His return was timely. The finish was trademark. The celebration, though, was bereft of nostalgia.
As Paulo Dybala wheeled away in ecstasy after handing Juventus a 2-0 lead over Napoli with a delightfully curled strike, a more traditional, emotion-laden thump of the Juve badge was favoured over the Gladiator-inspired ‘Mask’ sequence we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Turin.
It was a moment of pure elation for the Argentine and, despite Giorgio Chiellini’s best efforts to undermine La Joya’s return amid a stellar Bianconeri display, a joyous evening for Andrea Pirlo too.
Gennaro Gattuso’s Neapolitans arrived at the Allianz Stadium on Wednesday with intentions of ending Juve’s hipster managerial experiment but left having squandered a golden opportunity as Il Maestro’s hot seat emerged from the Turin night just that little bit cooler. His job is safe, for now.
A wonderful attacking performance
The rookie coach deserves immense credit for overseeing what was an attacking display drenched in harmony, vibrancy, and variety. Pirlo’s principles coalesced to great effect.
The build-up, aided by the presence of a double pivot in the first phase, proved secure and purposeful. The positional play down both flanks was perhaps the best I’ve seen of the Pirlo era thus far; triangular patterns were often created down the left, while the Danilo/Juan Cuadrado dynamic down the right caused a multitude of problems. It was Juve’s new-found innovation in wide areas that embodied an attacking performance of excitement and unpredictability.
While Federico Chiesa was, once again, majestic, Juve’s improved collective effort ensured they weren’t utterly reliant on his brilliance throughout. Although, his slaloming sequence in the build-up to Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener was nothing short of special.
Juve’s ability in recent weeks to penetrate centrally, meanwhile, has been compromised as a result of trivial interchanges which propagate staticity and predictability. On Wednesday, Juve had more subtle joy working between Napoli’s lines due to the change in structure. Rather than utilising the default asymmetrical 4-4-2 which involves one of the wide players emerging as the trequartista in possession, Pirlo deployed a more traditional 4-4-2.
Instead, wide players held their width – or moved into the half-spaces – and Alvaro Morata enjoyed a more prominent role in dropping between the lines to aid Juve’s build-up, which he did with great success in the opening period, while Adrien Rabiot would occasionally saunter from the pivot to generate positional superiorities over his counterparts in the left half-space. Rabiot timed such advances superbly in what was a well-brought-together performance from the Frenchman.
Overall, Pirlo’s systematic alteration facilitated a much-improved performance in attack. One that very few, myself included, would’ve foreshadowed after weeks of failing to learn from his errors.
Seize the momentum, Andrea
The Napoli triumph was a huge step forward in Pirlo’s young coaching career but dropped points on Sunday against Genoa – a side playing for very little – will reduce the victory to redundancy. The Italian media will reassemble like an unreliable version of the Avengers, while Andrea Agnelli will indulge in a few more truffles with Massimiliano Allegri – I presume.
This is the opportune time for Pirlo and Juve to seize the momentum, especially with Dybala poised to make his return to the starting XI following a near-three-month absence. While an indifferent run of form since the start of February has seen them drop 12 points adrift of Antonio Conte’s Inter in the Scudetto hunt, the race for the top-four is still very much on. Six clubs are vying for three Champions League spots and although the Napoli victory was a major boost for the Bianconeri, it’s still incredibly tight between the Nerazzurri’s inferiors.
For Pirlo, however, the message is a simple one: don’t change anything. That varied and vibrant Juve attack we saw for the majority of Wednesday’s victory was so refreshing to watch and long may it continue.