Andrea Pirlo’s first season as a manager has not been without its highs and lows. The rookie tactician claimed his first trophy, leading Juventus to its ninth Italian Supercup while also guiding the Bianconeri into the Coppa Italia final. But as yet another early elimination from the Champions League looms, Juventus and Pirlo are about to enter a make-or-break stretch.
The Italian champions currently find themselves eight points behind Inter, albeit with a game in hand. With just 15 games to go, Juventus will need to string together quite a run to cut into Inter’s lead atop the table and win their 10th consecutive Scudetto. In Europe, it doesn’t get much easier for Pirlo following his side’s disappointing outing in the first leg against Porto.
Individual errors and complacency may have cost Juventus against Porto, but Pirlo’s inexperience at the highest level was very much on display last Wednesday. The World Cup winner has persisted with Dejan Kulusevski up front, even when it is abundantly clear the young Swede is better suited to a deeper role. The former Parma man was rendered completely uninfluential by Porto’s deep block and was inevitably subbed off.
Only when Alvaro Morata entered the pitch did Juventus look dangerous – a lesson Pirlo should take note of ahead of the crucial second leg. With Paulo Dybala sidelined for the foreseeable future, Pirlo would be wise to get Morata back into the swing of things with regular football.
Beyond getting his frontline wrong, Pirlo has some tough decisions to make in the middle of the park. Rodrigo Bentancur has struggled in recent weeks, while Adrien Rabiot is far too inconsistent to be a regular starter. Arthur’s injury could not have come at a worse time for Juventus, but Pirlo must adapt.
When Juventus put Barcelona to the sword 3-0, the Italian champions did so with Arthur and Weston McKennie in the double pivot. Aaron Ramsey was tasked with roaming dangerously in the final third, effectively acting as a hybrid trequartista. Recently, however, Pirlo has abandoned this setup, deploying McKennie in an advanced position.
While the U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder is extremely dangerous in the box, there is no reason why he can’t get forward from the double pivot. In addition to making late runs, deploying McKennie from a deeper position can make the most of his defensive awareness and industry. Rabiot and Bentancur are often guilty of being far too passive, a problem that can be addressed with the former Schalke man.
Given Juve’s increased injury problems in the middle of the park, the final midfield spot should come down between Ramsey and Kulusevski. The Welshman excels in an advanced position, while Kulusevski’s technique and ball progression would make him an excellent fit for the role. As the advanced midfielder is expected to slot in on the left-hand side, Kulusevski’s speed and counter-attacking threat should mean he edges out Ramsey for the role.
Juventus’ long list of injuries has not helped Pirlo, but as a crucial stretch in the season approaches, he must find his best starting 11. If his side’s last games are anything to go by, it is abundantly clear that he must stop using Kulusevski as a second striker and revert to his previously successful formula in the midfield.
While it would be incredibly harsh to sack a first-year manager after failing to deliver a deep run in the Champions League, especially when the upper brass hasn’t exactly helped – there are no excuses for Pirlo not to progress past Porto. The rookie boss must demonstrate he has learned from his mistakes and lead Juventus – at the very least – to the quarterfinals.
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