Stefano Pioli spoke at length before Milan’s first game of the season, sounding very confident that the Diavolo will have a successful campaign.
The wait is finally over: tomorrow at 20:45 CET, Milan will step on the pitch of Stadio Luigi Ferraris for Matchday 1 of the 2021/22 Serie A season.
Today, coach Pioli held a press conference at Milanello, where he answered the various questions of the journalists:
Good afternoon Stefano. This is the first Matchday -1 press conference ahead of the new season. On the 8th of July, when the team joined up for pre-season, you said it will be very important for the players to come in here that really want to join Milan, that want to help out, that want to settle into the squad that we have here. Is that what happened after the 8th of July?
“Absolutely yes. I’m delighted with the new faces who have come in: Maignan, Giroud, Florenzi and Ballo-Touré as well. These are players that have won things in their careers, they’ve had top-level experience and they have an excellent mentality, they know what it means to win, they know how to train very well, they’re professionals and they’ve all settled in very quickly. The group of players looks even more motivated, they have great desire to work very hard and I think we’ve done absolutely everything in our power of the last few weeks to make sure that we’re going into tomorrow’s game in the best possible shape.”
I’ve heard and read a lot about Milan and that is that one of the advantages that they have over the other teams – and the same goes for Atalanta – is the fact that they have not changed coach, and obviously there’s still a lot of continuity with you still at helm. Stefano Pioli is someone who is always looking to learn new things, am I right?
“Yes, absolutely. In terms of continuity, principle of play and the way the team plays – of course that is an advantage and we need to make the most of that, that we need to show out there on the pitch. But I think in modern football you can’t only have one way of setting-up, one system. We started to play differently at times last season and that goes both for the way that we attack and defend. Our aim, in an ideal world, we’d like to see a greater advantage than our opponents – week in, week out – and that comes to the players who I want to pick. I’m not tied or wedded to any formation, we are tied and wedded to our principles of play, we have those deep within us, we want to try play forward, we don’t want to be passive, we want to offer an attacking style of play, we want to take risks, we want to play a fast-attacking brand of football and of course that does require a great amount of effort – and above all a great team spirit. We need to kick on and really reproduce what we showed last season.”
This is your third season at Milan. Is this the best Milan squad you’ve been in charge of?
“Yes, I think so. Because my players look like they’ve got a great deal of self-belief, they have developed in previous campaigns and that has certainly given us a lot of faith and confidence we have developed. I’ve seen some young players that I hadn’t seen for the six weeks – I’m referring to Tonali and Leão – who are different players, they’ve got greater self-belief, they’re more mature, they’re better footballers. Of course, we are still a bit short in terms of the fact that Ibrahimović is still out, Kessié has picked up an injury and won’t be available tomorrow. Bennacer, and the same goes for Florenzi, hasn’t played for a while now. But I think that when we do have everyone fit and available, we have got a strong team. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll win every single match, but I do think we’ll win a number of games and if we’re able to show ambition and humility, I really believe we can produce a great deal. Of course, there will be difficulties along the way; Serie A is a very tough league, there are seven sides who can all win the Scudetto – there is not much to separate them. The same goes for last season; we finished second but the fifth-place team was three points behind us. It’s very balanced and it will be so once again this term. So we need to show our mentality, try and go out to win every single game. And then we have the Champions League as well, and that is the stage that we really wanted to reach, and we need to once again take a starring role in.”
I’ve interviewed Giroud post-match twice after pre-season friendlies, it seems that he’s already settled in pretty well, he’s already learned a bit of Italian. Can you tell us a bit about Giroud’s first month here? Am I right in thinking he was better in a two-man frontline in that friendly against Panathinaikos in Trieste as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 system? He likes to play with play with someone alongside him.
“Olivier is a great professional. He is a great guy, and he’s a very intelligent footballer. Giroud is one of the footballers that gets the team playing well, he’s very willing, he knows when to run, he knows when to come short, to lay it off, he knows when to run into space, he attacks the ball well and gets into the box well. He’s settled in well because he wants to be with the team, he wants to work hard, he wants to learn and of course he can also offer a lot of experience. As for whether he played better in Trieste, it’s just individual matches and match situations but I think we’ve played some top-level friendlies because we came up against some very significant opposition: Nice, Valencia and Real Madrid… and I think our last friendly was perhaps slightly less in terms of the standard, and we were able to create a number of opportunities in that match because we dominated proceedings. But I think Olivier played well with a striker partner or with two wingers cutting inside, or with a #10 behind him. We are constantly developing things and the important thing is to have these great professionals that are fit and firing and above all are intelligent footballers.”
