The Unwarranted Contempt for Pioli

A dark secret was recently revealed to Milan fans who hate Pioli: He won his 100th Serie A match last week vs. Udinese. This is something only four other Milan managers accomplished – Carlo Ancelotti, Nereo Rocco, Fabio Capello, and Nils Liedholm. To make matters worse, only Ancelotti did it faster, and only by one game. After the abject horror, as if someone had murdered their babies, came the sheer and utter denial, then the tired old excuses as to why such a dreadful manager could have ever reached such an important milestone. Even still, as they spun out and rewrote their own history of Pioli's time at Milan, they refused to mention his name in the same sentence as the other legendary Milan managers. Because Pioli Out has been their narrative since before he signed his contract, and they were not going to change their tune now (hoping everyone forgets their "Pioli is on Fire" days.) Their behavior toward this amazing milestone exemplifies the unwarranted contempt for Pioli.

Calmly writing Milan history against all odds.

Pioli's journey with Milan began with lowered expectations, as he was hired in October of 2019 to replace "the Next Sacchi," aka Marco Giampaolo, who, as it turned out, was not even the next Brocchi. What Pioli brought to Milan was clear communication. Well, actually communication with his players at all. Pioli's strength has always been getting to know his players as both men and footballers, and having an open door policy for them to talk about anything. His tactics were not cutting edge or complex, but they were solid and effective, and most importantly, the players understood what was expected of them.

Milan fans are triggered by stats putting these two managers in the same sentence.

Results were improved but still not overwhelming, until the brutal 5-0 Christmas Massacre away to Atalanta actually destroyed souls. That one match was worse than all of Giampaolo's matches combined. In hindsight, though, it was the catalyst for Pioli and the team's entire winning campaign. This, despite the fact that two weeks after Pioli being hired, behind the backs of Maldini and Massara, Gazidis had approached Ralf Rangnick about taking over the coaching and or sporting sector in some capacity.

The same Gazidis who had blocked the return of Ibrahimović a year earlier was finally somehow persuaded to allow the Swedish forward to return to Milan in January of 2020. Between the soul-stealing loss to Atalanta and the arrival of such a literally and mentally massive presence like Ibrahimović in the team, Pioli was able to build the foundation for his impressive Milan side. And finally, the Pioli Out people developed a little hope. Maybe.

Gazidis finally allowing Ibrahimović to return was a massive boost for Pioli's squad.

The building of the team, however, was interrupted by two disasters: first, the incomprehensible sacking of Milan legend Zvonimir Boban by Gazidis for exposing his deceit about Ralf Rangnick. And secondly, the global pandemic that was COVID-19 which shut down life as we knew it in March of 2020. The first was a huge distraction, and put into question not only Pioli's, but also Maldini's and Massara's jobs, all of which would hang in the balance until the end of that 2019-20 season was finally able to be played. The second disaster turned out to be Pioli's secret weapon, as he used that time during lockdown to connect with his players daily via Zoom calls, and continue mentally building his team, even when they could not be together in person. In a later interview, he said, "The technique counts, the tactics matter, but the mental component is even more important," which basically sums up his coaching philosophy, apparently.

The work Pioli was able to do for those few weeks in person before the season restart finally gave him the preseason he never had, and allowed the team to truly bond as a family. Despite all of the incessant media questions about Pioli's job in particular when football started up again in June, Pioli's Milan came back from lockdown with a vengeance. They played their last 12 league matches undefeated, with nine wins and only three draws. While other teams were struggling to find their form after the break, Pioli had maximized his time to build his team's mentality, and they were ready to go. While Maldini tried to run interference on all of the questions all summer and scolded the media for incessantly discussing Rangnick while Pioli and the team were working to finish out the season, the results at the end of the season were finally enough to convince Elliott and Gazidis to keep all of Maldini, Massara, and Pioli.

Pioli started with the dream team to support him, but now has the most football experience of anyone in management.

Here is where things get interesting, though. In his first season, he had taken the team literally from just above the relegation zone when he took over from Giampaolo, all the way to a sixth place finish, good enough for a Europa League spot. Then the team came back from COVID and absolutely crushed it. Milan maintained their unbeaten streak all the way through January of 2021. One of the youngest teams in Europe, coming out of eight years of Year Zero, and they were smashing records left and right. Even when missing an average of five or more starters per match due to COVID or injuries for months at a time, Pioli's side found a way to succeed. Yet Pioli was never acknowledged for his work, not once was he awarded Coach of the Month by Serie A, and the Italian media were surprisingly underwhelmed, if not critical, of all he had accomplished. He was just expected to win every match, and was severely criticized when he didn't, unlike other managers who were doing far worse. Why?

