Devil’s Advocate: An uncomfortable discussion about Milan’s psychological regression

By Oliver Fisher -

The 3-1 defeat against Borussia Dortmund not only left AC Milan’s Champions League hopes hanging by a thread, but it also once again openly exposed the mentality issues within the squad.

It is important to let the dust settle after an important game, especially one that produces a result which many believe should mark the end of a head coach’s four-year cycle, but no matter which tunnel of thought is explored the same themes keep popping up surrounding this Milan squad.

Now more so than ever it feels right to speak about and above all question the mental strength of Stefano Pioli’s team, who have simply been not strong enough in the biggest games and on a micro level the crossroads moments of the match.

In many ways the Dortmund defeat distilled everything into 90 minutes. Milan had a huge chance to take the lead from the penalty spot early on and put a lot of pressure on their visitors, and yet Olivier Giroud – who had been excellent from 12 yards before and is one of the most experienced in the squad – did not take advantage.

Moments later, Milan dug a hole for themselves. Davide Calabria is also a leader – something which will become a salient point – given he wears the arm band, and he made a clumsy challenge that he didn’t have to after showing his man outside to a less threatening area.

Despite this, the Rossoneri sparked into life and were able to react before half-time thanks to Samuel Chukwueze’s first goal for the club. Even in the first 10 minutes of the second half, Milan appeared solid and capable of creating danger.

Malick Thiaw’s injury will be pointed at by many as the moment where the game changed, and while Pioli was forced to play Rade Krunic out of position at centre-back it was not a red card and the game remained 11 vs. 11.

The courage seemed to vanish from the players and then the over 70,000 fans present when Jamie Bynoe-Gittens swept home Dortmund’s second after a quick flowing move through the box from one side to the other.

From there the psychological fragility of this squad was exposed, and it is such a stark contract to the confident and almost care-free versions of Pioli’s Milan we saw in the post-Covid and Scudetto seasons.

Going behind is almost a death sentence for Milan this season, given that they have only won two games from a deficit which were the 3-1 victory away against Cagliari in round three and the 2-1 home win over Paris Saint-Germain that kept Champions League last 16 hopes alive. Albeit temporarily, as it turned out.

That in itself must stop and make us reflect, asking difficult questions. The most poignant one is this: has this Milan group – which still has so many of the same leaders from that title season – now mentally regressed?

Often during 2021-22 and last season a tough patch of form was the shake-up that Pioli’s men needed, an internal stimulus driven by a desire for pride and revenge, demonstrated in huge moments such as the 4-0 win over champions-elect Napoli, plus the Champions League nights against Spurs and the Partenopei.

Borussia Dortmund head coach Edin Terzic has made some interesting points straight after his side’s memorable win at San Siro last night, including one where he was asked about the tactical side of things but focused on something more important in his eyes.

“The boys were exhausted, but they are very happy, satisfied with this qualification. We all remember the evening of the draw when we were talking about this group of death, when they told us that we had no chance after the defeat in the first match against PSG and the draw at home with Milan. Milan also needed to win today, but we wanted it more,” he said.

‘What was the tactical key?’ he was asked in a follow-up question. His reply: “We can talk endlessly about tactics, but we entered with the right mentality.”

Speaking about ‘psychology’ and ‘mentality’ might just be vague buzzwords to some, so how can it be more concretely defined? Well, the numbers demonstrate a quite striking drop-off in the second half of games compared to the first.

A report was published two weeks ago which explored the findings regarding if the Serie A standings took into account only the first or second halves of games, which serves to help understand the performance of a team as the game goes on.

In this sense, Milan are very much Jekyll and Hyde. As of November 14, if only the first half were counted Milan would be on 25 points and would be three behind Inter with 13 goals scored, four conceded and only one defeat.

If only the second halves were included, they would be on just 15 points with seven goals scored, 10 conceded and 11th place in the table, 11 behind the Nerazzurri, still first.

Four recent league games perfectly demonstrate the Rossoneri’s issues. They were 2-0 up against both Napoli and Lecce before throwing it away to draw 2-2, while they were 0-0 against Juventus and Udinese at HT but lost both 1-0.

