Football changes and evolves expeditiously to the point where we have little time to pause and remind ourselves of circumstances that resulted in the near past.
A lot has been made of Sandro Tonali’s €80m move to Newcastle United in the summer, with most Rossoneri fans left outraged that the club’s golden boy, who grew up with a strong love for Milan, was sold in favour of the profitable opportunity which was seized upon.
Short memories were exposed back then, as Milan’s management used that money to revamp the squad in certain positions that required urgent attention. The right-wing, central midfield, and centre-forward positions now contain more depth and quality compared to last season.
Three wins in the first three games of the new Serie A campaign produced some scintillating attacking football. Giroud was pulling off no-look flick-ons for fun and Loftus-Cheek imposed himself as a physical beast – It didn’t take long for the Milanisti faithful to forget about the turmoil that transpired early in the off-season.
Since the 5-1 humiliation at the hands of city rivals Inter Milan, the wheels have fallen off in the blink of an eye to throw any glimmer of hope regarding a positive season out the window.
Only one man was going to bear the brunt and be placed firmly in the firing line: Stefano Pioli.
Recent reports suggest that the 58-year-old is walking on a tightrope and will be judged accordingly on a game-by-game basis.
A picture (or in this case actions) speaks one thousand words. When Milan found the net in their most recent outings against Newcastle, Monza, and Salernitana, Pioli was seen celebrating more passionately than usual – perhaps a telling sign that he knows his future is not as secure as it once was.
A Scudetto-winning run and contributing a massive part in carrying Milan out of the doldrums is ultimately why the 19-time Italian champions have stuck by Pioli through thick and thin.
From chanting ‘Pioli is on fire’ to the ‘#PioliOut’ tweets circulating on social media, many share the opinion that the Italian tactician has reached his ceiling with this group and is incapable of excelling Milan to the next level.
Sustaining 31 injuries already this season has the finger pointed directly at the coaching staff for their training regimes and physical conditioning, which has obviously placed the squad in a challenging position to discover any cohesion and consistency.
Although those are completely fair arguments, it’s funny how when we talk about reaching that next level, supporters have short memories of the pre-Pioli era that the club found itself multiple levels below where they aspired to be.
Say what you want about Pioli, but the resilience and strength he has demonstrated since he walked through the doors of Milanello has been nothing short of exemplary. When his back is against the wall, the former Serie A coach of the season has answered the critics.
For this reason, Pioli feels likely to survive and retain his managerial role until at least the end of May.
Casting back to the dark times that inflicted pain on one of the biggest clubs on the planet, Pioli was unpopular from the moment his appointment was announced. A 5-0 drubbing inflicted by Atalanta on top of a crisis experienced both at the beginning of 2023 and most recently meant his job was very much in jeopardy.
The Covid lockdown during the midst of the pandemic will be looked upon as the turning point that has allowed Pioli to remain in the top job for almost five seasons. During that lengthy break, Pioli went back to the drawing board and identified the strengths of his squad to make the most of its raw potential shine through.
The arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a 27-match unbeaten run in Serie A turned Pioli from a laughing stock to one of the most respected managers.
In January after their 5-2 defeat at the San Siro to Sassuolo, questions were again raised if Pioli’s days were numbered. His response? A change in tactics to a three-man defence in an attempt to solidify the defence paid dividends as Milan recorded four consecutive clean sheets.
Admittedly, most coaches would crumble under the pressure after making the gutsy call to bench the team’s star man, but Pioli’s willingness to do what’s best for the squad when he left out Rafael Leão in a system that was not suited to the Portuguese winger clarified Pioli’s immense character.
The past couple of months paint a fascinating reality in terms of the rollercoaster results that Milan has managed to pick up.
Winless in four games before the PSG tie at the San Siro, Pioli’s men rallied to produce arguably their best performance of the season. After a bitterly disappointing defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League along with a 3-2 loss to Atalanta, the boss and his men did what they do best and responded brilliantly with an away victory over Newcastle and a convincing win against Monza.
#ACMilan have only finished bottom of their group on two previous occasions in the Champions League: the first round group stage in 1999-00 and in 2021-22 under current manager Stefano Pioli. pic.twitter.com/HnOwBQOP1R
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) December 12, 2023
The ability to adapt accordingly whilst changing personnel and tweaking the variation of his preferred 4-3-3 formation has helped Pioli escape from the axe time and time again.
A 2-2 draw to bottom of the table Salernitana on the weekend now has Pioli in a position he is all too familiar with. Only this time, however, the pressure seems to have reached an all-time high.
Most importantly though, Pioli still seems to have the full support and faith of the playing group which is not surprising given we have come to know the Rossoneri coach as a great man-manager who speaks impeccably well in front of the cameras.
Up next for Milan is a clash against their ‘bogey’ team in the form of Sassuolo. Domenico Berardi has famously made 18 goal contributions for the Neroverdi against Milan during his time at the club, including a four-goal haul to hand former coach Massimiliano Allegri the sack back in January 2014. How fitting that Pioli’s future may well be decided against the same opponent.
Despite facing adversity with the deep injury crisis that has rocked the club to its core, Pioli will somehow find a way to claim three points and steer the ship back in the right direction (at least momentarily).
Perhaps Pioli’s tenure is running its due course with a change in management inevitable at the end of the current campaign. Perhaps he has nothing more left to give.
That said, expect Milan to respond and carry over the same fighting spirit that’s been instilled by their manager.