Grazie, Mister: Recognition of Pioli's Milan

Goodbyes are so incredibly difficult. Stefano Pioli was at Milan for nearly five years, a very long time for a manager, so this one was definitely difficult. While some people were never welcoming, and many never recognized what he did for Milan, the animosity toward him grew in the final stage of his tenure and eventually led to his departure. It is bizarre to me that he basically met or exceeded the goals the club set for him, yet for so many, it was never enough. So in saying goodbye, I think it is also important that we offer some words in recognition of Pioli's Milan.

The man who never got the recognition he deserved.

Bizarre to think that Pioli was brought in back in 2019 simply to clean up the failed experiment that was Marco Giampaolo at Milan. The expectations were not high, simply stabilize the team and do better than we had been, which was near the relegation zone at that point. Fast forward five years and he saw two different owners, two CEOs, two different technical directors, and three different sporting directors. He guided the team through a global pandemic, then guided us back to the Champions League, then to our first Scudetto in 11 years, and even a Champions League Semifinal. Not bad for someone brought in to stabilize a team after a painful run of eight different managers in just six years.

Pioli brought us through football's darkest hour and into an incredible run, all while under fire.

2019-20: The Rangnick Debacle, COVID-19, and The Unbeaten Run

Pioli survived the attempted coaching coup that saw Gazidis go behind the backs of his sporting directors to contact Ralf Rangnick just two weeks after Pioli arrived. While it was never revealed whether or not the plan was to replace both Maldini and Pioli with the controversial Rangnick, Boban was heartlessly sacked for revealing Gazidis' deceitful plan to the public. But what we do know is that Pioli had to face relentless questions about his job stability for the entire rest of that season due to Gazidis' indescretions. 

As if getting a team through the COVID-19 lockdown without fans in the stadiums was not hard enough, Pioli did it with an undefeated record, simply amazing. Yet not a single coach of the month award or other recognition for him. The same team that had no identity and no mentality and had lost four of their first seven matches when he took over managed to qualify for the Europa League that season, despite Pioli being undermined by his own CEO. The grace and dignity with which Pioli managed this situation, something that most managers have never even faced, has also received very little recognition.

The win at Rio Ave was belief, inspiration for the climb back to the top.

2020-21: From Rio Ave to the Champions League

The following season was also incredibly impressive. After just a few weeks between seasons instead of months due to the pandemic, Milan started earlier than the other Serie A teams, playing in the Europa League Playoff rounds. After surviving the galvanizing and intense penalty shootout in the torrential rain of Rio Ave, they would end up finally being knocked out in the Round of 16 by Manchester United by only a one goal difference. 

Yet in spite of having the youngest team in the league, and averaging five or more starters out due to COVID or injuries for months, Pioli kept Milan in first place for half of the season. No one talks about this. His team finished second only to an Inter team that played much fewer European matches, having crashed out in their Group Stage. Yet Milan and Pioli got little to no respect for their achievements, let alone recognition. Pioli was leading a complete renaissance at Milan after years of neglect. And at the end of the day, he honestly did more with less than the ridiculously overpaid Conte did that season. And, in fact, he nearly won the Panchina d'Oro (the Golden Bench award for best manager) that year, but missed out by just one vote, probably his own. Yet still no coach of the month or other awards. Qualifying for the Champions League after seven long years without it made this season incredibly memorable for the fans, though. And Pioli steered that ship.

Pioli put his whole heart into everything he did.

2021-22: The Scudetto Season

Pioli's third year ended magically, but the season was a fierce battle through more injuries and bizarre referee calls that actually cost Milan a number of points along the way. There was also the long awaited return to the Champions League. That return began in the Group of Death with Liverpool, Atlético Madrid, and Porto, and also included some big refereeing fiascos. The return ultimately ended with Milan in fourth place in the Group Stage, with many lessons learned. Pioli was also finally acknowledged for his managing skills by the league, winning his first Coach of the Month award in October, which was long overdue, considering all he had done the previous seasons. This was also the time Milan renewed Pioli's contract, raising his wages from €2.3 million per year to €3.4 million per year, a well deserved pay raise after such a quick return to the Champions League and a second place finish to the previous season.

