Gabbia reflects on Villarreal ‘crescendo’, Scudetto memories and being raised at Milan

By Oliver Fisher -

AC Milan defender Matteo Gabbia has reflected on what his time with Villarreal taught him and how his journey so far has helped him reach the point that he is at today.

The decision was taken last summer to loan Gabbia out to LaLiga in order to get him more playing time, but he was recalled in January because of the injury crisis at Milan and he has stepped up when the coach needed him.

He has started 16 games for Milan this season and has shown a level to his game which suggests he is maturing into a very well-rounded defender. Gabbia is under contract at Milan until June 2026 and the strong expectation is that he is now back to stay.

Gabbia was a guest on the second episode of ‘Unlocker Room – The Rossoneri Podcast’ and he spoke about a number of different topics including his season to this point and how he has changed as a player. MilanNews relayed his comments.

Where does the nickname ‘Matthew Cage’ come from?

“Honestly I think it comes from social media, where nice nicknames are now being developed. Having Fik and Ruben, other Englishmen, it’s nice to share it in the dressing room.”

What do you think of social media?

“If I play a great match, I rarely let myself get carried away that much. Before, I suffered much more if perhaps I wasn’t able to give what I wanted: now I understand that that thing took away some important energy from me.

“In the last two years I’ve found a balance with respect to this, I no longer give it importance but because I practically don’t watch it anymore and consequently I experience it as a restricted thing for my friends, outsiders and footballers. It’s more for entertainment now.”

How has this season been for you, given you went on loan to Villarreal?

“It was very strange. I knew I had to leave this summer, I had also spoken to the coach. At the beginning of the summer I had options that didn’t allow me to experience that emotion I wanted to feel.

“The day we left for America, I heard my agent telling me not to leave because everything was done with Villarreal. So I left I heard from director Furlani and there were still some things missing, they told him that until everything was defined I should stay with Milan.

“I spent two or three days in Los Angeles until everything was defined and I went back It was born quite quickly and I immediately liked it as an experience, I was eager to get involved even in a different country and league. It was very nice, I was happy with the choice I made, with how the six months went and then obviously coming back.”

How was your experience in Spain?

“It was certainly tough, more because I had been in a personal comfort zone for four or five years. For me Milan is family, it’s faces I’ve known since I was little. Changing country, a new city and with team-mates who don’t speak your language was certainly testing but it was something that gave me a lot.

“The impact was very positive, there were positive and good kids, even the coach who had influenced my signing. Then it depends on how you approach it yourself, I tried to make myself known for who I am, I was lucky enough that Pepe Reina was there and also Raul Albiol who spoke Italian.

“It was a crescendo: already after a couple of weeks everything was more beautiful, I found home. An experience that opened my mind, I didn’t know the difficulties that could exist from one country to another but I was lucky to find everything immediately.”

Did you maintain a bond with Milan while out on loan?

“For me it’s as if I never left again, many times I felt the Italian guys had a daily relationship with me here. Sometimes even the foreign guys. From that point of view it’s like I never left because I knew what was happening, how the boys were, I saw them all when there was a chance.

“I’m always attached to Milan also because I’m a fan and so I’m happy to watch them. How was it watching matches as a fan? Certainly [it was] in a different way, with more enthusiasm, as if I were injured at home…

“Now I watch Villarreal’s matches when they play but I don’t have the same sensations as when I saw Milan’s matches.”

What has changed to raise the level of performance?

“I think that not much has changed. I did work on myself, on what my defects were or on what I lost energy. I think I have improved attention to some details in my work: it is not always about working more but maybe for me it was working better but less.

“Sometimes when you don’t play you want to show that you are there, you want to train more to be ready but this is not always a positive thing. I managed to find a safer comfort zone for me from the point in terms of training and planning of the week.

“In Spain I played more and it’s not a trivial thing, I had more continuity. I came back here and I had more continuity, playing consistently helps you.”

You also played against Barcelona…

“A beautiful match, it moved me. We lost 4-3 but there were comebacks and counter-comebacks. We gave everything we had. They are an objectively strong team. Incredible individually and young players who are very good, they put them in there with a simplicity…

“I felt old because a 2007 is eight years younger than me and I knew what was waiting for me during the match. Lewandowski? Very strong, even when you feel like you have him under control he can make a play where he steals in or where he shoots. He scored a goal that seemed lucky but he was there.”

