Pioli Is On Fire: The Evolution of Pioli

Before he was even officially appointed, fans started the hashtag #PioliOut trending on social media. With such a scarred and volatile fan base, he would have to do a lot to win their trust and affection. Fast forward three and a half years, one global pandemic, an infinite amount of injuries, a Champions League qualification, and now a Scudetto trophy and many personal awards later, the fans sing "Pioli Is On Fire" wherever he goes. He took the hot mess he inherited from Giampaolo and with the collective efforts of everyone at the club, was able to infuse them with an unbreakable winning mentality. Milan have witnessed the evolution of Pioli from a good, hardworking manager to a winning manager who has etched his name in the history of Milan.

From good coach to legend in less than three years

Chronicling Pioli's journey with Milan has been one of the best experiences I have had surrounding Milan since starting this blog eleven years ago, just before our last Scudetto victory. After Pioli finally lifted his first major trophy, I looked back at his journey with Milan to see how his evolution took place.

How it started... how it's going... his name on a building in China

When Pioli was first signed, it was to correct the wrongs of the overhyped Giampaolo. For this reason, his understated style of football was more about lowered expectations. While many fans wanted #PioliOut, some of us saw that he would be able to right the ship, to stabilize the young team after the confusing and traumatic Giampaolo era. But not even those of us who were able to see the wisdom in Pioli's signing could have dared to dream of what he would accomplish at Milan in such a relatively short time. 

Fans are not the only ones who lacked faith in Pioli

Fans became particularly irate after the Christmas Massacre of 2019, a 5-0 thrashing away to Atalanta, which Pioli now credits as both the low point of his tenure at Milan and the impetus to rebuild the mentality of this team. Even before that low point, it was not just the fans who did not have faith in Pioli. Gazidis began talks with Ralf Rangnick just two weeks after Pioli was appointed, a fact that Boban pointed out and was subsequently fired for just as the world was stopping for a global pandemic. During that time of no football, many of us gave some thought as to whether or not Pioli would stay on after that first season. Yet that was the time that Pioli was using wisely to begin truly forging the mentality that eventually got us back to where Milan belongs.

Pioli maximized the time given him by the shutdown to build mentality

During the stoppage of football due to COVID-19, Pioli stayed in constant contact with his team via videoconferencing calls. That crucial time invested, plus the time they had to train together as Serie A prepared to return, helped to create the powerful mentality that led to Milan coming back with an unprecedented unbeaten streak for the rest of that season, despite the summer heat and complete lack of fans in the stadiums. All of this despite increasingly public rumors of Gazidis talking about bringing Rangnick in after the German publicly announced that he was, indeed, in talks with the club. Yet these impressive results forced Gazidis' hand and he had to keep Pioli on merit alone, which most people could clearly see was the right choice

Kind of like Hogwarts Year One, but with more magic

After the miraculous post-COVID performances, Pioli followed that up with another amazing season. Milan were in first place for more than half of the 2020-21 season, and finished in a still-better-than-expected second place. Pioli coached them from the Europa League qualifying rounds all the way through the Round of 16, which saw them play more games than the other Serie A teams as well. In March, we discussed Pioli's strengths on a podcast, and by April, he had matched Carlo Ancelotti's points per game record

He brought joy to the team in empty stadiums and also to the fans at home

That season saw the players playing basically straight through after the COVID break, with those extra Europa League matches as well, and thus suffering many injuries. Despite those injuries and having such a young team, with a much lower wage bill than their rivals, and a worrisome dip in form toward the end of the season, Pioli got them to second. By beating Atalanta, away. That match alone certainly helped to heal many hearts. The near photo finish in the league also saw Milan secure their first Champions League qualification in seven years. Milan's achievement also raised the question, Pioli or Conte: Who did it better? Conte was paid six times as much, and he also had an older, more experienced squad, and they played fewer games and had fewer injuries, as well. The mentality Pioli was able to instill in his players was priceless.

Unlike some managers, Pioli always respects the refs, not just when it suits him

Pioli lost out on the Panchina d'Oro (Golden Bench award for the best coach in Italy) last year to Conte, with the difference being just one vote. Had their peers considered the fact that Pioli did so much more with so much less, I feel like the votes would have been quite different. Pioli was largely overlooked when it came to recognition for his work on the pitch until this past season, but he won many awards for his qualities as a man. For example, in 2021, he was the recipient of the Liedholm Award, given to a "Champion on the field, gentleman in life." The award is given to honor the ideals of Nils Liedholm, legendary Milan player, manager, and scout. Pioli was also awarded the USSI Sardegna award in honor of Davide Astori, which was particularly emotional for him.

