Pioli’s plans, Dybala and investment: Reading between the lines of Maldini’s intriguing interview

By Oliver Fisher -

Paolo Maldini is often a mysterious man when it comes to the media and gives little away when he does appear in front of the camera generally, but he lowered his guard after Tuesday’s defeat against Inter.

Maldini as the technical director of Milan has often reflected the club’s ethos: composed when speaking in public, without raising controversy and always acting in a manner that echoes the class of the institution he is representing.

He is often quite restrained in what he says, talking about things in a matter of fact way and remaining more on the optimistic side about the past, present and future when it has in recent weeks been a lot easier to be forthright.

That is not to say that he was totally out of line with the comments made following the Champions League semi-final second leg defeat against the Nerazzurri, though it did not need a microscope to read between the lines of what he was trying to say.

You can read the full interview with Maldini here, but below we have picked out some of the key excerpts and examined exactly what they mean, starting with a reflection on the two games against Inter themselves.

“The gap is real. It hasn’t been a contest in the last four games against them. Today we played a little better, but it was compromised by the first leg,” he said.

“It’s Inter’s way of playing that bothers us and we’re unable to find countermeasures, then we have also struggled against teams less strong than Inter in the recent period.”

Nobody can doubt that this is obvious frustration aimed at the fact the team were unable to compete against Inter over the last four games against them, which yielded four defeats and zero goals scored, including a Supercoppa final defeat and losing both legs of the semi-final.

Going one further, it seems to be an obvious jab at Stefano Pioli. While doubts about the future of the head coach continue to swirl, to say that Milan were ‘unable to find countermeasures’ against the Nerazzurri is admitting to failing at something that clearly lands under the responsibility and remit of the coach.

Not only that, but Maldini also mentioned that the Rossoneri are continuing to drop points against the lower-ranking sides in the league, as if to say it is not just Inter – admittedly a quality side – that are putting Milan in trouble, but practically everyone they face.

Those are damning things for Pioli to hear and they certainly do not boost his job security after a season in which the team have failed to mount a Scudetto defence, lost in the Supercoppa final by three goals and were dumped out at the first stage of the Coppa Italia.

The director was then asked a rather intriguing question: ‘How would you rate Milan’s season with qualification for the next Champions League?’

“It would be 8/10. We said it last year: we’re not yet structured to compete in two competitions, we told the press and our owners, they know it very well. It’s a path that has brought great sporting and economic results,” was his response.

Once again, it does not take a magnifying glass nor a littérateur to establish what Maldini is saying. While there is still the chance of ending the season on a positive note, it is only a top four finish or Champions League qualification via the method of a Juventus penalty that would make it one to remember.

Just like he did last May after the Scudetto victory, the former Rossoneri captain felt it was important to highlight that ticking off a first UCL semi-final in 16 years is not a finishing point but a starting point, and that the team were in fact lucky to get that far to an extent.

The fact Milan are ‘not yet structured to compete in two competitions’ carries a lot of implications in itself.

Firstly, it is an acknowledgement that there is not quality depth within the squad, something that it is partly his duty to guarantee.

Secondly, it is perhaps somewhat of a justification for Pioli’s decision to rotate so heavily in league games that fell before or between Champions League legs, which resulted in crucial dropped points in Serie A.

In addition to that, the fact Maldini mentions ‘we told the press and our owners’ that the club are not equipped to challenge for the title and go deep in the Champions League (which is presumably an ideal season) makes it known that discussions were had with RedBird Capital in which it was made clear the squad is far from complete.

Maldini also mentions that the journey has thus far brought ‘great sporting and economic results’. From this we can infer that the director feels he – along with sporting director Ricky Massara, chief scout Geoffrey Moncada and probably Pioli too – have so far perfectly juggled the balance between on-field success and the off-field resurgence in the accounts.

Now, however, we can clearly see that he feels it is the time to invest in the squad in order to continue bridging the gap not only with the elite sides in Europe but also with Inter, as he said before the first leg.

The notion of the Milan team having their appetites satisfied after the Scudetto win was put to Maldini, implying that they don’t have the same hunger to do well in Serie A as they perhaps did last season.

Maldini’s response: “No, you only have full bellies when you get certain results, when you win over and over. Being back at this level must be exploited, also economically by investing to stay in the top four and do well in Italy.”

