Last week, Juventus football club made the headlines for two consecutive days, though not for the reasons they would have liked. On Friday night, the ‘Old Lady’ suffered an embarrassing Champions League exit to Lyon after losing on away goals. A shocking exit from Europe’s oldest competition immediately cast a light on Maurizio Sarri’s future. Unsurprisingly, the ‘I Bianconeri’ reacted swiftly; and within a few hours of Juventus’ Champions League exit, Sarri was gone. He has been replaced by the Italian football legend, the Maestro – Andrea Pirlo.
The fact that Sarri got the sack did not surprise anybody. What did surprise a large majority of football fans was the news about the person replacing the 61-year-old Italian coach.
Pirlo was appointed as Juventus under-23 head coach last month but did not take charge of the Serie C side in a single competitive game. Consequently, the former Juventus midfielder has become the manager of the senior team with zero coaching experience under his belt.
Juventus legend Pirlo has become the manager of the senior team with zero coaching experience under his belt.
The decision, made by the board of the 36-time Scudetto winners, shocked the football world. However, decisions like that are not made without reasons, and it is worth delving deeper into what compelled the drastic action taken by the Old Lady of Turin.
Why did ‘Sarriball’ fail at Juventus?
Explaining the tactical nuances of Juventus’ playing philosophy under Sarri would require a whole separate section. Nevertheless, the obvious shortcomings can be laid out fairly simply.
The whole concept of ‘Sarriball’ is based on a fast-paced possession-style of play where short and quick vertical passes are required to move the ball further up the pitch. The concept was once called a vertical ‘tiki-taka’ different from the standard tiki-taka that we have become accustomed to from Pep Guardiola’s era at Barcelona. ‘Sarriball’ tries to minimize the number of sideways or backwards passes, the tactic that is often employed by most of the teams that play possession-based football in order to drag the opponents out of their positions. Instead, Sarri wants his players to move the ball vertically and at pace most of the time, which also automatically drags the opponents out as they try to intercept the ball.
‘Sarriball’ is based on a fast-paced possession-style of play where short and quick vertical passes are required to move the ball further up the pitch.
However, for such tactics to work out, the midfield trio has to be incredibly good on the ball in tight spaces, able to play quick one-two passes. In addition, wide players or wingers specifically must possess similar characteristics to contribute in the same way if the play progresses down the wing.
This is exactly where Juventus’ problems showed up. The ‘Old Lady’s midfield does not possess the necessary attributes that would allow a quick exchange of swift one-touch passes. Blaise Matuidi, Adrien Rabiot, Sami Khedira and Rodrigo Bentancur are Juventus central midfielders who do not have the technical quality and mobility to move the ball at speed simply because their technical profile does not fit the philosophy.
Along with this, Sarri was forced, in a way, to accommodate Ronaldo, which meant Juve played without the true wingers in most matches. The Portuguese star is no longer capable of producing consistently world-class performances when playing on the wing. Thus, he had to transform to a more traditional ‘number 9’ in recent years.
Sarri was forced to accommodate Ronaldo, which meant Juve played without the true wingers in most matches.
Consequently, Sarri was no longer able to play with a front three, having to alter his set-up to a 4-3-1-2 formation. Paulo Dybala was the one who filled the hole between Juve’s midfield and attack, which at the same time allowed him to accommodate Ronaldo and minimized the limitations imposed by the central midfield players. The Argentine was Juve’s most creative player last season, averaging the most shot-creating actions (6.23 PG), goal-creating actions (1.00) and creating the most big chances (13) in the team.
Dybala was one of very few Juventus’ midfielders able to flourish under Sarri. Miralem Pjanic was regarded as a perfect player to play the pivotal ‘regista’ role but failed to adapt to the system and was sold to Barcelona. The rest of them, as explained above, do not quite fit the profile of Sarri’s ideal midfielders which made the Italian’s job to play his preferred way incredibly difficult.
Right man for the job?
The most straight forward answer is obvious – we have to wait and see. It is clear that Juve wanted an Italian manager, a big name (at least as a player) that would continue to develop their brand. One thing is for sure, the appointment of Pirlo will attract a large audience just like Ronaldo did. In this sense, Juve have won already; but in another sense, it was a gamble that may or may not pay off.
It is clear that Juve wanted an Italian manager, a big name (at least as a player).
As a player, Pirlo liked to dictate the play and silently run the show from the base of midfield. Possession style is perhaps what we can expect from the Italian Maestro but the remaining tactical details are impossible to tell at this stage.
It will be interesting to see if Pirlo will want to and, perhaps more importantly, will be allowed to transform Juve’s midfield with the new signings. Majority of the current midfielders were brought in by Massimiliano Allegri, the former Juventus boss. If the answer is no, the next question we shall ask: if Sarri was incapable of making Juve’s midfield to operate the way he wants, will Pirlo be?