It’s Pirlo’s Juventus Again: Will Agnelli’s Personal Gamble Pay Off?

In the wake of yet another disappointing Champions League campaign, even the 9th successive Scudetto wasn’t enough to save coach Maurizio Sarri’s head from the chopping block. Juventus president Andrea Agnelli decided to act quickly and terminate the coach’s underwhelming tenure in the next morning and then handing Italy legend (and the club’s new U-23 manager) Andres Pirlo one of history’s quickest promotions.

But can the inexperienced young coach excel in his first managerial gig and succeed where a number of elite managers failed? What should the Bianconeri fans expect from this surprising appointment?

Even with you sitting on the bench or in the stands we’ve won the league. And you know, Andrea, the strategy’s changed this year. If you’re over 30, we’re only offering a year’s extension” – Little did the former Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani know by then that his slightly harsh words (as quoted from Pirlo’s autobiography) and rigid transfer policy would end up shaking the course of Italian football.

During the 2010-11 season, Milan managed to overthrow their city rivals Inter and finally sit on the Italian throne. With superstars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho, and Thiago Silva among their ranks, the Rossoneri had all the tools to launch a winning dynasty that would last for many years while the rest of the top clubs in the country were lost in the deep waters.

While most of the Milan legends at the time were happy to renew their contracts for another season, including the likes of Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi, and Alessandro Nesta, one silent yet rebellious soul politely declined to sign. After 10 years of success at San Siro, Andrea Pirlo no longer felt as important for Milan as he once was, and thus decided to jump ship and join one of the Rossoneri‘s fiercest rivals, the struggling Juventus who were just about to start a revolution under new coach Antonio Conte.

The rest, they say, is history.

Andrea Pirlo was 32 years old when he joined Juventus as a player in 2011 but his best days were anything but behind him!

Nine years later, here we are again, contemplating almost the same image from the summer of 2011. Andrea Agnelli welcoming his namesake to the Juventus Headquarters once again. Maybe they didn’t literally shake hands this time, and Pirlo’s iconic beard might be a little longer these days, but nonetheless the shocking effect is almost identical, even if for different reasons.

While Sarri’s appointment last season was based on the recommendation of vice-president Pavel Nedved and more importantly chief football officer Fabio Paratici, this time President Agnelli decided to make up his own mind and follow his instinct (and perhaps his heart) rather than listening to his directors. While the bravery behind the decision remains unquestionable, one must wonder just how wise it is to present Italy’s hottest seat to a manager with zero experience and demand him to deliver Europe’s grandest prize.

Hiring club legends as managers despite their lack of coaching experience has become a trend lately. Perhaps Josep Guardiola’s monumental success at Barcelona helped to establish this new phenomenon.

But while Pep and Zinedine Zidane achieved great results with their respective Spanish giant clubs, and others like Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are slowly building their squads and reputations in England under the support of their own fanbases, we did witness several club icons underachieving at the helm of their beloved clubs – most notably among them several of Pirlo’s former teammates at Milan.

When analyzing the career paths of the likes of Filippo Inzaghi and Gennaro Gattuso so far, one must note that after several years of coaching and numerous clubs managed, the two Milanese legends are still considered up and coming managers. With the former demolishing all competition in the Serie B with Benevento and the latter bringing back the Coppa Italia to Napoli, both of these men deserve to be labeled as promising managers by now.

And yet, both coaches found life to be difficult inside their once comfortable home in Milanello, and this shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, as any young manager must go through a certain learning curve before he can find his own way towards success.

So when it comes to Pirlo – who is even less experienced than any of his colleagues cited above – everyone at Juventus, from the president of the club to the fan screaming from their sofas, must accept that the young man is deemed to make his own mistakes.

On a more positive note, while Sarri managed to botch every post-match interview by proving that he isn’t too bothered with defeats or Champions league elimination, showing no actual comprehension of the so-called Stile Juve (“Juventus Style”), Andrea Pirlo took no time to revive the former Juve executive Giampiero Boniperti’s old motto by stating that winning is all that matters at this club and that he would make the young players absorb such Juventus mentality.

His managerial skills are yet to be proved, but one thing Andrea Pirlo does fit with is the so-called “Juve style” – his sober and elegant demeanor perfectly matches with Juventus’ corporate identity

When it comes to having the right mindset to take over this particular club, the former number 21 has been universally acclaimed as a tactical genius even during his playing days, with some fans swearing that he was already a coach on the field. Pirlo indeed already proved his intelligence and knowledge by identifying last season’s main problem at Juventus: While working as a pundit, he stated that the problem lied within the midfield and its inability to deliver the ball forward to Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala.

Now, as Gary Neville can testify, being a good TV pundit and identifying problems is one thing, while being a great manager and solving those issues is a far more difficult task. But with all due respect to the Manchester United legend, he was never considered a playing genius like Pirlo. If someone knows a thing or two about solving midfield, that surely is the man who reinvented the regista role.

While Juventus’ defense looked at its very lowest during the reign of Sarri, one must think that a club that possesses arguably the best young center-back duo worldwide in Matthijs De Ligt and Merih Demiral, as well the experience of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, should be able to fix its problems in this particular area.

