Maldini discusses Milan successes, change in football plus ‘new owners’ and ‘Excel sheets’

By Oliver Fisher -

Paolo Maldini has spoken about his experience at AC Milan and what he learned at the club both in his time as a player and as a technical director.

Maldini is a man who needs little introduction given the mark he left on the game. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest defenders of all time having played both as a full-back and as a centre-back, and at an elite level in both positions.

The Italian spent all 25 seasons of his playing career in the Serie A with Milan and did not retire until he was 41 in 2009. He won 26 trophies with the Rossoneri including the Champions League five times, seven Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana titles, five European/UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup.

He had his No.3 shirt retired by the club and then he returned in August 2018, a few weeks after Milan’s change of ownership to Elliott Management. In June 2019, Maldini was promoted to technical director, but he left under a cloud after the 2022-23 season.

Maldini gave a long interview to the AKOS podcast hosted the famous physiotherapist Luca Gemignani and he spoke about a wide range of topics from what he learned at Milan to how methods in football have changed, with his comments relayed by Radio Rossonera.

You spent your entire career at Milan…

“I wouldn’t consider it a monotonous path, but rather full of ups and downs and full of satisfaction. I believe that the luck of a footballer who plays in a team is to find a club that has the same ambitions as you and that still has the possibility of making you reach your maximum level.

“I was lucky enough to have, in addition to talent, a team that aimed for the highest goals: this, I believe, was the number one secret for being able to have such a long career within a club.”

What was it like having your dad be a coach when you were a child?

“When my father coached Ternana, Parma, Foggia he always moved around in an absolutely autonomous manner, also because we are 6 brothers, we were all quite young.

“The career as a coach is made up of moments and, so maybe they take you to Parma and after 6 months they send you away so it’s not certain that you will stay for a long time so it is absolutely not worth moving the family.

“Among other things, we all went to school, we all had our afternoon activities and consequently it would have been truly impossible.”

And he was also a player…

“I never saw my dad play, he stopped in 66 67 and I was born in 68. However, when comparisons are made between the various eras it is difficult to include a boy who maybe he plays in the 2000s in the 60s or vice versa.

“I think I was lucky enough to start in the 80s where there was a certain type of education, a certain type of values ​​that I then carried forward throughout my career. Then the knowledge of the specificity of training, technique, tactics and physical preparation has had a huge evolution in football over the years.

“Thank God I had great coaches and great trainers who also paved the way a little for a sort of higher level professionalism in the world of football.”

Is football different now?

“In the first years there weren’t many videos, there was practically only the possibility of a game being broadcast live on Rai, a second half of the season match chosen by Rai or the Champions League match called the European Cup on Wednesday evening.

“You didn’t have the opportunity to know the characteristics of the opponent except through men from the club who went to watch the matches, but they were all told. I don’t think there was less professionalism, there was less knowledge and fewer tools to make that type of sport more professional, not in terms of commitment but precisely in terms of knowledge.”

You made your Serie A debut aged 16…

“Especially in certain teams, and Milan was one of these, the youth years were based on the acquisition of technical skills, so we tried to do a lot of technique, very little tactics, then the development of certain situations encountered on the field.

“I started playing as a right winger and left winger and then, around the age of 14, I was moved to right-back. Practically the last part of the youth team in the Primavera I played as a right-back. I believe that it is a scheme that still works today, even if we tend to give more tactical notions to kids who honestly need to develop something completely different.

“They need to develop technique, the ability to choose, so not be indoctrinated by coaches who think they are prepared but ultimately are much less visionary than kids who have a talent that perhaps they have never had.

“Consequently, I would prepare the boys for another type of football, not absolutely tactical, because then tactics always evolve over time and the further you go the faster it is: consequently you are probably preparing them for something that will already be old when they reach the first team.

“However, certain principles of technique and play will always remain current. Physical work has also become important, and boys must be prepared for competition with men at a certain point in their growth.

