Andrea Pirlo learns tough lesson in first test against Roma

Andrea Pirlo’s managerial career has gotten off to an impressive start, opening the season with a convincing win against Sampdoria. Most recently, Juventus came from behind twice to draw Roma, doing so with a man down for the better part of the second half. While four points out of a possible six is a good start for the rookie tactician, Juve’s draw against Roma demonstrated Pirlo still has a lot to learn on the touchline.

The former midfielder deployed an unconventional formation, starting Juan Cuadrado at left wingback and Dejan Kulusevski on the opposite wing. Alvaro Morata joined Cristiano Ronaldo up front with Aaron Ramsey roaming dangerously behind them. Weston McKennie and Adrien Rabiot were tasked once more with dictating the tempo and breaking up play, and both largely struggled.

In many ways, Pirlo got it wrong. His decision to shift Kulusevski wide and field Morata from the start simply did not work, and the Spaniard struggled to impose himself. Kulusevski’s influence in the final third was reduced from the wide position and needs to play more centrally; be it alongside Ronaldo or in Ramsey’s free-roaming role.

Beyond getting the front two wrong, fielding Cuadrado at left wingback was an odd choice altogether. The Colombian international has rarely featured on the left and looked out of place for the most part of the game. Last week, Cuadrado did not have his best game, but still filtered in dangerous crosses from the familiar right side. Moving forward, Pirlo will need to find an answer in Alex Sandro’s absence. Whether it’s Mattia De Sciglio or Gianluca Fabrotta remains to be seen, but Cuadrado simply isn’t the solution.

Ultimately, the biggest difference was the midfield battle. The duo of McKennie and Rabiot were excellent against Sampdoria but were largely left to fend for themselves against Roma. As a result, Juve’s backline was exposed on many occasions on the break. The Giallorossi bypassed them with ease throughout the ninety minutes, passing through the double pivot at will.

Pirlo persisted with both McKennie and Rabiot regardless, with the latter eventually picking up his second yellow. The decision to keep Rabiot on the pitch despite his yellow and overall poor performance highlighted Pirlo’s inexperience and is a lesson that will serve him well in the future.

As a whole, the Juventus manager will be happy with his side’s first two games. Pirlo has them learning a new system, alternating freely between a back three and four and for the first time in two seasons, they are committing many men forward. There will undoubtedly be growing pains with this new system but at the very least, the early signs are encouraging.

It won’t get any easier for Juventus next week as they take on Gennaro Gattuso’s high-flying Napoli. The Partenopei have gotten off to a phenomenal start to the season and are as good a test as any for Pirlo’s new-look Juventus. It may be early days, but Juventus are heading in a clear direction under Pirlo – even if the Azzurri legend will make mistakes along the way.

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Serie A Injury and Suspension Report – Round Three

Atalanta: Pierluigi Gollini (PCL tear), Aleksey Miranchuk (thigh strain) and Matteo Pessina (patellar dislocation) will once again be unavailable and the coach raised some concern regarding Cristiano Piccini, who has not been able to practice fully since joining. The fact that they are signing another player in his role does not bode well for his timetable. The team announced that somebody tested positive but did not disclose whom: Mattia Caldara and Rafael Toloi are absent out of the blue. 

Benevento: Federico Barba returned midweek but subbed off in the first half and has been ruled out. Andres Tello (thigh) and Oliver Kragl (neck) are again sidelined. Nicolas Viola (meniscus) might not be back for the first game after the break. Continue reading

Why a return to a back three makes sense for Juventus

Juventus took the controversial decision to sack Maurizio Sarri and replace him with the relatively unproven Andrea Pirlo this past summer, after a disappointing season. The Bianconeri may have retained their Scudetto, but ultimately fell short against Lyon in the Round of 16 of the Champions League.

Sarri was a firm believer in his preferred 4-3-3 and rarely budged from his playing philosophy, despite his side’s lackluster play. While not much is known about Pirlo’s coaching style or formation, all signs are pointing to some form of a return to a back three. Media outlets have speculated that Pirlo will deploy a back three in possession, which will later transform into a back four when they lose the ball.

As of right now, this is Juve’s reported XI going into their season opener against Sampdoria:

Szczęsny; Danilo, Bonucci, Chiellini; Cuadrado, Bentancur, Arthur, Rabiot, Pellegrini; Kulusevski, Ronaldo.

