Stefano Pioli woke up on Tuesday morning to another round of headlines about the man who is being hired to replace him. After months of courtship, Ralf Rangnick is understood to have agreed a deal to become Milan’s manager next season. The story was front-page news for Italy’s best-read newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport, with a picture of the German underneath the words “It’s Done”.
There remains some ambiguity about what that means for Pioli. Gazzetta speculated that he could be given a temporary role alongside Rangnick, who has worked more as a director than a manager over the past eight years – first at RB Leipzig and, more recently, in an overarching role across Red Bull’s football empire. Yet while Rangnick is expected to shape Milan’s transfer policy, all indications are that he intends to coach the first team, too.
He may find that he has a tough act to follow. Pioli was hired as a stop-gap measure last October, a steady pair of hands to get Milan back on an even keel after a catastrophic start to this season. The side he inherited from Marco Giampaolo had lost four of their first seven games. That same team are now flourishing, unbeaten since they came out of lockdown in June.
Milan’s first game back was the second leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final, away to Juventus. They drew 0-0, exiting the competition on away goals, but there was plenty to admire in a team that had played for more than 70 minutes with 10 men.
Since then, the Rossoneri had beaten Lecce 4-1 and Roma 2-0 before somehow drawing 2-2 with Spal despite taking 39 shots to their opponents’ five. On Saturday, Pioli took Milan to Rome and smashed second-placed Lazio 3-0. On Tuesday, he followed up with an even more spectacular win over Juventus, the league leaders and reigning champions.
There was little in the first half to suggest this was going to turn into one of the most dramatic contests of the season. The game was goalless, Milan seemingly content to stifle as they sat back in deep banks of four. Pioli had rotated out Hakan Calhanoglu and Giacomo Bonaventura – stars of the win over Lazio – as he sought a more cautious approach.
Two minutes into the second half, however, his team fell behind to a jaw-dropping goal. Adrien Rabiot won possession in his own half, withstood a barge from Franck Kessié and then nutmegged Theo Hernández before accelerating forwards. He ran half the length of the pitch before cutting inside, evading another challenge and shooting back across his body into the top corner.
It was an astonishing show of skill from a player who has struggled to live up to billing since arriving in Turin last summer. Juventus’s second arrived from a more familiar source. When Milan’s centre-backs, Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjaer, both went to intercept the same high ball, they instead collided with each other, leaving Cristiano Ronaldo to run through and score.
The game looked to be over. In fact, it was barely getting started. Milan were gifted a way back in when Leonardo Bonucci deflected a cross with his arm. The penalty was awarded after a VAR check. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic waited to take it, Ronaldo told his goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, “you know him”. Apparently not well enough. The Swede scored and swivelled with the broadest of grins, seeking out his rival’s gaze.
That was in the 62nd minute. By the 68th, Milan were ahead. Kessié scored an intricate equaliser, picking his way past Bonucci and Daniele Rugani after Calhanoglu – on as a half-time substitute – had nutmegged Juan Cuadrado for Ibrahimovic to lay the ball off inside the box. Moments later, Rafael Leão, another introduction from the bench, beat Szczesny at his near post.
The keeper might have been wrong-footed by a deflection off the boot of Rugani, who had already fouled Ante Rebic earlier in the same action only for the referee to play advantage. This was another calamitous cameo for a defender who not so long ago was heralded as one of Italian football’s emerging talents.
To blame this turnaround on any individual player, though, would be absurd. Milan’s victory was sealed when Alex Sandro lifted an inexplicable pass across his own penalty area. It was not even clear who he was aiming for, but the ball went straight to Bonaventura, who rolled it square for Rebic to make the score 4-2.
Juventus, having brushed lesser opponents aside in their previous four games back, had gone to pieces at the first real sign of a challenge. They were missing Giorgio Chiellini and Matthijs de Ligt in defence, as well as an in-form Paulo Dybala up front, but those justifications can only go so far. This was the first time they had conceded four goals in any game since their Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid in 2017.
Their brittleness sat in stark contrast to Milan’s resolve. Pioli got his substitutions just right in the second half, with Calhanoglu, Leão and Bonaventura – the last of those coming on at 3-2 – all contributing directly to goals. More than that, though, he has created a spirit of cohesion and purpose rarely seen since Massimiliano Allegri was fired in 2014. Pioli is the club’s eighth manager in six years.
Many fans feel he deserves a longer run. Pioli’s Milan were already improving before lockdown, the arrivals of Ibrahimovic and Kjaer in January providing a lift, but the upturn in results since is striking. Every player, and every team, has been affected differently by the events of the past few months, but it feels telling that Milan’s best performances have arrived after a manager who missed out on pre-season finally had a chance to pause, reflect and properly implement his own ideas.
Rangnick may do better still. He has long been admired by Milan’s CEO, Ivan Gazidis, and will be backed by the club’s owners to build according to his long-term vision. Still, it is hard to shake the feeling that the last thing this club needs at this moment is fresh upheaval. Zvonimir Boban left his post as the club’s chief football officer in March and Paolo Maldini is expected to depart too, with Rangnick’s responsibilities sure to encroach on those he holds as director of the technical area.
Pioli declined to comment on the situation at full time, maintaining the same line he has had in interviews and press conferences for months. “I’m not thinking about the future beyond our next match,” he said. “We still want to grab ourselves a little more satisfaction.”
Milan, flailing in the bottom half of the table when he arrived, are now up to fifth – at least until Roma and Napoli play their games in hand. But wins like this one are to be savoured regardless of the standings. The headlines on Wednesday morning were for Milan and for Pioli, not the man who is being hired to replace him.
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