The fight for the title was often considered "Inter's to lose" by the Italian media and people on social media, and actually still is by many. Yet Milan were the most consistent throughout the season, despite even more injuries and poor referee decisions that impacted our results. Meanwhile, Inter were given a suspicious number of calls in their favor, including not being given a single red card during a match all season. And despite all of this, Pioli led our team fighting to the final matchday, where the Scudetto was ours to win, with Inter taking second. And, of course, Milan won 3-0 in that match, lifting the Scudetto and memorably flipping a table or two. Pioli won his second Coach of the Month award that May, as well as Coach of the Year for the season from Serie A. And he finally got his Panchina d'Oro, as well as the Bulgarelli Prize and more. He got his awards, yet he and Milan are still considered "lucky" or some sort of "surprise" winners that year, despite being in first or second for the majority of the past two seasons following their unbeaten march post-COVID.

Pioli celebrates a big Champions League win over Tottenham on the way to the Semifinal.

2022-23: The Champions League Semifinal and the Inter Curse

The next season was impacted by the sale of the club immediately following the Scudetto win. Most people forget that there was a change in ownership that affected the summer transfer window and the January transfer window and more, and then later in the year a change in CEO that affected everything else. No one ever talks about these massive changes, or how they impacted Pioli or the team. Least of all Pioli, because he is not one to make excuses. Not even when, in January, questions about his job began surfacing once again due to a drop in form post-World Cup, and the ever-present injuries each season.

But the club stuck with him, even renewed his contract until 2025 at the value rate of €4.1 million per year after winning the league, and in spite of some dreadful matches, he managed to take us all the way to the Champions League Semifinal that year. Which unfortunately was against Inter. Those matches helped make a record five Derby matches in a single season, more than any other Milan manager had ever faced. While Pioli actually won the first Derby in September, Milan lost the second league Derby in one of his worst tactical matches ever at Milan. The Supercoppa loss in January seemed trivial at best, but Milan had never lost to Inter in the Champions League, so losing both of those matches scarred Milan fans for life. Had Pioli only faced Inter twice that season, as usual, he might still be our manager. But the curse of playing them so many times in such a short period of time, which coincided with arguably his worst stretch at Milan, was the unforgiveable sin. However, with a little Karma and a touch of justice, Milan were able to finish fourth on the table and qualify for Champions League football again this year.

Pioli welcomed nearly an entire new starting lineup this past season.

2023-24: The RedBird Reboot

Pioli's specialty has always been his humanity and ability to lead in the face of trauma. As if the previous four years had not tested those skills enough, Cardinale very suddenly sacked Maldini and Massara at the beginning of the summer, right after saying goodbye to Ibrahimović, then proceeded to sell a player who was important to the team tactically, mentally, as well as for his connection to his teammates and the fans. Suddenly, they were going to "restructure" the sporting sector, when in fact, they just fumbled everything all summer and ended up with less experienced people at the same jobs. But Pioli was not only given more responsibilities, he was now alone, as Maldini later pointed out. They tried to get Baresi to help him, and when that did not work out, they eventually hired Ibrahimović as a Senior Advisor at RedBird to offer some support to Pioli and the team. But it was too little, too late.

More importantly, 17 players left the team last summer, ten of them from Pioli's Scudetto winning side. Management downsized the team, spending a massive €134 million to bring in ten new players, almost all attacking players. But Pioli was the first to point out that it takes time for a team to gel, and with the imbalanced squad, it was clear from the beginning that defending was going to be a problem this season. However the early 5-1 loss to Inter in the Derby still surprised some fans. And losing the home Derby later in the year, when Inter clinched their imaginary second star, was probably what sealed his fate, once again, the Inter Curse. And even after exceeding the goal of a top four finish, with a strong second place, Pioli was told his journey would be ending.

Pioli was judged harshly for having to manage a complete overhaul of his team.

Milan's Champions League Group Stage results were definitely affected by being drawn once again into the Group of Death However, having changed so many players in the summer also affected our Champions League fate, as scoring goals was our biggest problem. Milan were light on the goal tally until around late December or January, when all the summer signings just started scoring like crazy, because the team finally gelled. At least they managed to make the Europa League Playoffs, and stayed in the competition through the Quarterfinals, where Milan were eventually eliminated by Roma. This was another unlucky event for Pioli, as elimination by most any other team would not have angered fans so much. I understand the dilemma the club faced in keeping Pioli for the last year of his contract or not, but it just seems like fate gave him the short end of the stick after all he had done for the club.

Even amidst the worst injury crisis, he made the most of and gave chances to the next generation.