It is another call from the 54-year-old to capitalise on the momentum that has come from the transformation in fortunes on the field over the past three seasons to push the boat out a bit more in terms of spending.

Otherwise, there is the possibility that the project will stagnate or even worse go backwards. As mentioned before, this is not the end goal but rather an intermediary step, and the ambition is there unequivocally to restore Milan to being among Europe’s elite.

Once again the concept of ‘investing’ is mentioned. Perhaps this can be construed as a hint that the investment in terms of funds available for the market was not made available last summer, when the momentum was at its highest but the change of ownership was taking place.

What is more likely is that Maldini is using the two results against Inter – a club Milan were better than last season in league performance – and the disappointing Serie A campaign to prove that funds are needed for a mini-overhaul of sorts.

Finally, we come to perhaps the most interesting comment of all, which was regarding the first season that Charles De Ketelaere has had since his arrival from Club Brugge for over €30m.

“De Ketelaere is an example of a player who needs to grow, it’s normal. It would have been much easier and much less expensive for us to go for Dybala. But would it have been the right signing for our project? Would it have been shared by our owners? No. We know we have an idea and we have the will to build a young and talented team.”

This is the response that has the most to dissect. The first part is a quite obvious public backing of De Ketelaere and a reiteration of the patience that is needed given that he is only 22 years of age and has had his first season at a new club in a new league, with a new country and culture to adapt to.

What seemed to get Milan fans going on social media was the name drop of Dybala, which was a bit out of the blue given he was not mentioned in the question.

Maldini talks about how it would be ‘cheaper’ to have signed Dybala, which is obviously true given that De Ketelaere cost €32m plus €3m in bonuses and earns €2.2m net per season having signing a five-year deal, which makes a total investment (including gross salary with Growth Decree) of potentially €51.5m.

By comparison, Dybala is rumoured to be earning €4.5m net per season plus €1.5m in potential bonuses on a three-year deal, which is a possible €18m in total given that the Growth Decree cannot be exercised.

There is quite a difference in investment therefore, but it is the Argentine who has given far more to his team. He has 16 goals and 8 assists in 36 games across all competitions this season, while the Belgian has just 1 assists and 0 goals in 38 appearances.

That is potentially what Maldini means about it being ‘easier’ to sign a profile like Dybala. It is possible he is referring to the fact there was no club to negotiate a transfer fee with given talks with Club Brugge over CDK dragged on for weeks, but it could also be the case that he knows the 29-year-old would contribute more in the immediacy and raise the level of the team instantly.

The rhetorical questions that follow regarding whether signing Dybala would a) be the right signing for the project and b) be approved by the owners is an affirmation that there seems to be an agreement from the upper management to the technical area that they are focusing on investments in young players.

A valid counter-argument has been raised since, namely the one that Milan were supposedly geared around recruiting young players yet they decided to give Divock Origi a deal worth €4m net per season and signed him on a free transfer, thus negating the notion that the owners would have immediately vetoed the signing of Dybala.

Perhaps De Ketelaere is not comparable to Dybala in terms of the contribution expected immediately, the price tag, the age and the potential, but if feels like Origi is a very fair comparison and one where Maldini’s ‘idea’ crumbles a bit.

Directors who show their face in front of the camera and answer the tough questions that fans want asking must always be given a degree of respect, and to do so in the heat of the moment after such a difficult defeat was also commendable from Maldini.

It was perhaps his most honest interview of the season with plenty of interesting comments to go on; now we must see what results and if there is the possibility some of the inferences and implications accelerate from here.




Tags AC Milan Paolo Maldini


  1. Thank you for this article Oliver. Great read. I have almost the same view and a bit more. The Maldini interview was quite something to dissect. My interpretation especially of the Dybala issue is that ppl got caught up on the “price” but instead it was a quality/vision issue. Maldini is very smart when he gives interviews. He has a way of conveying what he feels to the owners without sounding disrespectful or out of turn.

    To me, when he says Dybala would be cheaper vs CDK, it’s more to do with what they represent. We can spend more for quality and experience in the near term and sporting success but no resale value in the future or we go for young and high realize value in the future with no sporting success but great financial stability. The former (Dybala) will allow you to accelerate the growth of your project which Maldini has mentioned in the past and “seize the opportunity” which doesn’t come along that often. OR the latter (CDK) would fit in line with the current vision of the club by being patient with kids to later have a higher value. I think he was being sarcastic on the latter option. He has said in the past that the team needs experience and established players in order to compete in comps like UCL. It was a sly slight from him to the owners, along the lines of hey I can get you your preferred young model or something that’s more in line with the history of the club which is competing for trophies. You really have to dissect what he’s really saying. It’s not what ppl think he’s saying.

