Pioli and the past, Fonseca and the future: Milan’s trend of winning gambles on coaches

By Ben Dixon -

AC Milan’s seemingly imminent hiring of Paulo Fonseca has been met with waves of backlash from fans, and it is understandable why this has been the case, but we must look to the past to see why the appointment follows a historically successful trend.

Moreso than ever, football is affected by people and events outside of respective football clubs, and Milan are no different, which has been proved as recently as April. Fan protests were rife about the appointment of Julen Lopetegui, and the Rossoneri opted for another avenue, or perhaps, avenues, given there have been multiple shifts in the ‘favourite’ for the job.

We have covered this topic in depth already, so we will try to keep this reflection to a minimum, but the same hounding directed to the Spaniard cannot be recycled with the news of Fonseca. There have been signs that it might, and with the split still evident within the fanbase, we must now look to the future rather than hypothesising about what could be.

It is fair to say the fans’ biggest drawback to Fonseca’s appointment is his reputation or lack thereof, but we will get to this eventually. The qualm for many fans has been that the Rossoneri have gone for the Portuguese manager as opposed to someone with a higher reputation in the game, whether that be in Italy or overseas.

At present, the managerial market is chaotic, and several big-name managers are available. However, just because they are available and hold a reputation within the game does not mean they are the right fit for Milan, and it does not mean that they are going to eventually make Milan the right fit for them.

Thomas Tuchel, Antonio Conte, and even Jurgen Klopp have been names put forward by fans, but ultimately, football is not that simple. Appointing Conte, for example, might bring a domestic trophy, but looking at the figures of his Napoli deal and budget for the summer, it is a trend Milan can not, and should not follow.

A past that tells a story

Better yet, it is not a trend that the Rossoneri have followed exclusively in the past. Of course, there have been appointments that stray from the norm, but the trend with Milan is not the big names. Instead, being at the club is what ascends them into that territory.

As La Gazzetta dello Sport wrote earlier this week, the Diavolo’s bench has hosted numerous ‘illustrious unknowns’ in the past, so Fonseca is not a brand new, money-saving tactic for RedBird.

Let’s start by looking at Gipo Viani, who led Salernitana and AS Roma to Serie B titles before getting the Milan job. He was unknown quantity for sure, but a manager who took inspiration from others, merging them into his tactical philosophy.

In turn, he is associated with creating the early stages of the Catenaccio style, implementing nuances from Herbert Chapman’s WM system and developing a now heavily renowned system.

He left the club after winning two Scudetti and taking the side to the European Cup, where they lost to one of the best Real Madrid sides in history, spearheaded by Alfredo Di Stefano.

Of course, this is not the only example of this, and after Viani departed due to medical reasons, the club repeated the trend, with great success once again.

We are speaking of Nereo Rocco, another disciple of the Catenaccio style, though perhaps he can be referred to as the master rather than the disciple, and Milan’s longest servant, managing 472 games in his three periods in a managerial role.

Before his time at the club, he had managed Padova, who he took from Serie B to a third-place finish in Serie A, his work was again praised due to his work with a nominal budget.

With the Rossoneri, he won two Scudetti, three Coppa Italia, two Cup Winners Cups and arguably most impressively two European Cups, becoming the first Italian manager to bring the trophy to Italy.

Now, perhaps the greatest story of all: the tale of Arrigo Sacchi. Prior to the Rossoneri, he was a footballing minnow. A shoe salesman who had never played the Beautiful Game professionally but studied it religiously and reaped the rewards.

Starting in youth management, Sacchi eventually got his break at Parma, where he earned a promotion from Serie C and almost earned back-to-back promotions.

Silvio Berlusconi took notice of this, though, and took a risk. Understandably, the reaction was shock, and there was instant speculation about his ability to manage at the top level of football, let alone be successful there. As we know, though, the doubters disappeared.

In his first season, he won the Scudetto, and the Supercoppa Italiana followed shortly after. Furthermore, he brought two European Cups, two European Super Cups, and two Intercontinental Cups.

Not bad for a shoe salesman, who, before Milan, did not have a reputation for being among the elite coaches of the time.

When Sacchi departed for the Italian National Team, former player and Primavera coach Fabio Capello was entrusted with the reigns. Again, doubt was in place about his abilities to manage the club, given he had not managed at a senior level. Did this matter, though? No.

Capello’s job was difficult from the start, and the odds were stacked against him, partially due to his CV, and partially due to who he replaced. In that sense, you always will struggle. Regardless of the stature of the next manager, taking the reins from a legend will always be a task, and when you add the facts, this difficulty rises.

Nevertheless, the volume on the outside did not matter, after all, it never really does for the truly elite managers, and he delivered four Scudetti in five years. That was not all, though, they were accompanied by three Supercoppas, the Champions League and a European Super Cup.

