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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