Andrea Pirlo’s Juventus project examined and what went wrong for Maurizio Sarri

Juventus chief Fabio Paratici said he was “destined” for the job. But you would struggle to find a single person in football who was not shell-shocked by Andrea Pirlo’s appointment as the new Juventus head coach.

Hours after ending Maurizio Sarri’s ill-fated stay at the Allianz Stadium, Juve entrusted the top job in Italian club football management to Pirlo – an icon as a player, but a rookie with a total lack of experience as a manager.

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The 41-year-old got his first managerial job as Juventus U23s coach just a week before, but has been deemed a fit-for-purpose and ready-made option to resurrect Juve’s fortunes after an unconvincing Serie A title defence and a humiliating Champions League exit at the hands of Lyon.

So where did Sarri fail to satisfy the Juventus hierarchy, where is Pirlo expected to take the Juventus project and could they be following Real Madrid and Barcelona’s secret blueprint for European glory?

Why was Scudetto champ Sarri sacked?

Simply put, Sarri’s views and values did not go hand-in-hand with Juve’s project to get to the top of European football. Sarri was too distant from the traditional Juventus style, his approach to life at the club was too different and eventually he paid the price for not being able to instil an attractive and convincing style of football.

Sarri’s season at Juventus

  • Serie A: Winners
  • Champions League: Round of 16
  • Coppa Italia: Runners-up
  • Italian Super Cup: Runners-up

The man-management of Cristiano Ronaldo has been a spot of bother. In July last year, Sarri empowered him as the only player in his team with a “licence to be free on the pitch”. It has not really worked out that way – despite Ronaldo’s 37 goals this season, a record-breaking figure for a Juventus player, there remains a lingering feeling that Sarri was not able to unlock his full potential, nor that of his team-mates.

Ronaldo has never been a fan of Sarri’s ways either. He refused the idea of playing as a lone striker, never came out in support of his coach and at times also openly criticised his tactics, through words and behaviour.

Sarri's man-management of Cristiano Ronaldo came under scrutiny despite the forward's 31 Serie A goals

Sarri’s man-management of Cristiano Ronaldo came under scrutiny despite the forward’s 31 Serie A goals

The hardships in Sarri’s relationship with his squad have been well documented – especially with captain Giorgio Chiellini and other senior members of the Juventus changing room. Eventually, the signs of poor empathy and chemistry between coach and team, which boiled over for months, proved more crucial than the on-field issues.

In fact, Sarri’s stubbornness to impose his own playing style, just like he did at Chelsea, was also critical. The best Juventus performances were seen at the beginning of the year, incidentally when ‘Sarri-ball’ was not in full swing. A season of growing unrest with the manager followed suit, and although he did manage to retain the Serie A title, it was with the lowest points tally of Juve’s nine-year winning cycle. Winning without convincing.

In the cups, there wasn’t even the winning, with defeats to Lazio in the Italian Super Cup and Napoli in the final of the Coppa Italia.

It is also claimed Sarri’s public behaviour as Juventus boss was also not appreciated by the hierarchy. As Juve boss he was not a man of many words, especially with his players, and his portrayal in the media was tarnished by a few swear words and out-of-place statements in interviews and press conferences – something which puts him in stark contrast with Max Allegri, an authoritative figure who embodied the typical Juventus leader.

Sarri led Juventus to the Serie A title - albeit with their lowest points total during their nine-season streak

Sarri led Juventus to the Serie A title – albeit with their lowest points total during their nine-season streak

Why did Juve choose Pirlo?

Although the decision had already been taken, Juventus’ Champions League exit at the hands of Lyon – a team which finished seventh in Ligue 1 and only just resumed their season after four months of inactivity – was the final straw.

It is no secret that after a decade of domestic dominance the club are going all-out for that first European crown in 25 years, and although some top managers have tried to find the winning formula – Carlo Ancelotti, Fabio Capello, Didier Deschamps, Claudio Ranieri, Antonio Conte and Max Allegri – they have all failed.

