Crisis at Milan: How we got here, Pioli’s future and the elephant in the room

By Isak Möller -

Since the start of 2023, the situation has gone from bad to worse for AC Milan on all fronts. Suddenly fighting for a top-four finish instead of the Scudetto, Stefano Pioli finds himself in his toughest moment yet at the club. 

Few could have predicted that the collapse against Roma, resulting in a 2-2 draw, could have set off such a negative turn of events for Milan. Yet, six games later, the Rossoneri are still winless and find themselves in a full-blown crisis.

This crisis culminated last night as Milan faced Inter in the Derby della Madonnina. After a full week at Milanello, the fans expected to see some change and while Pioli did make changes, they were for the worse. The game finished 1-0 in favour of Inter and Milan had zero (!) shots on target, with a pathetic 35% possession.

Needless to say, this season could be a disaster for Milan as they are currently in 6th place in the standings. So, after winning the Scudetto and getting tons of praise from various fronts, how did the Rossoneri end up here?

It’s a negative journey that has several causes. In fact, they are too many to dissect in this article alone, but there are a few key factors that must be mentioned. First of all, and with yesterday’s derby fresh in mind still, Pioli’s coaching must be analysed.

From masterclass to disasterclass 

Most of us that watched Pioli’s pre-match conference got the feeling that the manager really had been working on something during the full week at Milanello. Such a long training period doesn’t come around often these days and the manager made sure to point that out.

Hours before the clash, the 3-5-2 hypothesis gained further steam but the big surprise was the exclusion of Milan’s big star, Rafael Leao. A tactical choice, most of us assumed, but it’s a choice that was criticised regardless.

Once the game kicked off, it became painfully clear that Pioli’s masterplan was far from that, but rather a ‘park the bus’ strategy. After the game, he even stated that this was necessary to ‘not lose by a bigger margin’. And with that, the decision to bench Leao aroused even more confusion.

In the second half, Pioli went back to some of the basics of football, taking off the unsuccessful Junior Messias and also bringing on Leao. Because, you know, often to win games you need your best players on the pitch. In short, he managed to put out a fire that he started himself. Congrats, Pioli.

Yesterday’s game was just one of many questionable tactical approaches from the manager. Sometimes changes have not been necessary, but he has made them anyway. And sometimes, when change has been necessary, he has been too rigid.

No one has ever doubted Pioli’s abilities as a stabiliser. In fact, this was the key reason why Milan hired him in the first place. He came in and rescued Milan from a crisis similar to this one, the problem is that he has rarely excelled past that stage with any of his clubs. And what happens when he causes the crisis? Well, historically he has then been sacked.

If in a full week’s time, the 3-5-2 with Messias a mezz’ala was the only solution Pioli could come up with for the derby, then one is only right to question him. As said, this is something that we have seen far too often during his Milan tenure, unfortunately.

Lack of reinforcement and implementation 

It’s true that Milan, Paolo Maldini and Ricky Massara specifically, didn’t do enough in the summer to strengthen the team after winning the Scudetto. Certain players such as Franck Kessie were not properly replaced and this has come back to haunt the team.

This is a topic that we have discussed many times, though, and it also deserves a separate piece with greater detail. Therefore, in this piece, there is one certain aspect we must focus on with regard to the signings: the implementation.

During yesterday’s derby, many were pleasantly surprised by the performance of Malick Thiaw, who came off the bench to replace Matteo Gabbia. He looked confident and above all mature, posing the question of why he hasn’t played more.

The answer to the above is very simple and doesn’t just concern Thiaw, but also the likes of Yacine Adli, Charles De Ketelaere and Aster Vranckx. While all of these could have done more, Pioli has been too reluctant to give them the opportunity. And we all know that especially young players need playing time.

Sandro Tonali is often brought up as an example of a player who ‘failed’ in his first season and then blossomed in the second. However, an important detail is that he actually played quite a lot in his first season. This gave him the experience needed to learn and improve, which the summer signings of 2022 haven’t got.

Pioli’s integration methods, in short, have only confirmed that there is currently no synergy between the ownership/management and him. The whole basis of Milan’s project is signing young players, revitalising them and then reaping the reward. But that is hard when the manager doesn’t field the new signings.

Injuries, injuries and injuries

To cut Pioli some slack, and this is all he will get in this piece, Milan have struggled with many injuries this season. It hasn’t made the situation easier and the absence of especially Mike Maignan has been felt.

