Stefano Pioli is Football Italia’s coach of the season. ‘The ideal boss for young elements,’ writes Susy Campanale.
When Hellas Verona boss Igor Tudor said that by rights, the Milan squad ought to be challenging for fourth place, it might’ve sounded like an insult, but was certainly a compliment and also one that is difficult to argue against.
Rossoneri fans with an ounce of objectivity are fully aware they are punching above their weight, especially this season when they had so many setbacks, injuries and incidents that would’ve floored any other team. A large chunk of the credit for the fact they are still up there undoubtedly goes to Stefano Pioli, who has done an extraordinary job.
Even at full strength, Milan have a decent XI and that’s about it, so managing to scrape through when torn apart by so many injuries during this campaign is a remarkable achievement. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer were the men who transformed the Diavolo in January 2020, but they barely featured at all this season. Franck Kessie was visibly distracted by his imminent move abroad, Gianluigi Donnarumma had left, Ante Rebic has been out practically the entire campaign with one problem or another.
The back four is ridiculously young and inexperienced, especially considering they worked even better when Alessio Romagnoli made way for Pierre Kalulu. Any side whose options off the bench are Samu Castillejo and Rade Krunic should not be challenging for the title. It’s true, they went out of Europe in the group stage and that gave them an advantage during the packed fixture list, but Inter never complained about receiving the same benefits last season.
Pioli has shown throughout his career, above all when dealing with the ultimate test of Davide Astori’s tragic death at Fiorentina in March 2018, that he is among the very best when it comes to man-management. Too often we’ve seen the cult of personality grow around coaches, people expecting them to bully players into submission or remote-control them from the touchline to fit their vision.
Instead, Pioli is the ideal boss for younger elements who need reassurance every bit as much as motivation, to have the gift of patience when the potential is so clearly there. Sandro Tonali and Rafael Leao could’ve so easily gone down the route of being promising players who never quite delivered, but they have flourished this season with that gentle guidance.
What Pioli brings to the role of coach is ‘soft power’ – he doesn’t need to scream and shout to get his point across. In a campaign where tacticians like Jose Mourinho, Gian Piero Gasperini and yes also Simone Inzaghi seemed to compete to see who could complain more about referees, Pioli and Milan reacted with quiet dignity and understanding to a genuinely devastating error in the defeat to Spezia.
They would’ve won that game if Marco Serra had followed protocol and given the advantage for even a couple of seconds, as Junior Messias curled the rebound into the net. Adding insult to injury, Spezia then went on the counter from that free kick and scored the winner instead. It would’ve been so easy to erupt in a rage and let that overshadow their entire season, especially considering how close it was to the very end, but Pioli’s reaction was matched by the players, who immediately understood it was an honest mistake that the referee felt terrible about. If anything, they ended up reassuring Serra.
When you also consider just how close Milan were to sacking Pioli in the summer of 2020 to bring in Ralf Rangnick, the German guru who completely failed to transform Manchester United, it should send shivers down the spine of every supporter. It is that consistency of building the team from the ground up with Pioli that allowed them to grow into Scudetto contenders, despite having a relatively young side compared to their rivals, without tried-and-true champions leading the way or massive investments.
This team is a genuine project that can have elements added to provide strength in depth – which it spectacularly lacks at the moment – but the development is only going in one direction towards the future and Pioli is an essential part of that. The fans know it too, which is why ‘Pioli’s On Fire’ has become their anthem to the tune of Freed From Desire, usually sung while the coach quietly sips his espresso during the warm-up. He has long been one of Calcio’s nice guys, but one without a single trophy to his name. It’s high time that changed.