They say you learn more from defeat than from victory. Stefano Pioli would certainly subscribe to this theory.
The AC Milan manager says the 2022 Scudetto winners were born in a ‘horrifying’ and ‘humiliating’ 5-0 loss to Atalanta in December 2019.
“It was one of the most negative moments of my career,” he admitted. DAZN last week, “but also one of the most valuable.
“That’s when we realized what it took to develop this team.”
And that’s exactly what he did, together with CTO Paolo Maldini, Chairman Paolo Scaroni, CEO Ivan Gazidis and owners Elliott Management Corporation.
In the space of three years, they have taken a club to the brink of complete collapse after Li Yonghong’s disastrous move to the Italian champions for the first time in 11 years.
And they did it without spending millions on superstar signings.
As Verona coach Igor Tudor told reporters earlier this month, “On paper Milan only have the third – or fourth – best team in the league.
“So it shows what a great job the club and the head coach have done.”
Indeed, in terms of recruiting, Maldini has pulled off one masterstroke after another – and after a very trying start to his tenure.
In October 2019, Maldini was a man under pressure. He and then director of football Zvonomir Boban had identified Marco Giampaolo as the coach Milan needed to stop years of underperformance.
However, the pair were forced to admit he made a mistake just four months and seven matches into Giampaolo’s reign.
Milan needed a reliable figure to steady the ship, and perhaps more importantly, a figure willing to accept the role of head coach on what was effectively a temporary basis.
Pioli stepped forward, although he was highly likely to be substituted at the end of what was expected to be a transitional season.
Indeed, Milan quickly fielded Ralf Rangnick to revolutionize the Rossoneri from the ground up.
Gazidis wasn’t just willing to hand Rangnick the responsibility of looking after the first team; he was ready to give her the keys to the whole club.
However, neither Boban nor Maldini had been consulted, sparking a civil war in San Siro. The former resigned in disgust; the latter seemed certain to follow suit.
But something remarkable happened: Milan started to improve under Pioli – quickly.
It also became clear that Maldini’s signings were starting to go well.
Gazidis, to his eternal credit, realized – just as Maldini had done before with Giampaolo – that he had made a mistake.
The former Arsenal chief executive had hoped that Rangnick would be able to solve all of Milan’s problems, but at least a solution was already in place, so he decided to back Pioli.
It was a brave decision, but the right one.
Pioli has long been considered one of the good guys in the game; the dignified manner in which he handled all the constant speculation surrounding his work only provided further proof of this fact.
However, he was not considered one of Italy’s finest tacticians – more of a companion, a useful palliative in times of difficulty.
Pioli, however, proved the perfect date for a club in crisis.
“Stefano is always calm,” Gazidis said. “He’s a great man, not just a great coach, an example for all of us.”
It was perhaps no surprise that Pioli and the famously composed Maldini turned out to be so perfect.
As noted by former Milan midfielder and manager Clarence Seedorf in an interview with Corriere dello Sport“Paolo’s presence gives the team a winning mentality and embodies the Milanese DNA.
“I know Maldini well and I know that he is always balanced, even in difficult times. He knows how to help the players and stay competitive. Thanks to him, Milan have made giant strides.
“I see a positive spirit at the club, the one that comes from the hard work of the coach and his way of being. Pioli gives serenity to the team and the results speak for themselves.”
They certainly do. Milan won the title with 86 points – their second highest tally in the era of three points for a win.
Sky Sport Italy also recently noted that Pioli’s points-per-game average (1.96) is better than that of Milan coaching legends Arrigo Sacchi (1.95), Nereo Rocco (1.95) and Carlo Ancelotti. Only Fabio Capello (2.02) has the best win rate in club history.
However, this dramatic improvement is a testament not only to Pioli’s man-management skills and previously underrated tactical acumen, but also to Maldini’s market moves.
There have been some disappointing transfers but, overall, the former defender’s record is remarkable.
Simon Kjaer, who was initially on loan, proved a crucial signing, helping to turn Milan’s defense into one of the best in Italy.