On the other hand, the basis of these injuries is not just the tight schedule, but also the training methods. A change will be needed on this front in order for Milan to compete at the very top, consistently that is, and work is already underway to hire more athletic trainers for that exact purpose.

In the Scudetto season, Milan also struggled with many injuries but they managed to find ways to work around it. That workaround was referred to as fighting spirit by us, something that is completely missing at the moment. Nevertheless, the injuries are somewhat of an excuse for Pioli (he’s running out of them, so he should cling to this one).

Elephant in the room 

There is another obvious issue that needs addressing: the supposed harmony within the team. Pioli made it very clear during the pre-match presser that the team is united and that they are all fired up to change the negative trend. Well, while they all want to get out of this crisis, it’s not all fine and dandy.

The players are tired physically and frustrated with the situation, also knowing that the tactics implemented thus far have not worked. And there is perhaps more to the story with regard to Leao’s exclusion from the starting XI.

After the embarrassing defeat against Sassuolo, there were strong whispers of heated arguments in the dressing room afterwards. Granted that there are heated arguments after almost every loss, this was different. In fact, the very brave Franco Ordine even asked Pioli about this at the pre-derby press conference. Of course, he got a diplomatic response.

But the rumours that have surfaced in recent days are unfortunately not made out of nothing. A few of the Milan stars didn’t appreciate this new post-defeat approach, even though a full break in relations hasn’t taken place. These things always have an impact, though, especially when your supposed biggest strength is unity.

Pioli’s future

We have arrived at the most complicated part of this piece, as funny as that sounds. Pioli deserves to be sacked for yesterday’s loss, but also because Milan have gone seven games without a win, conceding 18 goals in the process. The problem, however, is who can replace him.

Milan have indirectly confirmed their faith in the manager and a change is not on the horizon as things stand. Pioli has a contract until 2025 and sacking him would mean paying €1m between now and the end of the season for nothing (he earns €4.1m per year).

If things were to continue like this, though, then he won’t last until the end of the season as Milan desperately need to qualify for the Champions League. A caretaker of a convenient kind could, after all, be enough to restore some enthusiasm and claim a top-four finish before hiring a long-term manager in the summer.

The latter, hiring a new manager in the summer that is, is a hypothesis that is gaining more and more steam. Barring a sensational turnaround, and this is my opinion, Pioli will leave Milan at the end of the season and the Rossoneri will hire a more suitable manager for the project.

He remains the manager for now though, simply because of the struggle it would be to find a caretaker. However, Milan certainly have options in mind for the latter role, meaning Pioli is still under tremendous pressure to turn this around.

In just eight months, Pioli has gone from hero to zero and the future isn’t looking that bright for the 57-year-old.

Tags AC Milan Rafael Leao Stefano Pioli Theo Henandez


  1. Yeah, signings not being played, not really true. Adli got a few chances, he showed he should be loaned to Salernitana or a similar team where he might get first team matches. But might, not 100% sure as he plays like a 12 year old kid, no tactical responsibility or anything, good with the ball but that is it. De Ketelaere played quite a few matches, but he obviously needs more time to adapt to new country, bigger club, league etc. Thiaw, when and where would he play? Milan played with 2 defenders and they were fit. Tomori, Kalulu, Gabbia and Kjaer. Bench Tomori so Thiaw could get experience? 😀 The only player I would say should have really played more is Vrancx because Milan had issues with midfielders. And no proper left back backup, 3 right backs, RW positions not covered but just patched up for a few M €. And Giroud in attack, a little bit over 1 goal per 3 matches and numerous chances missed between that. God wouldn’t win with a team like this, last year was lucky and only because of Leao. Leao himself brought over 50% of the title and won matches on his own. In those matches Milan wasn’t any better than yesterday, the only difference last year was that the defence was solid. Attack was horrible and without ideas already, but not a surprise with Leao – Giroud and Messias in attack. You know Leao has to do something out of these 3 or nothing will happen.

    1. Yes bench Tomori !! He sucks this year that is literally no brainer just because he had a good year last
      season that does not guarantee you a starting spot this season. Maybe things get stale because there are certain players that have a guaranteed spot in the first 11. Last year we played everybody even Samu got a chance that is why we were so fresh and hungry….There is no harmony between management and the coach this year and it shows on the pitch…

  2. The result is always the same. If you put youngsters in squad you will get always the same result. This is Serie A and not Erdevisie or Portugal League.
    Pioli squeeze the squad for best result. And now the ship is sinking.
    If you leave best players for free and bring cheap young players, this is always the result that you will got.
    And this is excellent result because they should be relegated.

