Defeat to Inter highlights Juve’s problems

Juventus currently lie in 5th place in Serie A yet the most troubling aspect is being a massive 10 points behind league leaders Milan. However, not all hope is gone in the club’s quest to seek a 10th consecutive league title because Juventus have a game in hand on the league leaders and there is at least half of the league’s fixtures left to play for. So where has it all gone wrong and what can be done to fix the Bianconeri’s problems?

Discipline: One troubling aspect this season has been the accumulation of red cards- some unwarranted while others were silly to say the least. The two red cards which perhaps caused the most damage came against Fiorentina- facilitating a 0-3 home loss to the Florence based side- and the one in the capital leading to a 2-2 draw with Roma.

Against Fiorentina, Juan Cuadrado was guilty of the most ridiculous red card since his challenge came in or around the opponent’s penalty area. The reasons behind this flurry of red must be addressed by both management and coach Andrea Pirlo. The club must institute fines and other harsh measures so this negative aspect can be curbed.

Coaching & Tactics: There is no doubt Pirlo was one of the greatest players of his generation and probably one of the best three midfielders from the last 20 years. I’d go as far as to rank second only to Spain’s hero Andres Iniesta (again counting only the last two decades).

Pirlo helped Milan win in Europe and domestically and even more impressively went on to help Juve return to glory after his previous club cast him aside. He also was instrumental to Italy’s success in World Cup 2006 and was influential when the Italians reached the final of Euro 2012. However, as a coach, Pirlo has done nothing so far and is not a proven entity.

There is a huge difference between being a great player and an elite coach. There are plenty of cases where important players have turned out to be a failure as coaches and vice versa.

Pirlo’s substitutions have come late in certain games while his initial XI and his tactics have proven to be questionable at best on multiple occasions. Pirlo is learning on the job but this is something a club of Juve’s stature cannot afford if the objective is to challenge on all fronts.

Against Inter, Pirlo’s starting XI and his approach were perhaps as guilty of everything positive the impressive duo Nicolo Barella and Achraf Hakimi did against Juve. Simply put, Pirlo needs to adapt to the players available at his disposal. He needs to bring out the best in them and use a system which does that as opposed to forcing them out of their comfort zone.

Defensive Concerns & Goal Difference: One of the foundations of the club’s current run of success has been their defensive prowess and the ability to almost guarantee a win after taking the lead- even if a narrow 1-0 advantage.

The defensive issues started under former coach Max Allegri’s last 18 months and became even more apparent under last season’s boss Maurizio Sarri and now under Pirlo. If you look at the league table last season, then you can easily say Juve had the 3rd best defensive record after Inter & Lazio yet the goal difference for Sarri’s men was 4th behind Atalanta, Inter and Lazio.

The team seems incapable of dealing with any sort of crosses and set-pieces. While this season the club conceded a header from former player Arturo Vidal (against Inter), the Bianconeri look susceptible whenever opponents have a corner, a free-kick or they put in a cross against the defenders.

The absence of young star Matthijs de Ligt due to recovery from injury (and surgery) first and then more recently due to Covid has not helped but above all the club’s defensive rock Giorgio Chiellini is well into his last months of playing football. Chiellini can no longer stay fit and has become even more injury prone. If Pirlo was one of the best midfielders of the last 20 years, then Chiellini has surely been one of the best centre-backs over the last 12 years along with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos and former Atletico Madrid captain Diego Godin.

The Bonucci Problem: Leonardo Bonucci has not been the same defender since Cardiff 2017 and that was highlighted during his only season with Milan before his return to Turin. Since returning, Bonucci has had only a few solid performances while this season his defending has been poor to put it nicely.

What is even worse is the fact that Bonucci starting has meant Turkish defender Merih Demiral has played less and the improving full-back (used mostly as a centre-back this season) Danilo has had to do too much while the club copes with Chiellini’s and de Ligt’s absence. Almost every centre-back has had to cover for Bonucci’s mistakes this season.

What is more alarming is the fact Bonucci’s trademark long passes and even at times his forays forward have become such a rarity. So what justifies starting Bonucci over someone who is more aggressive and less error prone as Demiral? Is it seniority? Is it his past with the club? Is it a bias by coach Pirlo who was his former teammate when Bonucci had his peak days? Playing Bonucci raises several questions because Juve look fragile whenever he is targeted and exposed by his opponents. He has become a weak link.

Club’s Management: While left for last, this is perhaps Juve’s greatest worry at the moment because management- particularly Fabio Paratici and those who work with him- has the club running in the wrong direction.

First of all, Juve’s glaring concerns at full-back (particularly the left-back position) have not been addressed since Cardif 2017. Alex Sandro has stagnated since the 1-4 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League final yet he has remained as the club’s only option as full-back with no one challenging him either because management chose not to sign a left-back or because no one else is worthy of starting in his place.

While Luca Pellegrini is unproven at the big stage, he was immediately loaned out instead of being given an opportunity to push Sandro. The starter against Inter Gianluca Frabotta does not seem to have anything on Pellegrini yet the latter was inexplicably shipped out on loan to Genoa. In fact Pellegrini has more Serie A experience than Frabotta.

Perhaps management’s biggest error is trying to paper over the weaknesses in midfield. Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba, Claudio Marchisio and of course Andrea Pirlo were never replaced in way or another. It’s near impossible to replace them as a whole unit, but at least signing a couple of elite midfielders would have helped. Instead, only Miralem Pjanic could be considered as an established and quality midfield signing when he joined Juve from Roma. He initially did well before he faltered in his last 18 months.

