Stefano Pioli believes knowing how to read and interpret game situations is the key to improving the final third, as Milan prepare for Matchday 2.
After winning at Stadio Luigi Ferraris on the opening day of the new Serie A season, tomorrow Milan make their seasonal San Siro debut and they will be joined by over 30k fans who bought their tickets to see the Rossoneri in action.
Today, coach Pioli held a press conference at Milanello, where he answered the various questions of the journalists, from Mauro Suma, through Sky and Milannews.it, and even questions from Twitch:
You have always made sure that you have kept everyone focused on the task at hand because the fans are very excited about the Group Stage draw, the new signings… yet there is a game tomorrow night – Milan-Cagliari. It has to be the priority, doesn’t it?
“Absolutely. But that’s what we’ve done throughout this week. Our aim is as follows: to try to keep the good start that we’ve made thus far, we played well on Monday night, it was a good performance. We had to dig in but we deserved the three points and tomorrow night we come up against a difficult side, they’ve got good shape, they’ve got two strong strikers and they set-up very well. So we are well-aware of the issues and difficulties but we know what a good side we are too.”
Two quick questions for you: after the Sampdoria win, you spoke about a victory which will allow your team to continue develop. Where can the players improve? And what do you make of the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo from Juventus?
“I’m very excited and motivated by my players’ desire to work very hard, they want to show quality in every moment of training session and every minute of every game. That allows us to develop but it always gives me plenty of ideas as to where we can improve and what we need to keep working on. There are a whole host of things that we need to keep striving to improve. We prepare matches in a certain way but then you also need to go out there and understand how the game is developing; how it’s panning out. You need to figure out when it’s time to push and up the tempo, but we also need to keep our footballing principles and our ideas that are very important. As for the departure of Ronaldo, I was rather shocked by that – it was unexpected, but I don’t think it will necessarily change the balance of the power because I think there are seven very good sides in Serie A and it will be a real battle all the way through to the title race.”
Since the 16th of May three months and a half have gone by, and there was the qualifying for the Champions League and there was this goalless draw against Cagliari, which probably still bugs you. How has your Milan side changed over the last three months and a half? Obviously there have been signings that have come in but you were so close to the Top 4 finish and then it wasn’t the best game that goalless draw against Cagliari… what has happened over the last 100 days?
“I think we have all developed in that time. We are well-aware of what are qualities are, how good we are, the way we set up… I think the most important thing is that the team goes out there with clear ideas and that we can really try and be consistent in the way that we play football for 90 minutes. We mustn’t get hung up on certain moments of the game or issues that may arise – there will be some of those tomorrow as I said, because it wasn’t be easy to get the better of Cagliari. But what matters, is digging deep, having that idea and trying to really play high-tempo football and hopefully with a lot of quality over the course of 90+ minutes.”
What were your thoughts on the Champions League draw: it appears that people no longer see Milan in the same light. That’s a lot bound to the work that you have done. People were concerned about Milan in Pot 4 in the draw, the same goes domestically. Do you think that opposing teams’ approaches have changed in the last 18 months when they come up against Milan, because you are one of the favorites to win the Scudetto? Have you noticed that? Have the players picked up on that?
“As I said, we always need to have this feel-good factor surrounding the club, we have it day-in, day-out on the training ground, and if we can keep this attitude then it’ll be fairly easy every time we go into every single match. That’s what we need to do. We need to be nice and fluid, and we need to get very excited; we need to enjoy the way we’re playing and we need to try and entertain our fans based on what we can produce on the pitch. As for what the opposition makes of us and how good we are as a team – I’m not sure to be honest. What I can say is that we certainly have developed as a team and whereas last year we might have been the surprise package of Serie A, we are no longer that – we need to confirm what we did last season, we need to show continuity, we need to keep improving, we need to play attacking football and try and be as dangerous as possible for the opposition.”
Tuesday sees the end of the summer transfer window. Are you worried about losing Kessié?