    Milan had holes in last couple of years buy management decided to close the eyes. Milan had luck to win scudetto and also Milan had big luck this season in many games Serie a .
    This luck is now stopped and players are fed up.
    We are waiting from new board owner decisions who are going to change directions of sinking ship.

    1. Team lost Romagnoli, Kessie, Calhanoglu, Donnarumma and replaced them with Maignan (the only good replacement), Bakayoko and a bunch of kids that don’t have almost any first team experience. God wouldn’t win the title 2 years in a row with this, especially when your attack is consisted of Ibrahimović who will rarely play and certified bench warmers Giroud and Origi. They warmed benches at previous for a reason. You can bring Guardiola, Klopp or mix them into one person and the title still won’t happen.

  3. “After the game, he even stated that this was necessary to ‘not lose by a bigger margin’. And with that, the decision to bench Leao aroused even more confusion.”

    Why? Because Leao is so good at defending? LOL 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

  4. “Pioli deserves to be sacked for yesterday’s loss”

    WOW! Just… WOW!!! Losing to a faaaar better TEAM with the smallest possible margin after getting hammered buy such unstoppable machines as Torino, Lazio & Sassuolo (and not by 1 or 2 goals one might add) is worthy of getting fired? LOL. Someone’s delusional and cannot see the big picture.

    1. I agree he doesn’t need to be sacked because of the Inter result per se, but I do think he ought to be sacked because of the cumulative performances, now including this derby. The 3-5-3 was a blunder. I never understood why he would play it, or why others here have called for that formation. Say what you will about Leao, he is our most dangerous weapon for better or worse, and when the team reverted to 4-2-3-1 mid way through the second half we got a lot better and even generated a very good chance to score that Giroud squandered. If only we’d at least played a 4-3-3 from the start and then later gone back to the 4-2-3-1 as necessary. But instead we wasted a half parking the bus which wasn’t much of a bus since we should have been 3-0 down. You just don’t go on a tacrical adventure before the derby.

      1. “I never understood why he would play it”

        To get a 0-0 draw and a very, VERY lucky 1-0 win (yeah, utopistic but I’m sure he still dreamt of that). He decided to put “all in” on NOT CONCEDING. Which was the only sensible thing after getting a huge beating from Inter, Lazio & Sassuolo already.

        1. There are other ways to do this besides parking the bus with 5 at the back. I get what he was trying to do. Stalemate at half, and then revert to wingers (Leao) in the second half to try to use speed and width against a tiring Inter, but I think we were lucky to NOT BE down 3-0 at the half. Tatarusanu actually made a couple of miracle (for him) saves to keep us there.

    2. We are the worst team in top 5 leagues by results in 2023 how is that not a reason to get fired we are not fricking Spezia where a run like this can be tolerated. Yes our transfers suck but come on this squad is at least top 3 quality… I would not said anything if Pioli actually improved on clear weaknesses of this team not talent wise but just simple defending of crosses for example even Torino can do that better than us don’t tell me that is because they have a better team….. And for not playing yungsters I would agree with you that you have to get the best out of your starters but if they are not performning they have to be changed. How is Messias and diaz performance good enough and CDK is not, how ????

  5. We lost again and we are upset. However, getting rid of the coach is the wrong decision. Not only does it create uncertainty (which doesn’t help renew some players), we don’t have the money for anyone remotely as good.

    We lack ambition from the management and ownership side. The team was already struggling before the world cup with Tata in goal, and the accumulation of injuries (sometimes up to 8 key players) made this season one of the hardest yet. But with this squad and their problems, we got to UCL knockouts.

    We are also trying to keep our budget tight. This is not Pioli’s fault. He can’t come back from grocery shopping with a bottle of champagne with only 2 euros coming in.

    Knowing all of this, who do you think will turn this group of players into the hungry lions we know them to be? Someone else we can afford or the man who took us to UCL twice and a Scudetto?

    As for Leao… I don’t know what games you were watching but he hasn’t delivered in some time now. He is our best player when on form, but he is struggling just as much as others. If Man City wants him for 120 M, we would be stupid to refuse. This is the model now, let’s work with it and stop being nostalgic. Let’s find out how Brighton does it replicate it and do it better.

