There Will Be Blood: AC Milan Sacks Montella And Puts Gattuso In Charge
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Vincenzo Montella has been fired as AC Milan coach.
Finally, Milan has initiated the “Unsworth protocol” — sack an underachieving manager after he’s overseen a summer of massive spending and dismal football, only to replace him with a vastly unqualified club legend. In many ways, Everton and Milan are exactly alike.
But whereas Everton is currently fighting an unlikely relegation battle, Milan sits seventh place in the table. Surely, after such a huge overhaul, they should be allowed time to gel together, time to fail together and time to come together as a team?
Seventh place for Milan is not just a failure; it’s an existential threat. Which is why Montella had to go.
Ever since Silvio Berlusconi’s fall from grace (in the loosest possible sense of the word grace), he sought to sell AC Milan. No longer could he oversee their victories and transfer spend as a means of generating political capital. Banned from politics, forced into house retirement with only his huge and ill-gotten fortune for company, he decided to sell the club.
But nothing in Italy is ever simple. What followed was a series of courtships; a number of potential buyers came and went and none could quite get the deal over the line. They valued the club too low or they refused to promise a certain level of transfer spending.
This came to a head last season. Somehow, by some miracle, Berlusconi engineered a deal with a Chinese buyer in which they would pay a series of huge, multi-million-dollar deposits, which valued the club at around $1 billion.
If the deal collapsed, if other payments weren’t met on time or if the buyer broke one of the other many stipulations in the deal, they would lose all the money and Silvio would keep his club and the hundreds of millions of dollars in deposits. A hell of a grift.
So Silvio was happy to string the buyer along. Every few months, they had to throw down another hundred million dollars or so. The deal was in constant danger of collapsing. Everyone assumed that it would never happen, that Silvio would simply emerge victorious once again, spending the deposits on transfer fees and making a triumphant return to politics. Forza Italia and all that.
But it actually happened. The deal went through. The mysterious Chinese buyer paid the fee, took over the club and actually began spending a lot of money.
There was too much that happened over Milan this summer to cover in detail. Gianluigi Donnarumma staying, Leonardo Bonucci arriving and an entire squad overhaul. Montella, a manager who played good football and had a decent amount of success out of the limelight at Fiorentina, suddenly found himself in charge of a new project with the eyes of the world watching on.
Before, he was not expected to achieve much beyond perhaps a Europa League spot. Suddenly, he needed to challenge for the title. Without warning or consultation, his job changed overnight.
But there was a problem looming in the background. Money. Always money. The mysterious buyer, supposedly a Chinese magnate of some kind, was rarely profiled in great detail in the press. Berlusconi didn’t worry too much. This person paid the fees. He got his pay-off. The buyer had even matched the transfer spend stipulations he’d inserted into the deal.
But there was a problem. No one seemed to have heard of Li Yonghong. Not just in Italy, but in China. A series of newspaper articles have tried to explain the origins of the owner of one of the world’s most storied clubs but they’ve come up short.
Recently, the New York Times travelled east to investigate. In the offices of Li’s company, the apparent owners, they found empty rooms and a notice for unpaid rent pinned to the door.
At the same time, the implications of Milan’s outlay became clear. During the summer, everyone seemed drunk on the sheer level of spending at Milan. Few people paused to ask the question: What happens if the club has a bad season? These questions were brushed aside.
They should not have been. So steep were the interest rates on the loans taken out to buy the club that, should Milan not qualify for the Champions League next season, a fire sale will have to take place just to keep the club afloat. All those shiny new toys will need to be sold for a cut price just to pay back the loans taken out to buy the club in the first place.
If Milan doesn’t finish at least fourth, the entire project could collapse in the space of nine months. The trail of corruption, international intrigue and mysterious figures is more fitting of a John le Carre novel than the sports pages.
This is why Montella was sacked. On the morning of his sacking, it’s important to outline the extreme implications thrust upon the coach by the new owners. They endangered the very existence of the club with a hugely risky strategy. When Montella failed to live up to their ridiculous expectations, he had to go.
That’s not to say that Montella was doing a good job. In too many matches this season, Milan has been abysmal. Too often, we suggest that the players on a particularly bad team performed as though they’d never met one another before. But this was exactly the case with Milan.
The problem was that the coach was meant to solve this issue. He should have come up with a plan, a system. But Milan has been as bad this past weekend as they were on the first day of the season. No progress.
Like many coaches, Montella has a set way he likes to play. Passing, attacking football, usually set up in a 4-3-3. Not always the same, but the same general ethos that can be seen in all his teams. But this squad is not suited to that. Even worse, very few of the players bought fit into this kind of plan. He had to rethink his entire approach and find something that worked. But Montella could not.
There aren’t many people who will be surprised to see Montella fired. But he’s hardly the biggest issue at the club. He’s more a symptom of the problem rather than a root cause.
Which brings us to the new man in charge. Gennaro Gattuso. A club legend. A man who was there during the glory years. A man who would run through brick walls for Milan, as well as crushing anyone stupid enough to stand in his way. A man who would three-foot tackle his enemies, were it not for the physical limitation of only having two feet.
He was Andrea Pirlo’s minder, the man who did all the tackling so Andrea could do the passing. A man who ate live snails for a bet, who smashed up the furniture at the Milanello training ground when he was angry and who stabbed teasing teammates with forks: a force of nature.
But not a very good manager. When he was manager of Pisa, Gattuso’s team had a rock-solid defense, conceding, on average, maybe a goal every other game. They hardly scored, though, and were frequent occupants of the relegation places. This is a fine example of someone failing upwards. At least he’s not the worst possible person they could have hired: Gian Piero Ventura is available.
The sacking of Montella, the huge and dangerous level of spending, the appointment of Gattuso and the strange and worrying financing of the club are all inextricably linked. The ownership at Milan is making one dangerous bet after another. There’s no joined up thinking here, they’re just trying to put out a fire by throwing money at it.
It’s not a long-term plan. It’s impossible to run a football team like this and succeed. Montella being fired is an example of the management trying to put a Band-Aid over a bullet wound. It won’t stop the bleeding.
Still, putting Rino Gattuso in charge of a billion-dollar business should be fun. It could be a stroke of genius. It will probably be a disaster. Either way, there will be blood.