  2. Nice feature 👌.
    Maldini said that Milan isn’t equipped to compete and challenge in 2 competition, which is obvious to all of us.
    That raises the question why did they prioritize the Champions league while neglecting the more realistic goal serie A top 4?
    It was obvious they did that by heavily rotating in serie A games in the last month or so.
    It’s no lie that we don’t have the quality to be in the UCL semi final, nor does Inter for that matter, but both teams were just lucky to get opponents on equal or lesser level. Tottenham, Napoli, Porto and Benfica, are no match for PSG, Bayern, Liverpool, Chelsea, Real, ManCity.
    We definitely have the squad to achieve top 4 in serie A, while just getting out of the group with this group of players was an achievement on its own.
    Not being in the UCL next season is without a doubt a step back, not just for the money lost and commercial gains, but also for the brand exposure, players growth by competeing vs the best, and so on.
    And if that leads to the firing of the coach, is this cycle not essentially over?

    1. Milan priority is always top competition – UCL. Problem is – Milan had competitive team to reach 4th position.

      But in reality Milan dropped in play in 2023. UCL luckly for team, was big adrenaline and push them over limit.

      Red Bird didn’t invest more due to calculation that team is good and will exit in round of 16 so it will not earn a lot of money do cover the loss…

      Now we can see that something will change. Because UCL money 1/3 of money Milan will generate this season.

  3. Just admit as gentleman you make mistake this season by signing CDK ,Origi,Florenzi,Junior messias. If you say that maybe fans & owner will forgive you. Now AC Milan must wait till 2025 for florenzi & junior messias contract expire since both dont have resale value. Now you must pray and hope pioli squad finish top 4 serie A with their result or waiting juve -9 point deduction , without CL next season , owner will sacked you & your beloved coach . RedBird want technical director that work using data & statistic to sign player like in toulose, so only CL next season can save maldini

  4. None of these disasters would be happening if they had swallowed their pride and paid Kessie to stay. CDK would have never arrived and our defensive midfield would be locked down, game in game out. That’s why we won the Scudetto!

    1. Yes and no. If you mean the owners should swallow their pride in that decision then sure. That’s not on Maldini. He’s the one they told that they’re not going to pay 20m commission to his agent or more than 8m per season for the player. 🤷‍♂️
      The owners chose that path. But yes I agree that’s where this weird cost-quality tradeoff happens which is exactly what Maldini has been taking shots at the owners for

  5. To me these statements are not ambiguous or cryptic at all, it confirms what we said, these owners don’t want to spend unless they make a profit or break even at the end of it no matter what, at the expense of sporting results. They are unflexible and have no care for the project. The time of the sale says it for you, the previous owners didnt care that we had to STRENGTHEN the team, they wanted to get their money right away at a peak time of the brands value to maximize their profit margain. It confirms their idiocy regarding the summer where we had to invest, needed stability in management, instead morons in suits turned it into a stingy one to fatten the former and new owners pockets, both ride the horse until it dies as long at they get the nost out their ride. Pure culture vultures. Buy low, sell high, venture capitalists that only cared to flip their investment to a party that would give them the most at the end of the transaction .

    For the last part about Origi, if you put the whole picture in place when he says they would not give the accord to sign Dybala, Roma gave him 4.5 million plus bonuses, so garanteed 6 million if he performed, then he got a raise to 6 million garanteed, hence they had a gentleman’s agreement that if he stayed healthy and performed he would make that salary. We wouldn’t have considered that because it went above their ceiling of 4.5 million euros.