“From my point of view it is impossible to change the attitude and above all the mentality of a player when you make the switch as an adult, because you are now used to that standard. Changing course is difficult.”

What was Liedholm’s role in your career?

“Fundamental because he was a modern coach, we played with four defenders in line without following the man already in the 80s, he already thought about players going inverted. I am a natural right-footed player who adapted to playing on the left, and the possibility of going inside opened up my game more.

“His vision and his courage to send young players onto the pitch made him a forerunner in the world of football. He always told you to never forget that football is a game, and that you have to play to have fun. And it’s something that needs to be repeated to everyone, from kids to professionals.”

The Berlusconi era brought the professionalisation of Milan, along with coaches like Sacchi and Capello…

“Milanello was built in the 60s, the first training complex like that in the world, and Milan was one of the first teams that believed in a similar project: already at the time there was the idea of ​​a closed, isolated and dedicated place.

“When Berlusconi arrived he brought a corporate organisation that raised everything and everyone to the highest level, both from a footballing point of view and from an organisational point of view and respect for roles.

“His first choice, that of calling a visionary like Sacchi, opened the world of football to other worlds: trainers from athletics arrived. The various knowledges came together. Sacchi made people work a lot physically, and that’s the secret of winning teams: when you work harder than others you have advantages.

“And because there was less knowledge, I think I almost always over-trained. I was 20 years old, thinking about it now, I didn’t know the importance of rest, of unloading days: your head was used to always suffering, but from a physical point of view you had ups and downs.

“You often arrived on the pitch without energy: it’s no coincidence that we only won one championship in four years in the Sacchi era, even though we were focused on European competitions.

“The number of workouts was the same, but they were longer and the intensity was at its maximum, with two double workouts per week. Something that is rare now. It was an experiment, based on the principle of work, but from a physical point of view sometimes we did not have optimal physical performance.

“We’re talking about 35 years ago, being a pioneer 35 years ago led you to make mistakes but developed certain things. Sacchi had never been a top-level footballer, Capello then arrived and reduced the training hours. Having experimented with those things, the work was then optimised.

“Milan has always had this idea of ​​looking for something different: in 2002, after years of average level, the club went after four boys who had graduated from university, boys who gave us an enormous boost in terms of physical, prevention and individualisation of work, very important.

“We had 35 year old players and very young players, I was 39 and Pato was 18 for example: it is impossible to think of training everyone in the same way.”

What was Baresi’s influence on you?

“Franco stopped in 1995, such spasmodic attention wasn’t there yet but Franco was without a doubt a great example for me. I had a very reserved character and therefore it was perfect how he behaved from my point of view, few words, many facts.

“But that’s how Mauro Tassotti was, with a different character, that’s how many players like Evani and Icardi were. Let’s say that within those teams there were very fun players, with whom you could have fun, and players with a winning mentality: it was up to you to understand which group to follow.”

Van Basten and Ronaldo are examples of players who had physical problems at Milan…

“Without the injuries, would Van Basten have been the best striker of all time? Well you can already consider him that. Marco, beyond the numbers, the fact that he could shoot left and right, the fact that he was 1.88m tall, that he was fast, that he was mean, he also had this ability to be beautiful in his technical gestures.

“Marco already with what he did, he practically stopped at the age of 28, is to be considered among the top five attackers of all time. What Ronaldo had, who honestly had almost no one, or at least when he had a player who had that type of speed of physical impact did not have Ronaldo’s technique.

“He honestly managed to do certain things with a speed that no one else had and therefore combined control physique, speed and strength to a technique that was honestly extraordinary in those 3-4 years there.”

You had some knee problems at 30…

“I’ve always had a little discomfort with my kneecaps, as my two children grew up in one summer, a classic thing that you then carry with you. In 82-83 there were few tools… I started doing serious gym work in 98-99, therefore at 30 years old, never touched the gym before.

“Until the 2000s we practically never used the gym. We did everything with climbs, descents, forest, leaps. Then of course the knowledge led us to understand: at 30 years old I felt like I was running out of fuel and the moment I hit the gym, I once again exploded physically in an impressive way.

