Saturday 8th August was a circus of the bizarre. It was as if the sky became the ground, the compass spun, the poles of the planet played musical chairs. Not for long, but long enough to cause all of us to experience a dizzying, yet intoxicating sense of complete bewilderment we will likely never experience again.
Of course we found our feet once again on terra firma, the compass steadied and the lunatic music stopped. Yet still, a fair few days later, that sense of bewilderment remains as an afterglow, a sensation that anything is possible, nothing is certain prevails.
We are facing a future with very little to base in prediction and expectation on the past. These times are stardust, and must be embraced with a leaning towards appreciation of the carnival of existence, which for many, all too quickly, all too early in their lives, gives way to a set path with little to excite or inspire to be found along that chosen journey.
Chaos comes to Town
Many hoped Sarri would be sacked. I was one of them. And yet I had come to assume, close to conclude, that the decision has been made to stick with the coach. The scudetto was the minimum, and with no obvious suitable replacements available – by which I mean Zidane, Klopp, Pep – the club would stick with what they have, reference the stop/start season and restrictions in place as reasons to focus on steadying the ship. This went against not just my heart but my own logical reasoning as I had not just seen us play with less heart, less cohesion, less belief than since the Del Neri/Ferrara period, I had seen a growing absence of feeling between Sarri and the players.
It was encouraging to see Pirlo made coach of the U23 side. The blueprint seen working elsewhere forged upon our own direction of travel. A year or two at youth level coaching, then perhaps assistant to the seniors, then to become the boss. This seemed a beautiful idea.
Sarri’s behaviour at the final whistle after we were to celebrate the scudetto victory saddened me, not just as a fan, but also through my often misplaced empathy, for I felt sympathetic towards the coach. Who had achieved his greatest victory, at least on paper, and yet felt so uncomfortable, even unwelcome, that he went down the tunnel rather than embrace the players all jostling and hugging and shouting with joy.
It is too easy to delve into this deeply, with so much more to cover…so I will court my nemesis, otherwise known as brevity.
To install Pirlo as U23 coach. To state that the club will take a few days to consider and evaluate after the loss to Lyon. To then sack Sarri, and within hours appoint a coach with zero experience, with no backroom staff lined up, no press conference. This is chaos.
Forget what Paratici said of the choice being made beforehand. To sack Sarri was perhaps not even a choice made beforehand, for if they were going to do this, then Agnelli would have been good to his word and taken a few days after the dismissal to evaluate who would replace him.
We can all find suspicions, but it takes some staggering belief to accept that this was all planned.
I had watched Andrea Agnelli in the stadium at the games. He looked increasingly like a man with barely concealed rage. And this rage grew exponentially during the exit from the CL, and it reached boiling point. Fury ensued. Fuel thrown on the fire with Paratici’s attempts to placate and steer back to his line of thinking. And Agnelli revealed himself as Il Capo and roared – Basta. Here is my decision…
My theory includes such hot blooded response and reaction, that our directors will have been admonished severely also. Perhaps given this season to reconfirm their value. For directors are both responsible for Sarri and the recruitment and very hard to replace at short notice.
Whichever way you look at what has transpired of late, you must see that the club delved deep into chaos.
When I heard Sarri had been sacked, I became excited, not just due to my hopes finding reality, but also as I had long concluded that Pocchetino was the best positioned to replace him and I like the chap. Other than which I had no idea other than a long shot in Deschamps. For Inzaghi just doesn’t seem of the right calibre. Max was not going to be brought back. And the only other I hoped would be considered, Juve old boy Carrera, would be overlooked for not yet managing a top side.
Obviously the success of Guardiola and Zidane especially were in Agnelli’s thinking. We cannot assume anything more, nor will we know anything concrete, for the club have kept their output concise and corporate weasel talk. Yet we can hope that Pirlo has provided the president with as much certainty as he required to make this bold move. And it is bold. For the most handsome top level coach in existence has managed a grand total of zero games, at any level, now finds himself responsible for the fortunes of one of the biggest sides on the planet.
