How Pioli’s latest tactical metamorphosis has left Milan stranded halfway

By Rohit Rajeev -

The defeats against Inter, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain have put Stefano Pioli back in the hotseat, with many questioning his tactical approach.

It was not just losing those games which hurt Milan’s momentum but the manner that they occurred. Inter systematically took the Rossoneri’s aggressive approach apart in a 5-1 mauling, while a red card conditioned the Juve game and PSG gave Pioli’s men an exhibition in counter-attacking and finishing.

What exactly has Pioli been looking to do this season from a tactical standpoint, and what are the obstacles he has encountered? Our writer Rohit Rajeev outlines the trends.


Every top team had an identity and it was this identity that won Milan the Scudetto. Milan didn’t have highly talented attackers bar Rafael Leao, but Pioli used his players in a different way: what they didn’t have in technical ability they made it up with energy.

Milan had a mix of ball-oriented and man-oriented pressing, winning the ball back quickly with aggressive pressing and with high turnovers from which the team would score.

With Pierre Kalulu, Fikayo Tomori and Theo Hernandez, Milan also had the required recovery pace to chase any attacker that would breach their high line.

So despite having wingers like Alexis Saelemakers and Junior Messias it meant that Milan could win games because they pressed and they used Leao as an outlet to invade the space of the disorganised opposition team because of his speed.




Milan are now the defending champions, which means that teams will now do an extensive study on how they play. This and the fact that playing a high intense press causes huge amount of injuries meant Pioli has to tone down the pressing.

However, another issue then emerged: with Saelemakers, Messias and Divock Origi the Rossoneri did have the technical ability to break down the opposition block.

This meant that teams would let Milan have 70% possession so that they can’t press, because you can only press when you don’t have the ball.  The draws against Cremonese and Spezia and the four losses in 2023 to Inter showed that perfectly.


This made Pioli re-think his strategy. Having seen Spaletti’s Napoli and with his ambition to play a more expansive style of play – and also owing to a torturous schedule – Pioli has decided to smash his mould and build a new one.

He went from a double pivot which gave defensive solidity to a single pivot which give more stability and passing options in attack.

The pivot would be the Regista (deep-lying playmaker) and the mezzali would be ball carriers and help the build up phase, breaking down deep blocks need short quick one touch passes like the start of the Pioli era.

However, the striker then was either Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ante Rebic or Rafael Leao. Leao was in his development phase and would pass the ball more often than take his man on, while Rebic and Ibrahimovic were comfortable playing the ball.

Now when Sacchi said that Leao does not play in the context of a team, he spoke also about how the Portuguese winger needs to carry the ball less and pass more.

Then there is Giroud. The Frenchman is now 37 and while he knows Pioli’s instructions well by now, it is remarkable in some ways that he continues to start over Noah Okafor and Luka Jovic given he has one open play goal this season, which came in the first game.

There is also a lack of movement and pressing. Theo Hernandez – and we don’t know whether it is a tactical instruction or him being found out – does not make enough runs forward any more.

Given how the Rossoneri do not play a double pivot any (especially with Franck Kessiegone) it means there is nobody to protect the space Theo leaves behind.

Against Genoa Milan barely made any movements and looked extremely static. Whenever Adli was on the ball he had to keep looking for players to make runs so he can make penetrating passes.

Add this to the fact that Milan’s pressing has completely been toned down. A metric often used to measure pressing is PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action).

PPDA is the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team’s own defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third.

Therefore, the lower the amount of passing you allow your opponents to make the better your pressing is. Milan’s PPDA in the 2021-22 season was 8.76 – one of the best in Europe – but this season so far it is 12.86.


In short, the team are stuck somewhere halfway. Pioli is trying different things with the same players (albeit with 10 summer signings) and as soon he sees things don’t work out, he tries to revert to the same old long ball and cross to Giroud tactics.

A metamorphosis is happening and Milan are in a rebuild phase, but they can play better than this especially with all the big game experience they have racked up.

Tags AC Milan


  1. Acmilan lack pressing ability and they are not used to the 4-3-3 so the coach Should revert to the 4-2-3-1 is just simple lets save all this drama Acmilan are just getting the concept wrong in every ideal

  2. I don’t understand the conclusion. The same players, but 10 incoming players? Contradiction, it ruins the point. The whole midfield has been revamped, none of these guys should be starters, that’s a big part of the problem. Also because Giroud shouldn’t be the starter. The mercato was lame and didn’t address the losses of Kessié, Tonali or Zlatan from 2 years ago so now it’s no surprise if we can’t compete with top clubs.

    1. What a ridiculous thing to say. They addressed the loss of Tonali with 3 good midfielders, any one of whom I would take over Tonali. Agreed about Kessie, but he’s a Physical freak , very hard to replace. And Zlatan, while I love him, started1 game last season. And we did bring in multiple attacking players in Pulisic, Chuku, Okafor and Jovic. Yes, we need a better number 9 but compared to last season we should be better in the attacking phase.

