By late October, Milan-fans would believe they’d have a feeling of what to expect from the rest of the season. However as things stand it’s all still as uncertain as ever.
With eight games played, the Rossoneri remain 12th in the league. A win against Genoa, in the postponed game, would make them sixth. Up until today Gattuso’s men have showed some very good form, but also some worryingly bad. The games have often been of two halves: one dominant, creative and exciting, and one uncertain, fearful and lackluster.
The matches against Napoli, Cagliari, Atalanta and Empoli are examples of this pattern. Milan played well at times, but when it mattered they were unable to close down and convert their chances. Gattuso’s side seemed inexperienced and fearful in the dying embers of games, neither threatening in attack nor secure in defense. After the poor start to the season, rumors had it that Gattuso was given three games to change this run of form. Rino responded by leading the team to a 4-1 victory against a strong Sassuolo-side, as well as clearly overcoming both Olympiacos and Chievo. While not the biggest of teams to beat, the Rossoneri started to show confidence and character in their play.
After the international break, and two weeks of preparation for Gattuso and several of the players, the Derby della Madonnina was upon us. This was going to be a real test of strength for Gattuso’s side. While it had been a frustrating start to the season, Milan had lost only once, a game against Napoli at the San Paolo, arguably one of the toughest games the current season has to offer. Maybe the Rossoneri’s stressful start to the season had just been a matter of stringing two halves together?
After a close opening, where both sides were feeling each other out, Inter started to dominate. Milan were pressed down low, were weak on the ball and showed indecisiveness and uncertainty on the counter. Disappointingly for some, Gattuso’s side didn’t seem to want to win the game, but rather settled for a draw. With some very good defending at times, as well as some luck, Milan managed to keep the score sheet equal throughout regular time. However, Inter were ready to pounce, and in the 92’ minute they got their chance. Donnarumma misjudged a cross from Vecino, rushed out towards the ball to leave an open goal for Mauro Icardi who had no problem beating Musacchio on the header. A heartbreaking goal to concede for the Rossoneri, who had defended for so long, but hardly an undeserved one.
Still, Milan lost against a strong Inter-side, and a loss in the derby, however painful it is, doesn’t ruin the season just yet.
Earlier this week Higuain, Suso and Romagnoli praised Gattuso and the rest of this current Milan-side. Romagnoli claimed that the players have “absolute confidence in Rino” and that they were even “willing to die for him”. In other words Gattuso is, as he perhaps still should be, secure in his coaching position.
However Milan’s swift ever-changing character, between a defensive side, an attacking side, a confident side and an uncertain side, needs to be taken care of. The substitutions also need to be better. In the derby Cutrone was used on the flank without seemingly much to offer. Bakayoko was also subbed on, without impressing anyone, and Abate came on merely to run down the clock. Unlike earlier seasons, Milan has some good depth on the bench, potential game changers when used right. That is an aspect of the game Gattuso needs to utilize for all its worth.
However the form of some of the starting players has been disappointing at times. Çalhanoğlu has been a shade of himself before the summer. Musacchio, while often good, has struggled with his defensive positioning. And even with some great performances, Calabria’s apparent struggle with playing week in week out opens up room for the ever-so shaky Abate. Most of all, though, Gigio Donnarumma might have been the most disappointing player in the red and black shirt so far this season. This Milan-side hasn’t kept a clean sheet in the league since April. Gigio can hardly take the entire blame for that, but it’s still a nasty statistic for the young man. Even with evident quality and potential, he doesn’t look like a player worthy of his salary at the moment. He’s shaky with the ball in his feet and his aerial play is questionable. Milan is in nothing like a keeper-crisis, but for €6m a year you would expect more.
Luckily, the Rossoneri have some good players returning to the field. Conti will soon be back from his injury, Caldara is already back from his, and the exciting Brazilian prospect Lucas Paquetá will be eligible to play in January. With the possibility of more signings arriving this winter, Gattuso will have even fewer excuses for weak performances.
All in all though, Milan might still have a great season. The Europa League is there to be taken and the Serie A is still in the early stages. Gattuso’s side has also shown some great, creative and entertaining football at times. It’s “just” a matter of consistency. Because what’s frustrating is that after years of uncertainty many hoped for a steadier season, one where a Milan-side with evident quality in several positions was able to bring home three points most weeks. Instead, a Sunday night without being close to a heart attack still seems unlikely for a Milan fan, even if the opposition is Empoli. Still, it’s not just the small games that are problematic, this Milan-side’s apparent fragile mentality in big games is disappointing, as it used to be these games the club thrived in.
Many wrongs were made right this summer, but the Rossoneri still struggle with many of the same issues as before. What causes this can be speculated and debated, but the only thing certain is that this side is capable of more. Milan need to play like a big side, play with the quality that they do have, and show that quality on a regular basis. That is on the players, but especially on Gattuso.