So the Juventus board felt that, instead of hiring another top-class manager, the time has come to build a successful regime from the inside. They are confident that Pirlo has the tactical eye needed for a winning coach, also due to his role on the pitch – a midfield master, just like Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid.

Pirlo tasted Champions League success with AC Milan in 2007 - can he bring the winning formula to Juventus as manager?

Pirlo tasted Champions League success with AC Milan in 2007 – can he bring the winning formula to Juventus as manager?

And, just like Guardiola and Zidane, the club know that it is indeed possible for a coach with little to no first-team managerial experience to taste European success. Seeing the same gamble pay off at other fellow European top clubs gave them the belief that Pirlo has the right resources to prosper.

The affiliation Pirlo has with the club was certainly a big plus in favour of his appointment, and only adds fuel to the growing trend seeing club icons being appointed as managers. It was the case with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United, Mikel Arteta at Arsenal and Frank Lampard at Chelsea, and they all achieved positive results – especially in the final stretch of the season.

Arguably, Pirlo played his best football during his four-year stay at Juventus between 2011 and 2015 and knows all about the Juventus mentality. He knows that needs to be taught to young and old players alike, as he explained in his unveiling as Juve U23s coach.

“This decision was very natural, Juventus-style. We believe Andrea is predestined for greatness: he was as a player and we are convinced he will be as a coach too.”

Fabio Paratici, Juventus Chief Football Officer

“I need to explain to these lads what Juventus really means,” Pirlo said. “Anyone who plays against us will want to win even more and we must prove ourselves every time.”

Perhaps most interestingly, Pirlo’s journey could go either way. He could follow in Zidane’s footsteps and clinch a much-awaited Champions League title as the first step of a successful career in management, or he could mirror his friend Filippo Inzaghi’s stay at AC Milan – sacked within six months, shunned and ridiculed by his own players.

Do not be deceived, though, this is a high-stake gamble from Juventus, even a bolder one than last year’s. Sarri’s appointment was incredibly brave as it signalled the club’s break in tradition in favour of a more modern style of play, but it put a coach so shy in silverware into a dugout so trophy-oriented. It didn’t work.

Pirlo’s new-look Juve

“Andrea’s idea is to do his job as a coach the same way he did as a player,” Paratici told Sky in Italy on Saturday. “That’s football of great quality and hard work. He wants to propose a certain type of football, the kind European teams are generally trying to follow.”

Unsurprisingly, with the success stemming from his playing career, Pirlo will want to bring his style on the pitch with a strong emphasis on dominating possession and offensive mentality, perhaps not that far from the one brought by Guardiola – a manager whose philosophy Pirlo admitted to studying.

When Pirlo was asked about his favourite formation by Italy’s World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro in an Instagram Live, he said: “It depends on the players, but I like a 4-3-3 and attacking play, with everyone forward and lots of ball possession.”

Serie A's Young Player of the Season Dejan Kulusevski, on loan at Parma this season, could be one of Pirlo's mainstays at Juve

Serie A’s Young Player of the Season Dejan Kulusevski, on loan at Parma this season, could be one of Pirlo’s mainstays at Juve

Much will depend on Juve’s dealings in the transfer market but his appointment could also symbolise a rejuvenation of the squad, which is due to welcome Arthur from Barcelona and Dejan Kulusevski from Atalanta, who won Serie A’s Young Player of the Season award.

“My team will have to play well, it will need to dominate the game and always aim to win,” Pirlo said upon his unveiling as Juve U23s coach. “Depending on the players you have, there can be a lot of [systems] but the important thing is how you occupy the space out on the pitch. You need to have the right players, and your ideas and game principles need to be clear.

“I have a specific way of playing in my mind, it’s with ball to feet and always going for the victory. I hated some things as a player and never want to see them again. Systems aren’t the issue, it’s about occupying the space and working with the characteristics of the players.”

Those were his plans for Juventus’ U23s. Now, unexpectedly and intriguingly, they’ll be applied to the first team.

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