Devil’s Advocate: The alibis and mistakes that have afflicted Pioli’s battle with effective rotation

By Oliver Fisher -

AC Milan squandered the opportunity to jump above Juventus into second place in the Serie A table after suffering their first ever league defeat to Monza, and the issue of rotation has come to the forefront again.

There were some eyebrows raised regarding the fact that head coach Stefano Pioli chose to make six changes from the team that had quite comprehensively beaten Stade Rennais on the Thursday night prior for the game at the U-Power Stadium.

In particular, the decision was taken to revamp the attack and midfield almost entirely with Luka Jovic leading the line, Samuel Chukwueze on the right and Noah Okafor on the left while Yacine Adli and Ismael Bennacer both came into the double pivot, leaving Ruben Loftus-Cheek on ‘unchanged island’.

Pioli has now been at Milan for four and a half years and he has found himself leading the team in European competitions in the last four, which means by now he should be as experienced as any coach when it comes to managing the workloads of players and the importance of commitments.

However, there are a growing portion of the fanbase who believe that – since the start of last season at least – Pioli has actually gone backwards when it comes to effectively keeping on top of allocating minutes and starts.

The precedents

Since last season, there have been at least 10 cases in which either before or after a European match, Pioli resorted to using what many are now labelling ‘Milan B’. Of these games, on seven occasions the performance and the result were negative.

The first instance was Torino away last season, played between the Champions League group stage games against Dinamo Zagreb and Red Bull Salzburg, and Milan suffered a 2-1 defeat after fielding a line-up with five changes.

Milan also dropped four points in the games against Empoli and Bologna, the latter being the famous game in which the coach decided to change every single player barring Mike Maignan.

The home draw against Cremonese (seven changes) and the away defeat against Spezia (four changes) are two further examples highlighting points lost with the implementation of massive turnover before and/or after a European match.

There could be an argument made that the decision to focus on the Champions League run was worthwhile, given that the team went to the semi-finals while the Scudetto was out of reach, thus finding a way to salvage pride amid domestic disappointment.

There are three further cases this season where Milan ran into difficulties after making changes, such as Genoa-Milan following the trip to Borussia Dortmund, where Pioli made five changes and the Rossoneri won at the end thanks to a goal from Christian Pulisic while Olivier Giroud ended up in net.

The other two are Milan-Udinese – which ended with a dire 1-0 home defeat after the decision was made to field both Giroud and Luka Jovic up front – and of course the most recent loss to Monza in which there were changes in every department.

Looking deeper

In most of the aforementioned cases it was quite a straightforward explanation as to why there were so many alterations from one game to the next: to keep the starters fresh for a more important next game. However, an evening like the one on Sunday deserves a bit more introspection since it remains so fresh in the memory.

Let’s start with the defence, where Malick Thiaw came in for Simon Kjaer. We have to remove hindsight from the equation for this to be a fair analysis, and in doing so we have no complaints about that decision.

Kjaer cannot play multiple games in a week any more, Thiaw was coming back from injury and had 30 minutes under his belt against Rennes, so if that wasn’t the game to give him a first start then when was? Atalanta at home on Sunday, a far more daunting attack?

Looking at the attack, again it is quite clear to see the rationale behind the choices, especially after Pioli explained what the situation was after the game in his post-match press conference.

“Yesterday [the day before the game] Pulisic didn’t train because he was still tired and Rafa was going to play but he stopped during the final session and this morning he kept saying that he didn’t feel free with his calf,” he said.

“Rafa has always played, Pulisic the same. I thought it was right like this. Christian has never played so much in recent years, then he came on and did very well.”

For those who are enraged that neither of the first choice wingers started, the simple answer is that doing so would have been putting them at big risk of getting an injury. The plan was to play Leao, he was far from 100%, so Noah Okafor and Samuel Chukwueze both started.

Then, we cannot act as if there hasn’t been a large amount of supporters clamouring for Luka Jovic to get a start given that Olivier Giroud played the full game against Rennes and the Serbian has been excellent but limited to mostly bench opportunities.

With all those factors in mind, that attack simply picked itself. If anything, it could be argued that Ruben Loftus-Cheek is overdue a rest as well with his injury past, but for the other it is clear there was no real choice: rotation was needed.