What I will add to my way of making sense of this bizarre decision and the chaos from which it emerged, is that too many appear to be focusing on the idea that Pirlo as a player has nothing to do with Pirlo as a manager, other than the respect his playing career will engender in the players. This is, however, worth mentioning and does have value. For there is a markedly different consideration to a manager like Inzaghi or Pocchetino coming in and going through a poor run of form, and the same occurring with Pirlo at the helm. We fans may well be a fairly fickle bunch, but we do not forget what a manager has given the club previously as a player. I look at Ole at United, and without any doubt, part of the decision to bring him into the fold was the acceptance that a renovation, a transition, was hugely required, and they needed a manager to keep the fans as calm as possible, not in open revolt.
That plan has worked, as they have taken time to find some players who can make a huge difference to the squad, allowed youth to be promoted, and the fans have been – as intended – against the board NOT against Ole. And now, they are looking like becoming once again a formidable squad capable of playing the United way.
Pirlo has this gilded halo with the fan base. He is something beyond Ole however, for whilst my opinion of him as a man is likely that he is a decent chap, I really have no idea on his moral compass! Its more a case of his mega ability and character, marketed or just revealed as, heavy gravitas, a genius, even a poet, something very much above the average man.
Still not onto the point I wanted to make, but more comes to me, as I write…Pirlo is also perceived as cool, hip, a man of rare class. His dress sense, his looks, his stoic glare. His profile, as a man, not just as a footballer, very much ties in with the club’s focus on cutting edge image and branding.
Pirlo rarely ran as a player. He didn’t like training hard. He despised pre-match warm ups. And yet he became one of the world’s finest visionaries on the field. This came about as he was a visionary off the field also. He was a student of the game. Dissecting opponents before and during games. Working out their weaknesses, their patterns, and how to exploit them. It was not just his feet that were golden, it was his reading of the game.
“He was already a coach when he was playing,” Galliani told the Corriere dello Sport.
“If I had to use one word to define Andrea, it’d be intelligent. That adjective completely sums him up. He was always studying, too. He studied the opponents, the places we were playing, the situations… I am sure he’ll do very well at Juventus.”
Not only the opponents, but even the places, the stadiums, the fans, the cities…would Pirlo apparently study before games. This is instructive. It explains a little more of why he was able to perform at such a high level for so long without having top notch physical conditioning or any passion for fitness training.
It is this visionary talent which I feel wooed Agnelli, convinced him that the absence of experience on the bench played second fiddle to the vision Pirlo presented of his Juve.
We must also consider the financial side. For it has cost us 20m to ditch Sarri and our finances are in a bad way. Though I do not believe the money matters played a pivotal role in the decision, if not, we would have stuck with Sarri, ground out another scudetto, ensured the 10 in a row was forged in history…For Sarri, on the basis of experience, on paper, on a scudetto just won, with likelihood that his system will improve in the second year, was a more sure bet. Unless there were irreparable fractures between the manager and the players.
How much coaching does this side need?
Its true that players developing their game require guidance. Yet it must also be taken into account that established players already showing their potential realized, do not require a manager to tell them how to kick the ball, where and when to run. Nobody would consider Ronaldo requiring any coaching, any advice on tactical approach – the only coaching he needs is of his fitness, and he already has his own fitness team. I’d suggest the same of a fair few of our players. Development of the younger squad members will come through playing, with the manager’s job more focused on finding a system to get the developing players working to their strengths around the established top level parts of the first XI.
The job becomes more a matter of man management, of finding the right formation to combine development of those yet to reach their potential alongside putting the best players in the best positions to produce their finest and prosper.
Systems and tactics are important, but I believe, when you have a squad of top level talent – which we are now working towards – the manager can find great success from simply playing to our strengths and creating team unity, a sense of togetherness, both on and off the pitch.
It is highly unlikely that Pirlo or any other coach is going to create a brand new system, never seen before. It is a given, that our new coach will look at the squad, seek to improve in key areas that seem weak, then try to apply his philosophy within a system which places the right players in the right roles.