The Europa League win on penalties at Rio Ave was a defining moment in mentality for Pioli's team.

That 2020-21 season was also noteworthy because Pioli kept Milan in first or second place throughout most of the season, finishing second behind Conte's Inter. And Inter had a wagebill nearly double Milan's and a squad nearly four years older on average. Inter had also crashed out of the Champions League group stage, while Milan played 13 matches in Europe, including the infamous Rio Ave match won on penalties, due to playing Europa League qualifying matches preseason. Even after losing a few matches, Pioli worked his magic and got the team back on track. In April, Pioli tied Ancelotti's points per match record at 1.97 points per match. 

The end of that season saw Milan qualify for the Champions League for the first time since the 2013-14 season. The bus ride home from the final win at Atalanta was when the players first sang "Pioli is on Fire," and the viral video began the fans' passion for singing it in the stadium, at the clubs, or wherever. What Pioli accomplished was nothing short of amazing, really, yet he was never recognized in the media for his efforts. Milan were literally in first place for 18 weeks that season, and never once was he named Coach of the Month. Although, to be fair, he nearly won the Panchina d'Oro (Golden Bench award,) which is voted on by his peers. Conte won by only one vote, which, knowing him, was probably his. His peers recognized what he had done, but no one else gave him credit.

Pioli has never complained about the lack of recognition, he just keeps working.

The following season, expectations were even higher. He had been criticized for sticking with his formation and not changing tactics, despite the fact that he was winning with them. As the saying goes, why fix what isn't broken? Still, with an open mind, he began the 2021-22 season by experimenting with new tactics. Almost immediately, the season was impacted by a recurring theme: injuries. As in averaging more than seven players out every match for more than half the season. Only many of these injuries were bizarre. The young goalkeeper Plizzari suddenly had to have surgery for a repetitive knee injury. Maignan had recurring pain and had to have surgery on his left arm, both were out for months. Milan had to actually make an emergency goalkeeper signing of Mirante because of these long-term injuries. COVID was still impacting player availability, and their recovery was not always immediate or 100%. 

This was also Pioli's first foray in the Champions League, and he had the misfortune of managing matches where the refereeing was so bad that the refs were actually suspended by UEFA. Milan would finish bottom of the Group of Death behind Liverpool, Atlético Madrid, and Porto. And in the league, Milan would be in second place for most of the season, behind Inter. In fact, Milan would actually be the most consistent throughout the season, which would pay dividends in the end.

Finally, acknowledgment from the league after coaching the hell out of Milan for 2 years.

Yet it was at this point that Pioli finally began to get some recognition. He finally received his first Serie A Coach of the Year award for the month of October that year, and in November, Milan renewed his contract through 2023. He was also the recipient of the Liedholm Award, given annually to a "Champion on the field, gentleman in life." And he was also given the USSI Sardegna award in honor of Davide Astori, one that was perhaps the most meaningful to him after the tragic events of losing his former captain when he managed Fiorentina. In spite of being recognized for who he was as a person and his work as a manager, however, the Italian media were still often very critical and at the very least failed to acknowledge what he had done and was doing.

Pioli hugs Maldini on his way to accept his medal for winning the league.

We all know what happened that season. Despite a long and brutal battle in which Milan fans lost hope over and over again, Pioli bravely led the steady charge toward the title. Inter were considered the favorites from day one, and spent much of the season in first place, actually. Pioli and Milan were still undersold, with everyone saying that we were only doing well because Inter were underperforming. (especially since they shockingly did not receive a single red card during a match the entire season.) So, when Milan came from behind and actually won the Scudetto on the final matchday vs. Sassuolo, Italians-who-were-not-Milan fans did not give Milan or Pioli credit for achieving the impossible. Milan had the fifth highest wagebill in Serie A, one of the youngest teams in the league, had played more matches in Europe than anyone else, and won the league with 86 points. That is seven points more than the previous season, when Milan were in first place for more than half the season. But sure, Milan only won because Inter lost. Really?

An exuberant Pioli celebrates his first Scudetto with his team.

Finally, at least, Pioli did get some proper accolades. He was named Coach of the Month two more times that season, for the month March and then again in May. He was named Serie A Coach of the Year. He finally won the Panchina d'Oro overwhelmingly. He was awarded the Bulgarelli award for best coach, for which Fabio Capello was head of the jury for. But most of all, he finally won the approval of his mother, who had always chided him for never winning anything. And he did party pretty hard with the estimated million fans who turned out for the Scudetto parade in Milano, too, dancing his infamous dance over and over again to "Pioli is on Fire." But even as he accepted award after award, he was humble and acknowledged the work of everyone at the club, from his players, staff, to people like Maldini and senior management (Yes, even the ones who had planned to replace him with Rangnick two weeks into his tenure.)

