done for every victory, Gennaro Gattuso rallied his players and gave a short speech before sending them off to salute the AC Milan supporters Saturday. Togetherness has become one of Gattuso's central themes in his first months in charge of Milan, and it was again on display in the moments after the 4-0 win at SPAL.
Few envisioned Gattuso could right the wrongs of Vincenzo Montella's stagnant tenure. Fewer still believed the fiery Italian - whose reputation as a snarling midfielder precedes him - could do anything more than motivate.
But over the course of Milan's eight-match unbeaten streak, Gattuso has done more than fire up an expensive cast of summer signings. He's trained his players well and employed tactics that best suit them.
Although he remains animated on the touchline, remonstrating with the referee whenever he can, Gattuso is much more refined and measured in his press conferences. The two-time Champions League winner has no sense of entitlement about him, even admitting that, because of his inexperience, he may be the worst coach in Serie A. Gattuso has indeed managed just 10 Serie A matches, but it's his humility that's helped Milan find its way.
"The important thing is to persevere and not think all of our problems have been resolved," Gattuso told Sky Sport Italia on Saturday. "This must be the starting point, not the finish line."
He's preached hard work, and the numbers show that Milan is running more than it did under Montella. He's shielded the emerging Patrick Cutrone from unnecessary pressure, reminding fans and media that, despite his penchant for scoring from close range, he isn't the next Filippo Inzaghi. The 40-year-old has also rejuvenated Lucas Biglia, reminding him to execute simple passes and maintain the team's overall shape. He told Biglia that he doesn't have to be Andrea Pirlo - even if the media painted the Argentine as the maestro's long-awaited successor.
In a not-so-subtle knock on Montella, Biglia and others have credited the intensity of Gattuso's training sessions as the one of reasons for their turnaround. Milan famously began the season on a vegetarian diet, and as opponents picked up steam, Montella's lot seemed to struggle with fitness.
Gattuso has changed all of that.
"Something that makes him angry? If you are walking on the pitch," midfielder Franck Kessie said earlier in February.
"In every training session, he makes us go beyond our limits, and we never have a moment to relax," Biglia added.
Gattuso also addressed Milan's overall approach to football. He noticed the defence was out of sorts, the midfield unbalanced, and the attack dull. He kick-started it all by putting more of an emphasis on vertical play.
Milan previously laboured through matches, resorting to lazier horizontal passes as spaces closed up. It was all very static. There was no off-the-ball movement, and few ideas.
Confident and composed
Hakan Calhanoglu has contributed a considerable amount to Milan's newfound spirit. Finally granted a more comfortable role on the left wing, Calhanoglu has done more work off the ball. The Turkish international is interchanging with Giacomo Bonaventura to pull defenders out of position, and according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, he's dribbling and creating more goal-scoring opportunities on average than he did under Montella. Essentially, he's making sure Milan is anything but static.
"I didn't expect Hakan to step up the way he has," Gattuso said last week. "He is only 24 years old, I like him a lot, and he has impressed me. I didn't expect him to be such a complete player."
The switch from the 3-5-2 to the more conventional 4-3-3 gave players like Calhanoglu more assurances. It meant playing Suso, Bonaventura, and Biglia in their best positions; no more experimenting with Suso as a false nine, or trials with Bonaventura as a left wing-back.
Leonardo Bonucci and Alessio Romagnoli have arguably benefited the most from the 4-3-3. They've formed a complementary relationship in a basic back-four, with Bonucci passing from the back and Romagnoli clearing the lines. Romagnoli is able to cover Bonucci's tracks when he's on the ball, and that's freed the 30-year-old to release devastating long passes. The fact they've conceded just four goals in eight matches together shouldn't be overlooked.
That's not to say things can't get better. Milan is still overly reliant on Suso's match-winning abilities, leaning too heavily to the Spaniard's right side to find a breakthrough. Red cards are coming too frequently, and leads never appear to be safe.
The good thing is that Gattuso knows his team is still a work in progress. He wants more overlapping runs from left-back Ricardo Rodriguez, more crosses into the box, and a more balanced playing field so that Suso isn't overburdened.
These are astute observations from Gattuso - a manager who's much more than an emotional leader.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)