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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Andrea Pirlo set to lead Juventus in post-BBC era

Andrea Pirlo has overseen an overhaul at Juventus this past summer, shipping out the likes of Blaise Matuidi, Gonzalo Higuain, and Miralem Pjanic among others. Juve’s mini-revolution has not been without its challenges, with the Italian champions drawing four of its first seven games under the rookie manager.

As the fixtures begin to pile up going into the holiday season, Pirlo will have to steady the ship and start stringing together positive results. The World Cup winner, however, will do so without the security blanket that is Juve’s BBC.

Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, and Giorgio Chiellini came together to form one of football’s most uncompromising defenses in the past, leading Juventus to unprecedented heights with the legendary Gianluigi Buffon behind them. Barzagli has since retired, while Chiellini is almost definitely heading into his final season. The veteran defender has continuously struggled with injuries in recent weeks, regularly keeping him sidelined.

Bonucci, on the other hand, is arguably the only member of the BBC to occupy an important role in Pirlo’s Juve, featuring in 10 games in all competitions already. The Italian international has since picked up an injury that will keep him out of action for the foreseeable future. In many ways, Bonucci’s absence will force Pirlo to turn to Juve’s budding young defenders and lead the side into a post-BBC era.

Merih Demiral has stepped up admirably in Chiellini’s absence, offering the side some much-needed physicality in their own defensive third. Replacing Chiellini will be almost impossible given his importance in the locker room, but the Turkish international has demonstrated he is ready for a bigger role. The only question mark remains his long-term fitness, considering he is just coming off a length stop. In any case, Demiral has been rock solid when called upon and will only see his opportunities increase as the season wears on.

Matthijs de Ligt is another one of Juve’s young stars gunning for a bigger role at the back. The Dutchman established himself as an undisputed started under Maurizio Sarri, emerging as one of Serie A’s elite defensive talents. De Ligt, however, suffered from recurring shoulder injuries, forcing him to undergo surgery over the summer. The former Ajax man has missed Juve’s first seven games in league action this season but is expected to make his debut against Cagliari.

de Ligt and Demiral’s recent progression alleviates some pressure on Juve’s aging core and will eventually lead to them being fazed out. Given their importance, this transition will not happen overnight, but when the time comes, the two young defenders are more than ready.

Juve’s upcoming clash against Cagliari will be the first time the duo play alongside each other and will serve as an early litmus test for their growing partnership. If de Ligt and Demiral can offer Pirlo solidity at the back and inspire confidence, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be Juve’s first-choice defenders. After all, they represent the future for the club and will be slotting in, long after the BBC hangs up their boots.

While Demiral acts as a vice-Chiellini, de Ligt’s impressive passing range and comfort in possession make Bonucci expendable. The former Milan man occupies an important role in Juve’s buildup, but de Ligt has proven he is more than capable of playing out from the back. When the Dutch international was at Ajax, he regularly jumped into midfield and looked to break lines.

It is a delicate moment in the season for Pirlo and Juventus. On one hand, Juve desperately needs results, while on the other, the rookie tactician is faced with the tall task of integrating Juve’s young stars. In any case, both have proven they are more than ready to step up and lead the Bianconeri into the post-BBC era.

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Serie A Injury and Suspension Report – Round Six

Atalanta: Marten De Roon strained the adductor in his left thigh and will sit out the next two matches. Cristiano Piccini picked up a similar issue while trying to gain some shape. Robin Gosens is out with a late calf problem. 

Benevento: Iago Falque and Federico Barba will stay on the mend with their physical issues, while Gabriel Moncini returned midweek. 

Bologna: Federico Santander underwent reconstructive surgery on the right knee after spraining it midweek and will return in the Spring. Among their injured players, Gary Medel (calf) is the closest to recovering, but he might need another week. Andreas Skov Olsen (back) and Andrea Poli (fibula) could return after the second international break. Ibrahima Mbaye (thigh) and Nicola Sansone (hip) are late scratches.  Continue reading

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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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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Serie A Injury and Suspension Report – Round One

Bologna: Gary Medel is suspended and is also recovering from a grade one strain in the semimembranosus muscle on the right thigh, therefore he could miss week two as well.

