It was 10 January, 2010, and in the 65th minute of a match that should have been a title-decider, Milan boss Leonardo withdrew the sluggish Gennaro Gattuso. The tenacious midfielder trudged off, but his exclusion from the spotlight had become a recurring theme. As Gattuso left the field, there was no eye contact between he and the Brazilian Coach who had once again replaced him.
On that occasion, Milan defeated Juventus 3-0 in Turin to confirm themselves as league leaders. The hosts were lacklustre throughout and the victory was straightforward for Milan. Fast-forward a year and it was a similar story on Saturday evening. For Gattuso, however, the two games in Turin were worlds apart.
Milan may have triumphed once more against a Juve team not as strong as their history suggests, but this time it was down to a rare goal from Gattuso – dispelling the ghosts of last season when the Rossoneri only kicked into gear after his substitution.
The 33-year-old Calabrian will not have pleasant memories of his season under Leonardo’s management.
“We didn’t really have a relationship, nothing, there simply was no feeling between us,” he revealed when Leonardo left the club.
After Leonardo accepted the managerial post at Inter this season, Gattuso claimed the Brazilian was only taking the job for money because he doesn’t even enjoy coaching.
Whether it was a personal problem that prevented Gattuso playing his best football last season, we will probably never know. But there can be no doubt that the solitary year spent working with Leonardo was nearly the end of the World Cup winner’s top-level career.
As Gattuso’s scrambled finish found the back of Juve’s net on Saturday night, it was easy to forget how close he was to leaving Milan last summer – before Leonardo beat him to the exit door. Now, as a vital cog in Massimiliano Allegri’s Rossoneri machine, it seems absurd to recall that Gattuso could have been playing out his last few days in the United States or the Middle East.
The pitbull-like harassing of Gattuso’s midfield play was simply not warranted under Leonardo. The current Inter boss was inheriting a player who had spent vast amounts of the previous campaign in the treatment room recovering from a ruptured cruciate ligament. Well into his 30s, Leonardo figured the end was nigh.
The Brazilian preferred three in the middle of the pitch – as he still does for Milan’s arch-rivals – whether that be a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. When he coached the red half of the city, Andrea Pirlo’s selection was a no-brainer. Leonardo’s attacking philosophy meant that Gattuso – whose ability is limited in that respect – had no place.
David Beckham, Clarence Seedorf, Massimo Ambrosini and Mathieu Flamini all received their fair share of playing time to compliment Pirlo’s creativity. They may have played in a deeper, more restricted position but were able to contribute to Milan’s attack in some fashion. Gattuso, as a traditional ball-winner, was no longer required.
He made just 22 league starts last year (he has 23 already this season) and Leonardo only played him from the start a single time in the Champions League. Contrastingly, Pirlo started 33 league games, Ambrosini 26 and Flamini 14. Even Beckham started seven games in a short loan spell. Gattuso, for the first time in his Milan career, had a genuine battle for his position and he was losing badly.
Maybe he can thank the powers that be at Milan that Leonardo’s services were never retained. There was no chance of both men remaining at the San Siro this term – one had to go. A third-place finish in Serie A and elimination in the second-round of the Champions League was no justification for Leonardo to hang onto his job.
Gattuso’s revival this season under Allegri has coincided with Milan becoming favourites for the Scudetto for the first time since Inter’s post-Calciopoli dominance. His winning goal against Juventus this weekend is not something that Milan fans will expect to see again for a while, but it represents a full-circle renaissance for a legend that, a year ago, nearly left the club.