It didn’t take Juventus very long. Within hours of sacking Maurizio Sarri in the aftermath of their Champions League Round of 16 exit to Lyon, the club announced Andrea Pirlo as their new coach.
The announcement duly sent the footballing ecosystem into a flurry of bewildered questions, with the main one of course being: “Wasn’t Pirlo just confirmed as coach of the Juve U-23s?”
Indeed he was, on July 30th the club announced that Pirlo had returned to the club where he’d played for four years to coach the U-23 side, replacing Fabio Pecchia. Nine days later, he was sitting in the big chair. Talk about a fast-track promotion.
Club director of sport Fabio Paratici believes Pirlo is a ‘predestinato’ – bound for greatness – due to his remarkable gifts as a player. Many have used the examples of Pep Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane as once legendary players who transferred their skills from the pitch to the dugout.
However as has been pointed out, Guardiola coached Barcelona’s B side for a season in 2007-08, and Zidane underwent an apprenticeship with Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid, in addition to coaching their Castilla side for two years. Pirlo, by contrast, has bypassed all of this on the way to the black and white throne.
It’s a risky move from a club that for most of its history takes very few gambles when it comes to managerial appointments. In fact the last time they hired a practical novice was in the summer of 2009, when they hired Ciro Ferrara at the expense of Antonio Conte.
Ferrara, a Juve legend, had little experience aside from a brief period as part of Marcello Lippi’s backroom staff at the victorious 2006 World Cup. Ferrara had only gained his coaching licence a year before being appointed by the incompetent sporting director Alessio Secco, who hoped Ferrara would be their Guardiola.
After years of playing a mechanical 4-4-2 system under the likes of Fabio Capello, Didier Deschamps and Claudio Ranieri, Ferrara promised change. A switch to a 4-3-1-2 was in order he announced, due to the €25m signing of Brazilian No.10 Diego from Werder Bremen, and Juve would be more adventurous, more modern.
Seven months later he was sacked. A positive start soon gave way to disastrous results and supporter malaise, as it was fairly evident that Ferrara was out of his depth, and replaced by Alberto Zaccheroni at the end of January. In defence of Ferrara, he was handed a mediocre hodgepodge of a squad that consisted of ageing veterans and poorly-advised signings that were ill suited to the style he intended to play. Diego wasn’t long following Ferrara out of the exit door either, sold in the summer of 2010 as Juve appointed Gigi Delneri as coach and a return to 4-4-2.
Like Ferrara, Pirlo faces similar structural squad issues. Four continuous summer transfer windows of poorly-made decisions has now left a bloated, unbalanced squad filled with players on big contracts that they won’t get elsewhere. In the wake of the Champions League KO, Paratici has faced mounting scrutiny, who many feel has been a failure in the sporting director role since replacing Beppe Marotta in the autumn of 2018.
In the early years of their decade of dominance, midfield was arguably Juve’s strongest area of the pitch (with Pirlo himself being a key component), to such an extent that a player like Claudio Marchisio would often find himself relegated to the bench. Since 2015, Marotta and then Paratici essentially neglected the region, selling first Arturo Vidal and later Paul Pogba, whilst trying to plug gaps with ‘free’ signings such as Emre Can, Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot. It’s now reduced what was once a midfield of power, strength, guile and grace into one chronically short on quality.
Whilst it is fair to question many of Paratici’s dealings since taking charge, Marotta isn’t free of criticism. The €90m signing of a-then 28-year-old Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli made little sense in 2016, and makes even less now. Juventus have spent the better part of two years trying to offload the striker, however his €7.5m per season wages have deterred many suitors, a noose around the club’s neck.
The sacking of Sarri won’t magically solve all of Juve’s problems. A major rejuvenation is necessary, a purge of all the costly mistakes of the last several summers. Can Paratici, given the current climate, be relied upon to shift unwanted players? It remains to be seen if he will even remain at the club, given the latest rumours surrounding his future.
Ferrara struggled to make sense of the Juve side he inherited, club President Andrea Agnelli will be hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself with Pirlo.
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