Then there is the Champions League discussion, which is almost a separate thing entirely. Good performances against Newcastle at home and Dortmund away in the first two games, but zero wins or goals to show. A bad night in Paris, winning from behind back home and then throwing the momentum away with another second half collapse.

Pioli is currently on trial with the fans and the Italian media. The time will come to discuss things surrounding his management and his future in due course, however for now there is nothing to add that isn’t being said and of course he should be apportioned a fair amount of the blame.

However, games are decided by the players on the field and Milan’s most dependable players went missing when they were needed the most last night, just as they have done in other big games this season.

Theo Hernandez was once again disappointing in the left-back role, while as mentioned Giroud missed a penalty before becoming completely ineffectual. Calabria was run ragged on Milan’s right, while Mike Maignan went from hero to (almost) villain as he was completely dumbfounded by Dortmund’s third goal after having produced a match-saving stop on Saturday against Fiorentina.

Some uncomfortable questions must be asked off the back of such failings. Are the leaders really leaders when they cannot lead by example on a regular basis?

Whenever the time has come to show that the squad have taken that next step in mentality and maturity, they have so rarely done so. That doesn’t just apply to the current campaign either, but now there is a real risk of the season being meaningless before Christmas.

Milan need points, they need consistency, they need to score more and they need to keep more goals out. Yet first of all it will be necessary to work on the mental and psychological reaction strength of a team which, above all now, seems to have an empty chasm where once spirit stood before.

Tags AC Milan


  1. Quoting Carlo Garganese:

    “Nightmare game for Milan. Defensively a mess. Calabria & Maignan awful

    Pioli played into BVB hands, they cut thru so easy on transition. Adli too open at regista

    Attack blunt without Leao. Another injury too

    Big questions of Pioli. 2W 2D 4L in last 8. Need miracle to go thru”

  2. Great article especially on the leader point.
    A big part of Milan fans blame the summer Mercato for Milan poor performance and results this season.
    The Mercato wasn’t perfect. Milan didn’t address the striker position, but if we look at the players that were brought in to make an immediate impact, the majority of them have performed well.
    Pulisic has been arguably Milan best player so far.
    Okafor for the role and minutes he gets has been OK.
    The midfield trio of RLC Reijnders & Musah have been OK.
    Chukwueze has been missing until last night and Jovic has been so far disappointing.
    Sportiello, Pellegrino and Romero, were bought to be a GK back up and players for the future.
    So if majority of the signings have been performing based on expectations, some even over achieved those expectations, and Milan has better quality players in the squad this season compared to last, Why is Milan underperforming?
    Well n1, Milan still has the same coach with only one already figured out tactic of running around like a chicken without head, chasing players all over the field and hoping you can score on the counter attack. Same fitness preparation that is butchering Milan players left and right.
    2nd. Besides improving the quality of the team from the outside with transfers, a team needs to improve from the inside as well. The already existing players should elevate their games every season, especially if they are in their mid twenties and haven’t reached their prime.
    What Milan player from last season has improved this year? Outside of Tomori, NO ONE.
    Just look at the so called best players on the team. Leao has been mostly awful. Theo has been mostly awful. And Maignan who is still pretty good has been disappointing compared to last 2 seasons. I’d add Giroud but he gets a break because he is old as dirt.
    But most fans usually avoid looking at those “big players” performances. They just wanna talk about the low men on the totem poll.
    Your so called best players have to perform consistently on a high level. If you going to call Maignan the best GK in the world, Theo the best LB in the world and Leao a great player ( 🤣🤣🤣) they need to perform like that most of the time. Not once in a blue moon(Leao).
    Theo has been mostly poor since he got the French NT call up. Di Marco has passed him by. He isn’t even the best LB/LWB in the city of Milano let alone the world.
    Maignan is not the same GK. He got embarrassed and then bailed out vs. Lecce, conceding a goal from 40 yards away in the last minute.
    Leao is too busy rapping, making stupid tik tok videos or being best friends with clown streamers. Didn’t Maldini in a recent interview tell a story of how leao asked him if he can release his album during the season? You can’t build a team around him man. He neither has the quality nor the mentality to be a great player or center of a project. Same questions and doubts we had about Leao in 2019, we have them almost 5 years later. Almost no improvement in his game.
    But let’s avoid talking about those players, let’s blame the likes of Krunic, Pobega, Jovic for everything.