Without going into detail because the list of midfielders signed to complement or replace the departed Pirlo, Vidal, Pogba and Marchisio includes some very mediocre players including Stefano Sturaro, Mario Lemina, Hernanes and Tomas Rincon.

Even the two signings who were supposed to lift the club in 2019 Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey have come at a heavy cost. While both joined as free signings, they are both among the top earners in terms of salary in the Italian league. This means it is also hard to sell them and find a potential new club if they need to be moved.

Ramsey has the skills and can be a delight to watch but he is often unfit and the stats show he cannot play more than 60 minutes so signing him to begin with was a massive gamble. As show in the graph below, only 2 of his starts saw him play at least 90 minutes this season:

As for Rodrigo Bentancur, well he has stagnated and has shown little improvement during this season. In fact, Bentancur’s most telling contribution this season has been the accumulation of yellow cards. He already has 4 yellow cards in league play compared to 9 yellow cards for the entirety of the previous league season.

Only Weston Mckennie has shown great potential and has performed well in a number of games in Serie A and the Champions League. However, he needs to play regularly to grow into a consistent and reliable option for Juve’s midfield. At least he is heading in the right direction. The same cannot be said of Juve’s other off-season signing Arthur who joined from Barcelona (in the deal to offload Pjanic) and has not impressed despite his clear ability to keep possession and move well in tight spaces and when marked by an opponent.

Against Inter, the two goals came from midfielders- Vidal and Barella- while Juve’s midfielders looked inept and incapable of tracking their opposing midfielders who were able to freely roam and score from two opportunities presented to them. In fact, Barella was able to dictate play and perform almost as he wished while the likes of Rabiot and Bentancur looked both uninspired and toothless.

Why did Juve not make a move for Sassuolo’s impressive midfielder Manuel Locatelli who not only is a regular for his club but has also grown into a reliable midfielder for the Italian national team under Roberto Mancini. Locatelli played 6 times for the rejuvenated Azzurri in 2020. Juve could have perhaps tempted his club to sell in exchange for players or perhaps a fee and one player of Sassuolo’s choosing from the likes of Mattia De Sciglio, Daniele Rugani, Luca Pellegrini, Gianluca Frabotta etc…

I would not mention the likes of Douglas Costa because he earns a massive salary (for what he provides) and he probably does not fit the profile of players they would sign on top of the fact Douglas may want to player for a bigger club.

So management has erred by overlooking the dire need for a left-back as well as not strengthening the midfield with at least one quality midfielder who can make a difference and help Juve compete better in Europe. Another name linked with Juve is Lyon’s Houssem Aouar who can solve many of the club’s issues from retaining possession to creating on top of being young and experienced enough after several impressive appearances for Lyon in both Ligue 1 and the Champions League.

A main hurdle to signing Aouar is obviously the fee involved, but perhaps Juve could tempt Lyon by negotiating a move of certain players in the opposite direction- someone such as the aforementioned Douglas Costa or even Federico Bernardeschi and Sami Khedira (expiring contract soon). Other options may include sending out someone as Dejan Kulusevski on loan for a season in return for facilitating the move of Aouar to Turin.

Juve have also an opportunity to sign someone such as Lyon’s other star Memphis Depay who will be out of contract in the summer of 2021 yet the club continues to be linked with older, makeshift and unimpressive attackers.

There is no doubt another problem created by management’s mistakes is the financial situation. The club cannot afford to spend without selling first. Obviously signing players on a free transfer helps but such moves are often negated when you are paying massive annual salaries to the free signings (again examples are Ramsey and Rabiot).

The club has also moved into the direction of signing stars, expensive ones for that matter, over methodical and opportune signings that were the hallmark of Juve’s rebuilding and rejuvenation process early on in the current successful era. There are plenty of examples including Andrea Barzagli (now retired), Pirlo (mentioned previously) and Paul Pogba as well as the key signings of Vidal and Carlos Tevez who came for relatively low fees.

So the club has signed the world’s biggest sport brand in Cristiano Ronaldo and the best young centre-back in the world in de Ligt but both came at a very high cost. Surprisingly, the club did not sign another high profile player (upcoming star just as de Ligt) in the form of BVB’s young star Erling Braut Haaland.

Another mistake by management was the initial hiring of Maurizio Sarri- his profile certainly does not fit with the ethos and the standards set by Juve over the past 8 seasons prior to his signing. He was expected to revolutionize the club’s performances yet he stumbled to the league title relying heavily on the likes of superstar Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and de Ligt.

The club had to fire Sarri after his seemingly distant relationship with a number of the squad’s players, the poor run in Europe (exit at hands of none other than Lyon) and the unimpressive performance throughout the season with very few exceptions, including that impressive 2-0 win over Inter punctuated by Dybala’s delightful goal.

The club compounded the situation above by hastily assigning the novice Pirlo as the next coach. However, for management Pirlo serves as the perfect ploy because if Juve fail then he can serve as a scapegoat while his initial hiring would be accepted by the club’s fans since he is a beloved figure based on the not so distant successes under both Antonio Conte and Max Allegri. In addition, Pirlo’s hiring and potential firing would not cost the club’s coffers anything worthy of note when compared to Sarri’s wages (by the way Juve continue to pay his salary).