The foundations for success may have been laid by the prophet before him, but he added his ideologies, intricacies and talents, leading the invincible side of the 92-93 season, and delivering that night in Athens.

You can create arguments about whether Carlo Ancelotti was an unknown in the managerial sense when he took the reigns, but he had not won anything as a coach before Milan. However, he left the club with his legendary status further cemented and several trophies in the cabinet.

It does not end there, though. You can also seek the tenures of Alberto Zaccheroni and Massimiliano Allegri, whose legacies are perhaps not as rich as the others listed but are further examples of the reputations that the Diavolo have trusted in the past.

The proof from Pioli

As the title suggests, there is one more figure to add: Stefano Pioli. Whilst his reputation within Italy was on the rise, he was not near the status of some of the names being suggested for his replacements.

After four years working in youth football, he was eventually given a chance by Salernitana. It took until 2014 for his stocks to begin to rise, and with Lazio, he earned a third-place finish in Serie A in his debut season.

Following this, he was given a job by the Nerazzurri, where he stayed for a year before becoming Fiorentina’s manager, but there were no fruits for his labour. Then, Milan came knocking.

Whilst his early seasons did not bring silverware, he returned the Rossoneri to a previous level of sorts, as he picked up several firsts that had not been achieved in years, such as scoring in consecutive games and most goals in a season.

We know what comes next, the 2021-22 season, the season when the Scudetto returned after 11 years. Pioli’s first trophy was delivered by the club’s highest point tally in 16 years. And how can we forget the Champions League run of the following season, regardless of how it ended.

However, as this season has shown, it has not always been sunshine and rainbows for the 58-year-old. #PioliOut has been a trend across his tenure, and he has survived situations where it looked like he was gone on more than one occasion.

It took time for him to truly be accepted by the fans, and it is understandable why due to the success, or lack of, under managers who had come before him, he joined the club at a time when guidance and safety were needed, and he delivered, whilst also bringing historical nights, and hope.

Of course, that has its positives, but it also has its negatives. With hope comes expectation, and with him leading Milan back to a place where Champions League football is once again the normality and to challenge for the Scudetto is expected. Therefore, perhaps it’s fair to say that his successes were also his eventual downfall, but that could be disrespectful.

Instead, he has brought the side, and arguably the club, to a point where it cannot progress further under his guidance. His squad are ready for new ideas, new inspiration, and maybe just a new voice.

Hope for the future

By all accounts, Paulo Fonseca will take the reins, and this now poses the question of what the future holds.

We can suggest a few things: that the Rossoneri will look to further grow their young players, something that is a must in the eyes of RedBird, and the fans, given the young talent threaded through the senior and Primavera ranks.

Looking at his principles, they are relatively unchanged from his days at Shakhtar Donetsk to his time at Lille – high-intensity attacking football to dominate possession, and whilst his formations may differ slightly at times, the ideology remains the same throughout.

At Lille, he was entrusted to rebuild the side slightly after their title-winning team of 2020-21 had been dismantled, something Milan played a part in with the signing of Mike Maignan.

Whilst he may not have replicated the success of that season, he quickly turned the club around, and as he said in an interview with The Athletic, he built a squad that was his, finishing in fifth place last season and earning a fourth-place finish in the season just gone.

The Milan job, therefore, looks like a perfect match for him because the Rossoneri are not a side that needs rebuilding, rather they are a side that needs a reworking, given several areas require changes during the mercato.

Similarly to Lille, the current squad has a young core, and he has been regularly praised for his work with the younger players at his former club. Personnel-wise, the squad has the makings to be fascinating over the next few years, but it is clear to see there are areas where investment is needed, and they have been identified.

However, he will arrive at the club when toxicity is present for several reasons, and maybe this is why there has been such an outcry when the club have looked for managers of his calibre rather than those with big names and even bigger price tags.

No disrespect is meant by that, it is simply stating a fact, but perhaps looking back into history, this is the truest appointment the club can make, at a time where questions are directed everywhere, both on and off the pitch.

Therefore, if we want to reminisce, we must do so with a full view of history, and if the trend of success is to be the argument, we must look at those who have brought it.

After all, trends do not exist in one era, and Milan are proof of this. The Rossoneri, historically, are one of the footballing superpowers. Yes, this is their identity. This is our identity. However, our way of doing it might not be by hiring the best coaches but rather by making them, and perhaps the romanticisation of nostalgia has affected that.

Regardless of the options and the suggestions about the management taking the ‘cheaper’ options, this might be the clearest form of them understanding the football club and staying true to historical tendencies rather than becoming something that the club has rarely been.

Stefano Pioli’s tenure has taken the Rossoneri back to a place where expectations are high, and we must now look to the past and see how the club have continued their successes, and without being cliche, trust the process.

After all, Fonseca is one of the most established replacements the club have ever made, even if his name is not among those at the top of the managerial hierarchy.

