How Pioli, Maldini & Ibrahimovic brought AC Milan back from the brink of bankruptcy to Serie A champions

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AC Milan Serie A trophy 2021-22
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The Rossoneri were reeling after Li Yonghong was forced to hand over control of the club in 2018, but they have just won their first title in 11 years

Paolo Maldini couldn't stop smiling. This was his eighth Serie A title with Milan, but his first as a director.

He admitted that it felt different in many ways but added, "There is one common factor: passion. For this sport. And for Milan."

That was evident everywhere you looked at the Mapei Stadium on Sunday evening, after the Rossoneri had clinched the Scudetto with a 3-0 win over Sassuolo.

First-time winner Stefano Pioli was overcome with emotion as he spoke about making his father proud, while the 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic dedicated his second Scudetto with Milan – an incredible 11 years after their first together – to the late Mino Raiola.

All of the players and fans, meanwhile, celebrated their success wildly. And why not? After all, Milan had come so far to get to this point.

They say that you learn more from a defeat than a victory and Pioli would certainly subscribe to that theory.

The AC Milan coach said that the Scudetto winners of 2022 were born during a "horrible" and "humiliating" 5-0 loss to Atalanta in December, 2019.

"It was one of the most negative moments of my career," Pioli admitted to DAZN last week, "but also one of the most valuable.

"That was when we realised what was needed to develop this team."

And that's exactly what he did, in conjunction with technical director Maldini, chairman Paolo Scaroni, CEO Ivan Gazidis, sporting director Frederic Massara and owners Elliott Management Corporation.

In the space of three years, they have taken a club on the verge of complete collapse after Li Yonghong's disastrous spell at the helm, to champions of Italy for the first time since 2011.

And they have done so without spending millions on superstar signings.

As Verona coach Igor Tudor told reporters earlier this month, "On paper, Milan only have the third- or fourth-best squad in the league.

"So, that shows what a great job the club and head coach have done."

Stefano Pioli Rafael Leao AC Milan Serie A 2021-22 GFX

Indeed, in terms of recruitment, Maldini has pulled off one masterstroke after another – and after a very trying start to his tenure.

Back in October 2019, Maldini was a man under pressure. He and then-chief football officer Zvonomir Boban had identified Marco Giampaolo as the coach Milan needed to arrest years of underachievement.

However, the pair were forced to admit that he had made a mistake just four months, and seven matches, into Giampaolo's reign.

Milan needed a reliable character to steady the ship, and perhaps more importantly, one willing to accept the role of head coach on what was effectively a temporary basis.

Pioli stepped forward, even though it was highly likely that he would be replaced at the end of what was expected to be a season of transition.

Indeed, Milan soon lined up Ralf Rangnick to revolutionise the Rossoneri from top to bottom.

Gazidis was not just willing to entrust Rangnick with the responsibility of looking after the first team; he was ready to give him the keys to the entire club.

However, neither Boban nor Maldini had been consulted, sparking a civil war at San Siro. The former quit in disgust; the latter appeared certain to follow suit.

But then something remarkable happened: Milan began to improve under Pioli – rapidly.

It also became clear that Maldini's signings were starting to come good.

Stefano Pioli Paolo Maldini AC Milan GFX

Gazidis, to his eternal credit, realised – just as Maldini had before with Giampaolo – that he had made a mistake.

The former Arsenal chief executive had hoped that Rangnick would be able to solve all of Milan's problems, but at least one solution was already in place, so he decided to back Pioli.

It was a brave decision, but the right one.

Pioli had long been regarded as one of the game's good guys; the dignified way in which he dealt with all of the constant speculation surrounding his job only offered further evidence of that fact.

However, he was not considered one of Italy's top tacticians – more a journeyman, a useful stop-gap in times of trouble.

Pioli, though, proved the perfect appointment for a club in crisis.

"Stefano is always calm," Gazidis says. "He's a great man, not just a great coach, an example for all of us."

It was perhaps unsurprising that Pioli and the famously composed Maldini proved such a perfect match.

As former Milan midfielder and coach Clarence Seedorf noted in an interview with Corriere dello Sport, "Paolo’s presence gives the team a winning mentality and embodies the Milan DNA.

"I know Maldini well and I know that he is always balanced – also in difficult times. He knows how to help the players and remain competitive. Thanks to him, Milan have made giant steps.

"I see a positive spirit at the club, one that comes from the coach’s hard work and his way of being. Pioli gives serenity to the team and the results speak for themselves."

They certainly do. Milan have won the title with 86 points – their second-highest tally in the three-points-for-a-win era.