The normally stoic manager knew how to celebrate.

After winning the Scudetto, Pioli kept his promise he had made if Milan won, known as a fioretto. His pledge was to cycle from his hometown of Parma up 130 kilometers of winding roads to Passo della Cissa, a climb of 1,000 meters in altitude, which he did in the heat of summer. He was quoted as saying you must "suffer for success," which seemed like a summary of his Milan experience to date, having managed a team through a global pandemic, while his job was publicly disputed for most of his first season by his own management, managing one of the youngest teams in Europe against teams with double or more Milan's wagebill. All while being unduly criticized in the press. But his suffering was only beginning.

Suffering for success, Pioli kept his word and made his 130km bicycle journey.

Immediately following Milan's Scudetto win, the club was sold. No one talks about this. Despite efforts by Elliott, Gazidis, and especially Maldini to hide everything that happens when a club changes ownership, there was some serious drama going on behind the scenes. Maldini and Massara's contracts were not renewed until 10pm on June 30th. Cardinale immediately slashed the transfer budget, changing agreements and plans that had been made as early as February of that year. And actually, the sale of the club was not finalized until shortly after the transfer market closed, so the entire transfer window was probably mired in red tape and uncertainties. Not to mention the financial restrictions from UEFA that also limited transfers. Gazidis announced he was stepping down as CEO, and a young, completely inexperienced CEO took over, being handed control over transfer decisions, amongst other things. The entire culture of the club changed, and not for the better.

People never talk about the sale of the club right after winning the Scudetto, or the changes in culture.

We know now that Furlani did not get along with Maldini, and is the reason that Maldini and Massara were fired, but what people don't acknowledge is the stress this created for Pioli or the team. The lack of proper reinforcements, despite having won the league, as well as not knowing who the owner, CEO, technical director, sporting director would be at any given point, let alone if he or his staff would have jobs the next day was additional stress that neither he nor the team needed. And the sacking of Maldini in particular affected the players emotionally, as many of them considered him like a second father to them.

Pioli won Serie A against all odds, but people complained when his contract was extended. Why?

Last season, even before Maldini and Massara were sacked, the tension was felt the entire season, and not just because of disappointment in the mercato. Many questioned when they renewed Pioli's contract in October through 2025, even though he had more than earned it after winning the Scudetto.  Injuries again were the theme, with Maignan missing five months, Ibrahimović missing most of the season, and many other experienced players having longterm injuries. Then came the World Cup break. This was especially difficult for Milan, not just for having sent a number of players to participate, but also because Pioli's strength is based on teamwork, momentum, and continuity. Having a break like that midseason with so much travel and training/playing in different climates for everyone, as well as not having everyone together again until just before Serie A kicked off again was devastating to the team's mentality. Not to mention contributing to the injury list at Milanello.

Pioli tries to explain football to the portfolio manager-turned CEO who is probably planning to fire him, too.

The dip in form in January began with a fateful draw vs. Roma in which Milan gave up a two goal lead to take away only a point. And I say dip in form, but it was really more of a catastrophic spiral downward. The toxic Italian media vultures were swift to attack, having mercilessly targeted Pioli and Milan all season long for "not defending their title," never once mentioning the change in ownership or CEO. Even the club were reportedly weighing their options of keeping Pioli on as early as January.

Criticism became so toxic that the club actually had to come out and publicly correct La Gazzetta dello Sport for publishing misinformation about Leão's transfer negotiations in early February. This kind of toxic environment, aided by fans and social media, was the environment Pioli was desperately trying to keep his team mentally afloat in heading into an unprecedented string of Derbies versus Inter. Having won the Derby 3-2 in September, Milan lost 3-0 to Inter in the Supercoppa in Saudi Arabia in January, part of the catastrophic downward spiral of injuries and mentality. 

Each loss to the "Champions of Arabia" would draw exponentially more criticism, no matter what he did or how Milan played. 

With Inter's squad, statistically superior in wages, continuity, age, experience, and at this point, obviously form and mentality, Pioli lost the away Derby 1-0 in February. It was really only one lucky header from a corner, but it was Pioli's reactionary defensive changes in tactics that made this match for me his worst. And the part that was most sickening was his postmatch discussion of his tactics, which made me truly question his job for the first time ever. He managed to turn things around and get the team back on track after the loss left fans feeling like dementors had sucked their very souls from them, and it was hard to imagine how he could rebuild the team's mentality. But he did, and somehow even managed a massive 4-0 win over eventual Scudetto winners Napoli in April. 