You will be missing Kessié and Bennacer in January due to the AFCON. What are you going to ask Tonali to do in order to step up?
“I’ll be expecting this question all season long because it keeps cropping up but we’ll all need to overcome hurdles on a weekly basis and we’ll need to do that every three days. It doesn’t only come down to Sandro’s maturity, we all need to show that we’re up to a certain standard. But I truly believe that I coach a top team of players with a lot of quality and I think that they are developing and Sandro is one of those. We want to see performances from Sandro ‘da complete midfielder’ that he is. Not many midfielders have the physical attributes that he has, he’s got a great engine and now he’s moving a lot better; he’s giving us a lot more options off the ball, he also takes great risks when it comes to trying to build the play and he needs to kick on from that. But as I said, he did a lot of hard work last year, he might have even encountered a few issues and that has helped him to develop and I really believe he will show all his capabilities this season, despite the fact that he is a very young player, so of course he’ll come up against issues along the way and he will mistakes; but it’s only natural, that’s part of the developmental process but he is getting better over time.”
You said that this is your third season at Milan and this is your strongest side. But you’ve lost the best goalkeeper in Europe and perhaps in the world. Have you spoken to Donnarumma, are you disappointed by his decision? And does Maignan have what it takes to replace a giant in the shape of Donnarumma?
“On the 8th of July, in my press conference, I said that I thank all of the players who’ve helped us to secure a wonderful season and secure a brilliant target and the same goes for Gigio Donnarumma. But the 8th of July was the start of a new season. I’m delighted with Maignan, he’s got a lot of desire, he’s got a whole deal of ability, he’s very curious and keen to learn. He might be slightly distrustful but that’s good because he wants to actually lean, he’s curious. And obviously we are working in a way that is slightly different to the way he is used to work, both in terms of building from the back and the way we set out on the pitch. But I’m very happy with the way he’s settled, how he’s conducted himself on the pitch. He’s a very good goalkeeper and he’ll certainly play his part.”
Let’s go back to tomorrow night’s game. Sampdoria and the new coach Roberto D’Aversa. What do you expect from the opposition?
“We’ve watched their Coppa Italia tie as well as all of their friendlies. They played against Alessandria in the Cup. They are a team that defend very well, they defend as a unit and they’ve already got a very strong identity. They’ve got ability in the final third because I think Candreva, Gabbiadini, Damsgaard and Quagliarella will all play. They are quick players on the break, they are good from set-pieces, and this is certainly a challenging opening match. We’ve done everything that we needed to do, we’re looking fit and firing and of course we want to start very well and we want to win the game.”
I want to ask you about Ibrahimović: he won’t be involved at the Marassi but how is he looking from a physical perspective and from a psychological one? Do you think he can have a slightly different role this season compared to last year?
“Physically he is certainly looking better, even though he has not resumed training with the team and is forcing things a little bit. Next week will be very important for him because he needs to start ball work and that’s what he’s been missing, so we’ll see next week whether he’s actually able to train with us and then doing the international break he might be able to be fit and available. I think his role is always the same, Zlatan is a charismatic leader in terms of his character, he is a leader on the pitch as well; he really is the benchmark for everyone, he’s a significant figure, he’s very motivated, he’s fit and firing mentally… he is a player who can still be a match-winner for the team and for himself, so he’s very motivated, he can’t wait to get back to full training with the teammates. And the same goes for me – I can’t wait to have him back on the training ground.”
Earlier on you spoke about the strongest Milan side that you’ve been in charge of during your stint. How has this Milan side changed? What do we need to expect that might be a little bit different compared with the excellent work you did last season? What sort of Milan side will it be?
