Il Progetto Rossonero: Reviewing Stefano Pioli’s Last Season with AC Milan

Stefano Pioli’s ship as manager of AC Milan has now sailed, with the Parma-born allenatore closing the chapter with I Rossoneri. Pioli’s journey to managing the pinnacle of Italian football started off with him coaching both Bologna and Chievo Verona’s youth teams in the early 2000s where 10 years later, he made the jump to coach Chievo’s first team side in Serie A. 


The Parma native, slowly but surely, made his way up the ranks of Serie A, managing the likes of Palermo, Bologna and current Conference League finalists Fiorentina. Shortly after Fiorentina, Marco Giampaolo’s sacking at AC Milan became the catalyst to sign Stefano Pioli and rejuvenate I Rossoneri to become a powerhouse in not only Serie A, but across Europe.


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It only took Mr Pioli two seasons to successfully secure a Scudetto for AC Milan for the first time in a decade and a Scudetto won on merit, grabbing 60 points in the first part of the season, being their best tally of points since the 2011/2012 season. A first trophy as a manager for Pioli for more than 10 years when he broke through to grasp his first job in Serie A, an extraordinary season remarked by one of Milan’s greats, arguably the best Italian manager in the history of the game, Arrigo Sacchi. 


Following a deep run in the Champions League in the 2021/22 season, Milan fans seemed to be on board with the tactician’s vision amongst the best in Europe. Pioli made sure that a club of stature like AC Milan were competing in European competition and managed to qualify for three successive seasons. Heading into this Serie A season, the Parma-born coach faced adversity before a ball was even kicked with the departure of Sandro Tonali to the Premier League, deemed to be the heartbeat to Milan’s midfield. 


The tifosi del Diavolo were left hopeless following the loss of Tonali and the tall order to replace a player like Tonali, however, Pioli looked for efficiency in multiple positions, signing youth over experience, with the signature of Tiljani Reinjders, Samuel Chukuwueze and Yunus Musah, furthermore two former Chelsea players in Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Christian Pulisic.


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Stefano Pioli knew all too well that he had to rely on the qualities on the left flank with the monstrous presence of defender Theo Hernandez and forward Rafael Leao following a 23-goal contribution for the Portuguese, arguably his best season in Rossoneri colours. The season started incredibly well for I Rossoneri collecting maximum points in their first three games including a thrashing against Ivan Juric’s Torino and a key away win against Jose Mourinho’s Roma. 


Fans were happy with Pioli’s style of play but more importantly his proficiency in utilising his experienced players in the spine of the side with the defensive dynamic duo of Thiaw and Tomori and the ever-present Giroud up front, who scored 4 goals in the first 3 games. 


Their first obstacle came in the Derby della Madonnina, the first spectacle of a Milanese derby in the San Siro saw Milan falling over the first hurdle conceding early to Inter midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the first 5 minutes and saw Pioli’s side lose 5-1 in one of the largest defeats in Milan’s history. 


Tijjani Reijnders: Milan’s Dutch Recruit in Midfield


At the start of the season, Pioli looked to rebuild the midfield around his regista Ismael Bennacer with the introduction of Loftus-Cheek and Reijnders.  However, an injury picked by the Algerian midfielder saw him on the sidelines and this saw the Bosnian Rade Krunic as the deputy regista until Bennacer was match-fit.


AC Milan were arguably drawn into the group of death in the Champions League with the likes of Dortmund and PSG however their first encounter was against Newcastle United, with one player knowing San Siro and Milan all too well in Sandro Tonali. A highly anticipated game saw a stalemate 0-0 scoreline for both sides.


October came around and the Rossoneri came up against a tricky test in Alberto Gilardino’s Genoa but a last-gasp winner by Christian Pulisic saw AC Milan standing alone at the top of the table. A positive win for Pioli turned to pain in a home loss to Juventus which became the catalyst to a string of losses and dropped, both domestically and in Europe.


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The Christmas break loomed large for Milan with difficult defeats to swallow in Europe which saw them having any chance to remain the competition being inevitable. Despite the disappointment of an early-round exit, Milan went on a five-game-unbeaten run heading into the break. 


An encounter in the Coppa Italia came round the corner but a home loss saw Gasperini’s La Dea advance to the semi-finals, with a double from Dutch midfielder Teun Koopmeiners. Pioli managed to clinch his 100th win as Milan manager in a narrow win against an underwhelming Udinese this season, with a late goal by forward Noah Okafor. 


The addition of depth for I Rossoneri was crucial heading into this season with the signings of Noah Okafor and the up-and-coming defender Filippo Terracciano. Okafor’s pace and physicality paid dividends for Pioli off the bench with 8 goal contributions this season. 


What Can Filippo Terracciano Bring to Milan’s Defense?


Glimpses of Terracciano’s tactical awareness and intelligence has been put on display and will be vital for the Rossoneri going forward with captain Calabria aging in a league where modern wingers are becoming even faster. A 3rd-place finish in the Champions League saw I Rossoneri relegated to the Europa League, in what a portion of Milan fans believed was a blessing in disguise with Pioli still in with a shot of a piece of European silverware. 


