The one-year anniversary of Stefano Pioli’s tenure as AC Milan boss has come and gone, and few would have predicted his side would be top of Serie A at this stage of 2020/21, let alone that he would still be in the dugout.
When the Italian’s appointment was announced following the sacking of Marco Giampaolo in October 2019, the proverbial pitchforks were assembled en masse as fans vented their frustration, culminating in ‘#PioliOut’ trending worldwide.
But, oh how fickle football can be. Just 13 months on and Pioli has not only bucked a recent trend of Milan managers leaving the club in and around a year of their appointments, with the Italian already outlasting the previous eight Rossoneri coaches, or in other words: every manager since Massimiliano Allegri.
But, he has also awoken the sleeping giant from a protracted slumber, and the ‘Milan of old’ are just starting to reappear at the San Siro, exhibiting signs of their glory years from the noughties. Milan fans would certainly not mind the comparative eulogies, nor getting too carried away. This has been a long time coming.
Nearly a decade, in fact. Come the end of this season, it will be exactly 10 years since the Milan jersey was last embellished with the sacred scudetto. And while Milan are the early pace-setters in Serie A, currently leading the charge without defeat after nine games, their form stretches back to March.
So, this is a side that are not simply riding the crest of an ephemeral wave, but are showing signs of longevity and have a sense of direction. But, how exactly did Pioli go from an unpopular day-one appointment to a title-challenging tactician at the San Siro?
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1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Milan’s scoring prowess
He may be 39, he may have already ventured stateside to football’s supposed and rather unfairly named ‘retirement home’, and he may be battling in one of, if not Europe’s toughest defensive leagues, but he is also Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and he has been rolling back the years this season.
Every great side needs a great goalscorer and in Ibrahimovic, Pioli has the consummate No. 9, a superlative finisher who is currently leading the scoring charts in Serie A with 10 goals, while he has also netted in eight consecutive top-flight matches.
In fact, since rejoining AC Milan in December 2019, Ibrahimovic has netted 22 goals and registered seven assists in 20 appearances across all competitions; he also became the first player since 1994/95 to score 2+ goals in each of his first three Serie A games of a season.
Davide Calabria best tried to sum up just how influential the veteran marksman has been in Pioli’s dressing room, explaining: “I think he [Ibrahimovic] was above all fundamental at the start, as he made us understand what wanting to win at all costs means.
“You must never rest on your laurels, never feel sated. The mentality I saw in Ibrahimovic is something I’ve never seen in any other player.”
And that “win-at-all-costs” mentality has certainly rubbed off on his attacking teammates as Milan recently equalled their record streak of consecutive Serie A games scored in (29). The previous record was between 1972 and 1973. Pioli has touched upon a winning formula, and Ibrahimovic is his panacea.
2. Franck Kessie-Ismael Bennacer midfield partnership
While Ibrahimovic and his attacking teammates have been doing their part up top, this has largely been made possible because Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer are mopping up behind, recycling possession, screening the backline, and putting in the hard yards.
Pioli has found the perfect midfield balance with his insatiable double-pivot. The duo form the heartbeat, engine and nucleus of Milan’s current XI. They are industrious, hard-working and committed to the cause, best symbolised by Kessie’s recent ‘toothless’ performance against Napoli, and ‘toothless’ for all the right reasons.
This paradox recently came about at the Stadio San Paolo in Milan’s 3-1 win over Napoli. A flailing elbow from Matteo Politano inadvertently knocked out a tooth from Kessie’s mouth, and while the midfielder sought medical attention, he remained on the turf and saw the game out, visiting the dentist the following morning.
The grit and determination shown by Kessie to finish the match are indicative of a wider culture instilled at the San Siro: Ibra’s “win-at-all-costs” mentality, as Calabria would succinctly put it. And the metrics even back the Ivorian up. He ranks second and third respectively for recoveries (70) and blocks (six) among Serie A midfielders this term.
Kessie has even described himself as a “veteran” at 23, and that wearing the Milan kit “is like a second skin to me.” A precocious battler who comes with his heart on his sleeve, Pioli has one heck of a midfield talent on his hands, and he has got the best out of the Ivorian by pairing Bennacer — who ranks second at Milan for tackles (18) and joint-first with Kessie for possessions won in the middle third (34) — alongside him.
3. Pioli’s tactics
The bar may have been set low by Pioli’s predecessor Giampaolo, who oversaw just three wins in seven games before the managerial death knell came ringing, but the Italian inherited a squad completely out of sorts and without a clear identity.
Giampaolo’s rather modern 4-3-1-2 was not entirely assimilated by the Milan players, and so, Pioli had to establish a more coherent structure. His 4-2-3-1 has since proven consistent and the pillar of his success, with each player fully aware of his role and function.
The aforementioned midfield combo of Kessie and Bennacer form the backbone, allowing Hakan Calhanoglu to roam in the No. 10 role, while Ibra is flanked either side by Alexis Saelemaekers and one of Rade Krunic or Ante Rebic, injury permitting. Rafael Leao has also made a marked improvement on the left this term, grabbing three goals and three assists across all competitions.
And at the back, there is little room for chopping and changing. Theo Hernandez and Davide Calabria are one of Europe’s best full-back pairings currently; Simon Kjaer and Alessio Romagnoli are watertight at centre-back; and Gianluigi Donnarumma is just incredible.
With a clear vision and a consistent side, Pioli has masterminded 21 unbeaten Serie A games, stretching back to March, while they have also picked up 23 points in the first nine games played this term, their record at this point of the season in the three points per win era.
The question now is: can they go all the way?