    If we look at the hard headed idiotic notion that we let Hakan leave for a discrepancy over a few hundred K, didn’t want to give Kessie fair market value and Donnaruma either, 6.5 million, which is whay Dybala is clearly reportedly paid, it shows these decisions to loose players for nothing were not his calls. They decided, the suits, to let them walk to get over the finish line until the sale is done and they get a profit/ sizeable return on their buy low purchase. The idiot calling the shots that burried Arsenal for 10 plus years is the same one we employed to use the same tactics in order to build a stadium and put money in their real estate buddies pockets. They are surely entrenched in that business, as they will turn some coin into their pockets for that project too. Origi accepted their ceiling of 4.5 million euros, where as Dybale wanted 4.5 plus 1.5 in bonuses then a garantee of 6 mill later on that would remove his release clause. So instead of going for the obvious, better player, who was better suited to accomplishing our sporting objectives , they opted for the cheap money ball option that fit into their shitty salary cap ceilings. Those comments were clearly direct shots fired at the suits that think they can tell him how to run a football team that never played a damn game and only care about their number crunching without an ability to seize an unpassable opportunity. It says the owners are responsible for the failures we witnessed and inexplicable, stupid, illogical decisions he is taking heat for all the time. It is the previous and current owners that are putting him and Pioli through the fire for their decisions, let them burn while they sit in their air conditioned offices without assuming any part of responsibility. Paolo is standing up to them. He didn’t like what he heard last summer when he spike with the new and past owners, let them know about it, in public so when this day comes, we know they refused to extend him until he had no room to do his job anymore. He is covering his ass and putting his head high, letting us know he knows more about this sport than those jerks will ever forget. He has more football knowledge in his pinky’s nail than they do in their entire bodies put together. That interview was a: before you ask me, I will tell you so you can figure out exactly what is going on, we did our job, these owners don’t and didn’t want to do theirs. So prospective employers, know who you are getting in bed with if you want my spot.

  6. “we told the press and our owners’ that the club are not equipped to challenge for the title and go deep in the Champions League” – Redbird was comfortable leaving the squad “as is” (if not worse off w/ no Kessie) and risking CL qualification for next season. M&M pleaded for $$ in January but it fell on deaf ears. We will see what Redbird do now this summer. No more excuses.

  7. If we are reading between the lines of what Maldini said, I’d factor in the following in relation to his Dybala comment:

    – Dybala is not a project player nor is he a system player;

    – he wanted 6 to 7 mill a year (which exceeds our wages allowance) and I believe he took a pay cut to be centrepiece of a Mourinho side which is how it became 4.5m plus bonuses;

    – great player he is, Dybala is going to leave a hole in the forward press Pioli likes to play. To get the most out of Dybala, the whole system gets changed to fit around Dybala which is to necessarily compromise the project;

    – CDK was a player young enough to mould as part of the system.

    Why doesn’t Maldini say this? Because there is no need to attack the style of player Dybala is, and expose himself to further criticism. In addition, why start a thing with Mourinho?

    Putting aside whether there ought to have been warning bells sounding about paying a guy with Origi’s record 4m a year, the gap up front was between unavailable 41 yo, a 37 yo, guys who are not true #9s and untested kids.

    There never looked to be anything sustainable about Giroud, (perennially injured winger) Rebic, Lazetic/Colombo as set of forwards, certainly not for 2022/2023.

    Diaz had 2 seasons in the system to this point. So I don’t think the age issue in the AM spot was the same as it was in the #9.

    It looks horrible now because Origi sucks, and Diaz sucks, and CDK very likely sucks too, but if the decision was between paying Origi, a striker they believed in, 4m or having the money for Dybala, they sign Origi don’t they? That’s what fits in with the project because he was (at least in theory) a 27 year old dynamic #9 who was seen as being able to lead the attack (while someone like Lazetic is developed or the next part of the project is recruited).

    Origi was also basically the only guy we could deal for while there were issues with the directors contracts and budget.

    1. Spot on! I believe his comments were loaded and what u mentioned here is part and parcel of it. It’s easy to get caught up with cost when it’s really he’s questioning the project indirectly. Based on what you wrote I’m still trying to figure out if he’s truly wedded to the ideas of the project or not. Or it’s more of a shot to owned saying sure we can do the youth project thing but be prepared to not win anything or even miss out on UCL from time to time

      1. I hadn’t thought that he might be questioning the project.

        My immediate response is ‘no’ but I don’t think it is a point that can just be dismissed. There is something to it.

    2. Great post! I’ll stress the point that Origi was coming from Klopp’s gegenpressing system, which while not exactly employed by Pioli, is similar to the high press he uses. This is why Firmino may also be a good match for us as another short term free signing solution up front (although I’d rather just solve this long term with a younger striker).

  8. I otherwise don’t see there as being any criticism directed at Pioli.

    Maldini made comments about our readiness (in terms of squad quality) prior to the second leg of the semi-final – essentially making a public request for investment.

