Stefano Pioli believes Milan deserved the three points they earned at Sardegna Arena as the Rossoneri beat Cagliari 2-0 with a Zlatan Ibrahimović goal.
After going three full matches without finding the back of the net, Pioli listened to the football tips of fans and experts and changed the formation: using a 4-4-2 with Suso and Krzysztof Piątek on the bench, and Ibra & Rafael Leão up front.
After a rather quiet first half, the decision of Pioli paid off: Samu Castillejo played a long ball to Leão in the 46′ minute and the Frenchman sent a shot that was deflected into the back of the net. In the 64′ minute, Theo Hernandez found Zlatan inside the box and the big Swede beat Robin Olsen to make it 2-0. Milan played confident football in the second half and Pioli can smile for the first time in 2020 as his side picked up the win in a difficult stadium.
“This was certainly a different performance to recent outings,” Pioli said in an interview with Sky Italia. “We were more effective, more solid, Zlatan’s presence clearly gives us a reference point to build around and it’ll take us a while to really get to know each other. It was an important and deserved victory against a difficult victory to help us get out of a delicate moment.
“Ibrahimović? We must try to make the most of the characteristics of our players. Ibrahimović probably won’t run into space that much, so we need someone around him who can do the running, as today we saw Leão, Castillejo and Çalhanoğlu, then Bonaventura. We’ve only just started working on this system, but the early signs are positive. The team has shown a desire to suffer and fight together, for this base we have to start again, an important second round awaits us for our future.
“The condition of Zlatan? In the second half I often asked him how he was doing, I was worried about his condition as he hadn’t played a full game for months and I didn’t want to risk muscular problems. He settled in with great intelligence. He understood the moment of the team well, he is saying the right things to his teammates and is a real reference point on the field. He can only get stronger and we’ll see the real Zlatan in three or four games.
“The impact of Ibra? I was sure he’d be ready just by talking to him on the phone, I didn’t even need to see him in action. He told me not to believe what was being said. He is a Champion, working with this determination will do so much good for this team.
“Ibrahimović wants to prove he’s still got it and his presence is really helping what is one of the youngest squads in Serie A. He has such character, determination and experience that it inevitably passes on to the others. The example he transmits in everyday life will be important for everyone.
“Leão and Ibra? There are the characteristics to play together, they have physicality and quality. Rafael can rip through in a way that can guarantee us attacking the depth. Then, you need balance and the work of the whole team to support them.
“Kessié? Franck had a great game today, in this position he is certainly important. We have more mezz’ali than central midfielders but intelligent players can adapt to play in a two-man midfield rather than three.
“Paquetá? He is working well, he’s in good shape, but I made different choices to have a balanced team that could suit this playing system. The choices are made to win the games and put the best team on.
“Piątek? He is more of a central forward, a little less varied than Leão. But there are also the characteristics to do well with two center forwards.
“Tactics? I like the team to have various situations, before we dribbled a lot. We will have to play a more direct football, we have not lacked the volume of play but the effectiveness in being more dangerous, keeping our principles and concepts. The players between the lines we are also there, we did well in the depth and we must insist on it.
“The mercato and the choices? If the transfer market ends early, I’ll be happier, because it can distract some players, but my decisions are only to win the next games, as we really need the results. We are making evaluations, the mercato is unpredictable.
“The meeting with Boban at the end of the game? We always meet at the end mainly to talk about the game. Any nearly deals are not concluded, so we’ll wait until they are made official.”
Speaking in the post-match press conference, Pioli stated: “If I like the adjective ‘solid’ to describe this Milan? A lot… we worked with concentration and self-sacrifice, we hit at the right moment. It was a just and well-deserved success.
“Joy for the goals of the strikers? The victory counts first, then I’m happy for the strikers. Zlatan confirmed that he’s a world class player, he is not yet 100 per cent but he was a really important signing which can help the team a lot.
“If I’ve changed the way we play with Ibra? We’ve increased the chances of having more solutions, today we dribbled a lot and well, but this certainly gives us more choices. I don’t think 4-4-2 is the only formation for us, the important thing is to put a player near Zlatan who has the legs and can take the space.
“If this game is the start of something? It must be, absolutely. Not because Ibrahimović has arrived, but because we have to be protagonists in the second round. I believe that this team can change its performance, 19 games are many. We will not win the Scudetto, but we have qualities that will do us good in the future.
“Castillejo often appeared in the heat of the game? He’s put his characteristics on the pitch and that is what all Milan players must do. He’s a player of great dynamism and depth and he played a match suited to his characteristics and that was what we needed today. He played a good game in my opinion.
“If Piątek continues to be a part of this team? He is part of Milan, if I had changed Ibrahimović then I would have put him on.”
Pioli also had an interview with MilanTV: “This was absolutely a deserved win, it was tough, especially in the first half because we struggled to find the right set-up, the right positioning and spacing. However, we ran very few risks and were always dangerous so this is a deserved and important win, which will give us courage and strength going forward because there are a lot of games to go. We need to push on and believe in ourselves.
“If this win can give self-confidence for the future? If defeats take things from you, like confidence and awareness, wins need to convince you that you have quality. We have that quality, we showed for a period of time to be worthy, when we were fighting for matches from start to finish, now we have to continue and try to set up a winning streak that is long and lasting because I think we are capable of doing if we continue with this self-sacrificing attitude and this desire to fight, the desire to fight as a team right till the end and determination to overcome any rough patches, because there will always be rough patches but if you can hold your own during the tough moments, like we did today, then you can go on to win, especially now that we have important qualities.
“Ibrahimović’s goal and impact? I was worried because I didn’t know how much of the match Zlatan could play. In the second half, I was asking him how he was feeling very five minutes. I think he started the game a bit, perhaps not emotional but a little tense and worried, because it’s not easy to make the step up to the level again… The league is very complicated and competitive, so it wasn’t easy but as time went by I think he even improved his physical condition. Clearly he is not 100% match fit yet but today he showed how good he is.
“The understanding between Zlatan and Leão? This is only the beginning, now we have a player with characteristics we didn’t have before so we need to learn to understand him and put him in a position to make the most of his characteristics. But most importantly to have players around him who can complement him and do well, and Leão certainly has the right characteristics.”