yesTefano Pioli led Milan back to the promised land, guiding a team that used to be defined by continental conquests to a first Champions League qualification in eight years, but even that couldn’t save it from parental criticism. If he Rossoneri ends this season without a trophy, his mother will be waiting to remind him, again, that he has not won a major trophy in two decades at the helm of the club.
“Definitely. Yes, definitely,” he says, leaning in with an unapologetic smile. “And it’s only right that I do. In every family there’s the tough and the soft. My dad was the softest, my mom is the very tough. that’s how it should be. That’s how you get the most out of someone.”
A discussion of parenting styles feels like a necessary step in understanding Pioli’s rise. He has been described as a father by so many players, from Milan midfielder Sandro Tonali to Fiorentina striker Dusan Vlahovic, that you start to think he should write books on raising your children.
“I try to look beyond the surface,” he says. “To go beyond the value of a player and get to the person. Even if they are young guys that we would call lucky, they are still young guys with their own lives, their own emotional triggers, personal ties, difficulties.”
He is not one to coddle. In any case, Pioli believes that he is more like his mother, “severe, to the point that I no longer see the ability to constantly improve.” “I don’t tolerate mediocrity,” he says. And I do not tolerate that we do not strive to improve.
“If I see players who push themselves, who are improving with their own attitude, their own work, then I become more, I wouldn’t say a friend, but I give positive support. When I don’t see that level of tension, I have to ask for more.”
Pioli was the right man at the right time for Milan, an enriching presence at a time when they were committed to rejuvenating their squad. The club had gone through a series of awkward transitions before his appointment in October 2019; sold by Silvio Berlusconi to the enigmatic Li Yonghong, who ceded control in two years to a hedge fund, Elliott Management, after defaulting on a loan.
There were chaotic spending sprees, with close to €100m wasted in the summer of 2018 on players who didn’t stick around. Only in the last three years can we see a more consistent policy of recruiting young talent to develop alongside the occasional veteran, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who can offer leadership beyond his contribution on the pitch.
Pioli inherited a group with potential, which included a midfield pairing of Franck Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer, Theo Hernández at left back and Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal. However, none of that had looked so promising during predecessor Marco Giampaolo’s seven-game tenure. Pioli’s first triumph may have been simply reminding his young players to have fun.
He laughs when asked about the smile on the lips of Milan’s 22-year-old Portuguese forward Rafael Leão as he runs towards defenders. “At first I was a little worried. I later realized that this really was something that just comes out as he plays, just what his face does. So it was beautiful. It is beautiful to be yourself.
“Having fun is essential. That is something we look for. We try to be as serious as possible, committed and professional. But football is passion, enjoy. When you train guys who are very young, you need them to put their enthusiasm on the pitch.”
Pioli was supposed to be a caretaker. Milan fielded Ralf Rangnick to replace him in the summer of 2020, only to change their minds as performances improved. Instead, the club doubled down on Pioli, supporting him with more signings. Last January, an English defender, Fikayo Tomori, arrived from Chelsea, initially on loan for six months.
“I had seen videos and seen impressive features,” says Pioli. “But Fika was a positive surprise in every way. At a football level, because he is a defender who has the characteristics that the team needed: aggressiveness, rhythm, ability to read the game. So he is an extremely serious boy, extremely calm.
“We talked before about how you motivate a player. With Fika it was easy because he is always determined, always enthusiastic, always positive, always attentive. With him, truly, our relationship is very simple. Few words are needed to understand each other, to develop the whole idea of the work”.
The admiration is mutual. Tomori has spoken about how much he appreciates Pioli’s attention to detail, working out the details of his positioning. The manager emphasizes that he has always seen his role as taking the lead with individual coaching, letting his staff help him with broader tactical considerations. .
Pioli believes that the sky is the limit for Tomori. “It has grown a lot in these two years, but it can still grow more. Since he is much faster than the average defender, he sometimes takes too many risks trying to anticipate an attack too soon. He could wait a little longer, and instead of acting on the expectation of a certain move, he would wait for that move. But being such a smart kid, he’ll get better at that too.”
After finishing runners-up to Internazionale in Serie A last season, Milan find themselves in a familiar position, second behind their neighbours. They missed their chance to come out on top when they lost to Spezia on Monday. Milan were denied a late winner when the referee blew his whistle prematurely, rather than play advantage after Ante Rebic was fouled (Spezia scored a late winner in stoppage time).
Even in defeat, the coach found encouragement in the players’ response, accepting responsibility for the result rather than reprimand the referee.
“The behavior of my players was immense,” he says. “They showed respect for sporting values and towards a person who was wrong. In sports we all make mistakes. That shouldn’t make us feel superior or less worthy than anyone else.”
Milan’s next game is at home against Juventus. Then comes the derby with Inter. Pioli calls it “not a decisive moment, but an important one”. His goal is for Milan to improve on the 79 points with which they finished last season. He expected a better performance in the Champions League as his team finished bottom of their group behind Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Porto, but he can see the glass as half full, highlighting the good performances against the Spanish champions and that many Milan players. debuted in the competition.
“My young footballers are growing well,” he says. “But soon it will be time to stop calling them young footballers and just call them footballers, ready to compete at certain levels.”
Pioli is a father with great expectations. If his mother can still scold him after all these years, there’s no chance his players will have an easy ride now.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism