The Football Manager experiment: Testing five potential Pioli replacements plus a wild card

By Ben Dixon -

Stefano Pioli’s future as AC Milan’s head coach has seemingly run its course, but whether the 58-year-old stays in charge of the Rossoneri until the end of the season remains a question.

Currently, much lies in the air concerning the future of Pioli. After two wins against Sassuolo and Cagliari, it seems that his tenure will last until the end of the season, so long as his side does not lose to Empoli this weekend.

An earlier report suggested that the Italian had the game against the Neroverdi and then this Sunday’s fixture to save his job until the end of the season.

Whilst he seems like he will stay in the technical area until then, the speculation about his successor has not died down, and it does not seem like it will quieten any time soon.

Most recently, there had been speculation about the Austrian coach Oliver Glasner taking over, with reports suggesting that there had been contact between Milan and the manager about taking over if Pioli was sacked.

However, he would likely only be an interim coach until the summer, giving Geoffrey Moncada, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Giorgio Furlani as much time as necessary to access their options extensively.

With that in mind, we decided to experiment to see how some of the rumoured coaches would do if they took the helm at Milanello.

In the experiment, we started from the beginning of the 2023-24 season to ensure a level playing field and simulated all the games, with no input from us, aside from moving each manager from their current position to Milan.

So, with that in mind, let us dive into the candidates and see how they fared.

Roberto De Zerbi

The first manager we tested was Roberto De Zerbi. The current Brighton manager has been linked with the job after a great season with Brighton, where he has played an expansive brand of football that has taken the Seagulls to new heights.

This season is the same. His side sits 7th currently and has progressed into the knock-out stages of the Europa League, topping their group in the process.

Firstly, we simulated until January 1, and thus far, Milan have disappointed. Sitting in 6th, eight points behind league leaders, Inter. De Zerbi started the season impressively, winning three from his opening three games, including a 2-1 win over Napoli (Parthenope) in the opening game.

There was disappointment in the Champions League, though, as Milan failed to exit the group stage. An opening-day defeat against Galatasaray made things difficult from the off and three losses against Bayern Munich (2) and Arsenal made progressing impossible.

There were no incoming transfers in January, however, Chaka Traore was sold to Atalanta for €1.4million (rising to €2m).

Fast forward now to the end of the season, Inter were crowned Champions and De Zerbi managed to steer the Rossoneri to a place in the Champions League by the skin of their teeth.  

Interestingly, Milan had three representatives in the Serie A Team of The Year: Theo Hernandez (who won Serie A’s Best Defender award), Christian Pulisic and Rafael Leao (who won Serie A’s Best Midfielder award and also Serie A Player of the Year).

Finally, to look at De Zerbi’s best eleven, the game comprised the favoured tactic and players used by the Italian manager, and that can be seen below.

Rade Krunic played 32 times behind the striker and scored nine goals in the process, finishing as the side’s top goalscorer alongside Christian Pulisic. Who knew he had it in him?

Aside from that, there are no real shocks, and at the end of the season, Roberto De Zerbi’s position as Head Coach was deemed ‘Unstable’.

Thiago Motta

Thiago Motta has been heavily linked with a move to Milan, potentially most so on the list as it stands, and there is good reason for it. He is currently defying the odds with Bologna and is inspiring some great results.

Additionally, his current contract with the Rossoblu expires in June 2024, making the links between him and the Rossoneri more contract, given they would get a good manager without having to pay any compensation.

In January, Motta had guided the side to 6th place. The start of the season was torrid, as the side won just one of their first five games of the season, coincidentally against his former side, Bologna.

Again, an exit from the Champions League was imminent. Milan drew Bayern and Arsenal, but instead of Galatasaray, Olympique Marseille were the final addition to the group.

Again, there were no additions in the January window. However, there again was a sale of a Primavera talent. This time, Jan-Carlo Simic joined Bayern Munich for a fee of €3.5m, which seems a steal given what we know about his abilities.

The end-of-the-season reading is much better, although still not the ideal finish. Inter, once again, claimed the Scudetto, but the Rossoneri finished second with the joint-best defensive record in the league.

In Europe, following their elimination from the Champions League, Motta would struggle to take the squad far. After defeating Olympiacos in the Play-Off stage, they succumbed to Bayern Leverkusen in a disappointing collapse – after winning the home leg 2-0, they fell to a 4-1 defeat in Germany.

However, the season still had its successes as Milan won the Coppa Italia on penalties against Lazio. The Laziali took the lead 72 minutes in, but substitute Emil Roback scored in the 82nd minute to take the game to penalties.

Motta opted to, again, use a 4-2-3-1 formation, this time Yacine Adli featured most commonly behind Giroud, and Tommaso Pobega played alongside Ruben Loftus-Cheek in defensive midfield. Additionally, Theo and Leao both earned a place in the Serie A TOTY.

Despite the silverware, Motta finished the season with his position insecure.

Antonio Conte

The Serial winner is another name who has been commonly linked with the post as the Rossoneri’s next head coach, and with reports suggesting he would like to manage Milan, there is a real possibility he could take the reigns.

The 53-year-old has been out of management for almost a year now, following the end of his spell in charge of Tottenham Hotspur, but, there is a chance that he could take the Rossoneri to exciting heights if he was given the job.

In the first few months of the season, Conte had the Diavolo at the top of Serie A, with a game in hand over Inter, and were a real force to be reckoned with, given they had only lost three times, and conceded eight goals.

January also was a month of real interest. Over €150m was spent over the month, with the budget being largely depleted by the signings of Jean-Clair Todibo from OGC Nice (€67m) and Teun Koopmeiners, the versatile midfielder from Atalanta (€51m), whom Milan were interested in during the past summer.

This time, both Chaka Traore and Jan-Carlo Simic left, and both headed to the same clubs as in previous saves, Bayern and Atalanta respectively. Rade Krunic departed to Saudi Arabia, but the biggest move without a doubt was that of Ismael Bennacer to Manchester City for €43m.

The January additions would not result in Milan holding their place first, as Inter again went on to win the Scudetto. Whilst the Diavolo had the best defensive record in the league, it would not be enough to secure a League title.

In Europe, the story was similar, Olympiacos in the Play-Off stage did not offer any threat. PSV then awaited in the Round of 16, but, Milan went through after back-to-back 1-1 draws, winning on penalties. However, succumbed to Liverpool in the quarter-finals, losing 2-1 on aggregate.

Silverware still arrived though, again in the form of a Coppa Italia trophy, as Milan beat Atalanta by two goals to nil, with goals from Olivier Giroud and Luka Romero.

This is the first season where our hypothetical manager swayed from the 4-2-3-1, and Conte deployed a 5-2-3, with a heavy emphasis on defensive football. There are some elements of miscalculation, though, with this ‘Best Eleven’ section.

As you can see in the Serie A TOTY, Leao and Pobega featured in the squad, but, Koopmeiners and Samuel Chukwueze both earned places in the side, but not in Conte’s supposed best side.

Additionally, the Nigerian earned both the ‘Serie A Best Midfielder Award’ and also the ‘Serie A Player of The Year Award’, which makes it somewhat puzzling.

Conte also became the first manager to end the season with his position secure.

Francesco Farioli

The OGC Nice manager has become a hyped stock this season, following his successes with the French side, and it is no surprise then that he has been linked with high-end European jobs from his time in France so far.

Jumping straight to January, and Farioli has the Rossoneri flying. Sitting top of Serie A with a game in hand and the best defensive record in the league.

Again, Simic left for Bayern, but this time Traore departed on loan to ASEC Mimosas, which is certainly an interesting move. On the incoming front though, Mikel Merino was dubbed to be the piece of the puzzle to bring the midfield together, in the hopes of this experiment’s first Scudetto.

And well, Farioli delivered it. Juventus finished 14 (fourteen) points behind Milan, who had the second-best attacking record in the league, and the best defensive record.

To partner this, the Rossoneri stormed the TOTY and six of the 11 positions were taken by Farioli’s players, with the squad claiming some other awards too.

Agonisingly, the side was beaten in the final of the Coppa Italia by Lazio, but Farioli and his 4-3-3 system worked impeccably for Milan, and it would be imagined that virtually at least, the team would push on under Farioli.

Raffaele Palladino

After exceeding expectations with Monza (the Brianza on Football Manager due to licensing), he has been heavily linked with the Rossoneri job, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic supposedly a huge fan, but due to his system, there are some reservations about whether he is the right candidate.

And, well, these reservations could be right. As Palladino was sacked after only 139 days, but, Who did the game deem to be the man to replace him mid-season?

