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A tactical insight on AC Milan’s new head coach Stefano Pioli
By MaaxiAngelo -

It’s official. Stefano Pioli has replaced Marco Giampaolo as Milan’s manager, just over a 100 days after the former got signed this summer.

But who is the new head coach? What are his tactics and formations? And more importantly, what are his strengths and weaknesses?

Here, Maxi Angelo hopes to give you the answers…

Formation

During his tenures with Lazio and Inter between 2014-2017, Pioli mainly deployed his team with a 4-2-3-1, especially during his days with the latter. However, when he took over Fiorentina after succeeding Paulo Sousa, Pioli switched formation into an attacking 4-3-3. 

What’s been similar between the two formations has been that he seem to prefer two fast and technical wingers, alternatively great crossers. Centrally between the wingers there’s usually a complete striker that is skilled at scoring with both feet and through headers. During his Inter days Mauro Icardi occupied that role perfectly, and at Fiorentina Giovanni Simeone did.

Occasionally Pioli has used different variations of three at the back. This has mainly been against two types of opponent: 1) Those that are ball moving and playing possession based football where he needs to rely on counters and 2) Lower table teams where Pioli’s team can play possession based, to have as many players as possible on the opponents half.

High pressing

Whilst out of possession, Pioli’s teams are notorious for using immense and furious pressing on the opponents to win the ball back as high up in the pitch as possible. Pioli usually pushes his entire team high then to enhance the pressure even more.

The pressing also continues in possession. Pioli’s teams tend to move as many players as possible up the pitch to increase the pressure on the defending team by vercrowding the opposition’s half.

This is very tiring for a defence to be exposed to repeatedly, however it also relies on Pioli’s players to be creative enough to create something and not just stand on the opposition half, knocking the ball from side to side and not accomplishing anything with the possession.

Man-marking

Pioli often opts for a man-marking approach when defending, instead of the zonal-marking approach. This puts increased pressure on his defenders to not make any mistakes, as if you lose your man there is often not a team-mate there to cover the ground you’ve just given your opponent.

This has its ups and downs, but one thing is for certain and that is that it’s a risk and it demands bigger responsibility from the defenders.

Personality

Stefano Pioli may be lacking past success in form of trophies and top placements in the table, but, one thing you can’t fault him for is having an incredible personality – which surprisingly enough is very striking to Gennaro Gattuso’s.

Pioli creates a deep and affectionate bond with his players. He’s a very empathic and caring human being, which many players admire about him.

There are many instances of his kindness, like meeting up new players at the airport or train stations in the middle of the night just to be the first one they talk to. He has also bought fans who stopped to serenade him at a gas station sandwiches as a sign of appreciation. All of his kindness, honesty, empathy and grace combines into his players being ready to go to war for him. 

Pioli has also never been one to shy away from responsibility. A common denominator from wherever he has been is, that when the team goes through rough spells, he has always been the first one to take the blame.

He never lets his players become solely accountable, even if it is their fault. This is probably one of the reasons why his players are so fond of him. It’s an admirable personality trait, really, and much like Rino Gattuso.

But above all, we simply can’t forget how Pioli handled the situation surrounding Davide Astori’s shocking and tragic death in 2017. During what is one of Fiorentina’s darkest moments in their history, if not the darkest moment, Stefano Pioli was a beacon of light and a supporting pillar in the middle of the darkness.

Many Fiorentina supporters sees him as a club legend and icon simply because of how he got the team, fans and the city of Florence through it all with his impressive grace and empathy. Pioli has since gotten a “DA13” tattoo on his arm as a tribute to his late friend and former captain.

Youth development

Throughout his years at Lazio, Inter and Fiorentina, Pioli has had really good results at man-managing his players and especially improving his young players. The most obvious on the list is the rise of Federico Chiesa at Fiorentina under Pioli’s reign at Viola.

At Lazio there was Felipe Anderson, Nikola Milenkovic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Keita Baldé, plus at Fiorentina he helped nurture Giovanni Simeone.

Federico Chiesa AC Milan Fiorentina

The 53-year-old is also good at getting the best out of his senior players such as Lucas Biglia, Jordan Veretout, Antonio Candreva, Marco Parolo, Cristiano Biraghi and Luis Muriel.

Pioli is an excellent manager when it comes to developing young players and maximising the potential of his squad.

Weaknesses

With the explosive pressure and man-marking comes Pioli’s biggest pitfalls. 

Whilst in possession on the opponents half, Pioli’s teams have tended to struggle at getting past low-blocks; i.e. teams who defend with two banks of four, sometimes with all ten players behind the ball.

Perhaps this because his players weren’t creative enough to figure out how to get past them, or maybe it was Pioli’s ideas that were lacking.

One thing is for certain: Pioli teams have in the past struggled against teams that sit deep, and due to him using many players to overcrowd the opposition half, he leaves his team vulnerable for counters.

Multiple times opponents have ended up suffering through the intense pressure with their low-block, looking for the right time to regain the ball, and then ping a ball long in behind Pioli’s defence which is often unable to recover the situation.

There are also some concerns about the man-marking system he uses. By assigning every outfield player an opponent to mark, Pioli removes every safety net.

If one of his players misses a tackle or losses a runner, that opponent then has zero obstacles to motor forwards. Josip Iličić in the first Coppa Italia match against Atalanta provided the most clear example, but there were countless others, especially in midfield.

Pioli

The last weakness of Pioli’s tactics are his lack of a plan B. You can rely on intense pressing and overcrowding the opponents half, but when that doesn’t work, Pioli doesn’t seem to have any other alternative to go to, no matter which opponent or in-game situation.

That tactical inflexibility is worrying since the oppositions now know how Pioli plays and are quick to resolve to a low-block and defending deep. A manager cannot then rely on his players to solve that issue with individual brilliance. Maybe in a single game, or in-game situation, but not over the course of an entire season.

Conclusion

Pioli wasn’t the name any of us Milanisti preferred, that was made abundantly clear on Twitter on Tuesday as the hashtag #PioliOut was trending worldwide and was used in over 34,000 tweets.

Spalletti was the ideal replacement for what Milan needs: a manager who has only missed Champions League qualification once in his nine seasons with Roma and Inter, a manager experienced at getting results.

However, Pioli will likely at least deliver quicker results than what Marco Giampaolo was able to do. He steadied the ship both at Inter – after Frank De Boer’s catastrophic failure – and at Lazio where he guided them to a third-placed finish.

Pioli is also capable of quickly instilling a good atmosphere within a squad and historically hasn’t taken too long at implementing his ideas.

Yes, he hasn’t impressed the past three seasons, with finishing seventh in Serie A as his biggest accomplishment. Yet one can hope that this criticism fires on and motivates Pioli even more to succeed at Milan, and that he can duplicate that 2015-16 season with Lazio that gave them the third place.

After all, Milan are only four points from the fourth place going into this international break.


LATEST PODCAST: Episode 69 – Coaching Carousel

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