Tags AC Milan Arrigo Sacchi Fabio Capello Nereo Rocco Paulo Fonseca Stefano Pioli

17 Comments

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    1. Banter era are causing by berlusconi . Write about banter era will also ruin berlusconi reputation, no need to look at banter era. Beside with healthy financial like this you cannot compare it with banter era. In banter era ACM have worst financial , always minus and in red zone every year

    2. During the banter era we had Zapata, Cerci, Kevin Constant, etc. etc. No team is going anywhere with that many goofballs in it. We didn’t have the funds to build a decent team whereas this management are doing just that.

  1. How about the gambles that didn’t pay off? Brocchi, giampaolo, seedorf, somewhat gattuso.

    It’s just simply it can be low risk high reward type of deal. If we can get zirkzee along with a cdm and another good player then I believe any coach will do well with the team.

    Tbh, fonseca name to me sounds better after hearing allegri and maybe they did that in purpose for us to calm down a little.

  2. These comparison’s are useless. What Pioli was able to do and not do is completely unrelated to what Fonseca will or will not do.

    The real question is, what is going on behind the scenes??? What is cooking?

    Letting Pioli go was to upgrade the coaching position. Fonseca by all accounts is NOT an upgrade – it’s a Portuguese lateral move, for a short and cheap contract. So, why?

    There were better options available. Truly upgrades, by all parameters. So, again, why?

    I’m not buying the “cheap yes-man” argument because they are spending elsewhere on players. So why cheap out on the coach?

    Again, I just can’t shake the feeling that there is something else going on behind the scenes, something that hasn’t come to light yet.

    I’m hoping Fonseca is a stop gap here and that is why his contract is cheap and short.

    1. I don’t know but I think your looking too much Into it. All these coaches available and why would we wait u til next year? If someone of klopp calibre that we’re hoping for how do we know that he would want to even coach us when a different top team might want them or how would we be able to afford a coach who probably wants over 10m a year?

      I really don’t understand the appointment of fonseca when there are so many managers available but I don’t know what to think or believe with milan these days. Just today here I am reading that milan have triggered zirkzees buy out clause and I get all excited and for what? 8 hours later and now milan are anxious about the agent fees and are looking at broja and dovbyk. Can’t believe nothing until I see a picture of it being official.

      1. If it is Klopp they are waiting for, then they would have had to contact him recently and come to some sort of an understanding.

        It is believable because RedBird are a minority shareholder of Liverpool and would have direct access to Klopp to propose this. Hiring Fonseca in the interim makes sense.

        Now this isn’t believable because would Milan really be open to paying Klopp what he would ask? Would Klopp be OK with our roster and the tactical set up its been designed for?

        I don’t know. Many questions.

  3. Kudos for writing a well-researched piece and engaging the issue thoughtfully but it’s an almost complete misapplication of the precedent.

    The unknown / low profile coach has been a success because he’s either been responsible for revolutionary tactical innovation or otherwise been able to progress that innovation (e.g. Sacchi and Capello which I know and Viani and Rocco as you’ve reported). That vision is also pretty clearly part of the reason these low profile guys had enough credibility to be successful man-managers. That’s the key and it’s why the appointment of coaches like Sacchi and Viani should not be considered a gamble. The skill is in identifying why profile shouldn’t matter.

    It’s a lot easier to say with the benefit of hindsight but I don’t think it’s fair to classify the appointment of Sacchi as a gamble. Berlusconi and Galliani are not stupid and they had a budget which was virtually unlimited. Why do we assume anything other than Sacchi got the job because he was able to articulate a vision for what Milan would become which stood above the other options? It’s a gamble only in the sense that you look stupid for appointing the guy no one heard of if it doesn’t work (when in reality high profile coaches don’t work out all the time). Fast forward 40 years and at a similarly critical juncture in their tenure at Monza they appointed Palladino who had only just started as the Primavera coach. Berlusconi said almost immediately that he was more confident in Palladino than Sacchi. It’s not dumb luck.

    Why do I not credit Fonseca putting something forward which stood out above all else (as was the case with Sacchi)? For a start, he only got the job because, according to Milan, the fans blew up over the intended appointment of Lopetegui. What we didn’t know at the time Lopetegui was appointed but what has become absolutely clear is that Milan has not even been trying to appoint the best coach – the focus has been on appointing someone who will do what he is told and Milan has been finding the best coach within that limitation.

    It sounds crazy but why were so many people reporting that Milan was going out of its way not to appoint an Italian coach? How is it that they never seriously spoke to Motta or RDZ? Why were the only 3 coaches really considered all in Jorge Mendes’ stable? It has been reported that Milan was after someone who would not challenge them. There was the 5 point criteria reported. We know that Conte was basically ruled out while he was practically begging for the job (and supposedly agreeing to temper his usually expectations). Look at the sequence of events between RDZ and Brighton resolving to part ways (over a difference in priorities), his release clause being almost entirely cancelled and Milan almost immediately excluding him as a potential candidate just when he’d become available.