Cagliari: Luca Ceppitelli, Filip Bradaric and Kiril Despodov are quarantining after catching COVID-19 in late August. Gaston Pereiro suffered a fifth metatarsal fracture in the right foot about two weeks ago and he has a 45-day timetable. Alessandro Deiola is recovering from a clean-up surgery on the right knee he had during his time at Lecce. Continue reading

Three Question Marks For Andrea Pirlo

When Juventus announced the decision to sack Maurizio Sarri, few expected the Italian champions to appoint Andrea Pirlo. The former midfielder was just hired to lead their U23 side and is yet to complete his coaching licenses at Coverciano. In many ways, Juve’s decision to fast-track Pirlo into the first team seemed like desperation more than anything. Regardless, the World Cup winner will be eager to hit the ground running in Turin and propel the Bianconeri to new heights.

After crashing out in the Round of 16 against Lyon, more questions than answers were raised about Juventus and their current squad. Here are three things Pirlo will have to adjust immediately if he wants to get his coaching career off on the right foot.

1) Number Nine Conundrum. 

In attack, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala are set starters. The duo was responsible for over half of their goals in Serie A this season and netted 50% of Juve’s goals in the Champions League. Moving forward, Pirlo will not want to be so reliant on Dybala and Ronaldo. Due to this, the Bianconeri are still in the market for a more physical presence in the final third to help them lead the line. Mario Mandzukic’s departure has left a gaping hole upfront; one which Higuain simply can no longer fill. Juventus have since been linked with Napoli’s Arkadisuz Milik, Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette, and Luis Suarez among others.

With Gonzalo Higuain’s future looking further and further away from the club, Pirlo will need an alternative to Dybala and Ronaldo off the bench. Parma loanee Dejan Kulusevski will undoubtedly help in this respect, but Juve’s offensive depth still leaves a lot to be desired at the moment. Considering Douglas Costa’s injury proneness and Bernardeschi’s lack of end product, the number nine position is of serious importance.

Mercato suggestion: Alexander Isak.

2) Who joins Bentancur and Arthur in the midfield? 

Much like Juventus’ attack, their midfield lacks one final piece. Rodrigo Bentancur stepped up admirably this season and despite slowing down late in the year, the Uruguayan will definitely be important in the middle of the park for Pirlo. Then, of course, there’s Arthur. The Brazilian was brought in a swap deal for Miralem Pjanic and has all the tools to become a set starter under Pirlo. Arthur has proven to be a great progressor of the ball and has all the qualities to slot in wonderfully alongside Bentancur; which leaves the third and final midfield spot.

The candidates: Adrien Rabiot, Aaron Ramsey, Mr. X.

Well, Blaise Matuidi is off to enjoy the sun in Miami while Sami Khedira’s contract will be terminated shortly. This leaves last summer’s arrivals Rabiot and Ramsey. The former finished the season strongly and as of right now, should be favored to the Welshman. Ramsey has failed to get going since joining and battled injuries all season. While Sarri’s system demands rigidity, not much is known about Pirlo’s tactics. Regardless, it’s safe to say Juve’s midfielders will enjoy more freedom both in and out of possession, something that will definitely help Ramsey.

Lastly, Juve could bring in another midfielder. Pirlo is reportedly keen on adding a more creative midfielder to his ranks. The Bianconeri have been linked with Rodrigo De Paul and Luis Alberto in recent times, two midfielders who would definitely come in and start right away.

3) Out with the old, in with the new? 

The last debate for Pirlo will be whether he will look to revolutionize Juve’s rearguard or not. Matthijs de Ligt will surely play a key role while Leonardo Bonucci offers some much-needed experience and familiarity. However, Merih Demiral has proven he’s ready to seize any opportunities and has the talent to displace Bonucci. In fact, it wouldn’t be implausible to see the Turkish international start alongside de Ligt.

At fullback, Alex Sandro and Juan Cuadrado go into the new season as favorites to start. As the new season approaches, it will be interesting to see if Pirlo will call upon Pellegrini at leftback. The young Italian has shown glimpses of his talent and is ready to challenge Sandro out left. At rightback, there’s no denying Juve desperately needs to bolster their ranks and could very well sign a player before the new season.

