Monday December 28 2020
Pioli, Milan’s brilliant band-aid

Just one year ago, Stefano Pioli was supposed to be a mere interim coach, but Fabio De Dominicis believes he’s played the most important role in Milan’s success in 2020.

Oftentimes, when treating a wound, the band-aid used to cover the injury becomes so embedded into the affected area that it is easier to leave it on for a little while longer, rather than risk greater pain by removing it.

At times, a bandage is preferred over a mere band-aid, signalling, at least publicly, a greater effort in assisting with the healing process. But sometimes a band-aid is enough.

In Milan’s case, Stefano Pioli is the band-aid, and Ralf Rangnick was the unused bandage.

Cast your mind back to just 16 months ago, when the Rossoneri began the 2019-20 season with Marco Giampaolo at the helm, leading an under-achieving club who had just put faith in Diavolo legends Zvonimir Boban and Paolo Maldini to remedy the painful laceration caused after another failed Champions League qualification attempt.

Seven games in, and the knives were out as Giampaolo failed to inject the right medicine into the Milan team, his four losses in the first seven games of the season meaning a substitute doctor needed to be called in over October’s international break.

If ever a coach was to be compared to a locum medical practitioner, Stefano Pioli would be right up there as one of the top candidates. Having coached at 12 different clubs across his 16-year managerial career, and with his standout achievement being an Under-17 National Championship with Bologna, more than a few eyebrows were raised and many questions asked after Pioli was unveiled at Milan’s headquarters.

The appointment had the markings of “interim” written all over it, a stop-gap solution, a decent band-aid.

“My principles are based on ideas, intensity and ruthlessness. I’ll have to be good at getting my ideas across to the team as quickly as possible. Let’s start with a good base,” the Parma-born coach stated in one of his first interviews as Milan coach.

That “good base” was however at risk of collapsing from the start, with the edges of the band-aid immediately curling on all four corners: Pioli’s Milan earned just one victory in his first six games in charge, his five-point tally even less than the six points his predecessor Giampaolo had accrued in his first six encounters.

Spared the surgeon’s scalpel, two consecutive December victories over Parma and Bologna, naturally two of his former teams, were seemingly the life support Pioli needed, only for the situation to take another turn for the worst as Milan suffered a humiliating 5-0 defeat to Atalanta. The club’s heaviest loss in 21 years, in their last fixture of 2019.

The Christmas Panettone was as dry as Milan’s win column for dejected Rossoneri fans, who had at the halfway mark already written off the season with the club languishing in 11th place at the start of 2020.

The arrival of former stalwart Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as well as the less-celebrated but equally important acquisition of defender Simon Kjaer, gave fans a sprinkling of post festive season cheer, which transformed into subdued optimism as Milan went undefeated for the entire month of January.

That renewed confidence peaked at half-time during February’s Derby della Madonnina as the red half of Milan took a 2-0 half time lead, only to be brought crashing back to reality in the eventual 4-2 defeat.

One win in their next four games, including a lacklustre display in an2-1 defeat to Genoa in an eerily-empty San Siro Stadium, did nothing to inspire disgruntled fans as Italy, and the rest of Europe, headed into lockdown.

Little did anyone know that the Genoa loss would be Milan’s last domestic defeat to date.

Amid the national COVID-related restrictions, reports emerged of Pioli being in direct one-on-one contact with his players, getting to know them on both a personal and professional level as he sought to understand and explain each individual’s role in the collective project.

When training resumed ahead of June’s resumption of the league, Pioli was given the preseason he never had, utilising the time to galvanise his charges, amplifying their strengths while working on the team’s tactics and formations, instilling belief in a system he knew and trusted.

Talks were rife about German tactician Ralf Rangnick being brought in at the conclusion of the campaign even before the lockdown had ended. Pioli could have thrown his toys out the cot like a certain American president knowing the end was nigh, yet instead he maintained his calm and professional demeanour as he went about his business.

And led by the scoring prowess of Ibrahimovic and Ante Rebic, Milan won nine and drew three of their 12 Serie A matches post-lockdown, going undefeated as Pioli catapulted his side to a sixth-place finish and Europa League qualification berth.

With the band-aid holding firm and no need for the Rangnick bandage, Pioli had earned his contract extension, repaying the club’s faith with an impressive start to the 2020-21 season as Milan emerged victorious in their first four games on the trot, including a statement-making 2-1 win over city rivals Inter.

Smart investments were made in the delayed off-season, yet with the youngest average-aged squad among Europe’s top five leagues, Pioli continued the Milan board’s desired direction while delivering on the pitch, with scoring and undefeated records tumbling on a weekly basis as the ‘locum doctor’ continued his incisive work.

