A big season awaits for Stefano Pioli and his AC Milan side, with the ownership and the management beginning the summer by giving him more powers.
La Gazzetta dello Sport (seen below) recall how last summer the Carabinieri were needed to get him out of the shops and free him from the siege of Milan fans who gratefully sang ‘Pioli is on fire’. This summer – after some time in the Maldives – the Milan boss chose a very private location in Crete.
He has met very few people and, knowing his nature, he probably enjoyed it much more this year, even without a Scudetto victory to celebrate.
Paolo Maldini, Ricky Massara, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sandro Tonali have disappeared which makes things a bit less stable than he was perhaps anticipating, but in a week he will be back on the training ground to get to work with the team.
Losing Maldini and Tonali within weeks of the last season ending has rocked the Milan fan base, and Pioli knows that he starts against the wind of disappointment.
However, he must focus on what he can control, and so far that has yielded a league title for the first time in 11 years and a Champions League semi-final for the first time in 16.
In the moment of maximum confusion, it was Zlatan who nailed the CEO Gazidis in front of the team, asking: “You have to tell us what future awaits us. Should we renew the rental of our houses?”
The Swede helped Leao and Tonali get a thick sking. Maldini and Massara, with a meagre budget, have identified Scudetto-worthy profiles. Pioli, Maldini and Massara, in the most critical moments, in the gaps in ownership, were one.
Maldini, Massara and Ibra will not be at Milanello next Monday. It does not mean that there will be a void around Pioli because CEO Giorgio Furlani will be present, and owner Gerry Cardinale has always held his work in high esteem.
Cardinale has entrusted Pioli with the role of manager more than being just a head coach, which seems to allude to tasks beyond those he had before. More involvement equals more responsibility, so the challenge promises to be difficult but also rewarding on a professional level.
Pioli is the first to know that if his new Milan were to start the season slowly, then everything would be thrust into doubt. Tonali and Maldini leaving would come back to the surface, and the construction of the squad scrutinised.
Last season, the team had to weather a crisis. From 8 January to 5 February Milan went through a terrible storm of seven games without a win and 18 goals conceded in that period. Maldini and Massara – also aware of their responsibilities for an imperfect market – formed a protective shell around the team.
He overturned that difficult patch even at the cost of distorting his principles with the three-man defence, but he found an impermeability that was the basis for the recovery. Slowly things began to return such as Rafael Leao’s form, and a Champions League semi-final was the result.
The feeling is that in the event of similar storms, Pioli would now be much more exposed to lightning than the ownership and the others would remain under their umbrellas.
However, Pioli naturally does not think about possible Autumn storms. In the summer, he thinks about how to build this new Milan, for example in the midfield where he wants physically powerful and tactically flexible players.
The four derbies lost in 2023 have left a clear sensation: Inter won by lining up on the pitch with superior solidity, strength and structure. It is here that Milan must recover.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is a good first brick, while Tijjani Reijnders would be a very welcome second signing from Pioli’s point of view. A two or three-man midfield doesn’t worry the coach at present, he wants to have options available.
The other point of focus for Pioli will be attacking creativity, further impoverished by Brahim Diaz’s departure. Too many times Milan have found themselves depending on Leao alone who is already suffering from deep defensive lines.
The right wing needs help and Samuel Chukwueze would fit the bill. Then, a centre-forward (Scamacca? Morata?) would be needed that doesn’t force Olivier Giroud to work overtime constantly.