  6. Everyone and their mommies piled on the pressure for him to change formation and when he did finally yield we’re now upset with the outcome? And I love the comments section was quick to say go back to 4 231. Lol. Hilarious!
    This was never about formation but about movement, fitness and tactics.

    As an example, in terms of fitness, no team presses the way we do and lasts for many years. Like Liverpool and Barca of late 00s, players bodies pay for this sort of press at a high level for a long time, they dont tend to last for.many years . Individually, we’re short a man in defence and I’m not talking Tata. Theo is spent with the WC contributions and what I’ve said above. Then Tata does not inspire confidence in his CBs so they don’t know positionally where to be as they don’t know where he’s going to collect or not.and how high to have their line. This leads to nervousness and loss of awareness. And this is just the backline.

    1. Well… I wouldn’t single out Theo from the defense when the whole defensive line has been leaking EVERYWHERE in every match. No matter if the attacks come in from left, right, center or set-pieces, they all end up the same: ball in the net.

      Kalulu has made horrible mistakes. Same goes for Tomori & Calabria. Even Kjaer has gifted a goal or two. Not to mention Theo & Dest too. And Gabbia? Even with only 1-2 matches played he has managed to be involved in several gifted goals already. And don’t let me get started on the GK… 😀 😀 😀

      1. I wasn’t singling out. Was just saying one aspect of the defence specifically related to him. I love Theo but I know he’s super tired.
        All in all it’s an odd problem because we’ve never played like this before.

    2. And this: “And this is just the backline.”

      The worrying thing here is that everything starts from the backline. If the defense works, midfielders can play with more ease and try things as they feel more secure. I’ve never seen Tonali splash out the ball so terrified every time he got the ball in the 1st half. He couldn’t wait to get rid of the ball and splashed it blindly away immediately. I don’t think he recorded any passed to other Milan-players during the first half.

      Mark my words. When the defense starts working again (ie. when MM16 gets back), the midfielders will immediately improve their passing. And once the midfielders raise their level, our attack benefits too.

      So everything starts from the backline. But I’m sure eeeeeeveryone here knew that already (except the one lil girl who just loooooves to mention my initials every time she posts her doodlings). 😀

      1. Hey I can’t agree with 2 of your comments in one day based on principles 😂😂😂😂

        But yes….it’s starts from the defence. In some weird way I don’t mind us parking the bus for a while until we resolve that issue.

        1. “In some weird way I don’t mind us parking the bus for a while until we resolve that issue.”

          Exactly. Drastic situations demand drastic measures. And if this isn’t one of those I don’t know what would be.

          Win at ANY cost in the next two matches. No matter how fugly those points come but they need to come.

    3. Great analysis.

      Completely agree.

      The question is how do we fix it?

      If Tata is creating uncertainty at the back that is causing some of the issues we’re seeing in defence (which in fairness were there before Maignan got injured) then surely we need to give that new GK signing a go?

      Meanwhile at CB I really think we need to try and keep a fairly steady line up (as a 4 or 3 or whatever). That’s been the key to Milan’s turnaround under Pioli: first Romagnoli and Kjaer) and then Tomori and Kalulu. Those pairings played together consistently and built the foundations for the run that’s been going on for 2 years.

      For whatever reason Romagnoli lost it (and might have regained it again at Lazio). And it seems our current defenders are now doing the same.

      That’s the difficulty. Whatever about the summer transfer window the fact of the matter was it looked like Milan had landed on a solid CB pairing so I can understand the decision to leave it.

      The decision not to replace Kessie was less understandable but dwelling on that won’t solve the current crisis either.

      We will get a break eventually and if we can keep it together against Torino, scrape a 1:0 win, and build some confidence from there things could start to look quite different.

      1. I thing that after every clean sheet very next match the CB pairing was changed this season for some reason. CB pair needs consistency to get a feel for the game and Pioli did not gave them that this year and yes we are also weaker in the midfield we can’t just ignore that

  7. The current owner are here to kill the club they can help any more. We are praying for milan to have Arab owner in other to bring the club where it suppose to be final.

    1. No, they are here to make money. Winning titles will be just a good thing if it happens along the way. Unfortunately, there is no way for Arab owners until these US owners get the value of the club up and can sell for a profit.

        1. Ego, self promotion, money laundering political agenda in very rare case passion all of that, but definitely not making money 😀

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