I was shocked to find the starting line-up announced. My mind confused, unable to make any sense in what appeared a proper formation absent of any players obviously out of position or expected to play hybrid roles.
How could this be happening??? Pirlo playing two natural FBs and two natural wide attackers ahead of them??? The fledgling coach choosing a formation with balance? With players in their proper roles? This simply did not compute…such has been the season long focus on ‘the Pirlo system’- not focused on balance, nor on much respect for the career learned areas of expertise of his players prior to this season.
Accepting that we were indeed playing a 4-4-2 and as happy as unsurprised to find it made us instantly more solid all over the field – apart from the first few minutes when both sides conceded glaring openings, I very much enjoyed the game.
The first half was our best for many moons. The balance offered by simply having players in the right positions, not needing to think too much, just play instinctively to their strengths, caused even Rabiot and Bentancur to look very solid, very effective.
Chiesa had switched to the right when his fancy footwork took him past two opponents to buzz in a perfect cross for Ronaldo to convert for a thoroughly deserved lead. We really should have ended the first half more than a goal to the good, with more profligacy sweeping across the attacking players the worst of which assuredly Ronaldo’s miss early doors, yet Juan and Chiesa also spurned decent chances.
As seems always the case and very much indicative of Pirlo’s inability to put wind in the sails of even a fair sailing ship briefly drawing into shore for supplies, we emerged from the tunnel for the second period lacking that same spring in our step which had led us to dominate the opening 45.
Still, even with a somewhat more offensive Napoli, we were hardly on the ropes and continued to look threatening on the break and very strong down the spine through the CMs and CBs.
It seemed the right time to bring on Dybala and Mckennie, and not long after an intelligent, quickly executed short pass from Bentancur found the returning La Joya swift to gather and bury the ball into the far corner for 2-0. It was a sublime finish and a reminder of what he is capable of.
However, I look at the game ever tactically. And with Pirlo removing a wide attacker for a CM we were instantly moving back to ‘the pirlo system’. It is nonsense to expect a dogged, natural box to box CM to perform as a winger or as some hybrid RM/AM without negatively impacted the midfield. It ruins the balance of the side and especially affects the central midfield – this has been the case most the season.
By the time Pirlo thought to chuck on Arthur, he removed our remaining winger (Chiesa) setting up the side for the final ten minutes with 4 CMs on the field. At best, this is tactically adventurous. For me, it is asking players once again to play in the wrong positions. Why not bring on Di Pardo at RM, to keep the shape? Why not have Ake or Coreira in the squad if the plan is, as Pirlo says, to play with wide men?
Napoli kept pushing, hardly an onslaught, yet finally got their reward with a deserved penalty in the 89th minute, duly despatched by Inisgne. And whilst the visitors huffed and puffed, forced a late corner…we did not look ill at ease or likely to concede and equalizer.
This was a deserved victory against a side in decent form of late yet too conservative in their selection, for before Osimhen entered the fray, they appeared a front line of dwarves easily pushed around and amusing, almost cruel, to see in aerial challenges with Rabtio/Chiellini/De Ligt.
I thought that De Ligt, Chiesa, Bentancur, Rabiot all played very well indeed, with not one of their comrades below par. Much of which I will certainly put down to the formation move away from Pirlo’s hybrid role/ transitional nonsense/ put players in the wrong positions routine. Yet not all.
The reason I have long banged on about the formation shackling, stifling, making this side appear so much weaker than it should be is that Pirlo’s system has zero proof in the past it works, and zero proof in the present. It is also what worries me of the future, for many seem to feel we just need to give it time, and it will all come good…whereas the last two games I have seen us solid, from top to bottom of the side have both been when Pirlo dropped his fancy system and reverted to a solid 4-4-2 – the latter was the 2nd leg v Inter of the coppa italia.