Even locum doctors fall sick however, with Milan fans’ hearts skipping a beat at the news that Pioli would have to self-isolate after contracting Coronavirus. Yet heart-warming images of the 55-year-old coaching his side via drones, while video-calling them post-match as Daniele Bonera continued the team’s unbeaten run in his absence merely endeared him to the supporters even more.

Injuries to key players have become the norm for clubs across the globe, yet while missing the spine of his team in defender Kjaer, immovable midfield duo Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer as well as lead frontman Ibrahimovic, Wednesday’s dramatic 3-2 victory over Lazio to ensure top spot over the Christmas break shows just how far Milan have come under Pioli’s watch.

And all the while, Pioli has remained grounded, preaching a collective effort and the need for constant improvement while refusing to take the plaudits.

“If being repeatedly called The Normal One bothers me? On the contrary, it pleases me,” he said in a recent interview in SportWeek. “If by ‘normal’ you mean someone who always wants to grow and improve, then I am normal.”

Undefeated now for 26 consecutive league games, scoring in 34 consecutive domestic encounters with the last 16 of those including a record two or more goals, Pioli has proven to be a more than capable coach at the helm, ensuring his band-aid work has done the trick in steadily healing the gaping wounds that have held Milan back for almost a decade.

The management and players naturally deserve praise as well, yet with coaches often first to receive the boot when results go awry, Pioli deserves the credit for continually delivering in a high-pressure situation and far surpassing the expectations laid upon him when taking up the Milan reins just 14 months ago.

The year 2020 has been miserable across all fronts, yet many long-suffering Milan fans now have at least something to cheer about this Christmas.