Hence, it is a trifecta of errors by management summed up by three key elements which are the missteps in the transfer market, the hasty hiring for the coaching position last summer and this one and of course the financial constraints inflicted on the club due to the management’s policies.

Will management rectify the mistakes done since 2017? In fact, the club began to move away from a trusted process even before the disaster in Cardiff in 2017. Gonzalo Higuain was one example- the record signing by an Italian club prior to the addition of superstar Ronaldo by the Bianconeri of course. Higuain- just as CR7 after him- was signed to expedite Juve’s rise in Europe and to supposedly bring the Champions League trophy back to Turin.

Has either move turned out to be a success? That is a divisive topic depending on how fans perceived the signing of Higuain- many were for it but there are some who were against it. Higuain did not help deliver the much desired European trophy. The same applies to the signing of CR7 with the majority being for it yet there are some who are  against splashing such massive sums that could in turn be detrimental to reinforcing other positions in the squad such as the midfield.

The same dilemma arises when questioning whether management’s philosophy in recent years- in terms of transfer campaigns, branding and financial planning- has yielded the desired outcome or perhaps turned hostage the club’s future standing.

Time will tell… and obviously how far Juve will go in Europe will have a big say in this assessment.

Should Juventus target Paul Pogba?

European super-agent Mino Raiola sent shockwaves through the footballing world when he recently claimed he was actively looking for transfer destinations for his blockbuster client – Paul Pogba. The World Cup winner has reportedly set his sights on moving on from Manchester United this summer, as his contract is set to expire in the following year. Intent not to lose him on a free transfer, the Red Devils are ready to negotiate.

A plethora of clubs have since been linked with Pogba, in hopes of securing one of Europe’s premier midfielders. In Italy, rumours have surfaced about Juventus potentially making a move for him, but he will not come cheap. The English giants spent over 100 million euros to bring him back to Manchester and will be looking to recoup most of that fee this summer.

When Pogba initially made the move to Manchester United back in 2016, many expected the Frenchman to lead the side back to their former glories. Fast forward four years and nothing of the sort has happened, with the Red Devils failing to win the league since his return. Pogba may have lifted the Europa League and EFL Cup in his first season, but the Frenchman will not want to stop there. With one foot out the door already, it begs the question: should Juventus do what it takes to bring back Pogba?

For one, his price-tag is a major stumbling block. Juventus has reportedly offered players and cash in a swap deal, an advance Manchester United quickly rebuffed. Recent reports have suggested Paulo Dybala may be involved in a deal for the midfielder, which could sway the negotiations. La Joya may be struggling under Andrea Pirlo, but Juventus would be foolish to part ways with Dybala. Despite his recent woes, the 27-year-old should not be sacrificed to bring in Pogba. After all, isn’t the objective to compete for the Champions League, and for that, Juve will need all hands on deck.

The next question is whether the French international is a good fit for Juventus. Pogba thrives on the left-hand side of a midfield three, while Pirlo has regularly opted for a double pivot and an advanced midfielder. Pogba has struggled in similar positions during his second stint with Manchester United, but Juventus would be foolish not to accommodate him.

Pogba is exactly the type of profile the Bianconeri lack in the middle of the park and would add some much-needed creativity in the final third. Pirlo would be wise to consider a formation change if Juve’s interest in the midfielder is serious. However, the 27-year-old will struggle if he is shoehorned in Pirlo’s hybrid 4-4-2/3-4-1-2 setup.

The last step in bringing in Pogba back to Turin revolves around Juve’s remaining midfield options. With Rabiot, McKennie, Arthur, Bentancur, and Ramsey, the Bianconeri’s midfield is slightly congested at the moment. Arthur and McKennie appear set to stay, leaving the remaining options in limbo over their futures. Ramsey seems the likeliest to be heading out, considering the increased reports over his departure.

Fabio Paratici will have big decisions to make in the middle of the park should they decide to target Pogba. The Juventus sporting director has often gotten it wrong in recent seasons, but simply can no longer afford to. Cristiano Ronaldo is heading into the final stages of his career and they will want to get the most out of their superstar. It may be their best shot at winning their first Champions League in 24 years.

When assessing whether to bring back Pogba or not, the answer is simple. Anytime a player of his caliber is available, you do your best to sign him. With that being said, if Juventus are not prepared to accommodate him or need to sacrifice a future pillar in Dybala, the deal becomes a little more complicated. If recent reports are anything to go by, expect Juventus to do their best to secure Pogba. If that is a good decision or not, remains to be seen.

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Serie A’s most intriguing storylines going into 2021

The past year has been unlike any other across the footballing world, forcing clubs to play in empty stadiums and tackling unprecedented challenges. Italian football has not disappointed, regularly delivering excitement and unlikely surprises at every turn.

Once Wednesday’s final games are played, Serie A will take a much-needed break, halting action until the new year. Without further ado, here are three things to look out for in 2021 in Serie A:

1) The Alejandro Gomez saga: 

When reports surfaced that Gian Piero Gasperini and his star man, Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez, had a falling out, it shocked the entire calcio world. The two have proven to be a match-made in heaven in Bergamo, firing the side to newfound heights. Just last season, Gli Orobici were painfully close to booking their place into the Champions League final four, but eventually lost a narrow affair against PSG.

Gasperini’s relationship with Gomez was a special one, claiming he would resign if ever the club sold the diminutive playmaker. The veteran tactician got the most out of Gomez, with the Atalanta man establishing himself as one of Italy’s elite creative threats. Fast forward to today, and Gomez is very much on his way out, with reports saying the damage is irreparable.

