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.