Devil’s Advocate: The five players who have benefitted most from Pioli’s tenure as Milan boss

By Oliver Fisher -

It seems like a while has passed since Stefano Pioli was unveiled in front of the media at Casa Milan, and that’s because it is almost half a year ago.

After a disastrous 111-day reign, Marco Giampaolo was given his marching orders just seven games into the season, with Pioli taking charge on October 9.

He was not given an easy task: he had to seemingly act as both a psychiatrist to mentally fix a damaged young squad, but also as a master tactician to try and coach a system out of them – the 4-3-1-2 – the had nullified the best traits of the key performers.

Although only 36 points have been accrued after 26 games this season, the general consensus is that Pioli has done good work. The team has an identity, some character and a backbone, and it’s thanks to the revival of a number of squad members.

Here, we pick out the five that have benefitted the most so far…

1. Theo Hernandez

Some would argue that Theo Hernandez had showed promise even before Pioli’s arrival, but the Frenchman has hit another gear under the 54-year-old.

The tactical understanding that Pioli has shown has allowed Theo to flourish; his attacking abilities able to shine due to the way that the team shifts during attacks, allowing for the protection required in the midfield and at the back to ensure the former Real Madrid man can – for the most part – make his marauding runs without fear.

2. Matteo Gabbia

Matteo Gabbia has actually only made four senior appearances for Milan, with all of them coming in the current calendar year. However, it seems almost certain that if Pioli wasn’t in charge, he would likely not have any or may have even been loaned out.

When the team suffered a defensive crisis around the time of the Torino game, during which Simon Kjaer and Mateo Musacchio suffered problems, the ex-Lazio boss threw a 20-year-old Gabbia into the fold where he impressed instantly and has since.

3. Samu Castillejo

This list is in no particular order, but you can make a very strong case for Samu Castillejo being the number one beneficiary of Pioli’s reign so far. Since Suso’s departure in January he has nailed down the starting spot, even contributing to his compatriot’s exit with a number of good displays over the festive period.

The No.7 has taken ownership of the right wing position that was Suso’s before. In the 4-2-3-1 of Pioli, he has become the player who has created the most chances for his team-mates of any player in Europe’s top five league, as per WhoScored.

4. Ante Rebic

The main rival to Castillejo for the crown of most improved is definitely Ante Rebic. The Croatia international joined on deadline day last August but could barely get a game before Christmas, but since the turn of the year he has seven goals in all competitions and a brand new determination.

He has made that left wing spot his, fighting off competition initially from Hakan Calhanoglu and more recently from Giacomo Bonaventura and Rafael Leao, and attention in the media has already turned to making his stay permanent and a possible €40m valuation.

5. Ismael Bennacer

We finish the list with Ismael Bennacer, who is without a doubt one of the most dynamic and impressive midfielders Milan have had on their books in recent years. His €16m arrival from Empoli appeared a bargain once he won the AFCON Player of the Tournament over the summer, but under Pioli he has developed even more.

The Algerian has developed a powerful and intense anchor pairing with Franck Kessie – an honourable mention for this list – in the middle of the park, recovering balls and driving attacks forward in a way that only he can. The exciting thing is, there is so much more to come from the 22-year-old, especially once he gets his discipline under control.

Do you agree with our list? Let us know in the comments below!

Tags AC Milan Ante Rebic Ismaël Bennacer Matteo Gabbia Samu Castillejo theo hernandez
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