Milan and Roma among others have queued up for his signature, in hopes of adding an elite player on the cheap. At 32-years-old, Gomez can still play a crucial role in any team and has shown no signs of slowing down. While his inevitable transfer is intriguing in itself, the Atalanta man has claimed he will reveal exactly what went down once he leaves. It will also be interesting to see just how Gian Piero Gasperini’s men cope without him in the lineup.

Atalanta is coming off a vintage 4-1 win over Roma with Gomez out, but sustaining it over an entire season is a completely different story. Beyond one of Serie A’s best players moving on mid-season, this story is far from over.

2) Can Andrea Pirlo turn it around? 

Andrea Pirlo has struggled since assuming the reins in Turin, stumbling out of the gates in Serie A. Juventus has drawn six of their 13 games and most recently saw their unbeaten run snapped in emphatic fashion against Fiorentina.

Pirlo may have led the Bianconeri to an impressive Champions League group stage campaign, but desperately needs to turn it around, as soon as the season restarts. Juventus has dropped points in countless games they should have won, including draws against Crotone and Benevento, and can no longer afford to fall further behind.

The Italian champions sit seven points behind Milan and have an incredibly tough schedule to kickstart the new year. As a two-legged affair with Porto looms, Juventus need to achieve some form of consistency and begin stringing results together. One of the biggest storylines going into the new year will be to see if Pirlo can bounce back from an indifferent start – otherwise, we might just have a new champion heading into next season.

3) Are Milan legit Scudetto contenders? 

Well, we’ve been asking this for the better part of 13 matchdays now and the answer seems to be yes. However, Milan will need to demonstrate its resolve heading into the new year, welcoming Juventus into San Siro on January 6. As we approach the half-way point of the season, Milan can announce themselves as serious contenders, especially with a statement win against Juventus.

Stefano Pioli’s men have played some sensational football in recent months, navigating a tricky schedule diligently, despite a number of injuries – including one to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. As we enter 2021, the Rossoneri will need to confirm their contender status and demonstrate they can handle the pressure that comes with it. If their recent run is anything to go by, Milan will be up for it.

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Juventus struggling for consistency under Andrea Pirlo

Juventus has stumbled in the early goings of the Andrea Pirlo era, playing out to six draws in its first 13 games. Most recently, the Italian champions were handed their first defeat of the season, losing to Fiorentina 3-0. Juan Cuadrado’s early red card may have essentially sealed their fate on Tuesday, but the Colombian’s sending off is a part of a worrying trend for Pirlo’s men.

Indiscipline has come back to haunt Juve this season, earning six red cards already. In many ways, it has cost them important points, forcing them to share the spoils with Roma and Crotone, while losing to Fiorentina on Tuesday. Beyond Juve’s indiscipline, the Bianconeri have regularly been victims of lapses in concentration in their own defensive third, indicating their own complacency.

Juventus can ill afford to drop any further behind as the season wears on and currently sit seven points behind the league-leading Milan. CONI’s ruling to overturn Napoli’s forfeit means that in addition to playing Gennaro Gattuso’s men, Juventus has to take on Milan and Inter as well. January could just prove to be a make-or-break month for Pirlo and could come to define his Juventus tenure.

The Italian champions could use their encounters with both Milan-based clubs to turn their season around and close the gap atop the table, but on current form, it seems unlikely. Pirlo has persevered with his hybrid 4-4-2/3-5-2 formation and is clearly experiencing growing pains.

Juventus often get caught on the break, just like they did for Fiorentina’s opener, and at times, struggle to make their possession count. While Pirlo’s system is completely different compare to Maurizio Sarri’s rigid setup, time is running out for the rookie tactician. If Juventus keep dropping points, they will be out of the title race before it even starts.

At times, the Italian giants look unstoppable in the final third and run rampant against their opposition, as evidenced by their 4-0 win over Parma. Other times, the Bianconeri look completely toothless and devoid of any inspiration. Juventus has impressed in Europe this season, topping their Champions League group, but has failed to translate their dominance back to Serie A – indicating their struggles might boil down to a lack of motivation.

Juve’s struggles in big games is another concern for Pirlo heading into the new year. The Turin-based club has drawn against Roma, Lazio, Atalanta and is yet to beat a side in Italy’s top six. Their upcoming clashes against Milan and Inter can serve as a turning point in their season, but it won’t be easy. On one hand, the Rossoneri are playing some of the best football in Italy, while on the other, Conte’s Inter is as well-drilled as they come in the peninsula. Factor in another game against Napoli in addition to a congested schedule, and it’s an uphill battle for Pirlo.

The rookie tactician can take solace in the fact that he has all the ingredients to turn it around. Alvaro Morata has hit the ground running since returning, forming a deadly partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo, while Weston McKennie appears ready for a bigger role. Their backline may not be as solid as it used to be, but Matthijs de Ligt’s continued progression into one of Europe’s elite defenders is encouraging.

The wealth of options has since given Pirlo quite the dilemma, with the World Cup winner yet to decide on his best eleven. Moving forward, the Azzurri legend should make the most of the upcoming break and establish his starting lineup – otherwise, the Bianconeri’s woes will only continue. Juventus is in dire need of consistency going into 2021 and needs their manager to step up. Pirlo may have all the tools to succeed in Turin but whether he knows what to do with them, remains to be seen.