    1. “Pulisic has been arguably Milan best player so far.”

      What? Hahahahaha. I won’t even read after that, the delusion is high in you.

    2. Well said. Maybe not about Puli being the best but I’ll admit he’s the best newcomer for sure and not far from actually being the best in the team ATM. And it says A LOT about the others. As you said, everyone except Tomori has been awful compared to last season. You can’t expect Milan to be leading Serie A when everyone has dropped their levels noticeably. And you can’t blame that on the new purchases either.

      So who’s to blame? The players and most of all… No, not Cardinale. Not Furlani either. Padre Pioli. That’s the one. Head coach is ALWAYS responsible for bad results. And especially bad performances. And those we’ve had plenty of.

  3. The team isn’t playing together and the performances expose their mental fragility. This isn’t the same team that won the Scudetto and for that reason maybe it will take longer for this bunch to come together.

    The problem with that is that all these injuries are killing off any continuity that we are trying to build, because there’s a necessitated reshuffling of the team due to injuries and it’s evident the players have a hard time understanding each other’s movements.

    A lot of this is on PIoli of course. Tough to tell if he isn’t in complete control of the locker room and doesn’t have the unity yet that is needed to make it work. He is a limited tactician as we know and won’t deliver results above his capacity (mainly Europe). I think he stays until the season’s end and then it’s just time to move on…

    Having said this though, the players HAVE to take accountability for the lack of their performances. FOR EXAMPLE: Giroud missing a PK can happen, but disappearing after that miss is criminal for a player of his class and experience. CALABRIA, is the captain of this team but continually makes mistakes that cost us games. So after a loss to Dortmund, having made your mistakes, how can you try to re-moralize and regroup your team when your mistakes cost us the game? Calabria never should have been a captain.

    We are missing an authoritative presence in the locker room to carrot-or-stick these young players. Calabria ain’t it, Pioli is certainly not it as his course has run. Kjaer is too old and often injured. Maignan maybe? Hard to say. Presumably this is why Ibra was supposed to come in. But at this point is there really any use for him?

    Lastly, we are also partially in this position because two critical needs of the squad weren’t addressed over the summer: CB and CF. Of course it doesn’t matter how many players you bring in if they are all constantly getting injured and this definitely deserves attention. But critical areas weren’t covered. So there’s only so much Pioli can do with 37yo Giroud and invisible man Jovic… As for the back – it was all fine with Tomori/Thiaw healthy. And now……..

    The only sensible thing to do is to drop out of Europe, focus on Top4 domestically (which I think Pioli can still do) then answer the hard questions in the summer.

    1. Was about to say more or less the same thing. Pioli obviously isn’t a top tier coach but I’d love to know what he’s supposed to do when Giroud misses a penalty, Calabria gives one away and Thiaw pulls up with a hamstring and all our CBs are out. If Maldini hadn’t given up on Botman due to his love pursuit of Renato Sanches (or CDK, I forget which) then things may be different.

      1. Yes, yes, it had nothing to do with the extra money asked by his club and the money offered to him by Newcastle. He only agreed on personal terms with Milan, the fee was never agreed.