    It all seems directed at ownership and the need for a budget to make the squad into something like the squad people thought it was.

    1. Bruno, thank you for this sober, balanced commentary. Opinions like this are the reason I scroll down to comments.

  9. Maldini has done a great job in bringing in a lot of players with great potential. I like Pioli, but this season he has been too comfortable in using his favourite starters all the time, and not giving any opportunity to grow for the rest.
    If you are having a comfortable lead, use the substitutes to give rest to players in 1st eleven and allow the substitutes to grow and get the feeling of being involved. To allow the whole 1st team to rest and replace them all with substitutes that have not been playing for 6 months was a disastrous mistake by Pioli. I hope he learnt now to keep the whole group involved and match fit by continuous rotation instead of using A-team for 90% of games and B-team when A-team needs a rest.

  10. “’It’s Inter’s way of playing that bothers us and we’re unable to find countermeasures, then we have also struggled against teams less strong than Inter in the recent period.’…Going one further, it seems to be an obvious jab at Stefano Pioli. While doubts about the future of the head coach continue to swirl, to say that Milan were ‘unable to find countermeasures’ against the Nerazzurri is admitting to failing at something that clearly lands under the responsibility and remit of the coach.”

    This. I will keep repeating this. We have a lot of faults, but we have a lineup strong enough to beat the likes of Cremonese, Empoli, Spezia, etc. While Inter is stronger, we shouldn’t be 1-0-4 against them. Pioli has no clue what to do against a low block. The results speak for themselves. Meanwhile we can kick Napoli, the “best” team in the league, around all season. I’m hearing that Spalletti is likely to leave Napoli. In lieu of De Zerbi, I think he would make a great coach for us. I’d consider Italiano too.

  11. No sporting director is ever going to criticize a team or a manager or any player while the season is still in progress and at a very cruicial stage where we need to win all games to keep the chance of finishing top 4 alive. In the middle of the season, even relegation team’s SD will rate their season a 9/`0. That’s the first thing.

    Secondly, the owners/shareholders needed to know they need to make investments in order to get results and moving the project forward. The interview made it clear, the project goes backwards without investment.

    Third, It is very clear that the owners and the SD want very different things for the club. Maldini wants investment to keep the club walking ahead with the project while teh owners just want to raise the value of the club and that is without ANY investment. I was talking about Elliot because last season was all about Elliot.

    Now lets talk about Redbird. I do understand why No fund was available for January window. If I was Redbird owner and bought a club midseason, I wouldn’t invest a dime either in the middle of a season I had no control over in the first place. So in last Summer, Maldini and Co had to do with the fund left for us by Elliot. A measly 50 mil. When M&M got their contract renewed, all of our targets were gone. We had to do with our third best choices in every position.

    Now, The summer transfer season is approaching. Us fans will finally get to see what Redbird and Cardinale is all about because this will be the first actual transfer season with Redbird owning the club and Maldini having full control over the season. I do like what I am seeing so far, that is Milan going for Kamada.

    I have full trust in Maldini as I believe he knows exactly what Milan needs. If he had gotten his ways in last Summer, we probably would win the Scudetto again with the likes of Botman, Sanchez and Zaniolo, admittedly I was against all of those signings and now that I objectively reflect over the current season.. This team needed exactly those players to redeem this season.

    Our defense is in shambles, midfield is bad in quality they can barely put an accurate pass. We lost to small teams because the defense cant deal with simple air balls. Botman would’ve solved it. Tonali and ben are good. But both lack a major quality.. that is clean tackles. Krunic is good at tackling but his passing is horrendous, terrifying almost. Renato would definitely add the quality we were missing since Kessie had left. Right wing.. well… Messias is good as a third/fourth sub. Saele is average as well.. We needed a player like Zaniolo who had the grit to hold the ball and very aggressive when attacking and always wants to attack going after every ball. He is definitely not fast, but is insanely hard to dispossess. Yes we wouldn’t win the serie a with this squad, but we would at least stay on top 4 for sure and wouldn’t lose to shinter that much.

    Lets look forward to this season. I believe we have a very exciting time coming ahead if Redbird invests on Maldini and just lets him do his voodoo. Otherwise, for the sake of Cardinale, lets hope he can get the stadium built ASAP.

    Forza Milan.

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