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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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

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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Serie A Injury and Suspension Report – Round Four

Atalanta: Aleksey Miranchuk is set to be available after missing the first three matches with a thigh strain. Cristiano Piccini and Matteo Pessina have resumed practicing regularly following knee injuries and they too will return soon. Josip Ilicic is getting closer and closer, but the information on him is not always solid. Rafael Toloi is out of the quarantine after skipping the previous game, while Marco Carnesecchi has COVID. Mattia Caldara partially tore the patellar tendon in the left knee and will not be back before 2021.

Benevento: Andres Tello is be back after missing some time with ailments, but Federico Barba is still out. Gabriel Moncini will skip a game or two due to an adductor strain. Nicolas Viola needs more time to recover from a meniscus tear. 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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Serie A Injury and Suspension Report – Round Two

Atalanta: Duvan Zapata and José Palomino should be good to go after COVID, but they might be initially limited. Cristiano Piccini will be held out as he works on his fitness level. Aleksey Miranchuk (thigh strain) is unlikely to be back before the international break. Pierluigi Gollini (partial ACL tear) and Matteo Pessina (patellar dislocation) are expected to return in November. Berat Djimsiti and Cristian Romero are suspended. Josip Ilicic remains out indefinitely as he recovers from mental health issues, but at least he is practicing. 

Benevento: Nicolas Viola is out as he had a torn meniscus removed and will be sidelined for a couple of months. Oliver Kragl (neck) and Andres Tello have been ruled for minor ailments, Federico Barba because of lack of fitness.  Continue reading

Serie A Fantasy Preview – Round Two – Top Matches

TORINO-ATALANTA

Torino: the Granata did really not show anything new in the Fiorentina game even though Marco Giampaolo is supposedly going to bring a ton of changes, but that will take time and likely a couple of new players to come to fruition. They created just a pair of changes, with Andrea Belotti fully in the thick of it as per usual, while Simone Zaza rubbished a tasty one. They might be better off signing a new striker. The coach went with Alex Berenguer in the hole and then voiced doubts about Simone Verdi’s playing in that position, however there is not really any other place for him in the formation, so he will have to adapt. Soualiho Meite and Karol Linetty were not very involved offensively, mostly because the match-up was not easy, but this upcoming one is worse.  Continue reading