“My best years on a personal level from a technical and physical point of view were in 2002-2003 and 2003-2004, I was 35 years old and honestly I could compete at speed with any player also from the point of view of stability. When you know that around 30 a man loses a bit of strength, you have to integrate with a different job: this is what happened.

“It was wrong not to do anything before, but we didn’t know that. My problem was having played for so many years as a professional, I had great explosiveness, I made great braking, I had a very strong muscular structure and my characteristics were those of a sprinter who nails it and starts again.

“This isn’t very good for the joints. I had the right and left knee done two years apart. And at the time micro-fractures were still happening: with the new techniques I would perhaps have had fewer problems after my career.”

What changed in the athletic team across the pre-Berlusconi period, the Berlusconi era and your time as a director?

“I started with Milan who had two masseurs, a doctor, we had more or less 15 reusable bandages that extended for those who had ankle problems. I had a lot of problems with my ankles, having my feet turned inwards and I got a lot of sprains, but it was a common problem so it happened that I got the worst band.

“Then with Berlusconi disposable products arrived, more masseurs arrived, more doctors, other professional figures such as psychologists or trainers: a group of around 15 people. Now the group in the medical area is made up of around 30-35 people: 7-8 physiotherapists, some external consultants, 2-3 doctors who are right around, I’m not saying it’s exaggerated, there is great attention to the health of the players.

“Almost every footballer has a private physiotherapist or doctor but there must be rules. There must be teamwork, you cannot do a job with a private individual without notifying the head of the medical area.

“Especially if it concerns recovery from injuries: if there is work to be done it can be done outside the facility, but it must be done following the instructions of the surgeon who operated on you or the doctor who is treating you.”

What was the difference between how Sacchi, Capello and Ancelotti managed workloads?

“If Sacchi was the worst of all, Capello and Ancelotti were very similar. There is always the various seasons to consider, that is, when you play the Champions League until the end you practically never have time to rest, so what changes is perhaps the management of free time.

“I believe that giving importance to rest has become a fundamental thing, especially in the Ancelotti era. The secret, in my opinion, is to ask for a lot, but also give a lot of freedom afterwards: days off, giving the opportunity to recover.

“They always asked me what I did during the holidays, because they give you programs to follow, between one season and another. I think football is the only sport that is played for 11 months, sometimes even 11 and a half months.

“To tell the truth, I never did anything because my body needed rest. The only season in which I did something was in 1996 when my son was born and I had done the European Championship in England, I did 15 days and I arrived on the first day of training camp I couldn’t stand.

“My great strength was to be able to reset everything, to think about the holiday, not to think about the season that had just passed or even the one that was to come and to have a certain level of physical and mental recovery.”

How did holidays work for you?

“First of all there were seasons in which I had 5, 7, 8 or 9 days of holiday, practically nothing. In fact, it became known later that all those who had less than 20 days of vacation after a season got hurt after a month, a month and a half and this is a classic.

“Then, unlike the NBA, with all due respect, the games are always indoors and those of the regular season are very calm (the first three quarters are messing around, then they want to win). The play-offs are another thing.

“We did 5 days of training, then we took the plane to the United States and went to play against Real Madrid or Manchester, with 80,000 spectators and 40 degrees, the impact of playing outside in winter or summer is crazy.

“There are many differences, the problem is that football is increasingly moving towards jam-packed seasons and maximum spectacle is always required. It’s practically impossible.”

Does the rhythm of matches now seem faster than in your time?

“We were going fast. There was less physical preparation, but it was much more direct. Now it’s a much more possession game, much less physically demanding. From a physical point of view, I played in the ’80s with players who would now be 100% top world players: the three Dutchmen, Baresi, many who played with me.

“Are today’s rhythms different from before? There was a more direct, more difficult game, with much longer distances, very tiring. From a physical point of view, the athletes of those years would make a difference today. Today there is certainly much less technique, yes.