      1. We replaced Tonali with better options, but the issue is still with the Kessie replacement. The ideal option I think would be playing Musah there with RLC and Reijnders as 2 mezzalas.

      2. I would be happy with Loftus-Cheek, Adli or Musah as substitutes but they shouldn’t start for a UCL contender. Krunic should be depth only. And Reijnders hasn’t proved anything yet, despite the hype.

    2. But, we were told the signings were made with Pioli’s approval…

      Okay, it’s Maldini’s fault. He appeared to the players in a dream and put hex on them.

      Pioli took a gamble jettisoning his trusted 4-2-3-1 for 4-3-3.

      Question: Pulisic was one of the first new signings. We thought he was going to be CAM. If Pioli had decided on his formation change with Pulisic to play RW; why did he sign Romero and then still went out to sanction the signing of Chukwueze?

      Does anyone actually think it makes sense? Wouldn’t it have been better to have Pulisic, Romero, and one of Saelemaekers or Messuas; while the money for Chukwueze used to strengthen another department?

      1. I have said this many times before, but I will say it again. I don’t really know if Pioli has a say in what players he wants. Just take CDK for an example, who never really fit in his 4231 system but still was bought and played out of position, same with Vranxx and Thiaw who were never given proper starts before injuries to other players.

        1. With Maldini pioli didn’t have much contribution in the decision to bring a player or not. This summer he had a bigger role (he disagreed with the idea of bringing Wilfred Singo)

          1. Wilfred Singo is doing very good at Monaco, with all due respect to Calabria, but Singo would have been much better than him for us.

    3. We should have addressed our striker issues first and foremost. We can’t go on with a 37 y/o starting almost every game and playing 90 minutes. Furthermore, we had the chance to sign Lukaku on loan, but we didn’t and look how good he is doing at Roma. I don’t care if he is an ex-inter player, he is still better than what he had. It was a good option for 1 year, and then we could have made a big investment for a prolific striker in 2024. Then there is the issue with a DM, we really haven’t replaced Kessie since he left. Signing Hjulmand or Ricci would have been ideal options, but instead we have to settle with Krunic until Bennacer will be back (After AFCON).

    4. The mercato addressed the need of Pioli (RW with pace and one vs one ability) and his idea of system / formation change (the 3 box to boxes signed). That’s why I said it’s a do or die kind of season for him. With no Maldini, no Ibra, it’s ‘all him’ this season.

  3. Pioli is a clown .. he lost the dressing room a long time ago….serie c level coach … the milan directors should avoid bringing in new players, until they get a top level coach…the new players have already lost confidence in the clown of a coach. New players should avoid the sabotaging piolitis infection.

  4. Last seasons failure is simple to explain and it has one name.
    He killed teams confidence as every shot in goal went in. A primavera keeper would have done better in my opinion.

    This season is looooong, we have started very strong, in fact better then the last one we won scudeto and we are winning #20

    Stio crying!!!

    1. Tata was decent. You’re delusional.
      He even had a high % of saves than Mike. That’s what you get with the on the line keeper

      1. I see, after your post i really have nothing to say. Keeper is more then % of save, just a little hint. See how many games we won with M vs T and maybe then you will get a spark. This delusional guy (thank you) knows a bit about football

        1. Sure thing.
          Tata 16 games 9 wins 4 loses and 3 draw.
          Mike 22 games 11 wins 4 loses 7 draw.
          That’s just serie a. But you can see where you’re delusion starts, right?
          If lors tata was as bad as you advertise the win-lose ratio would be much much different.
          The gk was not an issue last season..tata did well for a 36-37 yo sub.
          Not a starter, a sub!

      2. You are right GK was never an issue, what would he do when our defense and midfield was getting toyed by Sassuolo and Lazio. You can’t put a blame on a single player when your whole team plays like donkeys.

  5. pioli idea of fluid movement is not bad. it just he tend to overused, burned out, his player he trust too much. this won’t help when a quarter of the squad gone to injury list. his fixation to his ideal hurting the team as a whole when faced with crisis. it will look like he doesn’t have equal trust and believe for the whole squad. those it become a problem because it limits his choice and affecting his approach to a game.

    so what missing when out of possession is a ball winner in the midfield? a destroyer? someone that could cover space that left behind when theo goes forward? and what missing in attack is creativity? dude how come they missed something like that in the management? or maybe they all realize but there is no market opportunity to solve the puzzle? so it’s on pioli shoulder once again to make do with what available. it just his idea to use what available seems not the best idea in the last couple of games.

  6. The craziest thing is he’d play almost the same players in a 4-2-3-1 as in a 4-3-3. His issue is how static he is. Instead of leaning and teaching to shift from one formation to the other given certain circumstances, he says, OK we start with one and then at this minute mark we shift to the other. And them that’s it.