In theory, Pellegrini would drop at left back when Juventus lose the ball, with the remaining midfielders forming a bank of four ahead of their backline. Matthijs de Ligt’s return would hand the Bianconeri a huge boost, as well, while Merih Demiral will slowly be eased into action following his injury.

The back three ensures Pirlo gets the most out of Bonucci and Chiellini, who have thrived in this system before while giving de Ligt and Demiral the license to get forward in possession. Danilo struggled last season, but could benefit from a deeper role, as the Brazilian will no longer be tasked with contributing offensively.

Beyond the back three, this formation offers a crafty solution to Juve’s fullback conundrum. The Italian champions simply do not have the quality out wide to compete with Europe’s elite, but the 3-5-2 helps remedy this. Cuadrado has typically excelled in this position, while Luca Pellegrini will be raring to go on Sunday. The former Cagliari man will be looking to make the most of Alex Sandro’s recent setback and cement himself as Juve’s starting leftback. Pellegrini has demonstrated he can get forward with ease and with Chiellini behind him, he will have all the guidance he needs in his defensive third.

Federico Bernardeschi and Alex Sandro are two players who will be hoping to get their careers back on track after mediocre seasons and the 3-5-2 could just revitalize the duo. The former has experience in this setup during his time at Fiorentina, while Sandro was at his very best as a wingback under Conte.

The midfield is where it gets interesting for Pirlo. As of right now, Rodrigo Bentancur, Arthur, and Adrien Rabiot are his preferred trio, but Juve’s latest signing Weston McKennie is worth monitoring. Arthur will reportedly start as the side’s regista after convincing Pirlo in training and will largely be tasked with dictating play. Rabiot, on the other hand, finished the season in exceptional form and will be eager to hit the ground running once more.

The biggest question mark, however, remains Bentancur. The Uruguayan international has played his best football at the base of the midfield, but Arthur is currently the preferred man there. As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see Pirlo juggle the two and potentially introduce McKennie into the fold for one of them.

Up front, Ronaldo and Dybala enter the season at the preferred duo, but the latter’s latest injury will hand Dejan Kulusevski a chance to stake a claim for a spot in the eleven. The Swedish international has emerged as one of the league’s brightest young talents and could force Pirlo’s hand with a strong start. As Kulusevski gains familiarity in his system, the rookie tactician may just be forced to deploy a three-man attack to accommodate him alongside Dybala and Ronaldo.

Given his propensity to work hard without the ball, a 3-4-3 with Kulusevski tracking back, similar to Gian Piero Gasperini’s system, is not entirely out of the question. Edin Dzeko’s reported move to Juve will also prove crucial, as the Bosnian international offers a much-needed physical and creative presence in the final third.

If last season showed us anything, it’s that tactical rigidity got Juve nowhere. The Bianconeri played mediocre football and struggled to create chances. Pirlo’s appointment is by no means a sure thing, but at the very least, the rookie tactician is ready to experiment, starting with their opener against Sampdoria.

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Pirlo heavily experimenting in the early days of his Juventus tenure

When Andrea Pirlo was hired by Juventus, not much was known about his coaching philosophy, let alone his preferred formation. The rookie manager is yet to submit his final thesis to Coverciano and will be doing so in October to receive his UEFA badge. As a result, many Italian outlets have speculated heavily about Pirlo’s preferred setup, based on his first training sessions.

Let’s take a look at the different options.

1) (3-5-2/3-4-1-2): Woj; De Ligt/Danilo, Bonucci/Rugani, Demiral/Chiellini; Cuadrado/Bernardeschi, Bentancur/McKennie, Arthur, Kulusevski/Rabiot, Alex Sandro; Dybala, Ronaldo. 

It’s been recently reported that Pirlo is looking to introduce a back three to Juve, a formation he enjoyed plenty of success in during his playing days. The former Milan man is already familiar with the inner workings of the formation and will be eager to impart his knowledge on his new side.

At the back, there are no real surprises with De Ligt, Bonucci, Chiellini, Demiral and Rugani occupying the central positions. Danilo has reportedly been training as a right center-back in recent sessions, indicating a position switch may be on the cards for the Brazilian. In many ways, the deeper role would suit him as the former Manchester City man struggles when tasked with getting forward.

