Stefano Pioli gave an interview to Sky Italia to sum up his very positive 2020, covering many different topics.
2020 comes to an end today and the world will embrace 2021 hoping it will be much better than the passing year. But for Milan it would be very difficult to have a better year than the one they just had.
The Rossoneri were the best team in Italy in 2020 and on Thursday, the coach of Milan – Stefano Pioli – sat down with Sky Italia to recap the year. You can find the fully-translated interview below:
If you had to think of a song to describe your moment, which one would you choose?
“I really like music. A song by Negramaro recently came out, it’s called ‘Contatto’ [‘Contact’]. There is a sentence that says ‘La vita che volevo è tutta qui, gli amici che sognavo, proprio così’ [‘the life I wanted is all here, the friends I dreamed of, precisely’]. This sentence encapsulates a bit of my time currently.”
If Milan were a woman, what would it be like?
“If Milan were a woman, it would be my wife. I’ve been married to my wife for 32 years, she’s the love of my life, so it means that Milan would be too.”
When did the negotiation for the purchase of Ibrahimović begin?
“The negotiation for the arrival of Zlatan began long before the match against Atalanta [Atalanta 5-0 Milan on December 22, 2019]. Ibrahimović’s OK came just in the days after the defeat in Bergamo, but the club had already spoken to me about this possibility and I took it very positively. I knew we needed his personality, his strength and his charisma so we were all ready to welcome Zlatan. I always thought that Ibra was the right player for our group and our way of playing. I saw him as the perfect for our mentality, to try and give an important culture of work within this team. I never had any doubts.”
What was your first meeting with Ibrahimović like?
“The first meeting with Zlatan took place at Milanello, from there I realized that I was facing a Champion in terms of mentality, professionalism and technique. We exchanged a few words but from there I began to understand that I was facing a very intelligent person, a very nice person and a player who when he enters the field becomes a wrath of God. He always has the right joke, he always knows how to motivate his teammates in the right away, and on the field he spurs them vehemently and forcefully, but off the pitch he knows how to speak with the right tones, he knows how to understand the moments. And then I like his frankness, his way of being very direct. I remember that as soon as he arrived, the first thing he said to me was: ‘Mister, do not listen to anyone: I am find and I want to play on Sunday’. I replied: ‘Zlatan, if you are well, I am happy’. And he added: ‘I am a player and you are a coach, I respect you’.”
What did you learn after the 5-0 defeat against Atalanta a year ago?
“Certainly that defeat was heavy, difficult to accept for a club like Milan. We had a lot of will and strength to try to grow after each match, the defeat in Bergamo was a hard lesson but it made us understand some situations, it made us change the way we play, the way we interpret matches. I believe that our entire journey began in January 2020 with an important mercato for the club, both in terms of arrivals and exits. There we started to lay the foundations to build something positive. The arrivals of Ibrahimović, Kjær and Saelemaekers gave some momentum and enthusiasm after the bad defeat against Atalanta. The week we stayed home after that knockout was depressing because that defeat stayed with us also during the Christmas holidays. However, as soon as we all returned to Milanello, we told each other that we didn’t need to relive certain situations and that you can lose matches, but you still have to play them with more determination, more intensity and more quality. From there we started again.”
From what did you understand that you were on the right path?
“You could see it from the behavior of the team, you could see it from our way of playing, from how we interpreted the games. We changed the set-up in midfield a bit, using 2-man midfield instead of a 3-man midfielder with a high vertex, inserting a forward like Zlatan; in this way we found good positions on the field that gave us immediate results, even if we were still missing the famous victory against a team above us in the standings. That was the piece that we were missing, the piece to gain even more self-esteem, confidence and conviction, to become even stronger.”
An important victory that could have come in the derby of February 9, 2020, but which the vanished…
“Losing that derby was a strong disappointment, we were winning 2-0 clearly after the first half and in the end we lost 4-2. That game helped us so much to grow, but from that disappointment we were able to bring home important aspects which helped us understand what the right path was.”
Also the defeat against Genoa at San Siro on March 8, 2020 was in its own was particular…
“The match against Genoa was the first one behind closed doors [due to Coronavirus], moreover Gazidis came to make his first speech to the team: it was a clear speech, very coherent, he said that from that moment on we would all play for the reconfirmation and the future at Milan – a good message maintained over time, so it was a proof of fairness and professionalism. From that moment we thought about working with our heads down to see if we were up to Milan.”