Sky Sport Italia also recently noted that Pioli's points-per-game average (1.96) is better than those of Milan coaching legends Arrigo Sacchi (1.95), Nereo Rocco (1.95) and Carlo Ancelotti. Only Fabio Capello (2.02) boasts a better win rate in the entire history of the club.

However, this dramatic improvement is testament not only to Pioli's man-management skills and previously under-rated tactical acumen, but also Maldini's market moves.

There have been some disappointing transfers but, overall, the former defender's record is remarkable.

Simon Kjaer, who initially arrived on loan, proved a crucial signing, helping to transform Milan's defence into one of the best in Italy.

Even when the Denmark captain got injured earlier this year, in came an even more impressive signing, Pierre Kalulu, a €480,000 (£400,000/$500,000) signing from Lyon who had never previously played a single minute of top-flight football before arriving at San Siro.

Of course, having Fikayo Tomori alongside him undoubtedly helped Kalulu's integration.

Chelsea are currently scouring Europe for top-class centre-backs, with Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger leaving Stamford Bridge this summer, but it's unlikely they'll find a better one than Tomori – and certainly not for the €28 million (£24m/$29m) Milan paid for the Blues academy product.

The Englishman's value is arguably now worth twice that figure, but who knows what kind of fee Mike Maignan would now command?

The loss of Gigi Donnarumma on a free transfer last summer could have devastated Milan.

But after deciding that they would not bow to the demands being made by the goalkeeper and his former agent, Mino Raiola, Maldini went out and lined up a sensational replacement before Donnarumma had even departed.

Indeed, Maignan, who was snapped up for just under €15m (£12.7m/$15.7m), has been the best goalkeeper in Serie A this season – and by some distance.

Sandro Tonali didn't quite make the same immediate impact in Milan but, after a difficult first season at San Siro, the former Brescia man has developed into a fantastic all-action midfielder.

The comparisons with Andrea Pirlo were always misguided but so, too, was Tonali's belief that he was actually more similar to Gennaro Gattuso. As Pioli has pointed out, the 22-year-old is now looking more like the new Daniele De Rossi.

Milan also feel they're in possession of the new Thierry Henry.

There are undoubtedly similarities between the young Henry and Rafael Leao: the blistering pace and the almost nonchalant finishing.

Leao, of course, still has some way to go before he can be compared to the Henry we saw at Arsenal, but the potential is obvious as he was named Serie A MVP following the final day of the season.

We're now seeing why he was regarded as the biggest talent ever to come out of Sporting's famed academy, which only makes it more incredible that Milan managed to sign him for just €23m (£19.5m/$24m).

Remember, a host of top clubs wanted the former Lille man, but Maldini made the difference for Milan, putting in a call to Leao that convinced the Portuguese to move to San Siro.

It was also a direct chat with Maldini that convinced Theo Hernandez to join the Rossoneri.

But why Real Madrid and former coach Zinedine Zidane agreed to allow the most exciting left-back in the world leave the Bernabeu for just €20m (£17m/$20m) remains a mystery.

All we know for sure is that Maldini and Milan have a fantastic eye for a bargain buy, particularly when it comes to young players.

However, the decision to pick up the then-38-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free in January 2020 was arguably the Rossoneri's most important decision.

The Swedish superstar added both experience and confidence to a young, insecure group of players at a crucial juncture in the team's development – just a matter of weeks after that devastating defeat in Bergamo.

Ibrahimovic is renowned for his supposed arrogance – and he undoubtedly plays up to his egotistical persona – but he too immediately clicked with the humble Pioli, becoming something akin to an assistant coach.

Even when unable to take to the field because of increasing injury issues, Ibrahimovic proved a towering presence in the dressing room.

Before their crucial win at Verona – a city in which many far more revered Milan sides of the past have come a cropper – Ibrahimovic told his team-mates before kick-off: "Everyone remembers the Milan players who won the Scudetto or the Champions League, so if we want to be remembered, we’ve got three games to do it.'"

Milan came from behind to triumph 3-1 at the Marcantonio Bentegodi, then beat Atalanta at a sold-out San Siro and overcame Sassuolo 3-0 in Reggio Emilia to pip city rivals Inter to the title by two points.

And Ibrahimovic was right: immortality is indeed theirs now. Nobody will forget the names of Pioli's players.

They have done something extraordinary; something that nobody expected, given the club was in total disarray just three years ago.

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Milan, after all, are still counting the cost of Yonghong's calamitous reign. They are not yet back competing on the same financial plain as many of their rivals in Italy, let alone Europe.

However, while Tudor was quite correct when he said that Milan don't have the best players in Serie A, they do have the best team in the league. And the best coach.

Nobody can dispute that now.

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