How do you behave on the field when you come up against a striker?

“I’m not the type of defender who likes to go and trash talk: I think about doing useful things for my team. Then there are situations in a match where you we speak and we respond, but they are limited to certain situations. It’s part of me.”

Tell us some anecdotes about the Scudetto year…

“I have a particular one involving Zlatan, it was the week before the match against Sassuolo. We were on the verge of winning but it wasn’t done yet, there was a bit of typical Italian superstition.

“I like to collect special shirts, from good opponents. I said to myself: ‘I’ll ask for his’. We didn’t know if we would win or if he would retire: he wrote to me ‘Thank you very much for the Scudetto’. It was a week before the game! I thought I’d better hide it so nobody sees.”

What was that Sassuolo game like?

“There was a feeling of celebration but also the feeling of being truly ready to experience that joy. As if we could only win. Indeed, the arrival in Reggio Emilia was already impressive, there were Milan fans everywhere.

“When we arrived at the hotel it felt like we were at San Siro. It was also wonderful because the match went well from the start, apart from the first 7-8 minutes… Then with the quality of Rafa, Olivier and Franck we won. That match for me is the best emotion I’ve had in football.”

And Zlatan gave that famous dressing room speech…

“At the beginning he had the thought of retiring… The fear was there that he might stop, then fortunately he said no. I don’t know if the speech was prepared but it shows his experience, his leadership, saying the right things, at the right time and in the right way that stimulates anyone… I would still break a table today (laughs).”

What did Pioli say before that game?

“The coach is very good because he understands how the team are doing and chooses the words he says to us based on that. He kept us calm and told us that we had done something very important and that we were very close to reaching a historic goal, he didn’t put too much pressure on us players, maintaining normality in preparation.”

During Milan-Roma in the Scudetto season, you started together with Kalulu…

“Quite peculiarly, there was still Covid. Swabs were done every day. We had returned from the winter holidays and Roma was the first match. Fik and Romagnoli tested positive, consequently Pierre and I started training three days before the match.

“We did so with the awareness that if they were no longer positive the starters would return, we coped very well and played very well as a team: a match which I have fond memories of. It gave a good impetus for the second part of the season.”

Is it true you were a ball boy at San Siro?

“I remember Milan-Chievo in which Kakà scored a goal under the Curva Sud. Then there are also others: Milan-Verona with Toni who impressed me with his physical size and it seemed impossible to become that big.”

What is your relationship like with your girlfriend?

“Federica is very important to me, a fundamental part of my life: we support each other and do what a family does. She has always been by my side and in Spain she spent my time with me but then she moved here because she rightly wants to create an independent future for herself.

“She is studying to become a notary and it is something that I also care about, why do you make your wishes come true? You support Milan when we play but if you were to stop tomorrow you would no longer watch matches.”

Do you have a passion for football?

“Before, I watched matches much more. Now if there’s a good match and there’s nothing else to watch, I watch it. But if I can empty my head and go out to dinner, see a film, I’m doing that.”

Do you have a fear?

“At a football level I don’t have big fears. Being afraid only leads you into something negative. You try to do the best you can and then you’ll see. In general I’m afraid of sharks and deep water”

What has being a Milan player taught you?

“It taught me to have consistency and seriousness in work and respect for what Milanello is, the people who work there and yourself who are there. 360 degrees of respect when you wear this shirt ”

Who would you like to say thanks to?

“Bianchessi, who brought me to Milan. Filippo Galli, because he saw me as a central defender even though as a child I didn’t want it and didn’t like it but in the end he was right.

“Finally to Stefano Pioli: he gave me trust and the possibility of living this dream of playing at Milan is right to thank, he gave me my debut, but with Pioli I had a different continuity.”

And finally, three wishes…

“Health for me and my loved ones. Then a family future that is full of positive things, a family that is beautiful to live in, to see, like the one in which I grew up.”

Tags AC Milan Matteo Gabbia

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