How did you experience the lockdown and the stop of the league?
“The first part of the lockdown, where we stayed home and were disconnected, helped everyone. It helped me and it helped the players as well, that’s why I decided together with my staff to leave them alone for the first two weeks. We spoke every now and then, but we didn’t stress them out. After that, the time was right for us to get together, see each other and train together again. Despite being apart, we gathered together even more during the lockdown. Talking often, we better identified what our objective as, focusing on the path to take with our options.”
What was it like getting back into the game after the lockdown?
“We were still feeling inferior, we were playing some good games, but we were always missing something to make a difference. Then when we managed to win against a big team we gained even more enthusiasm and conviction, the team started to play with confidence and positivity for the whole 90 minutes, knowing that we have the qualities to win certain games. This has been the most important and decisive step in our journey.”
Then came the confirmation at Milan…
“When Gazidis told me that I was going to be confirmed, just before the away match against Sassuolo, he sympathetically told me: ‘You did not believe me when I told the team that the confirmation would depend on your performances and results’. I replied that I’d believed his words, which is why I’d worked with my head down without thinking of anything else. Gazidis explained to me that the ownership had decided to work keep working together if it suited me. I thought about it for a moment, then I said that it was fine with me.”
After your confirmation, Ibrahimović also decided to stay at Milan…
“After the game against Sassuolo, I asked Zlatan what he was planning to do for the following season. He told me that he’s been missing his family, at that moment I cashed out, I didn’t have the right reaction and I thought that it was better to leave him calm. When I have doubts and I’m not sure about something, I prefer not to make decisions. Coming home I then thought that it wasn’t right: the next day I told Ibra that I didn’t like what he said to me and I didn’t like what I hadn’t said to him either. I didn’t tell him what I felt, I explained to him that our work together had just started, he had done so much for the whole team, proving again to be a Champion, so it could not end like that. I assured him that the club and I would do everything to persuade him to stay.”
In addition to the confirmation of Ibrahimović, in the summer there were other important mercato moves like Tonali…
“In just a few days of the mercato, Milan gave a great demonstration in knowing of how to give continuity to what was being done, with the confirmation of Ibrahimović and the announcement of the arrival of Tonali, one of the most talented players in Italy. In this way, the club tried to have an important prospect in order to return to being what Milan has always been.”
How did you approach the beginning of the current season?
“When we got together ahead of the new season, it seemed as if I hadn’t left the guys. I found again the same enthusiasm, the same availability and the same desire to be together. We didn’t prepare enough to play so many games so even the preliminary matches were difficult. But we did well to maintain a certain level of performance, even without important players who were still having some physical problems. I believe that the Europa League preliminaries were important to give even more certainly and strength to the team, to allow all the players to play and grow.”
As 2020 comes to a close, what is your personal balance sheet of this year?
“It has been a rewarding year, I coach a great club, I coach a group of guys that I like, and I like their behavior: despite being so young they are already responsible, what we are experiencing in the world is a very special situation and it’s delicate for them too.”
What do you remember about your first day at Milanello?
“When I arrived here the first time I immediately felt good with everyone, here there are the best possible conditions to be able to work well. We have to continue with this desire to be together, to grow, to aim for the maximum, because we are in a great club and we can get great satisfactions.”
Did you imagine you could end 2020 leading the league?
“Thinking of doing nine months like we did, with all these results, becomes difficult. But we believed in it, we worked hard. We earned all these important results. In January we didn’t have the objective of ending the year on top, it’s an objective that we’ve built up little by little, slowly we started to think that after changing the way we play, and many situations have started to prove us right: in the first part of the season we got to the first place in the Europa League group stage and the first place in the league. Let’s say it’s a mini-objective that doesn’t give us any trophies, but it helps us understand what levels we can reach and at what levels we can compete. In my opinion, we are halfway up the hill but the climb is still long, full of difficulties, it’s still steep and there’s a lot to do. We have to think game by game continuing to play the kind of football we like, a proactive football to score one goal than the others. For now our objective is only this, then there is still room to try to achieve something else. We are a very young group, a group that is very committed, that gives its best and then finds happiness in the results, we hope it can last a long time.”
In this happy 2020 with Milan, have you ever thought about what you experienced before with Davide Astori?
“The experience I had in Florence, along with the loss of my father last year, led me to have two more guardian angels. They are also there in this beautiful season at Milan.”