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More questions than answers under Andrea Pirlo

The Andrea Pirlo era hasn’t exactly gotten off the ground in the early goings of the season, with the Italian champions drawing five of their first nine games in league play. Most recently, Juventus was forced to share the spoils with Benevento, playing out to a 1-1 draw against the newly-promoted outfit.

While there have been some signs of progress under the rookie tactician, there are currently more questions than answers in Turin. The Bianconeri currently sit six points off Milan in first place, and have shown no signs of consistency. As Juventus are on the hunt for their 10th consecutive Scudetto, Pirlo will need to figure out his best eleven and start making up some crucial ground ahead of the next stretch.

Much like it was the case against Ferencvaros, Juventus struggled to create chances against Benevento. Paulo Dybala’s recent woes continued on Saturday, with the Argentine maestro struggling to make an impact on the proceedings. When he did create space for himself, Dybala was wasteful, spurning a high-quality opportunity in the first half. The former Palermo man has been an awkward fit in Pirlo’s setup until now and has since been usurped in the lineup by Alvaro Morata.

The World Cup winner has typically deployed him in a front two but Dybala has regularly left a lot to be desired up top. It may be the ongoing contract negotiations, but Dybala will need to get his season back on track sooner rather than later. If he can’t turn it around, Pirlo may be forced to reduce his minutes and use him as a supersub.

Beyond Dybala’s continued struggles, Juve’s wingers have disappointed and regularly fail to offer much, outside of flashes of brilliance. Pirlo’s hybrid setup means Juve defends in a 4-4-2 and attacks in a 3-5-2 of sorts, yet, this formation has held back the likes of Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Chiesa. The former has thrived when played centrally, either up top, or as the side’s trequartista, and fails to make an impact from a retreated wingback position. In many ways, Kulusevski’s talent is wasted out wide and is another one of Pirlo’s experiments that should be abandoned.

Chiesa has impressed at wingback at times, most recently providing an inch-perfect assist to Morata, but it is clear he is at his best when playing in a front three. The former Fiorentina man can do a job at wingback, but like Kulusevski, is being shackled by defensive responsibilities. If Juve’s creative struggles persist, Pirlo would be wise to consider shaking up his setup and move into a more traditional, winger-friendly 4-3-3.

Pirlo’s current setup fails to get the best of his front men and shoehorns them into unfamiliar positions. While the lack of a pre-season has not helped the rookie tactician, he needs to demonstrate flexibility moving forward.  The likes of Chiesa, Dybala, Ronaldo, Kulusevski, and Morata represent one of the league’s deepest attacks and could benefit from a formation change.

As Juventus enters a crucial part of the season, they simply cannot afford to drop any more points. The Bianconeri have already drawn against Crotone, Benevento, and Hellas Verona, games they should frankly be winning. Juve’s continued dependence on Ronaldo is a worrying trend but could be remedied by the emergence of their summer arrivals. Chiesa and Kulusevski have demonstrated they have the ability to contribute, but they need to play in their preferred positions.

Pirlo’s Juve is clearly a side in transition, but even then, these are games they should be winning. If the Italian champions will defend their crown and march to a historic 10th title, something needs to change in Turin. Whether Pirlo is aware or not, will likely determine if he is successful in his managerial debut.

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Early qualification offers Pirlo time to find his feet

The Andrea Pirlo era is slowly kicking into gear in Turin, with Juventus punching its ticket into the Round of 16, thanks to a late winner against Ferencvaros. The Italian champions find themselves three points behind Barcelona, with two games left to duke it out for first place. Beyond progressing to the next round comfortably – an impressive feat in itself from the rookie manager – Pirlo has been presented with a unique opportunity in the two final matchdays; An opportunity to stamp out his best lineup and impart his footballing philosophy, pressure-free.

The World Cup winner has used the first months of his tenure to experiment with his roster, attempting to find his ideal eleven. As it stands right now, there are more questions than answers. For example: What is Juve’s best midfield pairing? Is there room for Paulo Dybala up front? When fully fit, who should start in defense? All questions that will largely determine how successful Pirlo is at Juventus.

Merih Demiral and Matthijs de Ligt impressed in their first game together against Cagliari, while Danilo – excluding his slip against Ferencvaros – has hardly put a foot wrong, playing in the back three. Leonardo Bonucci’s importance can’t be understated, with the veteran defender heavily involved in Juve’s buildup play, while few defenders are as uncompromising as Giorgio Chiellini when fit. That leaves Pirlo with the tough decision of leaving two defenders on the bench.

While not an easy decision, de Ligt will almost certainly start. The young Dutchman is the prototypical modern defender, equally capable of thwarting the opposition’s attacks as he is starting his own.  Demiral has been nothing short of sensational alongside him, adding some much-needed physicality in Chiellini’s absence. Given their potential to grow into Europe’s top centreback pairing of the future, Pirlo should entrust Demiral and De Ligt and give them a go against Barcelona. Danilo has earned his starting spot alongside them, offering something different from your typical centrebacks.

In the midfield, Adrien Rabiot’s recent performances have stood out. Simply put, Juventus are a better team with the Frenchman in the lineup. Pirlo has tried to get Arthur going, giving him a run of games as the side’s regista, producing mixed results. The former Barca man is an extremely gifted ball carrier but fails to break the lines.