“In this moment in time, the team and I are fully focused on tomorrow’s game. That’s the way we need to look at things. As for the mercato, as for situations regarding contract renewals – there are still a few days to go. We’ll assess that at the end, but we are very focused on what we have to do day-in, day-out and we keep the focus on the next game and we’ll see what happens at the end of the mercato.”
How is Pellegri, your new signings, and is he ready to be on the bench against Cagliari tomorrow night? And how important is it to have the support of the fans that turned up at Milanello this morning?
“Pellegri has looked fit and firing but he is not yet 100% fit. He’s had some issues in the past, unfortunately a number of those, and we are ready assessing things from all angles so he can play consistently for us. So he won’t be available for selection tomorrow night. He’s looking fairly good based on what we’ve seen so far. We need to work in a certain way, he certainly will require the international break and I hope that in two weeks he can be completely up to speed with first team training. As for the support of the fans, I think the real magic we showed last year was despite the fact that the fans weren’t there with us. We still felt their presence, they got behind us. I think it was mutual. It was already wonderful to hear them and see them from close up on Monday night in Genoa, and I think it’ll be wonderful to see them, and it was great to see the Curva Sud this morning at Milanello, and it’ll be wonderful to see the remainder of the fans at San Siro tomorrow night. I think we need to do a very good job to make sure we’re all together, that we want to spend time together. We need to give them something and they’ll also need to give us plenty of energies so that we can make it once again a successful and exciting season.”
It was an extremely positive start at Genoa – not only with the result. Where do you think your Milan side can still improve?
“I think we worked well throughout the entire summer and I think we played some good-level friendlies as well, that’s what we wanted and we managed to play against a competitive, demanding opposition. The team dominated proceedings, we tried to boss the game and I think we were in charge of the match. I think what matters most in this moment in time is that we need to be even more dangerous. Based on the attacking moves that we fashion, we didn’t have enough clear-cut chances and I think in the final third of the pitch we can get better. And ultimately that’s the most important area of the pitch. The more chances we create, in theory the more goals we score.”
Milan had the best away record last season, you kicked on from that last week. But there was an issue at San Siro. Tomorrow night will be your first game at San Siro, do you hope you can put that behind you?
“Yes, that’s certainly an aim that we have. The numbers were fairly clear last season, we had incredible numbers on the road but we need to keep in mind that it’ll be very hard to maintain that same away form in terms of consistency, so we do need to improve our home record. But we will have the support and the excitement of the fans behind us, so that is an aim, that’s what we want to do from the get-go tomorrow against Cagliari.”
I’d like to come back to the last game between Milan and Cagliari: on that occasion, we saw some issues in the final third against a team that defended very deep and I imagine they’ll set up similarly tomorrow night at San Siro. You said in all honestly that against Sampdoria Milan had more than one opportunity to score that second goal… so it wasn’t that you were necessarily lacking in opportunities, you simply weren’t clinical enough in front of goal. So, if the issue is still in the final third and in that area of the pitch we haven’t had any changes in terms of personnel, how can you do it?
“I think our improvement needs to come down to certain situations. It’s very easy: when we need to try and play high up the pitch then we need to do so, if there isn’t space in behind then we need to keep the ball well, we need to create numbers up, have an overload or at least if we do have even numbers then we can still cause problems in an attacking sense. So it goes beyond any individual player. It comes down to the way the team reads the game tactically in the final third. As for whether players have come in or not, we do have quality individuals and they are more than able to prove to be match winners. Even when it comes to tough games – we will come up against sides that will attack us, other teams will sit deep – but we need to come up against all different oppositions, their shapes and formations. I’m not necessarily sure that Cagliari will set up in the same way that they did last season, they are more aggressive and more attacking this term. We need to make sure that we keep the ball well when we can, but we also need to be very quick, effective and precise when we’ll have the opportunity to hurt them. So we need to really read the game and interpret certain situations and things can change very quickly on the pitch because there are times when you have numbers down, times when you have even numbers and other times when you’ve got the overload and we need to try to exploit those situations.”