“Once upon a time, to reach a certain level you had to have a lot of technique, now you just need to be a high-level athlete, especially if you play on the flanks and especially in teams that play with 5 defenders, therefore with the wingers who have to run. They usually have a normal basic technique, but they run and make the difference.”

How important was managing pressure?

“I had to manage alone, if not with the help of my family. When I was a director, having had 25 years of experience and remembering what I felt in the difficult moments of which there were many, I tried to make the most of this experience and try to support those who are very young kids (19, 20, 21 , 22, 23, 24 years).

“[I was] Still without a real structure to deal with certain burdens that you carry with you doing this profession. You always see the beautiful thing, but you don’t see the pressure point of view. In my opinion there is still a lot to work there and it is still unexplored territory, because the many foreign owners don’t know the topic well and don’t even want to face that type of problem because they don’t even have the tools to do so.

“We know very well the importance of support for players, even on a moral level, both before and after matches and during training sessions. It is also important to see how they train to be able to understand who we are talking to. I always say that these are intangible things, but they make the fortunes of clubs.

“And the intangible things, which can hardly be explained in an Excel sheet to new owners, are out of an owner’s reach or ability to control. It seems like you have a magic formula, but it’s not, it’s something that made you successful if you had it. Success doesn’t just mean winning, it also means trying to do the best you can.”

What is it like to have been part of the ‘Maldini Dynasty’?

“The most annoying thing was perhaps especially when one is a boy, when I went to play in the various fields in the Milanese hinterland I honestly heard what they said, that bothers you: I already had pressure which honestly shouldn’t have been there.

“Then it always depends on your character, you can react in a positive way or you can even give up, honestly it depends very much on you. That certainly affects your character because it makes you perhaps become more reserved because you always have to pay attention to what others say… then over time this thing passes.

“I went to the Under 21s when my dad was there, but people don’t say that Vicini had already called me to the Under 21s. The same thing in the national team, my dad arrived in the national team when I was already captain and I’d been playing in it for years.”

Tags AC Milan Paolo Maldini

15 Comments

  1. What a great man. What a shame he’s not working for our club anymore. Shame on Cardinale for letting him go and the manner he did so.

        1. You mean going from sporting director who took us to Scudetto and CL semis in 3 years since taking over, to a full time club mascot and parade around like a circus clown?

          Would you?

          1. Well said. I can’t imagine Maldini selling his a$$ and tell monstrous bs and fairy tales to the fans like Zlatan did. Maldini is a great human being and probably the biggest Milan fan of all but let’s celebrate the compulsive liars and money addicts that we have now.

          2. Wow – RedBird Derangement Syndrome crew melting down and throwing insults like Karens – I didn’t see that one coming 😂.

        2. You sir a disgrace to ac milan. Glad you’ve chosen cardinale and furlani as your hill to die on. Think about that.

  2. best defender of all time, milan’s greatest modern player, a true legend. His presence and wisdom is sorely missed with the current crop. He was doing a great job as a director before they forced him out. We can thank the USA owners for that.

  3. It’s interesting that he said he felt most physically fit during 2003-04 and 2004-05. I’ve often considered those two years, specifically, as being our strongest squads ever. Dida, Maldini, Nesta, Billy (later Stam), Cafu, Seedorf, Pirlo, Gattuso, Kaka, Sheva, Inzaghi. Bench: Kaladze, Billy, Laursen, Serginho, Simic, Pancaro, Ambro, Brocchi, Rui Costa, Tomasson, Crespo. Heck, our even our bench would challenge for the scudetto now. I always wondered why Stam didn’t stick around for a couple of more years…

      1. I wonder if it’s because he started gymning later in his career helped him vs if he had started sooner. I also appreciated his performances up to 2007 but thereafter we really should have started looking for his heir

  4. ‘I was lucky enough to have, in addition to talent, a team that aimed for the highest goals.’

    Ouch. Few first sentences and he already hit the nail in the head.

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