Even when the Denmark captain was injured earlier this year, an even more impressive signing arrived in Pierre Kalulu, a €480,000 (£400,000/$500,000) signing from Lyon who had never played before only one minute of top football before arriving at Saint Siro.
Of course, having Fikayo Tomori by his side has undoubtedly helped Kalulu’s integration.
Chelsea are currently scouring Europe in search of top-notch centre-backs, with Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger leaving Stamford Bridge this summer, but they are unlikely to find a better one than Tomori – and certainly not for the 28million euros (£24m/$29m) Milan paid for Blues Academy proceeds.
The Englishman’s value is arguably now worth double that figure, but who knows what kind of fee Mike Maignan would demand now?
The loss of Gigi Donnarumma on a free transfer last summer could have devastated Milan.
But after deciding they would not comply with the demands of goalkeeper and his former agent, Mino Raiola, Maldini came out and fielded a sensational replacement before Donnarumma even left.
Indeed Maignan, who was bought for just under €15m (£12.7m/$15.7m), has been Serie A’s best goalkeeper this season – and from afar.
Sandro Tonali didn’t have the same immediate impact at Milan but, after a difficult first season at San Siro, the former Brescia man has developed into a fantastic all-round midfielder.
Comparisons to Andrea Pirlo have always been wrong, but so has Tonali’s belief that he actually looked more like Gennaro Gattuso. As Pioli pointed out, the 22-year-old now looks more like the new Daniele De Rossi.
Milan also feel in possession of the new Thierry Henry.
There are undoubtedly similarities between young Henry and Rafael Leao: the blistering pace and almost nonchalant finishing.
Leao, of course, still has some way to go before he can be compared to the Henry we saw at Arsenal, but the potential is clear as he was named Serie A MVP after the last day of the season.
Now we see why he was considered the greatest talent to ever emerge from Sporting’s famed academy, which only makes it more incredible that Milan managed to sign him for just €23m (£19.5m). sterling / $24 million).
Remember, a host of top clubs wanted the former Lille man but Maldini made the difference for Milan, calling on Leao who convinced the Portuguese to move to San Siro.
It was also a direct conversation with Maldini that convinced Theo Hernandez to join the Rossoneri.
But why Real Madrid and former manager Zinedine Zidane agreed to allow the world’s most exciting left-back to leave the Bernabeu for just 20m euros (£17m/$20m) remains a mystery.
All we know for sure is that Maldini and Milan have a fantastic eye for bargains, especially when it comes to young players.
However, the decision to pick up the then 38-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic for free in January 2020 was arguably the Rossoneri’s most significant decision.
The Swedish superstar has added both experience and confidence to a group of young and insecure players at a crucial time in the team’s development – just weeks after that devastating loss in Bergamo.
Ibrahimovic is renowned for his supposed arrogance – and he no doubt plays up to his egotistical personality – but he too immediately clicked with the humble Pioli, becoming something akin to an assistant coach.
Even when he couldn’t make it to the pitch due to mounting injury problems, Ibrahimovic proved an imposing presence in the dressing room.
Ahead of their crucial win in Verona – a city where many much more revered Milan sides of the past have crumbled – Ibrahimovic told his team-mates before kick-off: “Everyone remembers the Milan players who won the Scudetto or the Champions League. , so if we want to be remembered, we have three games to do so.'”
Milan came from behind to triumph 3-1 at the Marcantonio Bentegodi, then beat Atalanta at the sold-out San Siro and defeated Sassuolo 3-0 in Reggio Emilia to propel city rivals Inter to the title by two points.
And Ibrahimovic was right: immortality is theirs now. No one will forget the names of Pioli players.
They did something extraordinary; something no one expected, given the club was in disarray just three years ago.
Milan, after all, are still counting the cost of Yonghong’s calamitous reign. They are not yet back on the same financial playing field as many of their rivals in Italy, let alone Europe.
However, while Tudor was absolutely right when he said Milan didn’t have the best players in Serie A, they did have the best team in the league. And the best trainer.
No one can dispute that now.