Could Bakayoko be on the bench against Cagliari tomorrow night? And will the players be ready to face the fans also in difficult times?
“He is not yet a Milan player so I can’t say anything about him in this moment in time. As for the fans, we are no longer a young side. We’re perhaps young on paper but we’re not young in terms of players and experience and that will certainly be a positive consequence rather from the fact that we are in front of our crowd and we will be able to produce our best football and try to win as many games as possible.”
Two things: firstly, do you think in general terms that there should be more goals playing just in behind the lone striker? And secondly, based on the fact that they’ve trained on the outside pitch initially, could Kessié and Ibrahimović be ready for the Lazio game?
“With regards to the goals, as I’ve said, we need to keep creating a number of goal-scoring opportunities. As to who gets into goal-scoring position, the more unpredictable we are, the more we are able to change positions – the harder it’ll be for our opponents. As for Ibra and Kessié, they are working very well, they are improving and I do hope that next week they can start to train with the squad partially so that they can be ready for selection after the international break, because we’ll have a busy run of important matches and I do hope to have a full squad to pick from.”
With the arrival of Maignan, you play the ball a lot more directly and a lot less building out from the back. Was that a deliberate choice with the signing of the French goalkeeper or would that have been an option even if you had Donnarumma still at the club?
“It depends on what the opposition does. It’s natural that if you have a goalkeeper that can pin it long, 70 yards up the pitch, then of course you do have the opportunity to try and get out very quickly. And if they do try to close us down then of course we’ll prefer to build up from the back. But we do it based on how the opposition sets up against us. We need to make sure that we make the right decision because they can’t always close down of all the space and we’re doing a good job on that.”
The club is still working to try and strengthen the middle of the park, as we said earlier with the possible arrival of Bakayoko. Given the midfielders you already have in the squad, we saw an excellent performance from Krunić at Sampdoria. Could he be the ‘new signing’ if you will that Milan will be looking for?
“I think this season – but last term too – I think we need to be competitive in every single game, which is why we need a whole host of starters. Come the end of the mercato I think I’ll have a number of starters to pick from, we need to increase our performance levels in training, during matches and we need more competition for places. Krunić is one of those starters, that’s for sure. He’s an intelligent player, he can play in several areas of the pitch and he’s very intelligent in the way that he gets forward and tracks back. I think he is one of my starters, I will pick my team from one game to the next and the players need to do a good job to make sure that they are ready and to perform as best as they can week-in, week-out.”
Another individual I’d like to talk about is Brahim Díaz: do you think he has grown up and developed? Do you think he’s a real starter now?
“Yes, I do think that he is readier than he was last season. And that’s only natural for a player that came in from another league, from playing in a different way… and the same goes for a number of my players who came from different leagues. We’ve got a number of young players and foreign players who of course needed that bit of time to settle into the club. This season they’re all much readier. They’re able to recognize certain situations a lot more easily, and that goes for Brahim of course as well. He’s very motivated, that’s the most important thing. We want to play football, we want to improve, and we need to make sure that we keep that enthusiasm and spirit; that will allow us to perhaps go beyond our qualities, to break down barriers, and we need to keep that mentality.”
You’re talking about mentality, this is the mentality that you’ve forged. Mentality also comes from the club’s history and winning history, and the fact that the players want to help each other out. What really stood out here is Tonali: Milan really wanted to sign him in the summer and he was perhaps a little bit harsh on himself after the Sampdoria game, saying that he had a negative season and that he needs to do a lot better. Negative is probably not the right word. But against Sampdoria Tonali showed greater desire, greater character – what has changed? Is it the fact that he’s been at the club for a year?