In any case, Pirlo will oversee a potential revolution and will have tough decisions to make.

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Serie A Injury and Suspension Report – Round 38

Atalanta: Josip Ilicic will miss another one and will be probably joined by José Palomino, who picked up a thigh problem in the last game.

Bologna: Mattia Bani (calf) and Takehiro Tomiyasu (thigh) will not be back for the season finale. Mitchell Dijks and Ladislav Krejci (thigh) have been ruled out. 

Brescia: Jhon Chancellor and Simon Skrabb are out, while Jesse Joronen, Alfredo Donnarumma and even Andrea Cistana are in the squad list, but that is not necessarily an indication they are certainly going to play.   Continue reading

Grading Juventus’s Scudetto Winning Season

Juventus clinched its ninth consecutive Scudetto on Sunday, besting Sampdoria thanks to goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Federico Bernardeschi. The latter notched his first goal in Serie A in two years, breaking his goalscoring duck. It wasn’t always pretty for the Bianconeri, but Maurizio Sarri’s men inevitably got the job done.

Let’s take a deeper look at Juventus’s Scudetto-winning team.

Player of the season: Cristiano Ronaldo

The Portuguese superstar is undoubtedly Juve’s player of the season, netting 31 goals and counting in league play. Since the restart, Ronaldo has struck a partnership with Paulo Dybala, forming a deadly one-two punch in the final third. If the Bianconeri have any chance at overturning their narrow one-goal deficit against Lyon, Sarri’s men will need Ronaldo firing on all cylinders.

Signing of the season: Matthijs de Ligt

The former Ajax man got off to a rough start in Bianconero, but quickly kicked into another gear as the season wore on. de Ligt formed an uncompromising partnership at the back with Leonardo Bonucci and established himself as one of the league’s best centerbacks. Today, the defender is crucial to the Italian champions’ long-term plans. Juve’s defense conceded more goals than they are accustomed to, but it would have undoubtedly been worse without de Ligt.

Most improved player: Rodrigo Bentancur

The Uruguayan international took the next step in his career this season, becoming a first-team regular under Sarri and dominating the proceedings in the middle of the park. With Miralem Pjanic on his way to Barcelona, Bentancur is expected to become Juve’s undisputed regista next season. The former Boca Juniors man combines a keen sense of anticipation with an impressive passing range and is well on his way at becoming one of football’s elite midfielders.

Biggest disappointment: Miralem Pjanic

Many of Juventus’ players can feature on this list as the Bianconeri regularly left a lot to be desired on the pitch, despite their positive results. Initially, much was expected of Pjanic under Sarri with the Bosnian featuring at the heart of the veteran tactician’s setup. The former Roma man struggled immensely this season, offering little to nothing in the final third. As a result, it did not come as a surprise once Juventus decided to swap him with Arthur and send him to Barcelona.

A word on Sarri: 

The former Napoli tactician was handed arguably the weakest Juventus side in recent memory and managed to win his first trophy in Italian football, becoming the oldest manager to win a Scudetto. While the end result was positive, Sarri’s Juve often underwhelmed, losing both finals they played in. The side may have been out-of-balance due to a weak midfield and middling fullbacks, but Sarri’s first season in Turin was largely disappointing.

What’s been more concerning has been Juve’s propensity to drop points from winning positions, relinquishing 18 points. In addition, the Bianconeri were uncharacteristically weak at the back, conceding 38 goals on the season. Only Luigi Del Neri’s Juve conceded more over the last decade. Ultimately, the veteran tactician often relied on individual brilliance to see his side over the line. Simply not good enough for Sarri who will be on the hot seat in his second season.

An overall grade: C+

In many ways, Juventus did not win this Scudetto but rather, other sides lost it. Lazio, Inter, and Atalanta all challenged the Bianconeri at times but dropped points at crucial moments throughout the season. Inter held a narrow led atop the table early in the season while Lazio looked a shadow of their former selves after the restart. Sarri’s Juve looked as vulnerable as they have ever been and will need to significantly bolster their ranks if they are to make it ten in a row next season. Factor in both final losses to Lazio and Napoli and what seems to be an early Champions League exit and Juve will be disappointed with their season.

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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