For Maurizio Sarri, it was déjà vu. On Saturday, after Juventus were dumped out of the Champions League on away goals by Lyon, the chain-smoking Italian was relieved of his duties. Although he arrived having left Chelsea by his own accord a year ago, it is widely believed he jumped before he was pushed by Roman Abramovich. Andrea Pirlo stepped into the Bianconeri hot seat hours after he vacated it, just as another club legend with no top-level managerial experience, Frank Lampard, did in West London.
At both clubs, Sarri’s presence didn’t feel particularly natural. A former banker who never enjoyed the highs of a professional footballing career and worked his way up from lower-league obscurity, armed with a specific tactical philosophy, he needs time to implement his style. Chelsea and Juventus have a strict win-or-bust policy and, as Sarri found out, even lifting the first two trophies of his career wasn’t enough to keep the vultures at bay at either club.
The Europa League crown was a goodbye present to Chelsea, while the Serie A title, Juve’s eighth in a row, is no longer enough to be considered success. It is no coincidence that before the victorious Lyon players had fully digested qualification for the forthcoming Champions League mini-tournament in Portugal, the 61-year-old was out the Allianz Stadium door.
Sarri and Juventus felt like a marriage of inconvenience from the start because of that increasingly insatiable desire to dominate Europe. Two final defeats in three years between 2015 and 2017 drew them into signing the competition’s all-time top goalscorer, Cristiano Ronaldo, two years ago. At the age of 33, he best represented the instancy of their approach.
Sarri’s work at Napoli, where he challenged for the Scudetto while playing some of the most intense, attacking football in Europe, affectionately dubbed ‘Sarri-ball’, was the reason both Chelsea and Juve hired him. His job was to help shake reputations as functional, boring teams to watch. Immediately, more prominently in the case of the latter, that jarred with the goal of lifting the biggest trophy of them all.
Rather ironically, it is precisely the actions taken in order to strengthen their chances of Champions League glory which have created their current problems. Their squad, which was well balanced at the point of twice reaching the final hurdle, is now ageing and lopsided, geared towards the short-termism required to see the best from Ronaldo. Add to that the instructions they are getting from a coach with a vision for slow progression, it is no wonder that current successes are papering over growing cracks. Sarri has his faults, but not all of what has gone wrong in Turin is his doing. Andrea Pirlo, a week after being named under-23s boss, has a gargantuan clean up on his hands.
Returning to the club in a withdrawn role, where he could learn his trade, felt sensible. Andrea Pirlo’s instant promotion in the wake of Sarri’s departure suggests that the Old Lady did not plan the transition thoroughly enough. Despite Sarri working against the tide for the second year in a row at a second club, his eventual exit was hardly unforeseen.
If Juventus are looking to tackle the big issues, which are more or less all self-inflicted, then it is difficult to see how Andrea Pirlo could possibly be the answer. As a player with the club, and AC Milan for ten years prior, he orchestrated matches on the pitch, but there is little to no evidence in the public domain to suggest he can transfer that to the touchline. Fans and players will have to learn once again but from a teacher whose path hasn’t even been laid.
The theme is common, Chelsea brought Lampard back after he lost the Championship playoff final in his sole season with Derby County. Manchester United offered Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the interim job before eventually hiring him permanently despite a CV featuring relegation from the Premier League with Cardiff City in 2013 and two successful spells in Norway with Molde. Barcelona haven’t hidden their pursuit of Xavi Hernandez, who is currently in charge of Qatari club Al Sadd.
Youth and innovation are desirable traits in the modern coach, but the trend of ex-players walking into top jobs without the relevant experience is bizarre and potentially reckless. There are some positive examples; Zinedine Zidane has brought a number of trophies to Real Madrid, as did Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, while Mikel Arteta won the FA Cup in his first few months at Arsenal.
In each of those cases, they cut their teeth as assistants, youth or lower league coaches beforehand. At the age of 41, Pirlo is armed with little more than iron-clad universal appeal and a familiarity with his surroundings; now he must sink or swim.
Perhaps, by looking further afield for annual targets, Juventus have begun to take their domestic dominance for granted. It was after being allowed to leave Milan for free in 2011, despite helping them lift an 18th league title, that Pirlo joined the club whose stranglehold on Italian football resumed for the first time since the 2006 Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Antonio Conte was manager at the time but last season he led Inter to second place, finishing a point adrift of his former club.
It was the tightest title race since 2002, on paper at least. Lazio and Atalanta were threatening, while Milan are showing signs of a resurgence, too. Their crown has arguably not looked this precarious for a decade, and now all their problems are at the door of a man learning on the job.
Juventus are far from the first club to follow this route and they certainly won’t be the last. Maurizio Sarri was never likely to be appreciated but he has been scapegoated far more than he deserves. The lack of planning in recruiting Andrea Pirlo, let alone his lack of suitability for the role, feels like the latest in a long line of problematic decisions rather than the first in a bid to get Italy’s most decorated club functioning properly again.
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