AC Milan head coach Stefano Pioli has revealed some of the fascinating background from the Scudetto win and the way that the club want to operate.
During an interview with The Athletic, Pioli was asked a number of different questions about the league title triumph, with the Milan boss speaking about the celebrations, the key moments, the support of his staff and the club’s philosophy.
He began by discussion what happened in the aftermath of the 3-0 win over Sassuolo to seal the title of being champions of Italy, and in particular who slept with the trophy that the team were presented with.
“I don’t know who slept with it. Honestly, that night was so intense with emotion I’ve got no idea. The players went out and celebrated when we got back from Reggio Emilia so I don’t know if they had it with them or left it at Casa Milan,” he said.
The article notes how the bus pulled into Piazza Duomo during the celebrations and parted the hundreds of thousands of fans who had turned out to congratulate the team.
“It would be reductive to settle on one image,” Pioli said. “The whole day was just one wonderful feeling after another. To share in it with our fans was the best thing that could have happened to us. To see them all so happy was the most gratifying thing of all.”
Pioli replaced Marco Giampaolo in the autumn of 2019 after he made a disastrous start, and while he was initially meant to be merely an interim coach he ended up winning the entire management round with his methods and, more importantly, his results.
“The line the club wanted to take was clear. I was informed about it. The club was steadfast. The work we were doing got a lot of support,” he said.
“When you work with a lot of young players, you need time. You need trust. The club gave us that. What I would say is that the executive team didn’t just give me young players. They gave me good young players with so much going for them.
“In addition to that, I also worked with players of great calibre, players like Olivier Giroud, like Zlatan, like (Simon) Kjaer, players like Alessandro Florenzi and Mike Maignan who already had plenty of experience, experience on national teams, experience of fighting for titles. They were a reference point for me and the young players.”
Pioli was also keen to stress how much those around him help support him, including his collaborators in the coaching staff who do not always get the credit their work deserves.
“I have a coaching staff [featuring 10 or 11 assistants] that allows me to concentrate a lot on man-management. That’s man-management on a technical level and a human level. Stats are important but a coach’s perception, his instincts… It’s hard to imagine picking a player because my analyst tells me he has a high pass completion rate,” he said.
“I trust my feelings a lot. I watch my players. I like to look at them and try to understand what’s going on in their heads when I’m deciding who to play. More generally though for our development, as a team and as individuals, we have a notebook with six or seven stats that we focus on with a view to putting ourselves in a more advantageous position.
“If we think about Sandro [Tonali], last year was his first experience playing for a big club. There was more pressure to deal with. There are going to be moments when you’re not in top form. He suffered a lot last year. Then, a year later, we got to see the real Tonali.”
Pioli insisted that he always believed Milan could go on and win the title even from preseason because of the feeling of unity and togetherness he got from the squad, including the sacrifices they made.
“The key moment was when we got together at Milanello for the first time. It was July 6 last year. We talked about what our goals were. It was to aim high. We weren’t going to be happy with second place again because we’d been there, done that,” he added.
“It was an important moment because I saw an awareness in my players of how good they were – a positivity, a confidence. These kind of feelings are really important for a coach at the start of a new season.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing however, as Simon Kjaer was lost for the rest of the season after suffering a knee ligament injury in a win against Genoa last December, which not only meant that the team lost a leader but it also provoked a headache ahead of the January window.
“It was critical because we lost a really important player, not only from a technical point of view but on a human level too. Simon has real depth of character. He’s a proper leader,” Pioli revealed.
“We talked it over with the executive team. We looked at it this way: either we go get a player at their level – there weren’t any – or we develop and put faith in the lads at our disposal. Once again we were proven right because Kalulu showed himself to be a fantastic player and was the revelation of the season in Serie A.”
Pioli then picked out the two games which he believes ended up winning the Rossoneri the title.
“I repeat, we always believed. In my opinion, there are two games on which the title hinged. The comeback in the Madonnina [2-1, Giroud brace]. That’s for sure, otherwise the gap to Inter would have made it difficult to reclaim top spot,” he said.
“The other was the last-minute win in Rome against Lazio which came after Inter knocked us out in the cup semi-final in midweek. These moments gave us even more confidence, an even greater sense we could do it. To then win the final six games when we clearly had the toughest run-in of the title contenders showed the ability and mental strength of my players.”
Finally, a reflection on how the squad is compared to when he arrived: “There’s definitely more substance and depth about us now. We’ll be in pot one too, however, not that it makes things much easier as the Champions League is still the highest level there is. But we’re going into it confident of having a go and making it through to the knock-out stages.”