Tactical Decline and The Downward Injury Spiral

There is much debate as to the reasons why Milan's form started crumbling the second half of last season and this season. While it was clear that Pioli lacked certain personnel, such as a defensive midfielder or appropriate depth in defense, including fullbacks, his choices in both lineups and tactics to compensate for these deficiencies were often mindboggling. Perhaps confusing also to the players, who apparently could not execute what he wanted them to at times. Too often, his tactical ideas fell short, or were too predictable or stubborn or ineffective. and yet, he was notorious for pulling off the most amazing win just when you least expected it, such as the win over PSG this year. But he was unable to do that against Inter or Roma when it mattered most. Certainly, one of his major flaws was his lineups, where he would over-rotate his starters, fall behind in a match, and let them create a deficit that not even his best players could dig them out of. Rather than start his starters, kill off a game, then rotate his players like most every other manager, Pioli stubbornly chose to do this over and over through the years, even when it was not a necessity due to injuries.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room of his tenure: the downward injury spiral. Each year, injuries worsened in both number, frequency and severity. While there were plenty of freak injuries and players injured on international duty that he had nothing to do with, there are so many questions that remain about why his players were always getting injured. There is reason to believe that at least some of the blame for certain increases did not fall on Pioli or his staff. But at the end of the day, it is definitely likely that at least some aspect of his training, playing style, the mentality, or other things Pioli and his staff were directly responsible for at least contributed to the endless injuries that plagued his tenure.

Words could never express how much this man did to bridge the gap from mediocrity to greatness.


However, whatever Pioli's shortcomings were, the amount of recognition he got while at Milan fell much shorter of the mark. In an age where most managers scream and whine and quit after a year or two or try to take all the credit for themselves, Pioli stood out for being a gentleman amongst the drama queens. He was always humble and grateful to the club, his staff, his players, and especially to the fans. Ironic that with all the attention-seeking managers, it was he who would have an iconic stadium song just for him. And yet fitting that "Pioli's On Fire" was first sung for him by the players he loved and who loved him like a father. And yet no one appreciated it more than him.

No one ever speaks of his fioretto, his pledge he made that if Milan won the Scudetto, he would cycle 130 kilometers up winding roads, a climb of 1000 meters in altitude, from his home in Parma to Passo della Cissa. Not only did he complete this daunting physical challenge to honor his word, he did it in the heat of summer. He is a man of great passion and conviction, but also a man of integrity. (Maybe the media thought it was Inter's fioretto to lose?) What an incredibly stark contrast with Conte dedicating his Scudetto to himself. I honestly cannot explain the underwhelming acclaim that Pioli has received, let alone the harsh, constant, and usually unfounded criticism of him, including the Pioli Out campaign that started before he even signed his contract.

Pioli really went through things – he began with full support, and in the end, he was left alone.

And let's face it, Pioli has been blamed for so many of the things that were wrong at Milan that he had absolutely nothing to do with. He was given a young team in the rebuilding phase, and he quietly helped each player improve both as men and as players, while carefully working with everyone at the club to rebuild Milan. And he created unity and a sense of family, too, as well as an incredible belief that allowed the seemingly impossible to become reality. In the face of constant and massive changes at the club, a global pandemic, insane amounts of injuries and extreme referee errors, little to no reinforcements to a team with a wage bill that was smaller than most of the big clubs he was asked to compete with, Pioli calmly and quietly led this team through the storms for five very long seasons.

Even the way he chose to leave showed his signature dignity and grace. He was able to negotiate with the club to leave by "mutual consent," to avoid the club being embarrassed for firing a manager who exceeded their expectations and gave them a second place finish this season. Gratefully, the club also sent him off properly, with the club, his staff, the players, and the fans honoring him as he said goodbye. Although to be fair, there is probably nothing that could ever really demonstrate the gratitude we owe him for all he did for this club. Grazie, Mister.

Milan is tattooed on Pioli and forever in his heart, and Pioli will forever be part of Milan's history.

I have a theory, though. Pioli's shoes will be very difficult to fill, and I think that he will actually be missed now that he is gone, even by those who were not fond of him. Like so many artists who were not appreciated in their time, I think that what Pioli did at Milan will not be fully acknowledged until long after he is gone. Managers like Pioli are rare, and men like Pioli even less common. What he endured, all of the things he contributed, big and small, and who he is as a person have been largely overlooked for five years. The recognition of Pioli's Milan has only begun.

This post inspired by the music of The Cranberries' "When You're Gone"

Grazie, Mister: Recognition of Pioli's Milan Grazie, Mister: Recognition of Pioli's Milan Reviewed by Elaine on 11:59 PM Rating: 5
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