Have your say...
@ Chris The chaos came from having multiple players vying for one position and giving players months to prove themselves. Barca should probably be still at the club as the other hundreds we signed. Has we given them any time to establish themselves and a team. Çalhanoğlu shows the benefit of patience and playing players in their correct position!
on the 30th December, 2020 at 12:35am
Cont'd. Had Berlu and & Uncle Fester done this correctly they might even still have been in charge. I think the unsung hero in this saga is Geoffrey Moncada. He and his department are identifying the talent that Maldini and Massara then decided to negotiate for. Which brings me to this with regard to good management: Elliott has hired Maldini, Massara and Moncada to their posts, and they're the ones making all this happen.
on the 29th December, 2020 at 5:53pm
Cont'd...there began a parade of ill advised expensive free agent and random player signings that seemed like club was desperate to stay at a certain level. Instead the youth movement that is being undertaken by Maldini and Massara should have been implemented by Berlusconi & co. the day they realized they couldn't hold onto Silva and Ibra. Yes, the club might have dropped out of the CL for a few years, but the did anyway. (Cont'd).
on the 29th December, 2020 at 5:44pm
To add to the convo: I agree that one or two key signings per year once the core of the team is established is the way to go. I also agree that owner stability became an issue in the late Berlusconi period. Once the core of that amazing 2002-2007 aged out there was no adequate replacement program. While there was a final hurrah in 2011 with the likes of Dinho, Ibra and Silva, the club needed a refresh but there was no plan. Instead, like Maldini's Heir says,...(Cont'd)
on the 29th December, 2020 at 5:41pm
MH - I wouldn't say the transfers were chaotic. At the time they seemed reasonable, even. Bacca had just won a Europa League, Luiz Adriano was up and coming, Bonucci was long established, Cerci, Kucka, Deolofeu, Alex, Andre Silva. The problem was definitely mental, a lot of these players thought that they had made it in signing for Milan so the hunger was never always there. I feel like with Maldini in a managerial capacity, Zlatan as a teammate, the current players feel that responsibility.
on the 29th December, 2020 at 2:28pm
@ Chris I put the last 10 years down to mostly our chaotic transfers where we went through hundreds of players. It’s particularly galling for fans who were used to seeing the same players play for decades. Most of the players in the last 10 years lasted months.
on the 29th December, 2020 at 12:11pm
@ Sheva Junior When I talk about top sides I mean Barca, Real and Bayern who don’t tend to be too active in January. Transfers are disruptive so they have to make a really big difference. Barca at their peak focused on one or two key signings in the summer. The biggest areas that need improvement for Milan are defence and attack. But the big question in defence is Romagnoli and January is not the time to be making any decisions about him.
on the 29th December, 2020 at 12:10pm
Sell Castillejo and replace him with Thauvin or Depay who are both coming to the end of their contracts and would be cheap and an upgrade for the right wing. A back up no.9 to Ibra, Scammaca would be good but only for the right price which I think the reported 25mill is too much. and then Sell both Duarte and Mussachio who are injury prone and not available enough and replace them with 1 reliable back up CB.
on the 29th December, 2020 at 12:04pm
The age and profile of the signings is a great positive for this Milan side. There are so many players in the squad who if for one reason or another decide to leave or need to be moved on can be sold for a higher price than was paid for them leaving Milan with funds to replace them with equal or better quality. I agree that Milan don't need much in the way of new additions. Personally i'd go with 3.
on the 29th December, 2020 at 12:01pm
Milan's biggest problem in recent years have always been mental. It was inevitable for the confidence of these talented young lads to soar after a good run and some wins against the top sides. Now they believe in their own ability and that of their team mates. Then of course Pioli did well to find the right formation and style of play, among everything else that he did right. Management also deserve the plaudits for their part, but I agree that Pioli was the one who brought everything together.
on the 29th December, 2020 at 11:28am
There's only so much we can pin on ownership though. You can't tell me a club would fail if they had Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Oblak, but had problems at HQ. It's a shared responsibility, the ownership issues didn't help - investing so much money into below average players, poor coach choice, a cripplingly high wage bill that they could never get under control was always a problem but a lot of players in the past 7-8 years just couldn't handle the pressure or didn't give 100%.
on the 29th December, 2020 at 9:39am
@Maldini's heir - I don't agree big clubs only use summer to build a winning squad. If opportunities arise, every club will use it to make them stronger. IMO the biggest sole reason for our decline in the last decade was the lack of stable ownership at the club to stick to one clear plan.
on the 29th December, 2020 at 6:04am
This Milan run feels like a breath of fresh air. Excited to see how the new year pans out.
on the 29th December, 2020 at 12:34am
puts us top. There’s the longevity. Now I don’t actually think we’ll win the title. A) because I don’t want to talk too soon, but more importantly b) because only one of our players has been in a title fight. I think Conte’s Inter will nip it but these players (as in these exact players) will come back stronger for the experience. Sure we could add better players but they have to be better. Which brings me to January. Personally I’d add a striker and leave it at that.
on the 28th December, 2020 at 8:54pm
But if Milan is to really recover as a top side then it needs to start acting like a top side. Top sides don’t take scatter gun approaches to transfers. Very few top sides properly engage in the January transfer window unless it’s to cover injuries or to get a boost in attack. January is not the time to build title winning teams. Those plans are made prior to the end of the season with the one or two key transfers sorted before pre-season. Milan have a title winning side. The past calendar year
on the 28th December, 2020 at 8:50pm
For the past disappointing decade I’ve been calling for calm at Milan and for the club and fans to just back the coaches and players that we had rather than constantly looking to change things. Whilst I have not been proven right in that the changes that eventually “clicked” were done on the run, I was right about how managers and players can be completely transformed with the right conditions. Most of the squad was written off at one time or another and they have proven their critics wrong.
on the 28th December, 2020 at 8:45pm
this milan side is overachieving and a lot of credit has to go to pioli. the club actually looks for the first time in years that it is going in a positive direction in terms of a youth policy in terms of sustainable signings in terms of getting rid of fringe players.
on the 28th December, 2020 at 7:07pm
Totally agree. Pioli's team has played attacking football (as evidenced by the scoring run)and have show character and resilience. The 4-2 versus Juventus stands out as the highlight but so do comebacks against Verona, Parma, Celtic and the win against Lazio. The Whole of Serie A is waiting for Milan to stumble and hit a bad patch and that itself is the greatest compliment to Pioli and his charges.
on the 28th December, 2020 at 4:47pm
I was one of the Milanistas most critical of the stop-gap Pioli, but I never expected such an effect from him. I mean this is a completely different Milan inside a year! Exciting to watch, with a backbone and an identity, and with clear ideas!

Guess it goes to show you that sometimes the long shots pay off the most in the end... Keep it up Stefano!

Forza Milan!
on the 28th December, 2020 at 4:47pm
Pioli has done a fine job of finally putting together the right pieces on the pitch at the right time. He then has the confidence to stand aside and let the team play.
How often has Milan trailed and yet come back to draw or win a game.This reflects leadership and fearlessness particularly as Ibra watches either on or off the pitch. One man can make that big a difference in the attidude of a team and city and since his return it is obvious the effect he has had. Bravo Ibra & to Pioli many thanks
on the 28th December, 2020 at 4:44pm
Not just winning but exciting to watch. Grazie pioli.

Imagine once Diaz and Hague are fully embedded, this is gonna be one hell of a team.

I'd like Milan to get ozil on a free, take quality higher and provide learning for the young guns
on the 28th December, 2020 at 2:45pm

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