“We need to be in charge of our own destiny, we need to always be in the game and even when the going gets tough during matches – and that will come to pass – we always need to have our own identity, we need to have our shape, we need to have our mentality. And all of that needs to be synonymous with a strong side that has quality. We should be able to dig in and still get over the line. From a tactical perspective it depends on a number of different factors, the club is very switched-on, so is the management, the transfer window is not yet closed, but we already have a style of play and identity, which means we can actually maximize our characteristics. I think we’re a strong side because we’ve really developed a great deal from a mental perspective, in terms of the way we set out on the pitch we’re even more of a team than we were. Of course, talk is cheap and we need to actually put it into practice from tomorrow night; there will be some issues along the way, but I do believe a great deal in the work we are doing. We are passionate, enthusiastic, we’ve got good ideas and all of that has allowed us to come through some tough times last season and will allow us to kick on and grow even more this term. I’m very positive and I’m well-aware that I’ve got a very good team.”
This is a question I have to ask you: this morning the press focused a great deal on Çalhanoğlu’s contribution for Inter’s win yesterday. Along with Mauro Suma, you are one of the few advocates of Çalhanoğlu, you backed him right from the get-go. Do Milan still need to sign a midfielder that has similar characteristics to those of Çalhanoğlu?
“We’re not looking for a similar player to Çalhanoğlu, what we are simply trying to do is to improve the squad. And we can do that in any area of the pitch. If we have the opportunity then we might well do so. The senior management is keeping an eye on possibilities there and if we can improve the squad then of course the club and the senior management will be ready to do just that. I do think that we already have some significant attributes, we already have some quality players – above all in the final third, and they will be able to get us results, and they will be able to show the creativity and ingenuity that occasionally we were lacking when we were coming up against teams that sat deep and defended.”
I’d like to ask you about Kessié: it was a rather unusual summer for him – he played in the Olympic Games, then he came back and unfortunately he got injured. First of all, how is he – have you spoken to him? And can you be relaxed over the fact that he will sign a new contract?
“Yes, of course he had a very unusual summer, he had a holiday, then he got married, then he got to the Olympics and then we gave him a week off – that was only right to do so – and he wanted to be with us, and unfortunately these things come up and you can’t legislate for them. I’m very relaxed and focused. And I’m sure they are talking about his contract renewal in this moment in time, I think both parties are keen to continue working together but it’s still a bit early. But from my side I see a very relaxed, motivated player and he can’t wait to get back out there with us.”
On the 8th of July, you said we need to sign some quality players. Thus far quality players have come in and 2-3 players like Bakayoko and Pellegri might still join the club. You said that the senior management is keeping an eye on opportunities in the transfer market. But don’t you feel that it’s a slight risk that you might end up with this squad that you have in this moment in time? The fact that the trequartista space vacated by Çalhanoğlu might not necessarily be filled?
“I think any verdict needs to be produced on the 31st of August. I’m very focused on tomorrow’s game and that’s the priority. I think tomorrow I will be able to pick a competitive team and after the 31st of August then we can have another think about things.”
A very quick question: it’s the start of the season, I’d like to hear where you think the favorites lie when it comes to the Top 4 and the title race?
“It’s a very difficult. As I’ve already said, I think there are seven teams that can win the league title. I think there will be a lot of balance, it will be very balanced. Last year Inter were able to pull clear at the end but a lot of it came down to the fact that they went out of the Champions League in December. Otherwise, the other teams would have competed all the way to the final week of the season. Atalanta, Napoli, Juventus and ourselves and also Lazio and Roma let’s not forget… so it’s very hard but the team that are reigning Champions are the favorites. They’ve lost important players but they’ve brought in other important players. Inter are the favorites, Juventus are a very strong side, Napoli are a very strong side, we are a good team and so are Atalanta, Lazio and Roma. I think it’ll be a very tough season for all of these teams and when you play against sides like these, there will be some very tough matches and it’s very important to try and win all of the other games, because you might drop points in the head-to-head matches. We need to try and make a good start. I don’t know who starts as favorites but we’re simply focused on being well-prepared for tomorrow night’s game, we want to show that we are ready to start this season.”
Romagnoli might not start tomorrow night. Could you tell us about who might be Captain this season?