The coach believed that it was important to have the robustness of Ruben-Loftus Cheek in a rebuilt midfield alongside the regista and the reliance on Reijnders added to their attacking threat with his excellent vision and awareness of the game, similar to the trait of legendary Dutchman, Clarence Seedorf, former AC Milan player. A close tie with Ligue 1 side Stade Rennais saw setbacks for Milan but they edged their way to their next round. A comfortable two legs against 1. Liga side Slavia Prague saw Milan in the knockout phases for a consecutive season.


The previous season saw them in a Champions League semi-final against an Italian side, Inter Milan, the story repeated this season with another meeting with an Italian side, this time in the quarter-finals against Daniele De Rossi’s Roma side, who emerged from the Roman ruins under the reign of De Rossi. A 1-0 loss at home with defender Gianluca Mancini making the first move in the two legs saw Milan fans outraged following many missed chances.


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Pioli’s chance to redeem glory was all too good to be true with Roma pushing their way to a 2-1 win at home, seeing them advance to the semi-finals of the Europa League. Despite the heartbreak defeats to fellow Italian opposition, Pioli had to lead his Rossoneri side to secure Champions League qualification, with Inzaghi’s Nerazzurri already clinching their Scudetto berth. Milan’s best hope was to ensure their place in the top 4 which they went on to do.


Nonetheless, a sprint to the finish of the Serie A season saw Milan only pick up 6 points from 6 games remaining in the domestic campaign. Major points were dropped against the likes of already relegated Salernitana and safety-stricken Genoa as well as a big blow for Milan and their fans against Il Toro. 


The disappointment was felt across Milanello and Milan’s hierarchy came to the executive decision to relieve Stefano Pioli of his duties a year before his contract expires. A season where, despite clinching Champions League qualification, Milan fans desired more from Pioli and Il Diavolo.


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Parma-born Pioli has been a pillar to relay the foundation of AC Milan competing amongst the giants of European football and bringing Scudetto success to the Rossoneri faithful for the first time in 11 years. At the time of writing, the board of AC Milan are in extensive talks with current Lille head coach Paulo Fonseca as their new manager. A 3-year agreement is extremely close to being reached to kickstart a hopeful project under the Portuguese manager. 


With Pioli’s tenure ending, the future for I Rossoneri is blurred with the possible appointment of Fonseca, an esteemed manager who already has experience in Italian football, coaching AS Roma, a season which Roma fans deemed to be underwhelming following close to little investment made in the summer window before Fonseca joined. 


Fonseca saw scholar success in Ukraine with Shakhtar Donetsk winning the double before joining forces with French side Lille with the aspirations of a league title. The head coach plays an intricate style of football, heavily based on technical play in attacking phases with the involvement of wing-backs down the flank, something that could help exploit defences in Serie A with the blistering pace of Theo Hernandez. 


Tactical Analysis: Paulo Fonseca’s Lille


Fonseca likes to focalise play to the main striker like he has done with forwards coached in the past, notably with the Bosnian bullet Edin Dzeko when he was at Roma and more recently, the young Canadian Jonathan David at Lille. Following the departure of Olivier Giroud leaving as a free agent, the focal point goes amiss for I Rossoneri however could be the chance to experiment with Noah Okafor playing in that advanced attacking position.


The appointment of their new manager will be charmed with the amount of technically gifted youths in the system in this current moment with the likes of teenage sensation Francesco Camarda in attack and the emergence of a midfield maestro in Yacine Adli alongside the young defenders Filippo Terracciano and Jan-Carlo Simic. I Rossoneri have solid enough foundations to grow and develop a strong enough squad with depth to challenge for multiple trophies.  


AC Milan need to make sure heading into the summer transfer window that the right amount of investment is made to develop depth in defensive positions and allow for more rotation across the midfield and filling voids in crucial positions like the forward position. One position where the Rossoneri should look to strengthen would be cover in the left-back position with Theo Hernandez being up there racking up the most minutes amongst the Milan squad. 


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Following bids last summer for Atalanta left-back Matteo Ruggeri, it would make perfect sense for Milan to poach an emerging talent who has stepped up on the biggest stage. The signature of the Italian international as deputy to Hernandez could prove dividends in the long run for a side like Milan. It also allows versatility and flexibility across the left side of the pitch with Ruggeri’s rich ability to play across multiple positions. 


Another key player which could be a stamp of authority if Fonseca agrees to be the new Milan manager would be winger Eden Zhegrova. What has been a fairly sensational season under the Portuguese manager, the Kosovan’s attacking presence has been worth the while for Les Dogues, being at the forefront of their long run in Europe this season and could already adapt to the playing style of his current coach. 


Filling the void left by Giroud up front might be a tall order for Furlani and his staff however on the tongue of every sporting director in Europe’s top leagues is the hottest prospect in the Bundesliga in Benjamin Sesko. Slovenian Sesko’s devastating presence in front of goal saw him put in double figures in his debut season in the German top flight. His attacking prowess and startling stature for a forward would fit the perfect criteria to fill the forward position for the first team for any potential chance of a Scudetto charge for AC Milan.


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L’obiettivo e’ di riportare il Tricolore nella casa del Diavolo.


By: Lorenzo Gagliotta / @LG24Sports

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Pier Marco Tacca / AC Milan