THERE is an unspoken dogma in football which dictates that, rather than treating it as an opportunity to learn and improve, failure is a burden to be carried interminably.
This is especially true of the way we view managers. Careers are often completed without the stain of one job gone awry being scrubbed. But Gennaro Gattuso, it seems, refuses to be defined by past shortcomings.
The former Milan manager was relieved of his duties at the San Siro in May last year, after 18 months in post, when mediocre results had too long been married with uninspiring football.
A fifth-place finish, just one point shy of Champions League qualification, on reflection, represented a respectable return, given how Milan’s fortunes have faded yet further since Gattuso’s departure – the Rossoneri sit seventh at present, 15 points outside the top four. But it hardly made the former Palermo and Pisa boss an obvious choice to resurrect a struggling Napoli side after Carlo Ancelotti was sacked in December.
Yet, after a shaky start saw him lose four of his first five Serie A games at the San Paolo, that is exactly what Gattuso is on course to achieve. In their three years under Maurizio Sarri’s tutelage, between 2015 and 2018, Napoli had a clearer identity and purpose of play than perhaps any team in Europe. And they were remarkably formidable, emerging as the primary threat to Juventus’ Serie A dominance, backing up their slick style with no shortage of substance.
The style and the substance both began to erode under Ancelotti, though. The veteran coach with a CV as impressively decorated as the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree come late December was, despite another second-place finish in his first season, unable to stamp his mark on Napoli.
Gattuso found Napoli mired sixth in the table, and that is where they remain, such was the distance with which those above them had drifted clear at the time. But a nine-game unbeaten streak – part of a longer run of just one defeat in 13 and including wins over Juventus and Lazio and draws with Barcelona and Inter – suggests Gattuso has turned the tide.
And he’s done so by allowing his approach to evolve, striking upon his own balanced blend of pragmatism, possession and passion.
“The first few times I faced Spanish teams who played it [possession football], it did my head in,” he said after his Napoli’s 3-1 home win over SPAL last weekend.
“I used to go and press them on my own and they’d put me in the middle and pass the ball around. When I finished the game, I would say that in Italy we played another sport. I used to suffer in those games.
“Football has changed in Italy and there are lots of teams who pass the ball around well,” he said. “I now see football differently to when I played — I like us to have possession and avoid taking risks.”
5/6 – Gennaro Gattuso is the first manager to win five of his first six away games ever for Napoli in Serie A. Control.#VeronaNapoli
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) June 23, 2020
And Gattuso’s evolution was rewarded last month by the capture of the first major trophy of his managerial career. After overcoming Inter and then Juventus in the space of three days, both times via penalties, Napoli lifted the Coppa Italia – an achievement made all the more impressive in light of the fact Gattuso was grieving the loss of his sister, who had died at 37 of a rare illness just a couple of weeks earlier.
“There's a God of football, who makes you reap all that you've sown,” he said after the shootout victory in the final.
Aside from the silverware, Gattuso’s greatest success to date at Napoli has been to restore the confidence and cohesion among a gifted group of players who had begun to drift and appear disinterested, demotivated, under Ancelotti. Striker Dries Mertens – who became the club’s all-time leading scorer thanks to his goal against SPAL – is back to his best, with five goals and two assists in his last 10 games; Lorenzo Insigne has regularly produced sparkling displays since the turn of the year; and Kalidou Koulibaly’s improved form has once again made the Senegalese centre-back the subject of Premier League transfer rumours.
"It was in the air. Since Rino Gattuso arrived, many things changed here and everyone came together around him, around the club, around the idea of Napoli," said club president Aurelio De Laurentiis after the Coppa Italia triumph.
On Thursday, Napoli visit fourth-placed Atalanta, Serie A’s top scorers, who have won their previous six league games. Thirteen points separate the two teams and only 10 games remain in the season, so it is unlikely Napoli can contest Champions League qualification this term.
But the trip to Bergamo and the arrival of fifth-placed Roma at the San Paolo three days later will be the clearest indicator yet of how far Napoli have come under Gattuso, and how far the manager’s ongoing evolution can take them next season.