Pioli: “We are stronger than a year ago, we will fight to defend the Scudetto and to improve in the Champions League, De Ketelaere can become a top European player, we miss players in 2 roles”

Stefano Pioli during training at Milanello. (@acmilan.com)

Stefano Pioli has given a long and interesting interview to La Gazzetta dello Sport, discussing many things.

The summer as a Campione d’Italia is about to end: Stefano Pioli was resting at the sea, from Sicily to Forte de Marmi, where he witness a tall wave ‘of Rossoneri flags and jerseys’. More than a month ago, he got back to work at Milanello: in 9 days it’ll be Serie A again. From the sea to the mountains: he will try to keep the top spot of Serie A. “It was a beautiful summer, one to try and repeat”. Pioli is always on fire.

Pioli spoke to Luca Bianchin and Alessandra Gozzini of La Gazzetta dello Sport:

Last year you had a motto: ‘Get more points than last season’. This year?
“To win you need talent, to repeat yourself you need character. And I confess: a year ago we didn’t just think we could improve on the previous season’s standings. Even from Day 1 we thought we could win. This year motivating the group will be easier: we must have passion, enthusiasm, desire to grow, them as a team and me as a Coach. We will fight to defend the Scudetto and to improve in the Champions League. Sacchi was right in La Gazzetta: the Champions League is a competition that involves 4-5 teams. For the others there’s a difference in the level: we will treasure the last experience. We have grown a lot since then.”

Mike Maignan, Tiémoué Bakayoko, Fikayo Tomori, Tommaso Pobega, Stefano Pioli, Simon Kjær, Marko Lazetić, Ante Rebić, Antonio Mirante, Yacine Adli, Junior Messias, Sandro Tonali and Alessandro Florenzi during training at Milanello. (@acmilan.com)

The Italian competition has grown stronger: are you worried?
“No, because we are the first to be stronger than a year ago. You can buy the best players but the difference is the organization, the desire, and the spirit. Last year I thought it was strange they didn’t hold us in high regard, I didn’t suffer from it but instead I used it in our favor. This year we’ll focus only on us. Does John Elkann see Inter further ahead? I respect the opinion but today’s predictions have little value.”

It will be an anomalous season, with a sprint start and then the long World Cup break – will it have impact?
“It will be another long and difficult season, even more balanced: it will be difficult to repeat a high-score finish [in terms of points in the standings] because so many teams will take points off each other. I’m worried about Atalanta, because they don’t have European cups for the first time. And there are many strong teams, also Fiorentina who are well-coached. I don’t mind doing 3 months at full throttle and then switching off, it will be more difficult with the players who will go all the way in the World Cup. A particular sensibility will be needed with them. Before the break, there are 15 Serie A matches, a lot: they won’t decide the verdict, but they will give a direction.”

Rafael Leão, Alexis Saelemaekers, Stefano Pioli, Junior Messias and Ante Rebić during training at Milanello. (@acmilan.com)

The signing of the Rossoneri summer was De Ketelaere: first impressions?
“We met at Milanello on Wednesday morning, together with the staff I showed him videos with some of our playing concepts. He was very attentive, you can see from what he said that he is very intelligent and that he understands football. And then he has great talent, you can see it by the way he touches the ball: he is elegant, beautiful to watch. I asked Origi, his national teammate, about him, and he said: ‘He is half Havertz and half Kaká’. He let loose… He will play a few minutes in Vicenza and a half on Sunday against Pergolettese. There are important expectations but it’s right to give him told, I, for one, told him not to be in a rush.”

Another young man who will lower the average age of the team: you embrace the philosophy of the club?
“Only in Italy are 20-year-olds young… Tonali is 22-year-old, Leão 23, Theo almost 25. They are made, complete players – who certainly must be hungry to grow because they have not reached their full potential. But young guys are 17, 18-year-olds. And then in the group there are also veterans: Maignan, Kjær, Ibra, Giroud, Origi, Calabria, Messias, Krunić, Rebić… Theo himself is very mature, he is more present. In the locker room Ibra makes himself heard, the one who talks the most is Florenzi – whether he is listened to or not I don’t know! [Laughs].”

Rafael Leão, Stefano Pioli and Charles De Ketelaere during training at Milanello. (@acmilan.com)

What contribution can Ibra make?
“Zlatan is not there – but he is there, because he is always in touch with everyone. He is a Champion who can still make a difference: first he has to be fine, in the end of last season he made crazy sacrifices. People don’t know, but he could only train for quarter of an hour. He has superior technique and intelligence but above all he is still so hungry. From mid-August he will be at Milanello to carry on his path.”