      2. What a coach supposed to do? I’m not a manager but most top managers have at least some success with fortifying their squad mentality. I don’t see many teams miss as many sitters as Milan, the ones that do usually replace their coach. He’s basically been using the same variation of a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 where ball movement is labored and predictable. Every possession the play usually focuses on the wings to advance the ball and then pump it to an isolated center forward being marked easily by 2 cbs. Further with how often Milan miss sitters the coach has to take responsibility. Obviously the squad needs a lot of finishing training. He can’t utilize his depth (the cb situation and okafor is bad luck) but most of these injuries are tied to his persistence with a style of play the squad clearly is not physically capable of carrying out. He’s regularly out coached because everyone knows what he’s going to do and on the rare occasion he does switch things up it’s a reactive switch that’s only tried a couple times the week before and he abandons at the first sign of trouble. He can’t beat the low block and can’t win big games. He’s 0-5 vs inter recently and those games aren’t even close. I understand Milan are in an injury crisis but the lack of ideas and flow is terrible. The year and a half of the same mistakes and the same regression are inexcusable and rest on the coach. It’s time to move on (once and adequate coach becomes available, much love but not Sheva)

        1. Nelli, dejan is telling you that Maldini is to blame for these results. The guy will jump at any chance to make up something to spit on Maldini. Doesn’t even matter what is it about, he just makes up something random and writes it, just watch for it and you’ll notice it keeps happening.

    2. Fvckin great post. My one issue is with the needing to address CB in the summer. We had the group of Tomori, Thiaw, Kjaer, Kalulu, Pellegrino and I guess Caldara. Nothing screams “get a new CB”. We’re having these issues now because literally five of six are down with injury. You could have six Thiago Silvas (or whoever) and if five of them get injured you’re in trouble. Striker was the big hole. Of course, now we have to get a CB, if not in January then certainly in the summer as Caldara (who hasn’t played a minute) is out of contract, Pellegrino seems like he will be useless, Kjaer is no longer able to keep fit, and there are questions about Kalulu. We don’t need a revolution, as some are calling for. Just a new coach, a good striker, a good CB, and a backup for Theo. These are the holes needing immediate patching. Then in 2025 and moving forward we can transition into making a “targeted” signing every summer that will greatly improve a given position from whatever baseline it’s at, maybe RB will be the first, but also CM will need to be looked at.

    3. “Lastly, we are also partially in this position because two critical needs of the squad weren’t addressed over the summer: CB and CF.”

      Well… They did purchase an Argentina international CB. At least they tried fixing that position.

  4. “Mike Maignan went from hero to (almost) villain as he was completely dumbfounded by Dortmund’s third goal after having produced a match-saving stop on Saturday against Fiorentina.” The guy shot straight into his head. I mean it was a good save, but accidental, Maignan did well to recover and go back to that position but you keep writing about that like he jumped and aimed to save it with his head. Did not happen. Stop it.

    1. I agree that was a lucky save even though he positioned himself right, he basically got a knock to the head with the ball.

      1. Yes, but every 2nd article after that game writes about it, like it will be the save of the century. Looked good but it was a lucky save, time to move on.

        1. I had noticed that but had I ignored it but you are absolutely right but this is also how this news outlet works as they pretty much posts the same article several times over several days by different websites so it pretty much happens with it all articles but with small variations.
          He positioned himself well but not really sure i would say it looked good as he could just as well have been sucker punched out of the blue instead.

          1. Yes, it’s true it was a “lucky” save, although he had to be in the right position to make the block and a body party is a body part. If it hits his planted foot is it a lucky save or did he mean to have his foot precisely there? It’s also true that it’s being over-hyped, just like Giroud’s goalkeeping adventures.

          2. If he moves that body part in the direction of the ball, while actually looking towards the ball or the player with the ball, with the intention to make the save and does it, that is world class goalkeeping and they can write about it day and night. Most saves are accidental and shouldn’t be mentioned 100 times, like the one in question. Too much hype, it was good positioning, but like I’ve said, still a lucky save.

          3. tkoje pretty much answers your question but i also mentioned that he positioned himself well and that is obviously part of the save but he did get lucky that it struck his head nevertheless, theres a big deffently a difference between sticking a leg or foot out than being shot directly to the temple of his head,

      1. Are you denying that you are over talking about that save like it was save of the year, maybe even decade? I read things like “produced a world-class save” or “being the hero with an absolutely stunning save in the dying minutes of added time”. I could probably get a few more. If you got a bit lucky (even with the positioning and his movement being great) it isn’t that stunning or world-class. It never was.