There is nobody else playing Pirlo’s system. Yet plenty of teams playing set formations of 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-3-1-2, 4-3-2-1, 3-5-2. Admittedly some of these formations change when in and out of possession, but I know of none which often use a RB as a RM, with the width on the opposite flank from a RWF playing as a LWB/LM. Nor do I know of any systems where a AM/CM is often played as a tucked in supporting RM.
My inklings are solidified by seeing the whole side perform more comfortably, convincingly and with more joy in their play in the very games when Pirlo adopts a basic 4-4-2 and puts players in the right roles.
I do not believe he will continue to do this, even when it clearly works…
“We had practiced this approach with two wide wingers, creating space for Chiesa and Cuadrado. I am just sorry we didn’t make more of the counter-attacks, because we should’ve scored more goals.
“I tried to drill this style of football into the team from the start of the season, but we played every three days until recently, the players kept changing and we didn’t really have time to work on it.
Pirlo’s post match comments made no sense to me. He has had Danilo/Sandro/Juan/Chiesa fit for many games this season, but this is the first time he has played them in a balanced 4-4-2. Deploying two FBs with two wide midfielders is not the same as playing a FB who transitions to LM and a RWF at RM, with behind him a CB who transitions to a RB. It offers nowhere near the same balance or fluidity. I can only assume the translation was a little off, or Pirlo is being lazy with his explanation.
There was something else, I believe, which added to the painfully elusive solid performance against an opponent fairly strong on their day…
This was Buffon and Chiellini together at the back. Throughout the game we could hear Buffon roaring orders, with fondness, with authority, with demand. Chiellini is long accustomed to dovetailing with this foghorn. De Ligt seemed to up his game, and the two CMs had their finest outing together this season – though much of this is due to having that balance on either flank, both at FB and LW/RW.
The two old timers provided a steady injection of grinta from the back, which then flowed through the side. Recruitment this Summer must focus first and foremost on players of the right mentality. It is an area where we have failed miserably over the last few years and one which must be addressed. Every side needs leaders both on and off the field – this one has few, and two of the small handful present in the squad will soon depart.
Aside from which, I was of course personally very happy for Dybala scoring his delightfully taken goal and Bentancur for providing the assist and not putting a foot wrong all game. La Joya especially…and what was more heart warming than the strike on his return, after all the furore of poker and contracts, was the pile-up of players on top of him to celebrate. His goal created unbridled, wild boyish joy for his team-mates and very much gave the impression, that he could be our true bandiera. Or rather..that he could have been. For regardless of the chances he gets, the goals he grabs between now and the end of the season, the management want him out and are already working on how to use his market value and where.
I will wish him well, and very much hope he finds a better managed club at the top level who values him and offers the platform his talents have long deserved.
Similar with Kean, who it brought a smile to find entering the game for PSG in the stunning victory over the Bayern Machine that I thought unstoppable…until Lewandowski was injured. I am glad that after we ditched the kid long ear-marked to be a long term star in our colours, he has found his way into that PSG side, has the confidence of a coach I admire and wish had come to Juve, is now looking like playing a role in a very serious push for the CL and hopefully, can find a more permanent home in Paris next season.
He should have been at Juve. Another casualty of the Ronaldo focus taken petitioned by the Paratici-Nedved tandem, as to a degree, is Dybala with the departure of La Joya a slow burn certainty since that move took place.
It is ridiculous but still briefly exciting to imagine what could have been had we taken a different path, with a front line of Kean – Haaland – Dybala!
Back to reality…
If Pirlo reverts to type after this tantalizing glimpse of a basic 4-4-2 which works, continues with over complicated transition of hybrid roles and often no balance whatsoever across the midfield, we will still likely make top four, for Napoli and below them are often bang average sides, sometimes beyond this yet inconsistent and very much lacking anywhere near our squad depth.
If Pirlo accepts that we play better with a simple more settled formation, with players in their natural roles we could easily find ourselves going on a unbeaten run and finishing 2nd.
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