Out wide, Alex Sandro and Cuadrado will arguably start, but Federico Bernardeschi’s progression is worth monitoring. Pirlo is said to be grooming him for the left wingback position, but ultimately, he can feature on either side. The former Fiorentina man played his best football from the right-hand side of a 3-5-2 and will look to get his career back on track under Pirlo.

In the midfield, Arthur is expected to start as Pirlo’s regista with two of Rodrigo Bentancur, Adrien Rabiot, and the newly-arrived Weston McKennie. When Pirlo’s looking to shake things up and get a more offensive outlook on the game, he can also introduce Dejan Kulusevski in a trequartista role behind the front two. The Swedish international thrived as Parma’s creative outlet this season and will undoubtedly emerge as a key man under Pirlo.

The front two of Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo will round off the side and will be eager to build on their budding partnership. La Joya has been at his best in this formation in the past, linking up to devastating effect with Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente. The persisting links to Edin Dzeko and Moise Kean should come as no surprise, as either would slot in wonderfully in a front two and would offer some much-needed depth.

In many ways, this reported 3-5-2 would get the most of Pirlo’s current squad and help the Bianconeri’s stuttering players turn their fortunes around.

2) (4-3-1-2): Woj; Cuadrado, De Ligt, Bonucci, Alex Sandro; Bentancur, Arthur, Rabiot; Kulusevski; Dybala, Ronaldo. 

The main difference here is essentially the back four but is ultimately very similar to the 3-5-2. Dybala and Ronaldo would maintain their spots up front with Kulusevski roaming dangerously behind them. With this setup, Pirlo ensures his front three are in their best positions and could open up any opposition.

The midfield is where the main difference lies with one of Rabiot or Bentancur coming in for one of the center-backs from the back three. While this formation is intriguing from an offensive perspective, it stretches Juve’s depth pretty thin and does not give Pirlo much flexibility off the bench to shake things up. McKennie and Bernardeschi could help in this respect, but the Bianconeri would still need a few reinforcements from the summer mercato – notably a striker or two.

The final option for Pirlo is to deploy a 4-3-3 with any combination of Ronaldo, Dybala, Kulusevski, and Douglas Costa as his front three. The Brazilian, however, appears to be on the outs in Turin, after struggling with recurring injuries since arriving from Bayern Munich. The back four and midfield would remain unchanged from the 4-3-1-2 and is arguably the best formation for Juve’s star man, Ronaldo.

As the season approaches, it will be interesting to see what Pirlo has in store for his Juventus side. As of right now, the Juventus faithful are venturing into the unknown with Pirlo and will get their answers shortly as pre-season approaches.

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Juventus Top Performers – UCL Round of 16 vs Lyon

A sloppy, gassed and quickly dejected Juventus came one goal short of completing the comeback against Lyon despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s heroics as, sans a hobbled Paulo Dybala, the supporting cast proved to be nowhere near the level of the Portuguese ace.

Alex Sandro: he was not only the best defender on the pitch, but straight-up the second-best contributor of the night, as he bust out a vintage performance full of charisma, sprints and tidy defending. He was one of the few that still had some energy in the second half and thus created some dangerous situations galloping down the flank. Continue reading

Juventus Top Perfomers – Round 38 vs Roma

An already checked-out Juventus could not find a way to contain a more spirited Roma team and ended up throwing away one of the few things they had going for them, besides winning the title of course, as they soiled their home invincibility.

Danilo: it is again tough to find something good in the back-line, but the Brazilian fullback was more lively than usual and produced a pair of interesting runs that switched field position in a hurry, won a bunch of duels and drew some fouls in dangerous spots. He ends his campaign on a slight crescendo, despite the unlucky PK foul. Continue reading

Serie A Fantasy Preview – Round 38 – Saturday Games

BRESCIA-SAMPDORIA

Brescia: they actually played better than expected versus Lazio, where they had some opportunities to score, in particular with Ernesto Torregrossa, but were unable to cash in. Several injuries left them with a skeleton crew as Torregrossa, Florian Aye, Nikolas Spalek and Jaromir Zmrhal are the only attackers available. All of them, excluding Aye, have been able to hit the net recently, while Sandro Tonali and Bruno Martella have been pretty good in the less offensive roles.