        1. “…yet if Maignan hadn’t made the save of the year in the 96th minute from Mandragora’s shot then the game would feel a lot different.” ??

          1. You literally wrote that is the save of the year. And you’re calling me out for saying it is too much? Fine. I stand by what I said.

      2. Oli, brother, have you not figured out who to have or not to have objective conversations with on these comments thread? You run the place 🙂

        Many come here just to vent with a complete lack of objectivity.

      1. dejan, most things don’t make sense to you. I’m not the issue there. You forgot a random lie to spit on Maldini…What a clown.

        1. Right, Maldini didn’t spend all summer chasing Sanches only for him to sign for PSG and chasing CDK only for him to flop. I know you think no one else on here is allowed a different opinion apart from Karens like you, but guess what…

          1. You wrote that Maldini gave up on Botman. They never agreed the fee, if I remembered correctly Milan was offering 30M and Newcastle paid 40M in the end.

            It isn’t an opinion, it is a lie. Also, opinions are not there for everyone to agree with them. I think you missed that part in your life. People can disagree and this is fine, but your stupid lies are not part of any normal discussion.

          2. I have perfectly normal discussion with people with balls. Those without them lie and then the only thing they can do is get to things like “Karen” and similar names because you can’t do better. At least do a proper insult, grow a pair…I get it, it is ok for you, but for me that would be a bit embarrassing.

  5. Remember the Sassuolo game to clintch the title and Pioli was celebrating with the fans the entire second half rather than seeing the game out? Thats when I started to dislike the guy. He seemed truly arrogant in that moment especially for a guy who has had zero managerial achievements before. I don’t know who to replace him with but it’s clear Milan can make all the signings they want Pioli is the core issue.

    Next summer along with replacing Pioli I’d consider selling The, he’s been a no show all year and I believe he’s due for a renewal.

    1. And did you consider that Theo is the only player at Milan without a real replacement? And not only this season, but for 4 years now. So he has to play mildly injured and in some matches where usually he wouldn’t play. This is also a really really stupid thing, the club should have found extra 10-15M to get a good backup, not be the new cheap Milan and play Florenzi there…

        1. All true, but there is only so much money. You can cover all positions and backups but then it’s with 10m players and the complaint will be that none of them are good enough. The club tries to bring in difference makers, which usually cost at least 30M and then also has to balance that with backups. The more backups, the less difference makers, and vice versa. Then in playing that game, we also have tried to find difference makers on a bargain. I’m looking at RLC and Pulisic. Two players that have declined in value because of injuries and competition at a club that spend 200m every summer without selling major players. Pulisic was rated at 60m at one point. It seems that there just wasn’t enough to cover everything this summer. Choices had to be made.

          1. Yes, but they are 20M players at best. RLC can’t play over 30 games in a season, he never could. He has maybe on season with 40 games. If he was a 40-50 games player, he would be worth 50M. How can he be worth more than 20M when you know he will miss a month or two during season and more than a few important matches. Unreliable. He couldn’t get over 30 games in a season even on loans, why? Injured, not the stupid stories that coaches at Chelsea did not like him. They can’t rely on someone that will 100% be out for a few months. Pulisic exactly the same. You know he will be injured for a few months. It isn’t really a bargain, it is a realistic price for players that won’t be there the whole season.

          2. True, and that’s the nature of risk. For example, Chelsea paid 64M for Pulisic based on his talent and production. We got him for 20M because he’s had fitness issues. The gamble is in hoping that he stays on the right side of fit, and then we’d have a bargain, as we would have gotten a 50-60M player for 20M. This is what you have to do sometimes when you have 5 holes in the squad to fill and only €n to spend. We could have signed two 60M euro players and still had Saelemaekers or Pobega starting matches. Or maybe they don’t sell Tonali and spend 50M on a striker and then you still have Saelemaekers on the right, no backup for Leao, and Tonali and Krunic starting until Tonali gets suspended and we’d be starting every game with Krunic and Pobega in the double pivot. There just seems to be no perfect answer.