As Italian champions, at least we had a proper group in the Champions League, and were able to not only get out of the Group Stage, but to make it all the way to the semifinals. This unfortunately meant that we met Inter twice more. A record five Derbies in a single season, something no other manager had ever faced before. Milan had never lost to Inter in the Champions League before, a measure of pride for Milan fans. So losing both matches, 3-0 on aggregate (and also losing Bennacer to injury for seven months,) was an unforgivable sin. Even if the first match was played without Leão, and both of those goals scored in just three minutes, and the second match Milan fought valiantly, those things will not be noted in the history books. Just the scorelines and losses. Nor do fans care. This was Pioli's Scarlet Letter.

No matter the criticism, he's kept his chin up and a smile on his face.

Milan were desperate to even qualify for Champions League for this season after such a horrific run of form in 2023, but thanks to Juventus finally seeing some justice for some of their crimes, a fifth place finish bumped Milan up to fourth after Juve's ten point deduction and disqualification from Europe. But after narrowly averting that crisis, Ibrahimović retired. Many credit Ibrahimović rather than Pioli for the Scudetto or any other success, and Pioli credits his leadership for sure. However, at the end of the day, Pioli chose the tactics, made the lineups, made the hard decisions, mentored the players like a father (not a slightly abusive older brother,) and it was Pioli who was maligned in the press and by fans nonstop.

The day after Ibrahimović said goodbye, Cardinale sacked Maldini, then Massara. Pioli had to make a choice as to whether or not he would stay. He chose to stay, and met Maldini and Massara for lunch that week, the people who had supported him, defended him, run interference for him between himself and management, as well as supported and mentored his players so well for four years. The players freaked out about Maldini being fired, and now Pioli had to calm them down and get them to focus, too. Meanwhile, management created a false narrative that Pioli would be more involved in transfers (they actually just removed two people from the process so he would get more blame,) so he did not really get his vacation, as much of it was spent on the phone or meeting with them about transfer decisions.

Pioli lost integral members of his team, both in terms of tactics and leadership.

The club chose to sell Tonali, something that did not really seem to be Pioli's decision, based on his comments and the fact that he changed his entire system. Along with Ibrahimović retiring, a total of 15 other players left, whether out of contract, on loan, or sold during last summer's transfer window. That is 17 members of Pioli's Milan family, at least to him. Then they brought in ten new players. Something he mentioned right away and kept repeating was that it would take time for the new players to gel. But somewhere in the crazy, exhausting marketing trip to the U.S. that interrupted his normal preseason preparations, that seemed to be forgotten.

So when Milan started the season with three impressive wins in Serie A, playing well with several of their new players being integrated into the starting lineups, I think his critics' backlash was that much worse when the Derby came around. The media and fans forgot that he had all of these new players, who had never played a Derby at the San Siro before, and were still acclimating to the team. None of them showed up in that match, they were ghosts. Plus the weight of his Scarlet Letter, the four other Derbies in the same calendar year which he lost, which actually was more about bad timing and calendaring than his managing skills. So the nauseating 5-1 loss, Milan's worst loss to Inter in 50 years, was an epitaph on his grave as far as fans are concerned. But this one was absolutely more the fault of management's ridiculous number of summer changes.

The master of guiding Milan to improbable wins when you think players have lost the plot.

The hyperbole in the Italian media and fans had never been so outrageous and toxic toward Pioli as it was after this Derby. Yet three weeks later, Milan were at the top of Serie A. When that happened, he was not praised, but rather Cardinale and Furlani were for their work in the transfer market. He was literally blamed when things went wrong, and not credited when he was able to work miracles in spite of everything. This held true for Milan's Champions League campaign, again in the Group of Death, and while still trying to acclimate ten new players, Milan finished third in their group, dropping to the Europa League playoffs. Pioli was all to blame. It had nothing to do with his players taking 50 shots in the first two matches and not scoring at all. He was not credited for the amazing win against PSG during a poor run of form in the league. It was all his fault. Why?

Pioli has left his mark on Milan, and Milan has left its mark on him.

