As AC Milan lift the Serie A trophy, the impact of their head coach, Stefano Pioli, cannot be understated. He was appointed in October 2019 after the club decided to sack Marco Giampaolo, and the fans “welcomed” Pioli with distrust. The hashtag #PioliOut trended on Twitter for days after he arrived and the general opinion was that he was a poor substitute who was only in the job because AC Milan couldn’t appoint Luciano Spalletti since he was still under contract with crosstown rivals Inter Milan, even though he’d been replaced by Antonio Conte.
AC Milan fans were hoping for something different, after experiencing the failure of Giampaolo and watching Inter Milan appoint Conte only q few months before they wanted a splash. They got a worker. Two and a half years later, after beating Atalanta to put Milan on the precipice of the Scudetto, the whole San Siro sang the song Freed from Desire, changing the lyrics to “Pioli is on fire.” Somehow Pioli had managed to change everything.
Pioli is a grinder, one of those managers whose focus is relentlessly on the pitch rather than a media friendly, charismatic, leader who does much of their work in press conferences. And that’s how he operated when he arrived at the club. Though, things didn’t go well at the start of his AC Milan journey. He started off with only three wins in his first ten Serie A matches, including some crucial losses against Juventus and Atalanta, who defeated the Rossoneri 5-0 in Bergamo, marking probably the worst moment in their recent history. But that game was a turning point and the key moment to understand why this journey became so successful over the past few months.
That was when Pioli and the board started to work on something different. The same night Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his agent Mino Raiola received a call from Paolo Maldini saying, “We need you here,” the Swedish striker said after signing his contract. Zlatan had been considering Napoli, but after that his deal with Napoli collapsed as the club parted company with manager Carlo Ancelotti, and Zlatan knew that he was needed by his former club. Ibrahimovic was announced one week later and that was the moment when the winning mentality was immediately brought back to the club. Fans were excited as well and everyone could breath a different air.
Things didn’t change quite as quickly on the pitch and the Rossoneri struggled a bit more, though then everything changed with COVID-19 outbreak stopped the Serie A for three months. It probably saved Pioli’s job. AC Milan’s CEO, Ivan Gazidis, had approached Ralf Rangnick, the man who just wrapped up his interim stint on Manchester United’s sidelines, and they had actually reached an agreement to work together. Rangnick wanted a real revolution with younger players, probably without Ibrahimovic for example, and his role was supposed to be coach and sporting director at the same time. Not only would that have ended Pioli’s time at the club, but also the working relationship with club legend Paolo Maldini, who’s currently the club’s technical director.
Everything was set to be announced at the end of the season, but after Serie A restarted Milan’s form improved dramatically and they didn’t lose a single match from June to August. Sporting Director Ricky Massara and Paolo Maldini were able to change the mind of Gazidis, and right after the last match was played Pioli was confirmed for the following season. It was a huge win for Pioli who built his reputation with his results and used his team’s on-field performance to change the mind of the CEO of the club. Since it also probably saved Maldini’s job, it goes a long way towards explaining how close Maldini and Pioli have become since then.
Of course, the 2020/21 season needed to be a success of the reprieve was to last. And it certainly was as Milan ended up finishing second in Serie A and went back to the UEFA Champions League’s group stage seven years after their last trip. Maldini and Massara worked on upgrading the team’s talent as well, bringing key players like Mike Maignan after keeper Gigio Donnarumma’s talks over a new deal collapsed, or players like Sandro Tonali who was confirmed after a difficult first season with the AC Milan jersey. Overall, it was a perfect mix between Maldini and Pioli that built this project which ended up winning the Scudetto eleven years after the last time.
Pioli’s career has been difficult at times. He experienced the death of Fiorentina’s captain Davide Astori while he was the Viola coach in 2018, the kind of tragedy that can change somebody as a person as well as a coach. On Sunday he finally achieved his first Scudetto, the crowning achievement t of his career until now. The same man who was unwanted by the fans has became their idol. Now Pioli is “on fire” and has no intention of stopping. And tomorrow, it’s back to work