          3. I said the same thing 6 months ago – If you buy 20M players and that is the limit, you get what you get. Especially if that is 7 of them and most become starters. Last in CL group after 5 games and 6 points behind Inter, and also behind Juventus. I did hope, but did not expect much better. Also there were some cheaper players or some players that would bring results without the injuries. Like Berardi, he might not be that attractive as a winger but he scores like crazy. He would be what, 30M? I’m sure he would score more than captain injury, for almost the same money when you take wages into account. And so on. Maybe is he was American he would be at the club, that was one of the reasons.

          4. And 150M€ is now gone, that money will not come to Milan unless PSG really messes up and Milan beats Newcastle. It is 100M from CL and about 50M from club world chamionship or whatever it is called now. That is a top stiker, a top winger and a top midfielder. This is what I’m talking about, revenue from prize money was how much, 30% of all the income last year? You invest money to make money, you don’t save money to make money.

          5. I hear you, but nothing is guaranteed. You could be like Chelsea and spend 500m in a summer and still finish mid-table. It would be a financial catastrophe for Milan. That’s why you make small bets to build the pot. You can bet the house and win big, but you can also lose it all in one shot. While the current situation and lost revenues are not ideal, the club isn’t going to go into receivership for it.

      1. “This is also a really really stupid thing, the club should have found extra 10-15M to get a good backup, not be the new cheap Milan and play Florenzi there…”

        Yes, or at the VERY LEAST give some of our promising primavera LBs time in the moments Theo was unavailable. They will never improve if they don’t get time with the first team. The long term benefits are worth the potential error, given how poorly out of position has beens like Florenzi will perform anyway.

        1. I agree but I would get a good player for backup if the plan is to go far in CL. Kids from Primavera will hardly be able to do that as even players of 25 sometimes get excited and distracted when 1st time playing CL. They should have gotten some minutes, like Chaka Traore last night. This is realistic. But spending 10M to have a good backup for a 60M+ player and removing the risk of his injury is a joke. Maybe they plan to sell Theo next season, why wouldn’t you have a player ready to replace him and also protect your investment by not overplaying Theo? Makes no sense.

    2. Lol, it showed how much of a noob he was to winning. It’s like someone going nuts and ordering a bunch of drink and taking video when they got upgraded to business class on the plane. Literally no record before that scudetto title. He also tattooed it on his arm. You think Mourinho or Ancelotti have tattoos of their titles on them? The dude is in above his head.

      Also, been saying that Theo is the mostly like to be cashed in on next summer, as his contract runs out in 2026, he hasn’t shown an urgency to renew (or the club hasn’t), and his form has been poor. Although to his poor form that may have a lot to do with Pioli, who decided to use the 4-3-3 and I think he’s limited Theo’s forward runs. So again, Pioli at the root.

      1. Your post left me with a funny visual of Sir Alex Ferguson taking off his coat and dress shirt and being covered from his waist to his neck like a Yakuza with trophy tattoos!

  6. The team has been psychologically fragile from the moment Zlatan had his surgery after the scudetto win and spent less time at Milanello and around the team.
    Milan changed for better from the moment he arrived and regressed from the moment he couldn’t play anymore and wasn’t around to keep players accountable, pushing them and not letting them give up.
    Fik was the only player that showed desire to fight and win until the end yesterday. He is probably the closest thing to a leader in this squad. The rest, starting with the bald fraud, gave up the moment Thiaw got injured.

    1. It’s amazing how much useless crap Man U have managed to aquire. Their d needs a total revamp and I think Ten Hag is helping them achieve more than they should be able to.

      1. They really should have bagged that match but as a dane im more than happy with that result because after fc copenhagen got a 0-0 result in bayern which also could have been a win they can decide themselves if they will play champions league in the spring as they will play against galatasaray at home in the last match. One of the biggest performances by a danish club team ever and quite frankly i think they deserve to progress by now.

  7. For a moment I thought it was FC København that beat us in the CL one season in the 90s, causing a shock, but it was IFK Goteborg, lol.

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