Who we bring in as assistant coach and beyond can help with the coaching and conditioning of the younger players, of which we have a fair few, but the likes of De Ligt, Demiral, Kulesevski already appear incredibly talented. Perhaps we can entice Barzagli back, who left due to locking horns with Sarri. A situation which echoed throughout the squad.
Essentially, I don’t believe that the lack of coaching experience is a major factor with Pirlo. Deschamps, Klopp, Blanc…all went straight into management. Different levels, different expectations, but I do not see Zidane’s time as assistant and coach of the Real B team as a hefty advantage over a Zidane who had never coached before. Some man management skills honed perhaps, but these were likely already there. I doubt Zidane was hugely different before that time to when he took over the first team. It just looked more comfortably a case of logical progression. What do you get from coaching kids and winning nothing? Pirlo has worked under some of the greatest coaches of our generation and all speak very highly of him, as a student of the game, not just a world class talent on the field.
“I can confidently say that Pirlo is currently one of the deepest thinkers in world football. He knows more about the game than most coaches who have been working for years. He’s studious, he really looked into the subject and he is ready.”
“He’s very focused, smart, can analyse possible instruments looking to the future of football. Pirlo is someone who looks forward. He was always there, taking notes.
“Pirlo was a great player who knows football, so he’s versatile and will adapt the system to the characteristics of his players. Is it a gamble? Andrea Agnelli thought about this carefully.”
(President of the Italian Coaches’ Association Ulivieri)
Tactically the truth is that we have been failing for the last two seasons, even with two highly experienced coaches. Much of this is down to the haphazard recruitment that has ensued since the mega investment in Ronaldo. Which I do believe the club are now addressing.
Of course Pirlo is going to need help, like every manager experienced or otherwise needs helps, to run training, to bounce ideas of, to suggest, be challenged, consider and work on areas of weaknesses. Yet it is wrong to suggest he is coming into the role fully wet behind the ears.
I doubt any player is going to feel that Pirlo doesn’t understand the game, nor that he will ask players to do anything which seems beyond their ability and plain wrong. I suspect many will be incredibly focused on every word their new boss has to share.
What matters more is man management. More than half of this battle is already won on this score, given the respect he inspires, with the remainder probably the pivotal factor in his debut campaign. For we are going to have periods of poor form, we have done since the restart in every single game. And we are a shambles tactically, have been for a while, playing lethargic, slow, telegraphed football. It is not as if he is taking over a side accustomed to playing sparkling football and dominating opponents. Far from it. Which could actually prove an advantage…as the squad will be eager for change.
Does the squad need a revolution?
We are not in as bad shape as our performances have shown, though evidently there is much work to be done to provide Pirlo with a squad worthy of the name. Its easy to get too hung up on the dead wood we desperately need to shift, not just because of their wages, but for the space they take up in the squad. Matuidi has already left. It is expected to see as many as possible of Khedira, Bernardeschi, Higuain, Costa, De Sciglio and Rugani following him out the door. With any offer for Ramsey eagerly embraced, though that will be difficult to find. That job alone will likely take two major mercato windows for Paratici to remedy. Which is not to say they are all problems of his own making, far from it. He bears some responsibility for the mistakes in allowing high earning, ever more jaded, average players to remain, yet so does Beppe before him.
Much of what Pirlo inherits is by my consideration, of serious potential.
De Ligt, Demiral, Dybala, Arthur, Bentancur and Kulusevski are all of a great age to mould together as well as already demonstrating high quality. The latter especially appears a stunning acquisition.
We also have strong options between the sticks. Szczęsny sunk in form this season just passed, yet remains dependable. Buffon is a man I love as do we all and I am glad to have him at the club but would prefer Perin to be given the chance to prove to Pirlo that he deserves to challenge the Pole for the number one jersey. As others have pointed out of late, we have grossly mismanaged Mattia, with his position during the one campaign he spent with us set in concrete as a number two. Its likely he will be sold, but I rate his command of the box, cat like agility, bravery and focus as higher than Szczęsny. Regardless, we are well set in this area.
