As another season draws to a close in which AC Milan have failed to capitalise on the anticipation and expectation which surrounded the San Siro at the start of the season, the Rossoneri can at least begin to look forward to a future which now appears brighter than before.
The spending of €200m in a transfer campaign which saw the high-profile signings of the likes of Andre Silva for €38m from Porto and Ricardo Rodriguez from Wolfsburg, as well as the snaring of iconic defender Leonardo Bonucci from rivals Juventus set a tone of excitement and great expectation in Milan last summer.
What followed was yet another season of inconsistency, uncertainty and underachievement by the lofty and historical standards which AC Milan have set.
Milan currently sit sixth in the Serie A table, nine points behind bitter rivals and neighbours Inter Milan, and once again looking up to see the likes of Juventus, Napoli and both of Rome’s premier clubs who seem to have overtaken Milan in the Italian hierarchy.
However, in the second half of the campaign, Milan’s prospects for the future appear to have taken an upturn which promises a rebuilding and re-emergence towards the top in the years to come.
Vincenzo Montella’s sacking as manager in November was a result of uncertainty over the strongest starting eleven and formation, which had lead to just six wins from Milan’s first 14 league games of the season.
Club legend Gennaro Gattuso was brought in to replace Montella and take the reins of a side struggling for form, leadership and direction. Gattuso was about to change that.
The former Milan midfielder, who made a total of 468 appearances during a 13-year spell with the Italian giants during his playing days, immediately brought a fresh, inspired approach to the side, imposing a clear set of ideas and methods on his team.
Gattuso set about shaking up the side, focusing on performance and application over name and reputation. Andre Silva has fallen largely out of favour in the manager’s plans, settling primarily for a role as an impact substitute.
The more experienced heads in the squad such as Ricardo Montolivo are no longer guaranteed starters in the team. Gattuso’s demands for high energy and work ethic have seen the likes of Patrick Cutrone, Manuel Locatelli, Franck Kessie and Suso given greater squad roles, with many of them having since become regulars in the side.
It appears that, for Gattuso, this is the way forward. A restructuring process which gives experience and challenge to the younger players who can form the core of Milan’s setup moving forward, rather than an over-reliance on the more experienced and expensive figures in the squad who have largely failed to deliver.
Milan’s performance in the Coppa Italia final defeat to Juventus was proof that, despite the 4-0 scoreline in favour of the opposition, Gattuso’s approach could just be the way forward.
Although Milan succumbed to what was eventually a crushing defeat, the dynamic, expressive and high-energy performance which Gattuso’s side delivered was impassioned, committed, and very much a reflection of their manager.
Juventus called upon their experience and winning know-how on the night to survive Milan’s pressing and energetic imposing of their will on the game, tactfully absorbing the attacking pressure from Milan’s young side and hitting them when their guard was down.
Two of the Juventus goals were down largely to the susceptible goalkeeping of Gianluigi Donnarumma, who’s mistakes largely cost Milan and saw Juventus run out of sight on the night.
Donnarumma, though, very much epitomises the quality and promise of this youthful Milan side which Gattuso continues to push and have faith in, regardless of the opposition and scale of the occasion.
The goalkeeper suffered from inexperience on the night, which was ultimately behind his shortcomings, not a lack of quality.
The same applies to the rest of the Milan side and their performance on the night. They were not outplayed or outfought by a Juventus side which featured elite names such as Paulo Dybala, Sami Khedira, Blaise Matuidi and Douglas Costa. They were simply outthought by the more experienced side.
Experience only develops in a player through exposure to these kinds of occasions, being on the pitch and experiencing the challenge first hand, not from training in the reserves and watching the big games from the stands.
Gattuso’s faith in his young side will surely be tested but will unlikely be regretted. The potential is clearly in abundance, the quality is growing and the experience is rapidly budding in this young Milan side.
Wednesday’s cup final disappointment will ultimately prove to be a highly positive experience for Gattuso’s side. Donnarumma is still only 19. Cutrone is 20 years old. Kessie is 21. Suso is 24. All of them started the match against a vastly more experienced Juventus side, and all will be far richer for the experience.
The €200m spending spree last summer clearly did little to breed success at Milan this season. It is Gattuso’s innovative methods and building on the promise of his young stars which must be given time and trust at San Siro next season, as it is that which has the potential to wake this club from being a sleeping giant.