"Stefano Pioli has designed a masterpiece."
Those were the words of Arrigo Sacchi, the most successful coach in AC Milan's history, as he waxed lyrical about the work of the current Rossoneri coach shortly after Milan won their first Scudetto in 11 years in 2021/22. "You look at Milan's squad and what they have spent, and a fourth or fifth-place finish would be more than justified," he continued.
After a long career with several noteworthy Italian sides, including Inter Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina, it is at Milan that Pioli has done his best work, returning the team to the elite of Italian football. The season before their historic title win, in what was Pioli’s first full campaign with the club, Milan finished second in the table. In doing so, they qualified for the Champions League for the first time in eight years.
Here, we take a look at the main tactical components of Pioli's Milan, the team with which the manager finally won his first Scudetto at the age of 56.
Pioli won the league with Milan playing in a 4-2-3-1 shape. Although there has been a recent switch to a 3-4-3 following a poor run of form, the 4-2-3-1 remains his favoured shape. There have also been times when he has used a 4-3-3, as it is largely his preference to ensure he has three players in central midfield.
When he first arrived at Milan, Pioli opted to play with a single pivot, but he has settled more consistently on playing with a double pivot, largely because of the personnel at his disposal at the San Siro. The thinking has been to have greater control in midfield, with two defensive midfielders providing solidity and protection underneath the ball. The double pivot gives a base on which the attacking players can rely, and affords the team's creative players more freedom. Pioli wants a compact unit in defence and midfield, with the three players in the attacking positions enjoying enough autonomy and freedom to get the most of their abilities.
The two most-used central midfielders in 2021/22 were Sandro Tonali and Franck Kessié. Ismaël Bennacer was brought in whenever one of Tonali or Kessié was unavailable, and he has featured even more in 2022/23 since Kessié left for Barcelona.
Tonali has the qualities of a regista, always keen to get on the ball and able to dictate the pace of a match with his passing. Kessié, on the other hand, was a dynamic midfielder who covered a lot of ground. Bennacer has done a decent job of replacing him, making more tackles than any other Milan midfielder and the second-most in the squad in league games despite missing a significant portion of 2022/23 through injury.
Brahim Díaz is Milan’s main creator, and usually plays as the number 10 in the 4-2-3-1. Rade Krunic has proven a capable deputy when Díaz was out injured, and also played in the double pivot when Bennacer was unavailable.
At the start of Milan’s build-up, Pioli does not want his team to take big risks. Goalkeeper Mike Maignan will often play direct, which is part of the reason Pioli likes a big, strong centre-forward, such as Olivier Giroud or Zlatan Ibrahimovic – who made 23 Serie A appearances in Milan’s title-winning campaign despite turning 40 in October 2021. Pioli likes his teams to play vertical balls with purpose to get up the pitch and get into goalscoring positions with as few actions as possible.
Milan's goalkeeper will, however, sometimes play short and receive a return pass, before bringing the ball out of the box to take the team a few yards up the pitch. This will draw the opposition’s press out, with the aim of creating space between the opposition’s lines for the attacking midfielders to battle for second balls. The centre-backs will split to offer passing options, although Maignan will often just use those players as a decoy to draw the opposition in before going long (above).
One of the main attacking strengths of a Pioli team is in the height and width provided by the two full-backs. Davide Calabria and Theo Hernández played in these positions for Milan for much of 2021/22, and they have continued there into the following campaign.
On the left, Hernández spends lots of time in the opposition half, whereas Calabria tends to make more delayed runs forward to overlap the wide midfielder in front of him. Hernández is extremely quick, and particularly effective at breaking lines with a burst of speed following a short pass (below) or by running with the ball. His pace is also an asset in transition, when he has to make recovery runs or when cover is needed underneath the centre-backs. He was the standout player in the Milan defence as they won the title in 2021/22; five goals and six assists put him respectively fifth and second in the entire squad from left-back.
The relationship Hernández has built up with left-sided attacker Rafael Leão has been key to Milan's success under Pioli. When the full-back attacks around the outside, Leão rotates into a central position, becoming another centre-forward alongside Giroud.
Leão is a wonderfully skilled attacker, and the movement of Hernández helps get the best out of him. Once the left-back makes a run around the outside and Leão’s opponent shifts their weight to pre-empt a pass going to Hernández, Leão then cuts in and makes a diagonal run towards goal at pace. He is a fantastic dribbler who can work his way through tight spaces or make close combinations to break down a block.
AC Milan's play between the lines is not one of their greatest strengths. Pioli's side prioritises verticality and looking to get players in behind rather than in between the lines. However, that fact should not take anything away from the importance of the number 10. Díaz is the player tasked with finding space to turn and create chances (below).
His dribbling ability and acceleration help him speed up Milan’s moves after he receives a pass from one of the players in defence (below) or in the double pivot. With two players providing security in front of the defence, Díaz has more freedom to roam away from classic number 10 positions. He is most comfortable in the half-spaces or centrally rather than out on the flank, where he used to play.
Díaz stays on the move to try and get into space to receive, be ready for knockdowns or layoffs from the number nine, or battle for second balls. When he does get on the ball, his first thought is to try and get it to a teammate in behind the opposition and so threaten the opposition’s goal.
Pioli's Milan press aggressively after a turnover, to try and win it back quickly and as high up the pitch as possible. They push up with a very high line, leaving lots of space behind their centre-backs to try and make the playing area small for the opposition to play out. This is a ploy that comes with risks, but Pioli is much happier for his team to take risks near the opposition’s goal than he is their own.
His centre-backs are also encouraged to jump out to press or make an attempt to win the ball if they have the opportunity, with Pierre Kalulu one of the best in the league at doing this (above). He is the perfect type of centre-back for Pioli – an aggressive and proactive defender with the turn of pace to recover if he needs to turn and sprint back if he has failed to win the first contact.
Pioli likes his teams to defend on the front foot and selects players who feel comfortable making bold attempts to win the ball high up the pitch. He has had vast success with this defensive approach at Milan, with his side conceding just 31 goals in 38 Serie A games in 2021/22. That gave them the joint best defensive record as they brought the title back to the red-and-black side of the San Siro.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice