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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Serie A Fantasy Preview – Round Seven – Top Matches

SASSUOLO-UDINESE

Sassuolo: the Neroverdi were missing their top three players against Napoli, but they won anyway thanks a brand-new scheme by Roberto De Zerbi, who, for once, opted for caution and a three-man back-line and got rewarded with their talented central midfielders stepping up. Filip Djuricic has COVID and will not return here, Domenico Berardi and Francesco Caputo have been called up, but they might be limited, so it is possible Giacomo Raspadori stays initially in a big role and Gregoire Defrel gets the nod. Both the Frenchman and Jeremie Boga have not looked great as they work their way into shape, while Hamed Traore is generally pretty lively. Even if at less than 100 percent, Caputo and Betardi are always good choices, while Lopez would be an outstanding one if used as no.10 to substitute Djuricic. Continue reading

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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Serie A Fantasy Preview – Round Six – Top Matches

INTER-PARMA

Inter: Romelu Lukaku suffered a thigh injury that will cost him at least one game and the Nerazzurri will have to make up for the loss of their target man, something that rarely happened last year. Alexis Sanchez is dealing with a small problem as well, therefore Lautaro Martinez, who has slowed down after opening the campaign with three straight goals, will have to shoulder the attack, then they will hope Andrea Pinamonti can be decent right away. They also briefly used Ivan Perisic as second-striker in the last game. Stefano Sensi is back on the shelf with his customary muscular problems: Christian Eriksen had some flashes last week, but so far him and Marcelo Brozovic have produced nothing too exciting. Their best midfielder has been Nicolò Barella (two assists), while Arturo Vidal has mostly taken care of the dirty work. At some point Radja Nainggolan will get in on the action, but it has not happened yet. Fortunately, Achraf Hakimi (one goal, two assists) was a false positive and he will resume plowing the flank from the start here, while Ashley Young has shaken off the virus and will challenge Ivan Perisic, who has been solid (two assists) but has not really taken off. Their back-line has improved with Alessandro Bastoni back in the fold.

Recommended picks: Martinez, Perisic, Hakimi.  Continue reading

Serie A Fantasy Previews – Round Five – Top Matches

ATALANTA-SAMPDORIA

Atalanta: the Bergamaschi looked unprepared to match Napoli’s aggressiveness in the last fixture and the much-anticipated bout ended with a shocking beating. They will look to return to form in Serie A as well after pummelling Midtjylland. Alejandro Gomez has been the tip of the spear so far and straight-up one of the best players in the League. Luis Muriel has put his name in the stat-sheet twice, like Sam Lemmers, who has made the most of his limited opportunities. Duvan Zapata has been more up-and-down. Josip Ilicic looked rusty in his first game back, but that is understandable: the good news is that he indeed came back and the coach will likely give him regular minutes to get him into shape. Ruslan Malinovskyi is questionable due to an injury, which may lead to some playing time for the intriguing Aleksey Miranchuk. Their stud wing-backs Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens have scored one goal each, with the German international adding two assists.

Suggested picks: Gomez, Muriel, Zapata. Continue reading

Juventus Top Performers – Round Four vs Crotone

Juventus once again rallied the troops after a red carded and produced its best football down in ten men, but all in all are left with more questions than answers for what happened in the first hour of the match, where Crotone often had the upper-hand.

Merih Demiral: nobody in the back had a squeaky clean performance, but the Turkish international was the most active man and often made up for the systemic deficiencies with his explosivity. Like in the Roma clash, the Bianconeri gave up way too many chances in the box and left too much room to counter. The back-line was either too exposed and had arrayment issues, leaving big gaps between one man and the other. Leonardo Bonucci had a horrid start with a late tackle in the box (although it could have deserved a second look), then improved as the game progressed. Danilo took a clear step back compared to the first two outings and Arkadiusz Reca often had his way down his flank. Gianluca Frabotta was decent overall. Continue reading

Serie A Fantasy Preview – Round Four – Top Matches

NAPOLI-ATALANTA

Napoli: they did not get to play the third game because of well-known reasons, but the first two were pretty indicative. Victor Osimhen has yet to score, but he has had a major impact anyway and he is bound to break through soon. In the meantime, Dries Mertens has led the charge (two goals, two assists), helped by the resurgent Hirving Lozano, who has kept up the momentum from the restart. The injury to Lorenzo Insigne and Piotr Zielinski and Elijf Elmas getting COVID might slow down the deployment 4-2-3-1 in full force, but that should be the way forward and the arrival of Tiemoué Bakayoko cements it. The absences could give Matteo Politano and/or Stanislav Lobotka a bigger role than usual and the former scored in the Genoa romp. If Atalanta do not adjust the way they defend, they could make some sweet music on counters.

Continue reading

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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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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Grading Juventus’s Mercato Dealings

Juventus was extremely active this offseason, rejuvenating its ageing roster with a number of key arrivals. Fabio Paratici aimed to reduce the Bianconeri’s wage bill and was ultimately successful, shaving 30 million euros compared to last season. 

It may have taken until the final days of the mercato for many of Juve’s deals to be done, but the Italian champions were able to shake up their stuttering midfield and add some much-needed speed to their attack. Paratici’s inability to sign a fullback may come back to haunt him, but all in all, it was a decent transfer window for Andrea Pirlo’s men.

Let us take a deeper look at Juve’s mercato dealings:

IN: Arthur, Weston McKennie, Dejan Kulusevski, Federico Chiesa, Alvaro Morata, Rolando Mandragora (option exercised and loaned back to Udinese)

OUT: Gonzalo Higuain, Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic, Mattia De Sciglio (loan), Daniele Rugani (loan with option to buy), Douglas Costa (loan).

Juventus wasted no time revamping its midfield this summer, swapping Miralem Pjanic with Brazilian international Arthur. The former Roma midfielder struggled in his final season under Maurizio Sarri and desperately needed a change of scenery. As a result, Paratici took advantage of a unique opportunity to swap Pjanic for the 24-year-old. In many ways, Juventus emerged as winners from this deal. Paratici was able to get a younger midfielder, all while swapping out a struggling one. In addition, the reported fees involved should impact both sides’ balance sheets positively.

Beyond Arthur, the Bianconeri surprised the masses and secured U.S Men’s National Team midfielder Weston McKennie. The former Schalke man initially joins on a three million euros loan deal with Juventus possessing an option to make the move permanent for a further 18 million euros. Rookie tactician Andrea Pirlo is eager to see his side press higher up the pitch and McKennie’s arrival helps in this respect. Moreover, the formula is advantageous and represents yet another low-risk, high upside transaction.

Looking forward to the attack, Juventus added some important depth to Pirlo’s offensive ranks. The Bianconeri had been linked with a plethora of strikers, including Edin Dzeko and Luis Suarez among others, but ultimately it was Alvaro Morata who joined. Much like McKennie, Juve paid a modest loan fee up front, this time of 11 million euros, with the option to sign him in the summer for 45 million euros. Morata is already familiar with the league, having played for Juve before, and is younger than the strikers previously linked with the club. Moreover, the Spanish international has proven to be a willing runner and will press the opposition unselfishly. Once again, the formula of the deal allows Juve to reassess his signing next summer and is another example of shrewd business.

The last signing Paratici made is Federico Chiesa. The Fiorentina winger joins the Bianconeri’s deep ranks of forwards and offers the side unpredictability in the final third. Juventus sorely lacked speed on the counter last season and went about adding it diligently this window. Between Dejan Kulusevski, Morata and Chiesa, the Italian champions have a new-look frontline; one that is capable to hurt the opposition on the counter. 50 million euros is a steep price, however, once again, it is important to look at the formula.

Juventus will pay two million this year, eight the next, and then the final 40 million euros to complete the deal. The Bianconeri were able to defer the purchase all-while adding a quality player. The only concern is potentially stunting his development. Will the Italian international play as a wingback or compete for minutes along fellow summer arrival Kulusevski? Simply put, there’s only room for one of them. The Swedish international was initially signed in January but only joined this summer. Kulusevski has already hit the ground running and could just emerge as the signing of the summer.

While Juventus’ signings were impressive, their outgoing mercato ultimately disappointed. David Beckham’s Inter Miami FC did Paratici a huge favor, securing Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi off his hands, while the sporting director struggled to permanently rid the side’s deadwood. De Sciglio, Douglas Costa, and Rugani will all likely rejoin the side following their loan deals, postponing the inevitable to next season. In this sense, Paratici failed.

The Juventus sporting director also fell short in his pursuit of a fullback. Juventus currently lack a quality option out wide and will rely on Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro for much of the season. Chiesa is not a wingback, despite playing there at times, and is at his best in the front three. Much of Juve’s success will depend on Pirlo’s ability to make up for the lack of fullback, deploying crafty solutions in his 3-5-2.

Overall, Juventus fans should be happy with the mercato as a whole. The club was able to add some fresh legs in the midfield, all-while reinvigorating the attack with hungry faces. However, Paratici’s failure to add quality fullbacks could prove to be crucial in the later stages of the Champions League. Otherwise, his inability to sell was disappointing, but eventually managed to part ways with many of Juve’s declining players.

Mercato rating: 6.5/10. 

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