None other than Julen Lopetegui, after his sacking at Wolverhampton Wanderers earlier in the season, was available and given a three-year contract. He has previously been rumoured to be on Milan’s list of candidates to succeed Pioli, which makes it a tad more interesting.

This time it was AS Roma who moved for Jan-Carlo Simic, again for a bargain price of €1.1m.

Looking to the end of the season, Napoli managed to retain their Scudetto, and Lopetegui picked up 41 points in 20 games, which is not a bad record at all, with all things considered.

Wild card

The final roll of the dice in this experiment was having no input (aside from sacking Pioli). So, we sacked the 58-year-old and skipped until January, and who replaced Pioli?

None other than Ernesto Valverde. The Spaniard was successful at Barcelona, and following a stint at Atletico Bilbao, Milan acted and brought in their man.

So, how was his first 4 months in charge?

The answer is spectacular. Top of the league by two points with a game in hand over trailing Inter. Having lost only two games all season until this point, things again seemed to be on the way for a joyous end of the season.

To assist with their race for the Scudetto, Valverde was active in the market. Bringing wonderkid Valentin Barco (€8m), Marco Delle Monache (€2m, rising to €7m), and Marcel Ratnik (€1.4) into the club. However, the biggest acquisitions were out-of-favour Arsenal attacking midfielder Emile Smith-Rowe and defensive midfielder Amir Richardson to the club, for a combined total of €50m.

It will then come as a gargantuan shock, that Simic and Traore both departed, both for minimal fees, as has been the case for every other save so far.

Whilst not as much of a lead as Farioli’s reign, Valverde delivered a Scudetto to the Rossoneri, with a six-point gap being the deciding factor.

Again, Liverpool denied the side in the Europa League, and the less said about the Coppa Italia the better, as Valverde’s side succumbed to Serie B side Sampdoria.

Valverde’s 4-2-3-1 was the key to the success, as was a commodity in the experiments. However, the decision to move Pulisic into the middle worked extremely well, and Chukwueze proved this was a correct decision to make, as he finished the season as the club’s highest-rated player and Serie A’s Player Of The Year.

As expected, Milan were well represented in the TOTY, with Theo, Leao, Fikayo Tomori and Mike Maignan all earning a place in the squad. Additionally, Valverde won Manager of the Year, a deserved award.

In every single one of the six experiments, Stefano Pioli did not manage in the 2023-24 season. Perhaps this is a bug when firing a manager through the in-game editor, or perhaps he wanted a break. At the end of the season though, he was frequently linked with AS Roma and Fiorentina, both commonly sacked their managers.

Are you surprised by any of the outcomes that Football Manager predicted? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section!

Tags AC Milan Antonio Conte Francesco Farioli Raffaele Palladino Roberto De Zerbi Stefano Pioli Thiago Motta


  1. The most surprising prediction is Ernesto Valverde winning the league with Milan despite joining in January. I can’t bet on him achieving such success.

    As for Francesco Farioli who was predicted to win the league, I can’t really say much about him because I’ve never watched his team played before but based on the present record, he could have a chance.

    Raffaele Palladino is a young coach who needs to gather experience. Motta as well is trying but Milan job will be very challenging for him.

    For others, I can’t say much.

  2. Krunic was almost leading scorer in one of the games.

    Based on that fact alone, I don’t believe FM algorithms and PD functions are optimized. At all. LOL.

    Also, I think Conte would go with a 3-4-3 at Milan. Not a 532 or 352. Not that it matters but he’ll keep the winger play. With Leao, Pulisic, Chukwueze and Okafor we’re wing based. Leao and Okafor have already struggled in the center and I think Chuk would too.

  3. This just goes to show how unrealistic FM is. My guess is if they actually ran each scenario several times, they’d get wildly different results, making the whole experiment worthless.

  4. Changing coach mid year would be so hard for the team. Need adjustment and they aren’t easy

    Pioli seems do well on the brink of sacking. Then management shall press him everyweek then 😂

  5. Did you guys run this sim once? There are game mechanics that need to be ironed out that running multiple sims can overcome. While it’s not impossible it would iron out things like Krunic playing second striker and being top scorer. When you do it once, your reliant on random fluctuations to determine the outcome.
    Do it maybe 100 times and take the average position (and then you’ll see if it’s a total random process or if coach makes a difference)
    Also you may want to take the transfer window out of it and that can determine outcomes in the sim

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