As a player, Valencia coach Gennaro Gattuso, a World Cup winner with Italy in 2006, was tenacious and proud. He was once sent off for slapping Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the face with the back of his hand. Then there was the time he squared up to Tottenham Hotspur coach Joe Jordan, pushing him into the throat and later admitting he « lost control » after being provoked.
Gattuso was also a talented player. He added bite to an exquisite AC Milan midfield that boasted Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Kaka, three of the best of their generation. As a coach, Gattuso has had spells with Milan and Napoli and is now in charge of developing an exciting crop of players at Valencia, including the young United States midfielder Yunus Musah, who insists Gattuso is calmer than he was as a player.
« He’s not like on the field when you saw him, » Musah told ESPN’s Alexis Nunes in an exclusive interview. « When he played [the idea was] he was always angry and stuff, you know. With us, he gets angry as well, but you see that he’s just trying to help you, encourage you, so you take it in a good way. He is great to work with. He’s a good person, a friend. »
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If Gattuso has been good for Valencia since taking over in the summer — they have 15 points from 10 games — he has been especially good for Musah.
Born in New York to Ghanaian parents, Musah was raised in Castelfranco Veneto near Venice, Italy, before moving to London, where he spend seven years at Arsenal’s academy. He joined Valencia in 2019 at age 16, and after a season with the B-team is now in his third season in the first team.
It is only this season, however, that it has become a regular. He was in and out of the starting lineup in his first two seasons, often playing out of position on the wing. Under Gattuso, who knows a thing or two about playing as a central midfielder, Musah is back in the middle — and it helps that the two have a language in common.
« When he was first appointed, he actually called me a few times to tell me how he works, » says Musah, who speaks Italian, English and Spanish. « We spoke in Italian. Obviously, that connection helps sometimes because we communicate easier and things like that.
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« When he came in, I did think this is an ex-midfielder coming in to help usso it has been a natural transition [back to central midfield] because I spent my whole youth playing in the middle. Obviously, whenever I go to the [U.S.] national team I play in the middle as well, so it’s been a good transition and it helps the style of play in the team as well. »
The focal point of the Valencia side is veteran Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani — « Just get the ball to him in the box, man, and he’ll do the magic, » Musah says — but in general, this is a young Valencia side looking to get the stories club back into European competitions for the first time in three seasons.
Musah, who will turn 20 during the World Cup in Qatar, is competing for a spot in Valencia’s midfield with Nico Gonzalez (20), Ilaix Moriba (19), Hugo Guillamon (22) and Andre Almeida (22). The team’s young core also includes Samuel Lino (22) and Justin Kluivert (23), among the options to flank Cavani.
« We’re a young group that just wants to do well, » Musah says. « That’s why we try to play every match without thinking about expectations. We know the stakes, but we have the same mindset all the time and we’re always driven to keep going.
« As a team, we’re really confident right now. We’re in a good mood. We’re enjoying the way we’re playing, we have a lot of the ball with the way the coach wants us to play and we enjoy that. It’s still early days, but even the matches we’ve lost, we’ve still been in the game. And the fans are loving it as well. I’m feeling positive. »
USMNT vs. England at World Cup will ‘be special for me’
It is not just Valencia that Musah’s feeling positive about. He also has high hopes for the US men’s national team in Qatar.
Since making his USMNT debut in November 2020 and then officially switching in March 2021 after representing England at the youth level, Musah has become an increasingly important part of Gregg Berhalter’s side. He helped the US win the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League title over Mexico in June 2021, and then played a key role during the World Cup qualifying campaign.
Under Berhalter’s watch, there has been an emergence of a so-called golden generation. Along with Musah, the US count on several Europe-based youngsters such as Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, Juventus’ Weston McKennie, Lille’s Timothy Weah, AC Milan’s Sergino Dest, Borussia Dortmund’s Giovanni Reyna, and Leeds United duo Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson.
« It basically is a brotherhood. When I had my first camp [in November 2020], things just clicked, » Musah said. « It’s just a thing that — I don’t know — something about the group that is right. Whenever we are on the pitch, we click. When we are off the pitch, we’re great friends, and as Weston said, we’re a brotherhood. »
Musah adds that the team can live up to lofty expectations set upon a side that’s returning to the World Cup after missing the 2018 edition in Russia.
« I feel like being [called the golden generation] is a compliment because [the USMNT has] a lot of players in the top teams in [Major League Soccer]. … There are a lot of players in Europe right now, and young players that are playing week in, week out at the top level, playing Champions League, playing in the top five leagues. »
In Qatar, the USMNT’s group-stage opponents will be Iran, England, and Wales. But it is that match against the Three Lions that Musah is most looking forward to.
« This game is going to be really special for me, » he says with his London accent. « I played for England and I lived there. So that match is special because I have to win that match, you know. »
Musah believes work still needs to be done in the final third for the team to come together — « When we get there, sometimes we get stuck, » he says — but he is already looking forward to facing some familiar faces.
« I know some people from the team, [Bukayo] Saka and [Jude] Bellingham, so I am going to have to go toe-to-toe with them in that match and smash them, really, because it’s pride, you know! I told some of my friends back home as well that if we win that match, they have to celebrate, in the English pubs and everything they have to celebrate, that would be nice. »
On USMNT perception: ‘We deserve more respect’
A minor injury kept Musah out of friendlies in Spain last month — a defeat to Japan and the draw with Saudi Arabia — but there is a case that Musah will be the US player in the best form heading into the World Cup. As his fortunes at Valencia under Gattuso have improved, the same can’t be said about some of his US teammates: Pulisic has had limited game time at Chelsea, Dest has failed to make his mark at Milan after being pushed out by Barcelona, and Reyna is still making his way back from injury problems at Dortmund.
Gab Marcotti doesn’t understand why USMNT and Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah is not on ESPN FC’s list of the top players under the age of 21.
Despite those concerns, Musah believes the USMNT — who have not reached the quarterfinals since 2002 — can make a run in Qatar.
« Just getting out of the group isn’t good enough, » he says. « I feel like we’ll be quite disappointed if we don’t get out of the group, but if we just get out of the group and then get knocked out, I feel like it would be disappointing.
« We’re a team that can go to the latter stages. We have to be on our game all the time. You can’t slack, basically, and that’s hard to do, but we’re capable of doing it. I really believe we can. We have to get to the latter stages of the competition to feel like we’ve achieved something. If we go out earlier, it will feel disappointing for sure. »
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With lofty ambitions in the camp perhaps not reflected across the world, is it fair to say the USMNT still aren’t given due respect?
« I would say they’re respecting [us] a bit more, but still not where I think it should be, » he adds. « I feel like we deserve more respect, but we have to go out there and earn it this time because this is the stage to show it and to change the way the world views it.
« And having that in your team in the US is huge. Gregg has put together that young group and to be able to perform the way we do in the World Cup qualifiers, in a Gold Cup, CONCACAF Nations League, we’ve been doing some big things, and the group is so mature and they’re willing to go that step ahead all the time.
And should the USMNT advance far into the tournament, there is a remote chance of them facing Ghana, the country where Musah’s parents were born.
« My mum could do something like that, but my dad would just be like, ‘Nah, don’t do that, come on,' » he smiles when asked if his family would split their allegiances in that scenario. « They will probably have US shirts on or something. »