There are definitely much greater question marks about the chopping and changing of the midfield. Yunus Musah and Tijjani Reijnders did great against Rennes, but both players were swapped out for Yacine Adli – who was very poor on the night – and Ismael Bennacer.

A lot has been written about how at least part of Milan’s defensive troubles are down to a disorganised and unbalanced midfield that fail to control the game and act as a breakwater in transition, so changing the double pivot entirely three games in a row does not help continuity and familiarity.

The fact is that Pioli was let down by individual mistakes from a number of players, be they lapses in judgement from Thiaw or a complete rush of blood to the head like Jovic had, while Okafor and Chukwueze were anonymous and others flopped too.

A 2-0 half-time deficit was clawed back to 2-2 thanks to the impact from two substitutes – Giroud and Pulisic – but it was all for nought as Warren Bondo and Lorenzo Colombo scored in added time and stole the points back, leaving a bitter taste.

It was a big blow having battled from behind, yet the situation remains the same after the game: Milan have a comfortable cushion to sixth place (it’s highly likely the top five in Serie A will get Champions League qualification) and they are out of the Scudetto race, but remain in a fight for second.

Mitigating factors

There are a couple more things that Pioli will likely point to in defence of his decision to make widespread changes so often during his time at Milan.

The first is the squad depth, or lack thereof. It has been well documented that the coach did not have a wealth of options at his disposal during his first arguably three seasons at the club.

What that meant is that there was often a very clear distinction between the starter-level players and the reserve options. For example, resting Giroud and Leao meant playing Rebic and Origi last season.

The Frenchman and the Portuguese could not play every game, so when the time came to prioritise competitions there was a noticeable drop off due to a lack of squad depth.

Roster construction therefore becomes something that certainly influences the ability to rotate effectively. The main 12-13 players in the squad cannot play 100% of the games, so when they were replaced the performance level obviously dipped

Whether the team that was fielded for the Torino, Empoli, Spezia and Bologna games mentioned above should have been good enough to win is another story, but a lack of genuine quality strength in depth left Pioli’s hands tied a bit.

Then, unavoidably, there is the issue of injuries. There is a whole other debate and discussion about whether the things Pioli can control – like training sessions, rest days and the type of work done at Milanello – could have avoided the various crises that have sprung up.

The staggering numbers have been well reported, with the most recent issue being an adductor problem for Davide Calabria who is still out and will be evaluated in the next few days ahead of a possible return before the weekend.

The full-back picked up the 34th injury of the season that a Milan player has had and the 23rd muscle injury, albeit the first one since January 10th, and with the return to playing twice a week imminent it must be hoped it is not the start of a return to the trend late in 2023.

What injuries produce is a vicious cycle: a player goes down in a particular position which means that the other player in that role has to work overtime until they get back, which in turn increases their risk of picking up a problem from working harder and so on.

It doesn’t quite feel right to label having so many physical problems as an ‘uncontrollable’, but either way it has limited Pioli’s ability to rotate, especially in the attacking department where several players have gone down this season.

Resource management

The Monza game puts Pioli in a difficult position ahead of the next two games. With another big match to come against Atalanta on Sunday at San Siro, what will he do in Rennes on Thursday? The temptation might be to rest players again in midweek, and go all-out against La Dea at the weekend.

With that said, this is where the feeding of alibis and explanations stops and the scrutiny has to begin. The fact is that it should never have to come down to batch rotations, and for an explanation we turn to Alessandro Del Piero.

The Juventus legend was covering the Monza game and on the Sky Sport Club programme he had his say on the questionable decision to make six changes by Pioli.

“It’s easier to have two or three new additions [to the line-up] compared to usual rather than four or five. However, it’s difficult to be a bench player and to then come on from the first minute, and perform great,” he said.

A brilliant example of what Del Piero is referring to is the fact that Pioli fielded the Pulisic-Giroud-Leao trident from the start in 17 out of 24 league matches (before Monza) and for four out of six matches in the Champions League games.

The comparison with the rest of Italy speaks volumes. Sassuolo’s trio of Berardi, Pinamonti and Laurienté are second having played 15 matches together, then Vlasic-Sanabria-Zapata started together 11 times for Torino and the others are under 10.

None of the three started on Sunday, which meant that the Chukwueze-Jovic-Okafor front three had a lot of pressure to produce having been reduced to almost entirely appearances off the bench so far this season.