Meanwhile, you find Kjær again: what does he add?
“An ability to read the game and very important communicative presence. He is a point of reference. I’m very happy to have him back even if he will need time to regain condition.”

Is disbanding the Tomori-Kalulu pair today a gamble?
“They have had an outstanding performance, Pierre has grown tremendously, and on the field he looks bigger than he really is. He is mature and humble. But we’ll play every three days, the rotations will be automatic, there will be 20 starters.”

Stefano Pioli and Yacine Adli during training at Milanello. (@acmilan.com)

Will Leão be an ever-present factor also in the midst of renewal talks?
“If he keeps this level, yes… otherwise there’s Rebić. I am not at all worried about contractual matters, it is clear that he is happy to be with us. He is potentially a Champion, in terms of strength and his ability to get past his marker. He has many goals in his legs, even more than last year [14]. He has grown a lot without the ball, now he has to be able to occupy the penalty area better.”

And Adli?
“I read that he, rightly, defined himself as an atypical midfielder: he is very intelligent, he plays vertically. He is fitting in very well, sometimes he moves too much but he is learning fast. And let’s not forget Brahim Díaz, from whom, I expect a lot and with whom I am very satisfied: from him I want more precision in the final pass and more goals.”

Stefano Pioli during training at Milanello. (@acmilan.com)

What do you expect now from the mercato?
“On paper we are missing 2 roles: a defender and a midfielder. We don’t want to replace those left with doppelgangers, also because there is not another one like Kessié out there. We need 2 characteristics: explosiveness and intelligence.”

Were you looking for an even more substantial ‘Scudetto gift’, perhaps an €80m Vlahović-style signing?
“De Ketelaere is a prospect, in 2-3 years he can become a top European player. Each club makes its own evaluations: we, with a sustainable project, have shown that we can win. Beyond a certain level, the club, I believe, does not want and cannot get. I certainly never feared that the new ownership would arrive and sell the most important players: we were told at the start that the philosophy would remain the same.”

Were you afraid of breaking off your relationship with Maldini and Massara? The negotiation for their renewal was very long…
“Never. I spoke to them every day. The change of ownership and other dynamics that I am unaware of led to longer times, but I never thought it could end differently.”

Stefano Pioli during training at Milanello. (@acmilan.com)

Have you spoken to Cardinale?
“No, I only met him the day before the ‘closing’. But also with Elliott’s top management it worked the same way. My references are Paolo, Ricky and Gazidis.”

They often follow you at Milanello. Is that were the magic was born?
“Every day I arrive ‘worried’, in quotes, about the spirit with which the players will work, but when I see them on the field all doubts go away. If we continue like this we will be competitive, it doesn’t mean we’ll win the Scudetto again but we will have chances to win every game. In the last training session I had to stop them because they were going too fast. So, it’s nice, engaging, we have our concepts within us now. As long as I see this attitude, I’ll be calm, if we move back even more centimeter then we become a normal team.”

What do you consider the team’s strength today?
“We have many top players. Giroud is a complete player, Rebić is very good at giving depth, and Origi can do everything. Divock is very alert, I like him and he will give us satisfaction. In the middle there’s not so much physicality in terms of centimeters, but instead legs and intelligence, and we have that in Tonali, Pobega and Krunić who is often unjustly underestimated but has incredible tactical skills. And of course Bennacer: he can become a player of the highest level. And there’s Maignan: not only in goal, but his presence alone… he has been the best goalkeeper in the league, although I also really like Szczęsny.”

Stefano Pioli during training at Milanello. (@acmilan.com)

Pioli has become a cover-page Coach: have you changed anything?
“I never worried about what was said about me, the experiences have brought me to this level. Milan made me grow and I can still do it, I feel young, with a lot of desire to test myself. Besides, my players are sponges. I use a method that I define as sharing: I make ideas available to the team and try to understand with them whether they work or not. So we found motivation and balance. I liked reading in La Gazzetta that, watching Milan player, it seems that the players enjoy themselves. That’s how it is.”

And Pioli off the pitch, what are you passionate about?
“I’m at Milanello all day. I’m only detached to have dinner with my wife. I like Milano and I like to go out, but if she’s not there then I don’t go out.”

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Ok, I’m happy that it’s official that we are targeting 2 more players and not being satisfied with current squad. N’Dicka and Fratessi seem to be the most likely targets, for the former a known German journalist has said that there are actually high chances of that transfer materializing soon, hope he’s right as he’s such an underrated CB.