It’s been a mere matter of months since Juventus embarked on what can only be described as an uncharacteristically hipster managerial appointment and already, we’re perhaps 90 minutes away from such an experiment being drawn to a premature close.
The Bianconeri’s draw in the Derby della Mole – a game they seemingly always win – further ignited Andrea Pirlo’s already scorching hot seat. Corriere dello Sport (via JuveFC.com) suggest that defeat against Napoli on Wednesday will bring the rookie coach’s brief reign to an abrupt halt, with the Turin giants potentially destined to reconcile with the ex they undoubtedly regret breaking up with.
Tuttosport understands the relationship between Andrea Agnelli and Massimiliano Allegri is strong, and the pair reportedly watched the 2-2 draw at Torino together. How cute.
In short, the situation has become desperate for Pirlo, who certainly hasn’t helped himself during the Bianconeri’s drastic demise over the past month.
Something has to change
A principle-based coach, Pirlo has often refused to alter from the ideals which he laid out in his Coverciano dissertation. From memory, the 2-0 victory over Roma and 3-1 triumph over Lazio were two examples of Il Maestro doing something a little different.
Against Paulo Fonseca’s technically astute Romans, Juve ceded possession and looked to hit the Giallorossi on the counter-attack, which they did successfully. The Lazio victory, meanwhile, saw an alteration in system with the seemingly ubiquitous asymmetrical structure ditched for what appeared a 4-1-4-1. Pirlo instructed his full-backs to remain conservative to shun Lazio’s obvious threat in transition. Once again, Pirlo’s pragmatism prevailed.
Thus, the Juve boss has demonstrated since his arrival his savvy as a coach, with his default system certainly being one with potential. However, he needs variation.
Other than the fact that they were both once Juventus midfielders, there aren’t too many similarities between Antonio Conte and Pirlo. However, Pirlo’s current predicament is reminiscent of Conte’s struggles midway through his maiden campaign as Inter boss.
After a blistering start to 2019/20, the Nerazzurri began to stagnate as Conte’s automatisms – as Papu Gomez pointed out – became predictable. It forced the assiduous Conte to change, and change he did. Fresh idiosyncracies were introduced to his meticulous system, once again forcing the opposition into a state of reactivity as opposed to proactivity when they matched up with the Nerazzurri.
Inter enjoyed a fine end to the season; finishing a point adrift of Juve in the Scudetto race and reaching the Europa League final.
Now, Pirlo differs from Conte in that he’s not a coach who preaches pre-determination, but there’s still need for a similar alteration.
At the moment, Pirlo’s Old Lady epitomise predictability: we see the same players occupy the same zones and the same positional rotations carried out relative to ball location, rendering such interchanges frivolous. The formulaic, monotone nature of Juve’s possession play right now inhibits fluidity and facilitates staticity. They struggle to penetrate centrally and have suddenly become way too over-reliant on Juan Cuadrado as a creative source. The absence of a creator who excels in tight spaces – aka Paulo Dybala – has further exacerbated Pirlo’s problem.
Worryingly, I don’t expect a drastic systematic change – even on a microcosmic scale (rotations, etc) – although La Joya’s return is bound to improve attacking performance.
The Napoli Challenge
Napoli is a monster game in determining Pirlo’s future and boy, it won’t be easy.
Gennaro Gattuso’s side are purring right now. They head into Wednesday’s bout six games unbeaten in Serie A following their shock Europa League elimination at the hands of Granada.
The Partenopei’s swift turnaround has thrust them into serious top-four contention – they’re now level on points with Juve in fifth – following a woeful February that almost cost Gattuso his job.
It was Napoli’s slender 1-0 victory over a then in-form Juve which offered Rino some much-needed respite. Although, it was a triumph drenched in good fortune and desperation. They’ll be a totally different proposition this time around.
From a tactical perspective, Gattuso has certainly evolved. His Napoli side, at their best, are a flexible unit out of possession and a mightily dynamic unit with the ball, all while offering a coherent balance at transitions. They currently boast the third-best defensive record in Serie A and have already moved past their goals scored tally from last season with ten games to go – depicting their wealth of attacking talent.
As a result of well-coached build-up patterns, Napoli typically progress upfield with impressive efficiency. The technical security of their backline and pivot, meanwhile, as well as the numbers they commit to the build-up phase, means they’re able to successfully bait the opposition into an erroneous press before rapidly transitioning through their lines.
Such methods mean that they’re built to shine against high-pressing sides, and should Pirlo’s press go astray, expect similar results to the Inter defeat at the start of the year.
Nevertheless, it’s Napoli’s personnel that ensure Gattuso’s principles are translated onto the field. They’re replete with stars in attacking areas: Lorenzo Insigne’s a supreme creator, Matteo Politano and Hirving Lozano are dynamic and versatile wide men, Piotr Zielinski’s a criminally underrated do-it-all playmaker, while Dries Mertens has recently returned to goalscoring form.
Their X-factor, however, is Victor Osimhen. Should the Nigerian forward retain his place in the Napoli XI after scoring in the 4-3 victory over Crotone, then the Juve centre-backs will be in for a *game*. The former Lille hitman is a tremendous outlet; a relentless channel runner who boasts remarkable athleticism and impressive target-man attributes. While he remains raw, his talent is distinct and after an injury-ridden campaign, he’s starting to come into his own once more.
It’s all coming together at the right time for Napoli and they’ll be looking to continue their recent stellar record against the top seven – winning three of their last four – when they travel to the Allianz Stadium on Wednesday for what could be the conclusion of the Pirlo era in Turin.
With Conte’s juggernaut steamrolling towards the Scudetto and Il Maestro’s Juve swiftly emerging as a protagonist in the top-four race, defeat to Gattuso’s exuberant Neapolitans will surely make the Bianconeri boss’ position untenable.