As Del Piero alluded to, it is very hard to perform in those circumstances. That is why tweaks here and there are so important where possible, like playing Leao and Giroud with Chukwueze, Okafor with Giroud and Pulisic or Leao and Pulisic supporting Jovic.

When it becomes two or three new players in a particular department, it upsets the apple cart too much and eliminates and kind of cohesion and chemistry that has been built up. It leaves the team disjointed, which in turn has an impact on the other parts of the pitch including the defence.

Having the three main central defenders out at once, Bennacer out for a long time, Pobega sidelined, Okafor and Chukwueze absent for periods et cetera has meant it hasn’t always been easy to do that, yet that is where a coach earns their money.

They must know that fielding the strongest possible line-up 90% of the time to then heavily rotate on a couple of occasions in busy periods is not effective squad management. Sometimes pre-made plans come unstuck, but there has to be an ability to adapt and react.

What next?

In truth, the final part of the 2023-24 season feels like a procession. The hopes of getting a second star before Inter have faded into the distance, there is no Coppa Italia to at least hang onto a trophy target, and at the moment the idea of reaching the Europa League final in Dublin seems more like a dream than tangible reality.

There is still a lot to watch out for between now and the end of the season, with players fighting for their future at the club and the chance for Milan to measure themselves in a derby again, though it does seem like the Pioli era is fizzling out.

Rotation is just one of the areas that the manager is in the dock for which makes this a strange situation, because there an acknowledgement that a natural time to part is coming yet with every negative episode a public pile-on occurs.

The Rossoneri are in need of new ideas, that’s for sure, and the new coach will hopefully have a clear tactical identity, will have the summer to mould a squad better suited to their needs, will bring a new staff to help with the condition of the squad and will finally nail the issue of managing it effectively.

Tags AC Milan Stefano Pioli


  1. “As Del Piero alluded to, it is very hard to perform in those circumstances. That is why tweaks here and there are so important where possible, like playing Leao and Giroud with Chukwueze, Okafor with Giroud and Pulisic or Leao and Pulisic supporting Jovic.”

    It is called integrating players.
    Very nessessary for new signings and also to keep other squad members fit, happy and sharp.

    Back up goal keeper is probably the best example.
    You must give them competitive minutes, it is not fair to wait for an emergency and throw them to the lions.

    Thiaw may have been terrible and Jovic very stupid but this is fully on Pioli and his complete lack of integrating and rotating players

  2. Great work Oliver Fisher.
    No beating around the bush and not looking for constant excuses for the limitations of the coach.
    Pioli is a very limited coach and someone who should only coach teams that compete only in 1 competition.
    His man management is atrocious. Plays the same players into the ground until they get Injured. No little rotations on a game to game basis to keep players engaged unless injuries force his hand. Then once every 2 months goes into a game with a wholesale rotation and most importantly those players look like they have never played with each other before. That’s not surprising because Milan is not a team. No coach relies on individuals than Pioli.
    Some say that this shows that Milan depth isn’t good. That argument would make sense if Milan looked bad vs. Inter or Juventus with their backup playing. Milan looked awful vs. Monza. No matter what you think of Milan backups, each and every one of them would be a starter and best players at Monza.
    How would inter look if Simone Inzaghi rolled out with a line up of Sanches and Arnautovic up top , backed up by Asllani, Frattesi, and Klaasen in the midfield? I don’t think Sanches and Arnautovic have started together even once.
    When it comes to the excuse about too much turnover in the squad under Pioli. Don’t go any further than looking at Inter. Last summer 12 players came in and 11 left. More turnover than Milan.
    Also, Conte left inter only 2.5 years ago, and there are only 5 or 6 players from his time. Bastoni, Barella, Lautaro, De Vrij, Darmian and Alexis Sanches who just cane back.
    That’s around 75% squad turnover and a new coach and in that period inter has won 5 trophies, 6th in the bag and hopefully don’t win the UCL as well where they were in the final last season and objectively were the better team than Man City.
    I understand fans having different opinions about who should be Milan’s coach next season. Some want Motta, others Conte, Sarri etc, but I don’t understand fans still wanting Pioli to coach next season.
    Milan needs a new coach. Pioli should have been fired in January of 2023. Some started hyping Pioli up after Milan had a good run of results over the last 9,10 games playing awful football vs the bottom 3rd of serie A. What happened vs Monza is something that was happening vs Salernitana, Udinese, Frosinone when Milan was saving themselves in the last minutes of those games. And the couple times they played vs top of the table teams they either lost (Atalanta) or drew vs Bologna.
    Bring Motta and Zirkzee in. Enough of Pioli.