Just to show the level of stress Pioli has been dealing with in his team this season, there was a significant increase in disciplinary problems. Milan have a league high five red cards and countless yellow cards, even from experienced players like Giroud, who served a two match ban for his red card for dissent. Then of course, the injuries again. Only this year, they were worse than ever. Numbers showed that by the November International break, injuries had doubled since the Scudetto season. No one stopped to consider the possible psychological stressors behind these injury crises, including the culture of injury that occurs from fear of being injured when so many teammates are injured so often. The media, and especially the fans, only blamed Pioli and his staff. There was a brief mention of the most plausible theory for this season's severe uptick in injuries, as well as a couple of the very unusual similar injuries to Kalulu and Pobega, which was that the U.S. trip interfered with preseason preparations. But sure, just blame Pioli, because everyone is doing it, and it doesn't require any thought or investigation into facts.

Pioli always takes time to welcome new players and speaks to all of his players regularly.

Milan spent the first nine weeks of the season in first or second place, then dropped to third place. They obviously crashed out of the Champions League, and this was enough for the media to drive the narrative that Pioli should be sacked midseason. Third place, and Europa League. Just when all hope seemed lost, and fans and media acted as if Milan were about to be relegated, Pioli's team started off 2024 with a 1-0 win over Sassuolo. This was apparently enough to remind people to look at the table and see that Milan were still in contention for a Champions League spot next year. Getting knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Atalanta once again seemed devastating to the overly dramatic toxic fans and media, in spite of some questionable refereeing. But four wins in a row in Serie A helped keep Pioli's critics only seething, not screaming.

He has brought so much joy and consistency to fans amidst so many changes, why all the hate?

Last Saturday, Milan drew 2-2 to Bologna after missing not just one but two penalties. Like the most obvious errors players can make to determine a match, and still people are blaming Pioli for dropping points in that match. And there were other obvious player errors, too, like hitting the crossbar or conceding a penalty or defensive errors on the first goal. Name your favorite tactician, it doesn't matter who was on the bench, if players make those errors, points will be dropped. End of. 

But not for Pioli. There is such hatred and contempt for a man who has overcome such incredible odds to keep Milan in the conversation for over four years now. Two owners. Two CEOs. Two technical directors. Multiple sporting directors. A global pandemic. Insane numbers of injuries, including some really bizarre and unlucky ones. Returning to the Champions League. Winning a Scudetto with the fifth largest wagebill and the youngest team in the league. Massive changes in his team, and more.

We have seen him develop and play young players like no Milan manager before him.

He has worked miracles, turned water into wine, consistently had this team in the top three for more than three and a half of his four years, despite never having the top three in wages. But because he doesn't scream like Conte, whine like Mourinho, or make constipated faces like Allegri, he is not a good manager? He has outcoached and outclassed all of them with tactics that clearly work. He is the only manager to have faced Mourinho six times and never lost. The year Conte won his Scudetto, Pioli did more with less, and when he won the next year, he didn't dedicate his Scudetto to himself or leave when the club wanted to sell a couple of players. Pioli has finished above Allegri multiple times with a squad that was on less than half of Juve's wages and plays far more attractive football. So why is there so much contempt for Pioli?

Starting from before he signed the contract, fans on social media have shaped the narrative.

People will point to the entitlement of Milan fans, and certainly, that plays a part in their hatred. But their own Pioli Out campaign shaped the narrative from before he signed his contract. And it was fed by the media, who have simply never been willing to give Pioli the credit he deserves, at least in Italy. Outside of Italy, the media actually do recognize his accomplishments and are not nearly as hysterical or vitriolic as the toxic Italian press. Pioli has improved nearly every player who has come through the club, particularly many young, talented players. The kind of players fans begged to see for years. Milan are playing so much more attractive, attacking football than they had for probably at least a decade, if not more. 

Fans and the media are ready to send him away, but they have forgotten how bad it was.

Fans will often reflect on the poor quality of players Milan brought in and out of the club for years, but they have forgotten the horrific football and tactics we were forced to watch through a parade of managers, including Allegri, who won a Scudetto and then destroyed the mentality of the team and had Milan playing his signature anti-football. (He also did not win as much as Pioli or last as long as him at Milan, by the way, and started with a more expensive team with better players.) But one mediocre or poor performance or result from this team, and Pioli is crucified by fans and the Italian media. Love him or hate him, whether you are bored with his tactics or not, he deserves far more respect than he receives. And certainly a lot less criticism. That the club are allowing the media to once again discuss his potential replacements for next season as a foregone conclusion is just another example of the unwarranted contempt for Pioli.

This post inspired by the music of Erasure's "A Little Respect"

Our next match is 
Serie A Week 23
Frosinone vs. Milan
Suaturday, February 3, 2024 • 18:00 CET (12noon EST)

The Unwarranted Contempt for Pioli The Unwarranted Contempt for Pioli Reviewed by Elaine on 6:00 AM Rating: 5
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