The front page of Gazzetta dello Sport last Wednesday neatly summed up the climax of a long-running managerial saga at AC Milan: “Pioli has won!”
After months of speculation about the imminent arrival of Ralf Rangnick at San Siro, the Rossoneri confirmed they would put their faith in Stefano Pioli instead.
The former Lazio, Inter and Fiorentina coach was widely considered to be an underwhelming appointment last October, when he replaced sacked predecessor Marco Giampaolo to become the club’s seventh permanent boss in less than six years.
While he needed time to make his methods work, the scintillating form of Pioli’s side since Serie A returned from its three-month absence eventually convinced the club hierarchy to hand him a contract until 2022, and abandon any idea of a Rangnick revolution.
“Stefano has shown he can deliver the vision of football we have for our club - exciting, progressive and passionate,” said Milan CEO Ivan Gazidis.
Those aren’t three words you would readily associate with Milan sides of recent years, but they do correlate with the football played by Pioli’s side of late. The Rossoneri have taken 24 points from a possible 30 since the restart, with a goal difference of +17, the best record in the division.
They’ve scored 28 goals in 10 games, as many as they had mustered in their previous 26, while becoming more defensively compact. Pioli has got the best out of previously underperforming players, helped new signings settle and bolstered the players’ fragile self-esteem.
A settled backline, shielded by midfield pair Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer, has kept things tight while allowing bombing left-back Theo Hernandez to get forward and support a versatile, creative and prolific front four.
There is finally a tactical identity that suits the players, who have bought into Pioli’s vision. Beyond his tactical tinkering, Pioli has overseen the improvement of several individuals, impressing Milan legend Arrigo Sacchi in the process.
“He is surprising me through the improvements of his players in a few months and for the ideas that have allowed this transformation,” Sacchi told Gazzetta.
One of those players is Croatia International Ante Rebic. The forward, who arrived at San Siro from Eintracht Frankfurt on a two-year loan last summer, had been written off as a flop in some quarters by January, when he was still without a goal or assist for his new employers.
But he came to life shortly before the break with a burst of goalscoring form, and that has continued since, with the 26-year-old smashing in 12 goals in his last 17 league matches to become Milan’s top scorer.
Pioli has made the most of Rebic’s versatility and intelligence by using him as both a winger and a striker. However, the latter role is usually occupied by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, another leading character in Pioli’s Rossoneri revival.
At the age of 38, the Swede has proved he’s still got it by scoring seven goals since his January arrival, including a recent double against Sassuolo.
Ibrahimovic spearheads the attack, offering a big target for crosses and long balls, but also coming deep to dictate play and unsettle opposition defences.
But his influence goes beyond what he can do with his feet. He’s been a key figure for Pioli in restoring the belief, confidence and unity of the squad.
In typical Zlatan style, the veteran has claimed: “If I was here from the beginning of the season, we would have won the Scudetto”.
While that may be a stretch, there’s no doubting the impact he has had on helping Pioli transform the mentality of one of the youngest squads in the division.
Two of Pioli’s greatest success stories have been Hakan Calhanoglu and Kessie. The Turk, who has often flattered to deceive since his arrival in 2017, is now consistently dictating games and has increased his output significantly.
Calhanoglu’s whipped free-kick against Atalanta was his fifth goal since the restart, and in that time he’s also provided seven assists. He’s finally looking comfortable with the number 10 shirt on his back.
As for Kessie, a change of position has helped improve his form dramatically. Previously used as a ‘mezzala’ in a three-man midfield, the Ivorian was moved to a deeper role by Pioli to help shield the defence, dictate the tempo and break forward when given the chance.
Pioli has described the 23-year-old as now being “indispensable for my Milan”, words which will no doubt further bolster the confidence of a player whose form has been transformed by the coach.
With Pioli’s future now secure and recent reports suggesting Ibrahimovic has decided to stay on too, Milan can finally look to the future with some certainty – and head towards the new season with renewed belief in their ability as individuals and as a team.