Pioli 3.0

When Stefano Pioli was hired in early October of 2019 to replace the disastrous tenure of Marco Giampaolo, I doubt even he imagined that he would sill be at Milan this year. Some believed he was only brought in to right the ship, others believed it was another poor decision from the club. Even Gazidis did not believe in him, going behind Maldini and Massara's back just a few weeks after Pioli was hired to talk extensively about bringing in Ralf Rangnick, possibly as both technical director and manager. After surviving his first season by rallying the team into an unbeaten finish, the club put their faith in him once again this past season. Now, he was unquestionably the choice to begin this season, and everyone is curious to see what he brings to the table as Pioli 3.0.

Season 3

After taking over Giampaolo's Milan in 2019 with a dismal four wins in seven matches, Pioli's start was still a little bumpy. But the club believed in him, and demonstrated that by bringing back Zlatan Ibrahimović in January. Maldini and Boban had wanted to bring the giant Swedish star back the year before, but Gazidis had blocked that move. Milan did much better after Ibrahimović's arrival, but it was after the break from COVID lockdown where Pioli's true skills were demonstrated. He kept in touch with all of his players over the break, and they all got to know each other better. When they returned to train, he finally had his own brief preseason with the team.

We all know what happened next. Milan went on an unbeaten run through the end of the season, despite playing in unprecedented heat and congestion of fixtures. Pioli kept his team focused, in spite of the now very public  rumors of Ralf Rangnick replacing him growing every day. His laser focus and strong mentality kept them winning so spectacularly, until Gazidis would have been a fool to sack him and start over. They started season two the same way, losing only one Europa League match to Maignan's former team in November, and still managing to go unbeaten in the league through January of this year.


Then there was a drop off. Milan had played the most games of anyone in Serie A, playing Europa League qualifiers while everyone else was still focusing on the league. Milan were the youngest team in the league as well, so it should not have been a surprise that mentality and injuries eventually caught up to them. Missing players due to COVID as well, they averaged five to seven starters out per game during the last part of the year and the first part of this year. Meanwhile, as the other "big" teams like Inter crashed out of Europe altogether and were neither playing or traveling midweek, Milan were facing the likes of Manchester United and Red Star Belgrade in addition to their Serie A engagements.

The competition was stiff, Milan had disadvantages on the pitch and the pressure of keeping up their form. Maintaining the mentality to reach the goal of qualifying in the Champions League seemed at times like it would fail, but it did not. Pioli put a picture up in the dressing room of the epic shootout win in the wind and rain at Rio Ave to remind them of how far they had come. He reminded them to keep their eyes on the prize, one game at a time. And, although it came down to the final match day, they did. Not only did they qualify, but they managed to finish second.


Not that Pioli wasn't harshly criticized after the severe drop in form. He chose a tactical system upon arrival, and he stuck with it, possibly to a fault, with very few exceptions. That made the team too predictable, they said. At times it seemed even the players felt it was too predictable, and seemed frustrated when opponents knew exactly how to stop them.

Fans were shocked when he left Hauge off of the roster for the knockout stages of the Europa League, despite him being Milan's and the competitions' top scorer with six goals and three assists. In Hauge's final appearance in the league, he scored a valuable goal, and then never played again and was inexplicably sent away at the end of the season. Pioli did include newly arrived and not-yet-fit Mandzukić, signed to be the "vice-Ibra" due to the star missing half of Milan's game. The Croatian was swiftly injured and thus unavailable for either Europe or Serie A for most of the rest of the season. But Pioli did create a family, and he did achieve the club's goals for the season.


No one is ever perfect, but it is nice to see that Pioli does seem to have a learning curve. Both in preseason and in our first official match, he has tinkered with new tactics. The new players he has been given allow him to try things now that he really could not have before. For example, at the end of the Sampdoria match, he brought on Florenzi, who can play at right back or play more forward like a wingback, and then brought Romagnoli on to play a three man back line. While his 4-2-3-1 system has served Milan well this entire time, it is exciting to see how much he will be willing to adapt to opponents this season, particularly playing in the Champions League.

Speaking of the Champions League, this will be his debut as a coach in Europe's top competition. Due to Milan's long absence, we will be in pot four for tomorrow's draw. This means that he will be facing the biggest clubs in Europe. However, he did very well against Manchester United, so there is hope, even if it is only a fool's hope. He does have players coming in like Giroud and Florenzi who have Champions League experience, as well as a squad that is a year older on average, and a bit wiser, too.


In an interview this summer with il Fatto Quotidiano, it was pointed out that he is never in the headlines like the coaches of the other big teams, which he said he honestly did not care. He was asked about many things, including the death of Astori when he coached Fiorentina. He said, "That tragedy made me realize that footballers are above all men." He was also asked about Kjaer's experience with Eriksen at the Euro Tournament this summer, and spoke of the difficulty of having experienced his own cardiac arrest as a player. 

Perhaps it is these and many other tragic incidents that he has experienced that have given him the mental fortitude to build the Milan "family" that we see now. He understands that "The technique counts, the tactics matter, but the mental component is even more important." Given the limitations both with the age and experience of his players, as well as the financial restrictions of the club in trying to become financially stable, it is this mental component that will be the most difficult to maintain during his third year. Given that this is one of his longest tenures managing a club, it will be interesting to see if he can maintain the results and keep his job, too. Is he ready for long-term consistency? Or is he in over his head? This season, we will get to see what he brings in both Serie A and the Champions League as Pioli 3.0.

This post inspired by the music of Queen's "Who Wants to Live Forever"

The Champions League Group Stage Draw will be held
Thursday, August 26 • 18:00 CEST (12noon EDT)

Our next match is
Serie A Week 2
Milan vs. Cagliari
Sunday, August 29 • 20:45 CEST (2:45 EDT)

Pioli 3.0 Pioli 3.0 Reviewed by Elaine on 2:55 AM Rating: 5
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