Arthur was more aggressive with the ball at his feet on Tuesday, forcing a number of over-the-top through balls. While most of them did not reach their intended target, it is an encouraging first step. As Juve enters two dead-rubber games against Barcelona and Dynamo Kyiv, Pirlo would be wise to give the Arthur-Rabiot connection some continuity.

Alvaro Morata’s rapid rise to prominence has made Pirlo’s decision up front much easier. The Spaniard has hit the ground running since returning, already netting five goals in the Champions League alone – including the all-important winner on Tuesday. Beyond his goals, Morata is clearly better suited to playing alongside Ronaldo, linking up with the Portuguese superstar with ease.

Ronaldo has thrived in recent years with a more physical presence alongside him, something Dybala simply can’t offer. La Joya has struggled this season, scoring one goal in eight appearances. The ongoing negotiation for his new contract, as well, as his highly-publicized battle with COVID-19, have held Dybala back in the early goings of the season. As of right now, however, the former Palermo man is on the outside looking in.

Despite this, Juve’s final two Champions League games would be a good time to experiment with the possibility of playing the 27-year-old alongside Ronaldo and Morata; something Pirlo alluded to earlier this week.

Make no mistake about it, Pirlo’s Juve remains a side in construction and there will be more growing pains. The rookie tactician has demonstrated he is ready to adapt and make the most of the deep roster at his disposal, an intriguing prospect ahead of Juve’s upcoming clash against Barcelona. The coming weeks should be very interesting in Turin as Pirlo continues to stamp his authority on his new-look Juventus side.

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Cristiano Ronaldo set to lead Juventus back into contention

Juventus has struggled in the early goings of this season, dropping points in Serie A against Hellas Verona and most recently losing to Barcelona. The Italian champions have had to make do without their talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been battling COVID-19. The Portuguese superstar has missed Juve’s last four games in all competitions but is nearing a return to action. On Friday, it was reported that Ronaldo tested negative for COVID-19, handing Juventus a much-needed boost ahead of a crucial stretch.

The Andrea Pirlo era hasn’t exactly gotten off to the roaring start they expected, with Juventus drawing three of their first five games in league action. The rookie tactician has taken an ambitious approach in his debut season, revolutionizing Juve’s set-up in favour of more fluid and attacking football. The transition has not been without its challenges, with the Bianconeri struggling to adapt to their new identity.

Before testing positive for COVID-19, Ronaldo started the season in sensational form, netting three goals in two games. Juve’s recent struggles have largely been in the final third, with the side being woefully inefficient in front of goal. Alvaro Morata has since seen five of his goals correctly ruled out by VAR for being marginally offside, adding to Juventus’s woes in front of goal.

Beyond Morata, Pirlo’s men lack an out-and-out finisher and rely heavily on creative profiles to spark their attack. Paulo Dybala has not been at his best since returning from a lengthy injury layoff, cutting a frustrated figure in his free-roam role. Dejan Kulusevski has shown flashes of his potential, scoring two well-taken goals so far, but has been rather inconsistent. At just 20 years old, it is only normal that it will take Kulusevski time before he finds his feet and emerges as a crucial piece to Pirlo’s setup.

Fellow summer arrival, Federico Chiesa, is in a similar position. The Italian international has blown hot and cold since joining Juventus, registering an assist on his debut, but later got sent off. Shortly thereafter, Chiesa made an immediate impact in his Champions League debut against Dynamo Kyiv, offering some unpredictability and width in the final third, but struggled immensely against Barcelona. As the season wears on, Pirlo will be hoping the young winger can diversify his game and begin offering sustained creativity from a wide area.

As Chiesa and Kulusevski need more time to adapt, Juventus will undoubtedly turn to its 30 million euros man Ronaldo. After all, that’s what he’s paid for. The former Real Madrid man is ruthless in and around the area and will relieve much of the pressure off of Juve’s young guns. Dybala and Ronaldo haven’t always clicked in the final third, enjoying varying degrees of success, but the five-time Ballon d’Or winner will nonetheless pick up the slack when La Joya is having an off-day.

Pirlo has not had this luxury yet, starting most games with at least four starters out of the lineup. The Italian champions are currently at a delicate point in the season and can’t afford to fall further behind the competition. Milan, Napoli and Inter have all proven they are ready to go the distance, adding further pressure on Pirlo to produce results.

The good news for the young tactician is that Juve’s full-strength lineup is slowly returning to action. Beyond the returns of key men, Juventus will be hoping Pirlo’s footballing philosophy is slowly sinking in. Juventus took a big risk fast-tracking him into the hot-seat, but Pirlo has not shied away from the challenge, aiming for an ambitious setup. The results may not be there just yet, but as Ronaldo nears his return to action, Juventus will be confident in their ability to turn it around.

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Juventus stuttering under Andrea Pirlo

The Andrea Pirlo era has not exactly gotten off to the start Andrea Agnelli was hoping for when he appointed the rookie tactician. Juventus has struggled in recent weeks, dropping points against Crotone and Hellas Verona. In fact, the Bianconeri have only recorded one victory on the field this season – in their opener against Sampdoria. Beyond the poor results, Juventus look like a side clearly in transition and is currently in the midst of defining its new identity.

Since his appointment, Pirlo has emphasized the need to press up the pitch and force turnovers as well as committing many men forward in attack. This is a complete turnaround from his predecessors, notably Maurizio Sarri. The former Empoli tactician stressed the importance of intricate buildup play and recognizable patterns of possession. Pirlo has completely shaken this up and has instilled a new system in place, which allows for flexibility in and out of possession.

