AC Milan renaissance under Stefano Pioli suggests ditching Ralf Rangnick was right move

Rossoneri eye Serie A title two years after deciding against appointing German as their new manager

Stefano Pioli's AC Milan finished second in Serie A last season and are currently in the same position this time round. AFP
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Ralph Rangnick had his name on a contract, terms had been agreed and a vision outlined. The German was to be the leader of a red revival. Only this was not Manchester United’s but AC Milan’s.

Had everything gone to plan, Rangnick, now entering a key phase of his vaguely-defined managerial stint at United, would instead be guiding another set of fallen giants back towards the summit of their domestic, and ideally European, football.

Two years ago, the project to make Rangnick a rossonero was already well advanced, although Milan’s executives were divided about the German’s suitability, and especially about the wide remit he wanted, with extensive authority over club strategy.

What all Milan’s decision-makers agreed on was that the club were in deep trouble. A 5-0 loss to Atalanta had left Milan, seven times European champions, in the bottom half of the Serie A table at the end of 2019. Confidence in Stefano Pioli, already their second manager of that season, was draining fast.

What happened over subsequent months looks all the more significant now that Rangnick is playing would-be saviour in Manchester. Milan first delayed and then rescinded their agreement with him before Rangnick had a chance to move into his office.

Pioli, two years on, is still the manager and has overseen such a transformation that there was deemed no-need for the guru from Germany. After a first 10 games in which Pioli’s Milan gained only nine points, he then put together two years’ of league form averaging 2.15 points per game, just off the rate that would have won last season’s title.

As they resume the 2021/22 campaign, post-winter break, at home to Jose Mourinho’s Roma, Milan sit second in the Italian table, the position they finished last season.

The next challenge for Pioli is to turn Milan from principal chasers of the champions and league-leaders Inter Milan into a unit capable of overtaking their neighbours and rivals. He makes no firm forecasts, at this halfway stage of the fixture list, except to say “we need to play the second half of the season at full throttle” and that given so many variables, “we have to cope with unpredictable situations.”

Some of those variable are general to all clubs, namely the Covid-19 pandemic, which, it is hoped, is about to dip from its latest peak but which yesterday put several Italian fixtures under threat. Bologna, Inter's opponents, and Napoli, Juventus’ scheduled guests, reporting significant numbers of positive tests in their squads and support staffs.

Ralf Rangnick is currently interim manager at Manchester United. EPA

Milan have players self-isolating, too, and are among the Italian clubs most obviously weakened by call-ups for the Africa Cup of Nations, which begins in Cameroon this weekend. Franck Kessie, the governor of the rossoneri’s midfield, is away with Ivory Coast and Ismael Bennacer, who might have compensated in that area of the field in Kessie’s absence, is with Algeria.

There is a long-term gap in the centre of defence, too, Simon Kjaer having suffered a cruciate ligament injury last month. Milan’s priority in the January transfer window is to find cover for the experienced Dane. “I have not made any other demands,” said Pioli of his transfer discussions with the club’s executives. “We need, if we can, an established defender. It’s important.”

But for one episode of defensive frailty, in which they shipped seven goals across successive defeats to Fiorentina and Sassuolo, Milan would be leading Serie A.

Instead they look up at an Inter with ominous momentum. The defending champions have dropped points only once in 10 league games, and that was in the drawn Milan derby.

On the red half of the city, there will at least be no distraction of European football up until May, Pioli’s men having finished bottom of a tough Champions League group, shared with Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Porto. That should ease the workload on some of the older players. Pioli is acutely aware his attack leans on two veterans, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 40, and Olivier Giroud, 35.

Both may have a role against Roma, who are targeting a top-four finish, which will mean making up two places and a six-point lag on fourth-placed Atalanta.

Jose Mourinho’s return to Serie A after more than a decade since he left Inter, and three years since he was replaced at United, has had its ups and downs in Rome. But Pioli senses he is hitting his stride. “We are seeing a different mentality there now under Mourinho. He has done a good job.”

Updated: January 06, 2022, 2:59 AM