    Milan has run away from the precedent which is so obviously Motta and RDZ or the realistically available options.

    I would also distinguish Pioli from the other examples because his appointment was for a very different reason. He was appointed to set the foundation for the project to end the Banter Era. He was something akin to what is now being termed a ‘rebuild coach’ in Australian Football – almost the fodder used to develop a squad from scratch (which take a really long time because we can only draft players) and who doesn’t survive long enough to enjoy success. He was a safe pair of hands with a reputation as a stabiliser. He was not appointed to win Scudetti. Maldini has spoken about the long term, it had to be because the money wasn’t there for a quick turnaround. Pioli was doing a good job and so his tenure was extended accordingly.

    If Fonseca is anything he is another Pioli. But this is not the time to be appointing another Pioli as the foundation has been set, Milan is a top 4 side again. Appointing Fonseca is truly a gamble because, if there is an expectation of success, there must also be an expectation that he will now evolve to become something he has never been and there has never really been any sign of.

    1. Omg u wrote a better article than the article itself 😅. I get what the article is saying in that there have been successes after other periods of relative success. But it doesn’t explain prior to Ancelotti. And after Ancelotti it was Leonardo before Allegri. Are we making a Leonardo type mistake? Even Allegri imo wasn’t that great as it was really Ibra that won is that title. What followed Capello? Tabarez etal weren’t that good. So yes these things can work out but it can also go so badly. Which is why I’ve been saying to folks, to understand exactly what kind of gamble we’re going for. And ppl need to be comfortable with said gamble. Be comfortable knowing we can be 6th next season or 8th or we can win the Scudetto in lieu of a likely top 4 . All those are legit possibilities

      1. Every new coach are gamble . Not only ACM but also juve,napoli & bologna . Conte have high risk fail in napoli after his failure at spurs ( spurs have better squad than napoli) . Motta still one season wonder coach , he must prove himself at juve. Nonseca getting hate from fans just because he is not famous and never win silverware at top 5 league in europe, his time at Roma not helping his CV too, the good side are his contract only 2 years with low salary , if fail just sack him while napoli cannot sack conte due to 3 years contract if fail (6,5m euro nett + bonus 2m euro if finish on CL spot + 500k euro bonus if win scudetto)

        1. No it is not a gamble. If you look through the CV you know what you get. You think when Italy appointed Lippi it was also a gamble? If anything new like coach or player is a gamble why bother hiring and paying a scout?

  4. Imo it’s a gamble appointing someone like Conte (“Expensive/explosive”), Fonseca (“Yes Man/Pioli 2.0”) or De Zerbi (“Young! Fresh! Exciting! 11th place finish! No defence!”)

    Bayern went for Vincent Kompany. I for one wouldn’t be doing cartwheels over that choice either if we’d got him, but let’s see what happens…

  5. 1. Last time a foreign coach won Serie A was Mourinho back in 09/10 and before him, Eriksson in 99/00.

    2. Sacchi and Capello were up and coming coaches who were ahead of their time with innovations. Fonseca brings no innovations with him, he already has more than 13 years of experience in coaching.

    3. Fonseca is known to play youth, bringing up young talents and increasing their value. That’s why he was hired. Lopetegui is also known as someone who likes to play youth winning with both Spain u19 and u21.

    That’s the whole secret behind hiring Fonseca. Increasing the value of the youth which would increase the value of the squad and therefore increase the value of the brand.

    End product? Increasing value of the shares Cardinale’s investors expect while making our young talents our re-sale assets for big capital gains.

    Rinse and repeat.

    1. True. Time and time again I said in this forum, people who compared Fonseca with the likes of Sacchi and Capello are either don’t really know the history or simply just being ignorant.

  6. Sorry but this is just a justification on hiring a low – mid tier coach. Looking several of our values, identities, traditions;

    – European DNA. Where is it now? Where should I start.
    – Italian core. That what made us essentially different than Inter. But now we’re more Inter than Inter.
    – Milan youth talents. When was the last time our academy players successfully being our core players? Calabria? Donnarumma?
    – Italian coach. Yes all the successful coaches in Milan are Italian. Why wasn’t it mentioned in the article? The last I checked, Fonseca is surely not an Italian.
    – etc etc

    All in all, in this modern era of football, a tradition is just a tradition. Nothing more. And sadly tradition is meant to be broken. Milan we’re seeing now is far far away from the old Milan. So this kind of article (and other comments alike) is just a cheery picking effort to justify the poor choice by the management. Choosing several particular traditions / identities and leaving the others behind.

    And with all due respect, the likes of Pioli will end up similarly to Zaccheroni. Whose only silverware was on their Milan tenure.

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