  3. Long story I would.put short.

    Players made big mistakes. Thiaw, than also in beginning Okafor and Jovic, both didn’t score. And of course Jovics red card. With Maignan, who stopped doing miracle.
    Coach must rotate, but bench players, like Okafor, Jovic, Chukwueze, Adli, must give 150% every chance.
    With Thiaw who is very naive and young, Milan conciede 4 goals

    1. Thiaw – coming back from injury. Hardly played 30 mins, and that too has to play alongside temporary Gabbia and Florenzi. It is madness! If he had Kjaer alongside with Calabria (coming from injury and haven’t even played a full 90 mins, it would different).
      The attack completely new – Okafor, Jovic, Chuk (coming back from AFCON). They have never played one game together for more than 10-15 mins…
      Midfield with unfit Bennacer and Adli who is playing as a defensive mid, while RLC who has zero skills as no.10. Who is going to create or score in such a lineup???

      How are anyone with a sane mentality saying it IS NOT Pioli’s fault? Are you all serious!
      Every season, except the one where Milan won Scudetto, were all Pioli’s fault. Milan won Scudetto because there were some really good individuals, with Zlatan who was incharge, it was never Pioli. Pioli cannot manage anything. He is just a tactician who can tell how to play the game.

  4. Blaming anyone other then Pioli for these results is nuts. Its time to confes that he is a coach with very limited managerial skills and knowledge and nowhere near a coach for top 4 teams. We can even argue resaults that he achieved in 5 years of his journy at Milan- top 4(fairplay), scudetto(had better team and a bit of luck, without beautiful playing style), semis of CL(pure luck- against tottenham in last seconds, against Napoli also in dying minutes Mike’s penalty save). So there isnt any wow effect of our game with Pioli. And this season utter embarassment, after spending more than 100Mil on transfers we are hardly scraping top 4 and losing points on “easy opponents”. On top of that elimination from coppa italia and CL. If he isnt sacked after the season ends I would really start questioning people in charge at Milan, Cardinale, Furlani, Moncada and others. Because scenario that we are currently whitnesing is sad and i hope this season ends quick, with hopefully getting top 4 and in summer watching another big squad restart.

    1. Since when is spending big money a guarantee for success? It was a total revamp bringing in foreign players who have no knowledge of the language and league. And why is this all on Pioli? He’s not responsible for Thiaw’s rookie challenge (two in span of 4 seconds) and Jović’s red card. The mistake he made was heavy rotation but hey, newsflash! That’s why they bought all these players right? To have it covered. Also, in Scudetto season we had one of best defensive records so don’t say it was pure luck. This season we have one of worst defensive records ever in the history of Milan but are firmly third, so what does that tell you?

  5. Exactly, by changing the entire attack and so many players from defence or midfield, you wont have any reference points left.

    The reason why Okafor or Jovic has performed previously is because they have on most occasions had som references. Leao does this i do that, Pulisic does this i do that, etc.

    But now the nobody has a clue what to do together, they have rarely played together.

    Most of the times Adli had to force them to with passes into spaces. You could see the frustration from Adli regarding chuk, he has not been integrated properly.

    To be honest nobody showed themselves open for a pass in the first half, everyone was hugging a Monza player. How the fuck are you supposed to give a proper pass.

    I am not trying to “save” Adli here, the same was when Bennacer had the ball. The only options they had to pass was each other or the backline.

    Another question is why keep statting Magnian in every competition, we have good backup goalies. Let them battle between cup and league, a great way to give them rest and keep up the competition between them. If Magnian perfoms subpar, give the other goalies a chance. You are not getting minutes if you don’t perform, period.

    This is one of the reasons we see Leao walking around on the pitch like he is Ibra in his 40’s. He thinks he is untouchable, even though he is you don’t give him the chance to think like that.

    Duplicate comment?!?

    1. Haha, yes the comment system is broken. Most of the times when I write it says I’m writing to many comments even ig I haven’t posted in several days.

