Can Milan ignore influence of key figure and press ahead with important change?

Pioli AC Milan

Despite the speculation swirling around the club and who could be the next Milan coach, Stefano Pioli continues to do a commendable job this season.

The 54-year-old was appointed in October after a disastrous start to the campaign under former boss Marco Giampaolo, with the mandate undoubtedly to steady the ship and to get us back on the right track using his experience and knowledge of the game.

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It didn’t help that ‘#PioliOut’ was soon trending on social media before he had even been officially appointed, and if you were a Milan fan that didn’t partake in that particular movement, the appointment arguably forced you to raise your eyebrow at the very least as it was considered a questionable decision from the hierarchy by many.

In fairness, there were immediate positive signs as we looked better and played with direction, identity and purpose against Lecce in his debut game in charge, albeit it ended in familiar disappointment as we drew 2-2.

Defeats to Roma, Lazio and Juventus coupled with a slim win over SPAL and a draw against Napoli ensured that it was a difficult start to life for Pioli at San Siro, and by the time we were thrashed 5-0 by Atalanta in the final game before Christmas, it looked as though his stint was going to end in bitter disappointment.

Turnaround begins…

In 2020 though, Milan have lost just twice across all competitions to Inter and Genoa, and while we’ve slipped up and drawn games which we could and perhaps should have won, we’ve look a completely different side to the one that fell to defeat away at Udinese on the opening day of the campaign.

Barring those two specific setbacks named above, Milan were already on the right path prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but the form we’ve shown since the restart has been stunning.

Four wins in five Serie A games with victories over Roma, Lazio and Juventus, it has been a superb effort from the players and coaching staff as we look to secure Europa League qualification and avoid having to go through the qualifying rounds.

It’s not just the results though. It’s the style of play we’re now developing in a settled and effective 4-2-3-1 system. It’s Pioli’s tactical tweaks and influential substitutions. It’s his professionalism and level-headedness that keeps a young squad calm and maintaining a sense of belief and confidence in their abilities. It’s his ability to pair experienced stalwarts with top talents and find the necessary balance to succeed.

Combine those factors with wins, and suddenly the ship that was sailing way off course earlier this season is now very much honing in on the home straight with seven games remaining.

Rangnick distractions…

And yet here we are. Despite the exceptional job that Pioli is doing and doing with real grace and class, the Guardian reported on Tuesday after months of speculation that Ralf Rangnick is set to become Milan coach for next season while he could yet also take on the sporting director role.

The level of disrespect shown towards Pioli has been shocking at times, as he has even effectively been asked questions about losing his job and about the man who could replace him this summer.

Still though, he’s leading the way as we secure impressive and decisive wins against direct rivals, doing so without making his future a distraction for the players and maintaining focus on delivering on our objectives this season regardless of whether or not he’ll be around to see out the mission beyond this summer.

There’s no shame in admitting that I saw Pioli as a stop-gap solution when he was appointed in October. Come in, settle us down and try to get us competing again before stepping aside for a long-term coach.

It seems as though that’s what is going to happen, but along the way, Pioli has earned the respect of Milan fans for what he’s done this season, and it’s just hoped that if this is his last month at the helm, he can sign out in style against Cagliari on the final weekend of the season and leave his mark.

Assuming Rangnick does take charge this summer as per the Guardian above, he’d be wrong to dismiss the progress and development overseen over the past few months and hit the reset button.

Pioli will hope that there is a lasting change at Milan even beyond his time as coach as a direct result of his influence, while if he and the players keep this form up between now and the end of the season, it begs the question as to whether or not he should stay on and get the chance to build on this.