Under fire – The frenzied journey of Stefano Pioli’s Milan

Following Marco Giampaolo’s dismissal, it appeared that Stefano Pioli was next in line to be part of Milan’s vicious coaching cycle, one that had chewed up and spit out six other managers in the six previous years. 

At best, it was a lateral move. He had no characteristics or accomplishments that set him apart. Youth wasn’t on his side, he hadn’t deployed any new or innovative ideas with his previous teams, and above all, he had never won a trophy in his twenty years of coaching. 

For Milan fans, the appointment indicated a lack of ambition. After seven years of mediocrity, their impatience was at its tipping point. A journeyman like Pioli wasn’t good enough, especially when crosstown rivals Inter had recently appointed Antonio Conte. The Rossoneri fans mobilized on Twitter to voice their displeasure. #PioliOut trended for days, and continued to resurface as Pioli’s Milan won one out of their first six games.

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Though an unlikely outcome, things drastically changed over the course of the season. As the COVID-19 pandemic put the world to a halt, it happened to be Pioli’s saving grace. Milan returned from the break as one of the best performing teams in Europe, and when they played, their new identity was clear. The team showcased an entertaining European style that was relatively foreign to Italy. Starting in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the tactics were heavily characterised by relentless pressing and quick vertical passes to progress the ball upfield. Stylish and effective, it was enough to take the Milan that once sat in sixteenth all the way to sixth. The upper management’s once-held desire to hire Ralf Rangnick faded, and Pioli’s one year contract was extended for another.

From then on, the renaissance was underway. Milan continued their success with Pioli at the wheel, finishing in second place and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in eight years. As Pioli received another contract extension, he took the Rossoneri to familiar but almost forgotten heights, bringing home their first Scudetto in 11 years, and winning his first ever trophy as a manager.

The fans admired their unlikely hero. The hymn of “Pioli’s on Fire” rang louder than ever, and it wasn’t just at the San Siro or in the streets of Milan. Whether it was music festivals in Sardinia or Bob Sinclair sets in Padova, Gala’s 80s hit could no longer be heard in Italy without Pioli’s name attached. Perhaps the Inter and Juve fans covered their ears, but the man from Parma became nationally known as the man on fire.

For Pioli’s career it was certainly the pinnacle, and also a stark contrast to the present. Despite qualifying for the Champions League quarter finals, #PioliOut is as popular as it has been since the Italian manager’s hiring.

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The Rossoneri have presented an underwhelming title defense, which has since shifted into a battle for top four. While their struggles mainly began after the World Cup break, Pioli’s Milan has been a shadow of its former self all season.

On the surface, many problems are apparent. The build-up is hardly existent, as the team will circulate the ball around the back but are ultimately unable to progress it, leading to a prayer and a long ball forward. The defending is disorganized, and the pressing — while at times effective — is often disheveled and has resulted in far too many openings leading to goals. Going forward, the team is unable to break down low blocks, and creating goals out of anything other than crosses or counter attacks is seldom seen. The team often appears out of sync, and sometimes, uninspired.

Perhaps these issues were best illustrated in January, a month topped off with 4-0 and 5-2 losses to Lazio and Sassuolo, crowning Milan as the team with the most goals conceded after the World Cup break.

“Everything that has worked for two years isn’t working right now,” said Pioli. An obvious but candid statement, it at least reassured the fans that the manager knew change was needed.

To mitigate the defensive issues, Pioli began to deploy a 3-4-2-1 formation, which provided immediate results. Four clean sheet victories in a row signified an ostensible turning point for Pioli’s men. The football still wasn’t attractive or highly entertaining, but it was a return to winning ways.

In the four games since, the team has fallen back into a downward spiral. Milan lost 2-1 to Fiorentina, tied Spurs 0-0, drew 1-1 to Salernitana, and lost 3-1 to Udinese, with the same recurring on-field issues and a lack of attacking threat that is more apparent than ever. The pitiful results have left Milan sitting in fourth place, only one point ahead of fifth-placed Roma. The risk of not qualifying for the Champions League is more palpable than ever, and thus Stefano Pioli’s job may be on the line.

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The criticisms of Pioli aren’t entirely new, as they existed long before the recent results. His squad selection has been a large talking point for the past two seasons, with an undying loyalty to certain players and a strong reluctance to play others. An example would be that of Malick Thiaw, the new centre-back whose emergence has proved massive for the Rossoneri, but was only started due to an injury crisis. His slight cameos earlier in the season were monumental, but he continued to ride the bench as the less impressive Matteo Gabbia was picked instead.

The same situation surrounds Aster Vranckx and Yacine Adli. The young midfielders have played a combined 194 minutes, despite subjectively decent performances in their limited chances and numerous opportunities arising for each to play. Considering both players have vast top division experience and now half a season adapting to Serie A, the masses question what Pioli is waiting for.

Despite the fans being largely disenchanted, “Pioli’s on Fire” still echoes through the San Siro before every match. For all he has accomplished, the love and adoration may never fade, but perhaps sooner than later the flame may be extinguished. 

The Author

Michael Maniaci

Italian-American university student that's obsessed with the beautiful game.

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