When Juventus lose the ball, they typically fall into a back four and defend with a 4-4-2. As the side wins back the ball, however, the Bianconeri quickly transition into a hybrid 3-5-2/3-2-5 of sorts and look to stretch the opposition. Considering Pirlo did not have a preseason to work out the kinks of his system, growing pains are to be expected. In addition, this setup is the polar opposite of Sarri’s footballing philosophy.

As a result, it is only normal that Pirlo encounters some issues when attempting to essentially reset his players. Tactical changes take time to be fully immersed into the eleven, even if the poor results add to the pressure he is currently facing.

Beyond their recent struggles, it is important to consider Juve’s notable absences. Cristiano Ronaldo has missed the side’s last three games after testing positive for COVID-19, and will likely miss their upcoming clash against Barcelona. Other than Ronaldo, Pirlo has had to make do without Alex Sandro, Matthijs de Ligt and until recently, Paulo Dybala. Weston McKennie is another player who tested positive for COVID-19, after his impressive start to the season. When considering that four bonafide starters have been missing, it puts Juve’s early-season struggles into context .

Absences, however, are not excuses as the side has failed to impress in their last two league affairs. Once again, Juventus have demonstrated complacency in their games against Hellas Verona and Crotone and only took the game to the opposition after conceding a goal. This mentality has been present for the past two seasons now and is something that needs to be changed immediately.

Pirlo’s men played their best football in the last 20 minutes of their most recent clash against Hellas Verona as their backs were against the wall. Simply put, a narrow deficit should not be necessary for the side to demonstrate urgency on the pitch. The Italian champions were at their best in their Champions League opener, dominating the proceedings from the get-go, and must translate this mentality into their domestic play. Otherwise, they risk relinquishing their Scudetto crown for the first time in 10 years.

Juventus will now shift their attention to Barcelona in their second Champions League game and will do so, with only one fit central defender. After Barcelona, the Bianconeri take on Spezia, Lazio, and Cagliari. Despite their notable absences, Juve will have to return to winning ways sooner rather than later, otherwise risk falling into crisis mode.

Given it is still early days in Pirlo’s tenure, it would be wise to exhibit patience and allow Juve’s regular starters to return to action before judging him and his setup. The early signs have been encouraging, but Pirlo needs to eliminate his side’s complacency and introduce a newfound desire to conquer Italian football.

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Cristiano Ronaldo tests positive for COVID-19: Pirlo’s dilemma

Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo has tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday and will need to self-isolate for a minimum of 10 days. The former Real Madrid man was on international duty for Portugal’s latest UEFA Nations League clashes when he got the news and will miss the Bianconeri’s upcoming affairs, leaving rookie manager Andrea Pirlo with quite the dilemma.

The Italian champions embark on an extremely congested fixture list after the international break that will see Juventus play 17 games in 66 days. Ronaldo will arguably miss the next two weeks of action, including games against Crotone and Hellas Verona in addition to his side’s Champions League opener against Dynamo Kiev. The biggest question mark, however, remains Juve’s intriguing battle with Barcelona. Pirlo’s men take on the Spanish giants on October 28th and will want his star man for a potentially group-defining battle.

According to protocol, Ronaldo will need to test negative twice before returning to Torino. As a result, Juventus will likely be missing their talisman for the foreseeable future, leaving a gaping hole in their frontline. In any case, the Bianconeri’s summer business has significantly bolstered their offensive ranks and offer Pirlo a multitude of options in Ronaldo’s absence.

For one, Paulo Dybala is slowly returning to action and should step up without Ronaldo in the lineup. La Joya will look to offer a creative spark in the final third in Pirlo’s new-look system and help Juve hit the ground running in Europe. Dybala has thrived in a two-striker setup in the past and should slot in seamlessly. The main concern for Juve is not rushing the 26-year-old back into action too soon and aggravate his injury.

Beyond Dybala, Pirlo has a plethora of attacking options. Summer arrival Dejan Kulusevski has made an instant impact since joining from Parma, netting a goal on his debut. The Swedish international possesses a very similar skill-set to Dybala and is always looking to carve open the opposition’s defense. Pirlo has experimented with Kulusevski at wingback, but as the former Parma man gains more familiarity in his system, expect him to slot into the front two. A Dybala-Kulusevski front two is intriguing but ultimately lacks a dominant presence to hold up play. Both players like to drop deep or drift wide and arguably need to play off a striker.

That’s where Alvaro Morata comes in. The former Chelsea man joined the side this summer and will be eager to open his account on the season. Juve’s upcoming game against the newly promoted Crotone is a good opportunity to do so and Morata should get the nod. The 27-year-old has played in a front two alongside Dybala in the past and will look to rekindle that partnership in Ronaldo’s absence. Morata showed glimpses of his speed in his debut against Roma but will need to be better in and around the area.

The last question mark is Juve’s deadline day arrival, Federico Chiesa. Pirlo is yet to deploy a front three, indicating Chiesa’s future is arguably at wingback. Should the rookie tactician elect to play a front three, the former Fiorentina man is the obvious option out wide and should offer Juve some much-needed unpredictability in the final third.