“As I said earlier for Brahim – the same applies in regards of the attitude and behavior of Tonali. The fact that he wanted to be at Milan shows that he’s at the perfect club and this is a squad that can help him work hard and improve. It’s about being proud to represent the Rossoneri day-in and day-out and that’s the sort of attitude that will ultimately make the difference, because we feel that responsibility. We’re also very proud and pleased to represent the club and we want to represent Milan as best we can. Sandro really wanted to stay at Milan and that’s very significant. I expected him to kick on because Tonali has everything that it takes to be a top-class, comprehensive, complete midfielder. He has continued to develop and of course he has gone through some tricky tough times, but that’s only natural, because a player doesn’t mature overnight. You do have to go through some tough times, you do make mistakes; you have to accept those mistakes, you have to deal with them, know how to live with them and try and improve. Sandro has done all of that. He is a readier player, he’s someone who is able to take more responsibility and that’s only natural in his position. He’s a complete midfielder.”
I wanted to ask a question with regards to the controversies surrounding the international break: some complained they don’t want to release players and let them travel for the issues related COVID-19, what’s your opinion?
“Right from the start of the season we knew that there will be a number of games due to the international break, we were well-aware of that. Milan have always kept a close eye on the various protocols, we never had issues with players coming back from international duty. And ultimately this comes down to the medical department of the team, but we have simply respected what has been asked of us.”
I wanted to ask you about Bennacer: is he ready to start tomorrow night against Cagliari? And above all, what do you expect from him – not only tomorrow night but throughout the campaign as a whole?
“Bennacer’s fitness has improved and he is ready to start the game, and we’ll see ultimately what team I pick tomorrow night. But you have to expect top performances from Bennacer, because he gets it up the pitch, he does absolutely everything in defense, he builds the game well and he can play those forward passes… he’s a quality player.”
I’d like to go beyond tomorrow’s game – I apologize to the game between Milan and Cagliari… In order to become a legendary coach and a legendary team, you have to win things – you have to win and pull off great results in Europe. Milan are not the favorites in this Champions League group, you’re well-aware of that. But I wanted to remind you of the fact that in 2007 Milan were underdogs in Celtic, Milan drew two a piece against Bayern Munich and won 2-1 in Athens, so they have pulled off some great feats and that does make the legendary sides… Are Milan ready to become a legendary side? Are you ready to become a legendary coach?
“We need to be ready for tomorrow night’s game and we really did everything in our power, we really wanted to qualify for the Champions League. We know that it’s that it’s the greatest competition for players and coaches in European football and we’ll do everything we can to play a starring role and be competitive in a very challenging group.”
Knocking the ball long by Maignan, as he did at Sampdoria – does that give you the option to have a few players a bit further up the pitch?
“Yes. First and foremost, from a goal-kick there is no offside, so we can actually have players pushed up the other end, they can actually be in the opposition’s half of the pitch and then we can choose how we set-up based on how the opposition does.”
What Cagliari side are you expecting? Do you think they’ll play an attacking brand of football and play open or do you think they’ll try to shut the game down? And what attacking options can we adopt?
“In previous matches, in the Coppa Italia and in Serie A, Cagliari didn’t sit back and wait for the opposition. They actually tried to play an attacking brand of football and press high. I think it’s only natural you start the season in that vein because league table doesn’t put any pressure on you. But in all honesty, we prepare matches knowing how the opposition will set up but we don’t know how they’ll actually play on the game day itself. So, they could actually press us high and we need to adapt to that. But if they are to press very high then of course they’ll leave some space between the lines to go in behind. So we need to see how Cagliari set ups, that’s why it’s important to have that maturity of a top side that knows how to read a game. We need to be able to read and interpret these situations and we need to make sure that we have the advantage in every possible situation.”
Milan’s Champions League group is very prestigious but also very difficult. Your Milan side is often compared to Mancini’s Italy side. The fact that as a team you’re able to get greater results than the sum of the single part. Is that a good model to try and follow for the Champions League group?
“That’s a lovely parallel and I hope so… I hope we can achieve the same results as Italy did in EURO 2020. Certainly in terms of the feel-good factor, the enthusiasm and the desire to try and dominate proceedings, seeing every match as a great opportunity – that is certainly our mentality and we need to try and think along those lines. Milan’s history in the competition mustn’t hold us back, it actually needs to inspire us as an opportunity, so we need to try and approach every Champions League game with the greatest possible respect and try to win it.”