“No, I don’t need to think at all about the Captain’s armband. Romagnoli is the Captain, he is the Skipper. And occasionally he won’t play and then the vice-Captain will wear the armband. It comes to who identifies with the club, that’s always been the case with Milan. I don’t think it’s that important in a team who wears the armband. I do think that what is really important is to have some players who are willing to step up, who are united, who are enthusiastic and passionate, and that the players want to spend time together. We’ve got all of that and that’s why I’m very positive in terms of my players and I’ve got a lot of faith in them.”
On the eve of the first game of the season, Milan need to consolidate what they showed last season. They also need to perform well after this long-awaited return to the Champions League. How are you feeling on the eve of the start of the season?
“I’m very excited. It’s always very exciting when you start a new season. We got started on the 8th of July and I thought we’d got loads of time, but times has flown by. So I’m excited as I said, because I know that we’re a big club with big expectations and we’re proud to wear these colors. So I’m excited, but I’m also very sure of the work we’ve put in and I really believe that we have a lot of quality. We all are very united and very excited to see the fans back at the stadium that will certainly give us a boost, because they will really drive us on and will have greater desire to break down barriers and push our limits. I’m very excited and ecstatic.”
There are still a few days remaining in the transfer window. Milan have brought in quality and quantity and I think you’ve bolstered the squad in terms of numbers in some areas of the pitch. But we’ve often asked about midfield and the fact that Bennacer and Kessié are both out in January. Krunić could play there, Bakayoko might come in… are we expecting a fifth midfielder so another helpful hand in the transfer window?
“You guys are always focused on transfer dealings, but if it were down to me, I’d have the transfer window closed yesterday before the start of the season. But as I said, if we have the opportunity to improve the squad then the senior management and the club will certainly do that and then we’ll see where we are on the 31st of August. But I think that either way we’ll be competitive. Because it’s inevitable based on the development that we’ve had, the quality we have in this squad, the ambition we have in the team and also because of the club we represent, so we’ll certainly be competitive. As to where we can finish, we need to show that we need to stay humble, we need to show ambition and enthusiasm.”
I’ll come back to the question that I asked the first day of preseason: in terms of the fitness work, how happy are you with the work you’ve done over the last few weeks? And do you think Leão can really come to life this season?
“Apart from the unforeseen circumstances pertaining to Kessié that can happen during pre-season, I think we’ve done absolutely everything that we planned to. We played some good friendlies, we didn’t play too many friendlies but that’s because we wanted to work a bit more on other situations, but I think we’ve done an excellent job. The team has already proven that they are looking good and of course we can’t get 100%, that doesn’t only go for us but all the other teams as well. We will improve week-in, week-out once we get a number of games under our belt, and come September when the Champions League campaign starts and we play every three days, I think we’ll be ready to really take on this busy run of fixtures. We’re in a good point, a good stage, and now we need to just get started. We need to set up the way we do, we need to have the enthusiasm, the desire to try to win matches.”
How can you keep this Milan on their toes? Do you have any ingenious ideas to do something about that?
“Absolutely. The players know exactly what we are working on. We often change the way we build up from the back, we often change the way we finish moves, and how we want to get into shooting positions, how many players we want to get into shooting positions… what you said is really nice: it’s always work in progress, you always need to have new ideas, you always need to have new scopes, to try and change things and to always try and keep people on their toes, keep them stimulated and motivated. That’s my job.”
Mister, it’s an unusual start to the season: Milan are back in the Champions League, a lot is going on over the course of the summer, Italy are now European Champions are a number of years – the first time since 1969… And there’s also fairytale: We’ve all got some wonderful memories of our matches against Chievo, also when Chievo was coached by you there was a very important afternoon when Milan won their last Scudetto by beating Chievo. As a former Chievo coach, this fairytale which unfortunately has had an unhappy ending – what do you think of that?
“I’m hugely disappointed because I worked at that club, it’s really a wonderful institution. To think that it’s just a neighborhood in a city, and the fact that there were able to secure footballing results which are so incredible… there was so much passion behind it, it was a family environment. It did last for a while but unfortunately for all it has come to an end, it was a great club because it really gave you the best possible conditions in which to work. So it’s an example for a number of small clubs that can demonstrate with skills and abilities and different ideas that ultimately they can make it to the top level of football and I’m really disappointed this dream has come to an unhappy ending.”