Suggested picks: Torregrossa, Spalek, Zmrhal. Continue reading

Three Takeaways From Sarri’s First Season At Juventus

Maurizio Sarri’s first season with Juventus did not exactly go to plan, with the Bianconeri losing two finals and stumbling to their ninth consecutive Scudetto. After securing the league title against Sampdoria, the Italian champions now have their sights set on overturning a narrow first-leg deficit against Lyon in the Champions League.

With the season officially behind us, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on Sarri’s first year in charge. Here are three takeaways from the season that was:

1) Individual brilliance reigns supreme. 

Much was expected from Sarri in his first season, but the veteran tactician disappointed and was regularly bailed out by individual brilliance in the final third. Beyond some encouraging signs of ‘Sarriball’ at different stages in the season, Juventus often relied on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala to lead them to the title. Moving forward, Sarri will be hoping the Bianconeri acquire technical players, which will help him further implement his playing philosophy. The additions of Dejan Kulusevski and Arthur will help in this respect, but Juventus arguably need another midfielder.

If Juve’s top brass is hopeful of every seeing Sarriball at the Allianz Arena, they will need to bolster the side and the midfield in particular, starting with this summer.

2) Shaky defense responsible for dropped points. 

Juventus have struggled at the back this season, conceding 38 goals on the season with two games to play. In fact, no Bianconeri side has conceded more over the last ten years, dating back to Luigi Del Neri’s Juventus, who finished 7th place. Their lapses in concentration have cost Sarri’s men crucial points throughout the year, dropping a league-leading 18 points from winning positions.

Sarri has had to make do with middling fullbacks and even converted Juan Cuadrado to right back at the beginning of the season. With Alex Sandro failing to hit his former heights and Danilo struggling when called upon, Juve’s defense was as vulnerable as they have ever been. Matthijs de Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci formed an uncompromising partnership at the heart of defense, but were often let down by their fullbacks. Next season, Sarri will be hoping for a more solid Juve side, otherwise, their domestic dominance may just come to an end.

3) Juventus need to cut their deadwood. 

If one thing was made clear this season, it’s that few teams around the world have more deadwood than Juventus. The Bianconeri have a number of players on inflated wages contributing little to nothing on the pitch. Sami Khedira featured under 1000 minutes on the season, collecting 6 million euros a year. Bosman signings Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot make 14 million euros between them and combined for a mere four goals on the season. Gonzalo Higuain, the side’s third-highest earner, regressed significantly this year, netting seven goals.

Moving forward, this is something Juventus are going to have to address and cut ties with mediocre players on increased wages. Recent reports suggest that the club is pondering a mutual termination of Khedira’s contract while Higuain is weighing a return to Argentina. Beyond them, the Bianconeri’s top brass has important decisions to make in the middle of the park. Ramsey has not looked sharp when called upon while Rabiot has kicked into another gear in recent weeks. Given their high wages, it may be difficult to find a suitor, just one season after acquiring them.

In any case, Paratici will  be a busy man this summer as he will be looking to rejuvenate this Juventus side and decrease their wage will significantly. The former Sampdoria director is off to a strong start so far, but is arguably just getting started.

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Juventus Top Performers – Round 35 vs Udinese

Juventus tried to stroll their way to the title as they run into the brick wall erected by Udinese, somehow found a way to score but, as it has happened few times now, everything went south while trying to manage the lead and then got bitten late by the typical weapon of this kind of teams, killer counters.

Matthijs De Ligt (3 points): the squad had to go the extra-mile to break the deadlock and he came through on that regard busting a great daisy-cutter out of nowhere at the end of the first half. Continue reading

Juventus Top Performers – Round 34 vs Lazio

A defensive mishap made the final minutes tenser than they should have been, as Juventus had managed to solve Lazio in about an hour, delivering a killer one-two punch early in the second half exploiting the opponents’ mistake. The light did not completely go off this time around and the result stood, so the Old Lady assessed the penultimate blow to the title race.

Wojciech Szczesny: the defence needed to bounce back and it did it up until the last ten minutes, holding in check the opponents pretty comfortably, as they were limited to just one chance, a major one though as Ciro Immobile hit the post with a sudden strike. Continue reading