  6. In previous seasons, the squad was not as deep as it is now. Milan brought in a lot of players and strengthened a lot of areas, with a lot of youngsters capable of playing 20-30 mins almost every match, while the senior players can be rested.
    Instead, it is clear that Pioli did not make this mistake because of a lack of depth, he simply DOES NOT want to rotate the squad and give time to other players. When a number of rotations are necessary, like vs Monza (injuries or upcoming UEFA games), these players have already played enough minutes to gel with a new-look team.
    Instead, most players hardly even played 10 mins amongst themselves. Instead, it was a fully new attack, a new midfield, and a half-balanced defense. Milan never looked like they were going to score. When Giroud plays 90 mins of 25+ matches every week, someone like Jovic cannot make an impact, especially with a new-look attack. If Jovic had started with Pulisic and Leao, at least there was some familiarity. RLC is not a no.10, so obviously he cannot create opportunities and was practically invisible. So basically, the team did not have any creators. When Leao, Reijnders, and Pulisic came on, the team looked more attacking and could create chances.
    The mistake was Pioli’s fault, as this is not the first time he made this mistake. He keeps playing the same XI for 25+ games and never gives the others a chance to make an impact or get more minutes under their belt. What was the purpose of keeping Giroud, Leao, Pulisic, and RLC, when already Milan were leading 3-0 vs Rennes? The result was already confirmed. Pioli should have benched these 4 players and put in new faces like the ones he opted vs Monza at around 50-60 mins. Give them 30+ minutes to gel together, instead of last 5-10 mins when most of the team is in defensive mode. This will never help them improve or make them effective when called to start a game.
    Pioli is too weak in squad management, which is one of his major weaknesses!

  7. fire the baldy? people said oooof new players, he needs time. well time was given and we still play like cr@p. them barely wins just put a nice coat of paint over something that is not working at all. Last 5games our record is 11F and 8A, won 3 lost and draw 1 each. Wanna know how many goals atalanta let in in that time? 2.


    And Gasperini isnt even a scudeto winning coach, whatever that means..

  8. Well written article, looking at things from different perspectives. My only thing I want to point out also is that Jovic doesn’t fit in the system we have. He only scores when coming in alongside Giroud.

    Therefore maybe he should never start. And that’s a problem. He’s a different kind of player. One that should not touch the ball more than once and that is to make a finish. His first touches other than finishing are atrocious.

    1. I understand your point about Jovic, he is good as an impact sub/ poacher.
      However he has lead an attack in the past and done very well.
      He is always thrown on when we are desperate in the final minutes and all structure is gone. That way he stays in the box and waits for a chance

      If he was given the chance to play with Leao and Pulisic for longer periods he could learn the teams dynamics and get some chemistry with his fellow attackers.
      He has never had the chance

  9. It’s not whether you rotate, it’s how. For instance, we could’ve alternated Pulisic and Leao on LW against monza, each playing 45 minutes.

    Also, I wonder why Inter with their much older squad don’t rotate as much? And no, I don’t buy that it’s because of our different style of play. Milan need players that can handle a tough european schedule, like e.g. Reijnders and Theo who don’t seem to need any rotation at all. If you can’t play two matches a week, go play for Torino or something

    I read that poor fragile Leao and Pulisic were too tired, and didn’t feel like they want to stress their delicate body against a boring unimportant match like Monza. If it was PSG in the champions league, I imagine they would have been fighting to start the match. I rather we lose 5 times against rennes in the stupid European cup for midtable clubs, then lose once in serie a where our bread and butter is. Pathetic

  10. Y’all are slow.
    When exactly in the last 2 months has Pioli had the chance to introduce the bench front three from the start gradually? When Okafor was injured or when he could only play 10 minutes. When Leao was injured? When Chukwueze was at AFCON?
    Also, haven’t they all gotten starts? What had they done with the starts when they started with the first team player?

    Y’all expect everything to perfectly align like a video game. Only Leao gets fatigued this week, so Okafor gets his start with the normal starters. Then next week, Pulisic conveniently gets a minor injury, while Leao returns on cue like a machine; so Chukwueze gets his turn with the starters. Meanwhile Giroud and the other 9 starters are waiting patiently for their time to get fatigued so they can get a rest. Because that’s how real life works.
    Pathetic. But that’s okay.

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