He created a family at Milan, showing trust and respect for his players

What would happen during the 2021-22 season, his third season with Milan, or second full season, was nothing short of incredible. The injury plague continued, with an average of 7.8 players out per match for more than half the season, but he kept the team constant throughout. There were scandalous referee errors in both the Champions League and Serie A, but he kept his young team on track and taught them to stay calm and work harder in spite of the injustice. Likely, it was words of wisdom such as these that helped keep the team focused. His incredible feats as a manager were finally acknowledged by the league in November ahead of our first Derby, as he was awarded Serie A Coach of the month for October. The club also rewarded him with a contract renewal in November, raising his pay to a more than deserved €3.5 million per year, which is still a fraction of what his rival managers made. His contract is through 2023 with an option for another year.

Finally acknowledged by the league, and rewarded with a contract extension, too

The season was competed fiercely, but Milan were the most consistent throughout and absolutely deserved their Scudetto win, their first in eleven years. They closed out their season with a 16 match unbeaten streak, conceding only three goals in their final 11 matches. They matched or beat many club records along the way, finishing with 86 points, the highest points tally for any Milan side ever. With the number of matches managed, Pioli is now behind only Fabio Capello on average points, with 1.96 for Pioli compared to 2.02 for the legendary Capello. 

The best accolades a manager can get - from the fans

How fitting then, that Capello, currently serving as the President of the jury for the Bulgarelli prize, recommended Pioli receive the award for best coach three months before the end of the season. Capello said Pioli's strength is his "ability to convey to the team the desire to improve and the belief in being able to really do it." Pioli was also awarded Serie A Coach of the month for March and May in addition to October, and then deservedly named Serie A Coach of the Season. Finally, Pioli is getting the recognition he deserves for what he has done with this team since joining in October 2019.

Milan is permanently etched onto Pioli as well

The accolades are deserved, but it was clear that it was his own personal achievement as well as what this meant for the team and for the fans that were first and foremost on his mind after winning. The first thing he did was to call his mom, who notoriously had given him a hard time for not having won anything in his 20 year coaching career. (Reports are that she is very proud.) Somewhere between the 24 hour madness of the 3-0 victory at Sassuolo and the victory parade, he got a Scudetto tattoo. He partied as hard as any of the players, dancing feverishly every time anyone sang his anthem, which was many, many times.

A man of his word, suffering for success

He also kept his promise that he made should Milan win, known in Italy as a fioretto. That promise was to cycle all the way from his home town of Parma to Passo della Cisa, a grueling 130 kilometer ride that includes climbs of up to 1,000 meters on winding roads. He also did this in record heat, but pointed out that you must suffer for success. Suffering for success could be synonymous with his time at Milan, as he has seen a global pandemic, a very public and constant set of rumors of him being replaced while he was winning, more injuries than any other club during the same time, and now a change of ownership as well. Yet through it all, he has remained stoic and goodhearted and a man of great character and leadership, transmitting his values, which are also Milan's values, on and off the pitch. He has created a family at Milan that even the fans feel a part of.

Celebrating with his boys and with his fans

Nothing else demonstrates his evolution at Milan better than the fans' reactions to him. From the negative response before he even signed to the pregame ritual of their favorite song devoted to him, he has certainly come full circle. The chant "Pioli Is On Fire" began with the players on the bus home from Atalanta at the end of the 2020-21 season when Milan had achieved Champions League qualification. Even though fans could not even be in the stadiums yet, those videos went viral, and when the fans finally returned, they showed their love and appreciation for Pioli in person in the stadium before every match. In one of his post Scudetto interviews with Milan TV, Pioli mentioned that it meant so much to him that the fans sang that for him before he even won anything, and that earning that affection and love from the fans was greater than any award or title. He has truly etched his name not only on Milan's history, but into the hearts of Milan fans worldwide.


This post inspired by the music of "Pioli Is On Fire"


Pioli Is On Fire: The Evolution of Pioli Pioli Is On Fire: The Evolution of Pioli Reviewed by Elaine on 11:00 PM Rating: 5
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