There is much talk of a prima punta arriving, and I will maintain hope that this doesn’t mean that Dybala is to be sold. Or given less time. It was not only his individual form but collective, which earned him the MVP award. He more often than not proved our most creative player in the final third. I very much hope he stays.
The front line will be very much raised in potential and options with the arrival of Dejan (aka Kulu) – and whilst its likely a big statement to make, I do not recall finding a young player with such impressive talent and power since…a certain frenchman we signed from Bordeaux.
The midfield has been a problem for many years now. Arthur has a reputation as a top drawer controller of the midfield, who has featured regularly for Brazil and earned steady praise from too many I respect to assume he will fail to improve our possession game. Rabiot was starting to appear more like a decent footballer since the restart after finally regaining his match sharpness. Bentancur improved this season, but needs a set role, which I do not believe is as a sole regista. Perhaps in a double pivot with Rabiot or pure box-to-box…Add in Locatelli and if Ramsey remains, then the hope will be that he can stay fit enough to find his rhythm.
If rumours have any value, then perhaps Pirlo is going to offer chance during the criminally short pre-season camp to some from the U23s or even primavera. Peeters, Fagioli, Caviglia…all suggest great promise in this area of the field.
It would be wonderful to finally have a coach open to offering chance to the youngsters rather than leaving that sector as merely a factory for producing a steady profit but zero chance of home grown players rising through the ranks to the seniors.
Which leaves, only the fullbacks. Where we must focus our energies. As they are essential in the modern game.
Sandro I hope will be sold. Too jaded and bored at Juve now, and one of very few with some decent sale value. Danilo will remain, and yet we need more quality than Juan to challenge him. Gosens and a RB, with Pellegrini coming in also could be fine. Certainly freshen up a dull, at best average area of the side.
From a squad perspective, we do not need a major turnover. It will likely take two windows to remove the high earning rejects alongside Sandro and Bernardeschi, yet this has begun in earnest.
If Conte remains at Inter, as is likely, I suspect we may struggle to win the scudetto. They have momentum and Beppe is making some superb signings as they continue to build a side capable domestically and in Europe. I would have written the same had Sarri stayed, or any other manager came in. For we won the league title by a single point. True enough to suggest that we took our foot off the gas in the run-in but the reality is our form was steady since the restart, consistently poor with whatever enthusiasm, belief, focus the squad had dropping to a negative value – on the whole – once the title was secure. Inter were also in odd form during this period though rarely woeful, hapless and lifeless as were Juve.
Whilst it is clear we do not have the best team, who play as a unit and offer cohesive, entertaining football of passion and shared hunger, we do have the deepest squad, and on paper I suspect, still the most talent. The gap with Inter will likely diminish and this can be filled through Conte driving his troops onwards in pursuit of a title which has not looked as possible for many years indeed. Now is the time to strike for our crown!
Lazio will hopefully continue along the same path and if Atalanta can retain most of their key players there is every reason to believe they will remain serious contenders. Next season’s scudetto is shaping up to be the most competitive for some time.
Given the squad depth, the class players we have already in key areas – and are rightly rumoured to be seeking where we do not – my own expectations are for a serious Scudetto charge and progress beyond the group stage of the CL, ideally back to at least the last 8. It would be welcome of course to win the super coppa and perhaps retrieve our italian cup in turn!
We still managed to win the league, reach the final of the coppa italia and knock-out stages of the CL despite having a team wholly unable to adapt at all successfully to the rigid system imposed upon them and zero love for the coach. It is probable that the squad will be stronger, as will those of our main rivals and yet…I have a twinkle in my eye when I think of next season. There is a fairytale aspect to this story yet to be written.
Even a campaign without any silverware could bring me more joy and passion than I have found for the last 12 months, perhaps closer to the last 2 years of football. For my hopes and dreams in black and white are more nourished by the idea of the side playing with joy, with belief, with hunger and a sense of togetherness. Ideally a living, breathing, growing…collective identity emerging from the broken machinery of ill-matched cogs to make our hearts sing and our eyes brighten. And who knows, perhaps Il Maestro will deliver una favola...Nothing is certain, anything is possible.
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