Dropping Sarri’s excessive zonal marking will probably help the young beasts do what they were born for and hunt after opposition attacks. Buying some better full-backs than Mattia De Sciglio and Danilo wouldn’t hurt either.

As for the attack, Pirlo should consider himself lucky to have two mega-stars among his ranks who were competing for the prize of the best player of the season, with Dybala just edging Ronaldo for the title. The club will eventually sign a center-forward who could add another dimension to the attack and replace the tired-looking Gonzalo Higuain. The arrival of Dejan Kulusevski from Parma will bring additional grit, pace, and talent to the final third.

And so, we are back to the main issue as called out by our man himself: The midfield.

During his playmaker days at Juve, Pirlo played alongside the likes of Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba – quite a different situation from the Bianconeri’s current state in the midfield

It feels such a long time since Juventus had their famous MVP midfield composed of Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal, and Andrea Pirlo – later upgraded with the free arrival of Paul Pogba. Unfortunately for Sarri, he arrived at Juventus to find a midfield line that was below par for a club with such high European ambitions.

But, thankfully for Pirlo, this department is at the center of a mini-revolution taking place in Turin during this unusual transfer market.

While Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi already departed, Aaron Ramsey and Sami Khedira could soon follow. The Welshman didn’t add much value to the already struggling midfield despite trying hard to find his form and position, while the German World Cup winner is obviously physically exhausted after years of battles on the field as well as in the operating room.

Thus, the only certainties for the new coach in this reshaped department are Rodrigo Bentancur and the post-COVID-19 period star Adrien Rabiot. On the other hand, there are more questions than answers surrounding new arrival Arthur Melo, especially after some of his off-field rows.

So how should Andrea build his midfield with the current crop?

The Maestro already declared that he favors the 4-3-3 formation. But rumors have it that he is also considering Serie A’s most common 3-5-2. Whichever is the case, it seems that Pirlo is keen on playing with three central midfielders, just like he did during his playing days with both Milan and Juve.

While we read new reports almost every day linking new midfielders to the club, such as Isco, Thomas Partey, Houssem Aouar, and more recently Udinese’s Rodrigo De Paul, we’ll consider only the names that we listed above here.

Rabiot apparently earned himself a starting berth at LCM after some solid displays late in the season, but there are question marks surrounding the right side of the midfield. Will Arthur own this position? Could Ramsey finally prove his worth under the new technical staff? Or will a new signing usurp everyone else and claim the spot? But it surely won’t be Khedira again, Right?

Most importantly, who will occupy the famous defensive midfield role or, as the Italians like to call it, the regista?

Ever since the departure of Andrea Pirlo in 2015, Juventus coaches have been looking confused at what to do with this role. While Pjanic had some early success as a DM, his last couple of seasons at the club proved that his move to the deeper role actually hurt his career path. He looked out of his element, unable to be productive as he used to be, as well as outmuscled and outran by his more athletic foes.

As we’ve witnessed during the years, a host of young midfielders were labeled as the “New Pirlo” by the Italian media and experts – the likes of Alberto Aquilani and Riccardo Montolivo, through Andrea Cigarini and Andrea Poli, Marco Verratti and Jorginho, all the way to Brescia’s golden boy Sandro Tonali.

Some of those players ended up enjoying decent careers, while others like Verratti were able to create their own name and legacy, whereas some failed to develop their early potential. But the lesson we learned from all of them is that there’s no such thing as the “New Pirlo.”

Pirlo was gifted with unrealistic flair and precision and we’re unlikely to see someone truly like him again in our lifetime. Andrea Pirlo is simply unique, just like other legends including Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Baggio, or Ronaldo Luis Nazario da Lima – the Fenomeno – to name a few.

Juventus must then resist the temptation of finding “another Pirlo” to make him play under the tutelage of his master and go for a different strategy. Here we should note that the younger and stronger Bentancur did look much more comfortable that Pjanic while playing the regista role towards the end of the season.

This should then be the way to go forward for the new coach: The developing Uruguayan can act as a modern type of defensive midfielder, combining strength and tactical intelligence, protecting the defense, and also moving the ball forward in attack. Rodrigo Bentancur can become a Guardiola-type of regista, as he’s the closest thing Juventus have to the likes of Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets and Man City’s Fernandinho  – who were the epitomes of defensive midfielders during their primes.

Rodrigo Bentancur may play an important role in Andrea Pirlo’s “new deal” as the young coach is set to restructure the Bianconeri’s midfield department

In conclusion, while the management must work hard this summer to provide the new coach with the right players to upgrade the current squad, Andrea Pirlo potentially already has the recipe needed for success.

On top of being a tactical genius, an excellent reader of the game, and a role model for younger players, he has the full support of his president and his teammates from the “old guard” – with whom he shares with the same winning mentality.

Andrea Agnelli is surely taking a risky bet. Pirlo’s failure would no doubt be a devastating hit to the young coach’s career and reputation, but even the almighty president could pay the price for his dangerous gamble in that case.

Only time will tell where this exciting adventure will lead La Vecchia Signora (The Old Lady). But one thing is for sure: While the circumstances didn’t help Maurizio Sarri to present the type of football that he intended to play at the club, next season we will be witnessing Pirlo’s Juventus once again.

The man who once turned the club’s local fortunes on the field might just become Juve’s European Messiah from his new hot seat.