All in all, Ronaldo’s absence does not come at the worst time. It may be early days, but his temporary quarantine offers many of Juventus’s budding stars the opportunity to assert themselves in the lineup and break through. Kulusevski, Morata, and Chiesa all have what it takes to step up and offer Pirlo a truly versatile front three. The Bianconeri’s schedule – bar the Barcelona game – is not exactly daunting, giving Pirlo further flexibility to experiment with his new-look frontline.

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Do Juve really need Federico Chiesa?

In the end, Juventus got their man, just. Only hours remained of the transfer window when it was officially announced that the club had signed Federico Chiesa from Fiorentina.

Juve had to shift some pieces of the jigsaw around in order to get the 22-year-old; a Douglas Costa loan move to Bayern Munich here and a Daniele Rugani loan move to Rennes there, freed up the necessary funds in order to get the Chiesa deal finalised.

As has been the story of this Covid-influenced transfer window, Juve signed Chiesa on a two-year loan deal, but in reality it’s just a creative method of staggering the payments for the winger.

So everyone was happy: Juve got their man, Chiesa got the move he wanted a year ago, and Fiorentina offloaded a player who clearly didn’t want to be there for a cool €50m. But is Chiesa actually what the champions need?

There is no doubting Chiesa’s talent. The son of Parma and Sampdoria legend Enrico has seemingly unlimited barrels of energy, and can skip past players at will, when in the mood. Yet since his graduation to the first team at Fiorentina, Chiesa’s decision-making has been questionable. Too often he has beaten an opposing defender in a one vs. one situation, only to produce an inadequate cross or fail to pick out the correct pass. On occasion he’s simply been guilty of supreme selfishness, aiming for goal when a colleague was in a better position.

Chiesa posted 10 goals and six assists in Serie A last season for the Viola, a respectable record for a player in a side that finished 10th. Yet it should also be pointed out that he took more shots on goal than any of his teammates, with an average of 3.3 per game. Next in line was striker Dusan Vlahovic, with 2.2.

On the verge of his 23rd birthday, Chiesa is still incredibly raw. His development has been hampered by a succession of coaches at Fiorentina utilising him in a myriad of different positions, thus denying him the possibility to hone his ability in one position. Vincenzo Montella, Paulo Sousa, Stefano Pioli and now Beppe Iachini have shifted Chiesa everywhere from right wing-back to left winger, via stints as a second striker and attacking midfielder. It’s left the player as a non-accomplished jack-of-all-trades, and certainly a master of none. It’s a wonder Chiesa hasn’t been tried out at centre back, given the poor performances of Federico Ceccherini recently.

So where does Juve’s new €50m signing fit in Andrea Pirlo’s starting XI, and was Chiesa an essential purchase?

Due to the lack of pre-season games, Pirlo has been given little margin for experimentation as Juve boss thus far. In their opening game of the season against Sampdoria, Juve lined out in a 3-5-2 formation. A week later Pirlo changed to a 4-4-2 in order to accommodate the returning Alvaro Morata, but the switch didn’t work, and Juve played like the ghost of Maurizio Sarri had returned for one final game.

Speaking of ghosts, for the game that wasn’t against Napoli on Sunday, Pirlo had intended to line up in a 3-4-1-2 system. Should Pirlo return to this set-up in matches that actually happen, then this could be where Chiesa is set to play, replacing Juan Cuadrado on the right-hand side.

Chiesa’s arrival also gives Pirlo the option to utilise a 3-4-3 system, with Chiesa either being deployed as a right-winger, or on the right in the four-man midfield.

Whilst plotting theoretical positions for Chiesa is all well and good, do Juve actually need him? The answer is no, they don’t. Sporting director Fabio Paratici should’ve prioritised signing a right-back, with Danilo fluctuating somewhere between injury and unconvincing since joining the club from Man City a year ago. Cuadrado has done fine job as a makeshift right-back, but the Colombian is now 32, and defensively suspect, as is the case with someone who spent the majority of their career playing as a right winger.

Midfield is still another fragile position that’s been underfunded over the last half decade, with the shadows of Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal still looming large. It’s early days in Weston McKennie’s Juve sojourn, but the American produced a positive display against Sampdoria on his debut. Is he the Vidal-replacement the team has required for five years? Only time will tell. The signing of Arthur may alleviate the creative burden from the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Dejan Kulusevski, but the Brazilian lacks the dynamism the midfield area so badly requires.

Bringing things round to Chiesa once more, recent history isn’t on his side. Giorgio Chiellini, signed by Juve in the summer of 2005, remains the last player to arrive from Florence and succeed. Since then, the likes of Felipe Melo, Neto, Valeri Bojinov and Federico Bernardeschi have all made the switch and failed to make an impact, and in the case of Melo, damagingly so.

There are similarities between Chiesa and Bernardeschi, the most recent player to make the jump. Like Chiesa, Bernardeschi arrived at Juve as the Viola’s brightest star in the summer of 2017 with a price tag of €40m. Furthermore, Bernardeschi, again like Chiesa, possessed some degree of versatility. This has proved to be his downfall at Juve, with the Carrara-native operating in various positions in the final third of the pitch, and in the process blunting his own skillset. The club would’ve accepted an offer to offload him during the transfer window, but there were no serious takers.

The pressure is firmly on Chiesa now to make the qualitative leap that playing for Juve demands. He wanted the big move for over a year, and now he’s got it. His father Enrico never got to play for Italy’s biggest club, it’s up to Federico to demonstrate that he’s more Roby Baggio or Chiellini, than Melo or Bojinov.

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