    I’ve been on my soapbox since game 3 of the season. We don’t look dangerous in the final 3rd. Our movement is static. Our defense is left out to dry on counter attacks. Besides individual brilliance, we can’t put the damn ball in the net.

    He’s effectively taken Leao and Theo and made them mediocre players.

    I will be happy when he gets the axe. Our players have too much potential to be wasted by him.

  7. Next season Camarda needs to be with the first team if he is what he is…because our midfielders and defenders literally got bullied by a 17 year old in Emery….let’s give the kid a run…he might just surprise us all and become the next Inzaghi or Bobo Vieri(Minus the injuries)…..and just let Giroud retire for his own sake at this point it’s like playing with 19 men and Leao just isn’t willing to work for it…Mbappe showed him what work rate is and he still just strolled around the pitch like Paul Pogba …. pathetic

  8. Bottom line is we took a team and system that made the semi finals of the UCL and tore it down. Who’s decision was that?? Pioli? Furlani? Moncada? Gerry? All of them? none of them? Maldini?? LOL

    This is what Pioli wanted and what management wanted as they gave Pioli the power to make these decisions. Before M&M were there to say no or question these decisions. Now there is not on the technical side. Now it is an inexperienced Furlani (in a football sense) and a coach who has never been that good at tactics with the final say. It was Pioli who decided to scrap the successful double pivot and move to a 4-3-3. Why? We don’t know. It was Pioli who decided to use an “inverted RB” which limits Theo’s most dangerous asset – the ability to attack and get up the field. It was Pioli and management who said pass on a player like a Singo, said we didn’t need a starting striker, or defensive mid, etc….I can go on and on.

    Sometimes people can be victims of their own success and their egos get too big. Is there time to turn things around? Yes. Is the season over? No. Are we overreacting – we are in second place and the season is still young? Perhaps. But what we should all be concerned is the way we play against big teams/clubs with just as good or better talent – and how we continue to fail to adapt IN GAME TACTICS. That is a huge issue. Smaller teams with much less talent are able to do that and we cannot. THAT is what is concerning. Pioli always says doesn’t matter what system we line up with we have the players to adapt to any system….well then show it. Because up to now he has not and I don’t think he has the ability to do so. Nothing in his career has shown me he can. I hope he proves me wrong but if we really want to take the next step we need a tactical coach and an experienced director working together in conjunction with Furlani and Moncada to become an elite club again.

    1. Tell them Juro!!!. I tried to tell people things always look good on paper but there game is played on grass. said, it’s not like the season is over but the signs are worrying. It feels like last January where even myself was delusional though the signs were there. I hope wrong obviously. But I hope the same energy is applied to this management as it was for the prior one..

  9. The conclusion should be : pioli tactic already easy to read by opponent coach. Pressing with highline defense are pioli trademark.ACM need refreshing new coach at the end of season ( not now). Player losing motivation like theo should get competitor in his position not deputy, striker giroud already too old & slow also lacking stamina ( he is only worth as supersub )

  10. There was no need to dismantle the team and scrap a working system and there was no need for certain acqusitions. There were only few puzzles to add and continue with same philosophy. It’s year zero with a coach who is a bit lost because he overestimated his abilities. Everytime he panics he tries to revert things to our ol’ system but it just confuses lads.

  11. Leao and theo already blinded with the superstar label the media put on them.
    All they need is one magical show to make the fans forgive about their sub-par performance in most our games.
    I will sell both of them if im able to.

    For me the 433 formation and similar which use wingers dont fit really well in slow paced league like serie A.

    Inverted winger just make it worst.
    We need someone in the flank who can really cross like serginho: sharp and precise.
    Even haaland will kill himself after just one game with us.

    Chukuweze? Another useless dribbler. When i watch youtube i can say we are buying another suso. He is not gonna make it in serie A.

    Sack pioli, hire conte.
    End this season in top 4 as it wont be difficult as his first job. Then we can look forward

  12. I think that moncada and furlani are no better than maldini/massara.
    Milan’s weakest sector is the striker sector — giroud is on in years and leao is lazy, sluggish and only plays 5 to 10 minutes per game (if at all!!!!). So why did moncada & furlani not remedy this problem in summer? Thuram seemed in our hands but was allowed to escape …. taremi too escaped and we were left with okafor and jovic!!!! If this is not incompetence by our 2 new friends, i wonder what we can call it!!

  13. I was gonna comment on the issue with formation but felt it was too tiring. Long story short, the standard formation is the default defence based setup. It doesn’t say how the team lines up in offense. That’s where major differences occurs between teams..defences tend to be fairly standard.
    For instance we play a 433 as does Barca but look nowhere close to Barca in terms of offensive generation. That’s a key point in all this. There’s too much reliance on FIFA or Football manager formations and less on real life. Most times teams play a form of 2 or 3 at the back ….on offense

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