Andrea Pirlo: From midfield maestro to the manager of Juventus
Pirlo is the latest in a list of former players taking the reins at their old clubs. But with no prior coaching experience, can he deliver at Juventus?
Compared to how former Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo used to be on the football pitch as a player—calm, composed and calculated—it’s been a whirlwind few days for him at Juventus FC. Following their round-of-16 exit from the UEFA Champions League against Lyon, the club relieved manager Maurizio Sarri of his duties. In less than 24 hours, Pirlo was appointed as first-team manager on 8 August, signing a two-year contract.
The move came as a massive surprise given that Pirlo was announced as the new manager of the Juventus U-23s just a week before. The club’s choice also went completely against what the bookmakers expected: former Tottenham Hotspur boss Mauricio Pochettino was being touted as a possible replacement for Sarri, but Pirlo was nowhere in the picture.
Despite leading Juventus to the Serie A summit in the recently concluded season—a remarkable 9th straight league title—there was increasing pressure on Sarri to deliver the Champions League with the players at this disposal. They crawled over the finish line though, just a point ahead of Inter Milan, who pushed Juventus in the title race right till the very end. But the aggregate defeat to Lyon, which dumped them out of the Champions League, proved to be the last straw for Sarri.
In steps Pirlo, perhaps the most decorated deep-lying midfielder of his generation and a World Cup winner with Italy. The 41-year-old, who last played for Major League Soccer side New York City FC in 2017, is the latest name in a list of former players who are now managing the European ‘super clubs’ they once played for: Frank Lampard at Chelsea, Ole Gunnar Solskjær at Manchester United and Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, to name a few. But that’s where the commonalities end. Pirlo, so far, has had no experience in coaching a squad. The same can’t be said of Lampard, Solskjær or Zidane—who have tried their management skills elsewhere before making it to the big time. Other players from Italy’s golden generation of footballers who are now managing in the Serie A—take Gennaro Gattuso at Napoli and Simone Inzaghi at Lazio—have at least had prior coaching engagements with other sides.
Returning to a former club as a manager is not a smooth ride for every player. Solskjær’s initial struggles at United at the end of the 2018-19 season, when he was given the full-time job after excelling as caretaker manager, is a prime example. Some others, like former Barcelona player Xavi, have also approached such situations with caution. The Spanish club are reportedly trying to get the former midfielder back to the Camp Nou—he’s currently manager of the Qatari side Al Sadd—as a replacement for Quique Setien, who looks to be on borrowed time.
The one thing that is on Pirlo’s side, however, is a tonne of experience of the Italian game. He started his career with Brescia in 1993 and went on to play for Italy’s three biggest sides—Inter Milan, AC Milan and eventually Juventus. He won two Serie A titles with Milan and then another four at Juventus. His club will also hope that having played, and won numerous titles, under some of the best coaches the Italian game has ever seen—Carlo Ancelloti at AC Milan, Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri at Juventus—Pirlo would have picked up a thing or two about managing a squad—apart from the pressure that comes with representing a brand as big as Juventus. Despite not reaching the pinnacles of European football over the last few seasons, Juventus still remains one of the world’s most prestigious clubs. According to KPMG’s fifth annual club valuation report released earlier this year, Juventus is valued at more than 1.7 billion euros and was one of the top five clubs in terms of percentage growth in social media followers from January 2016 to January 2020.
On the field, one of Pirlo’s biggest tasks will be to overhaul a squad that has an average age of 29.7—according to data from footballing statistics website Transfermrkt. Gianluigi Buffon, at 42, is still a part of this squad. And, the fact that Juventus had to rely on 35-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo to bail them out from tricky situations last season says it all—he finished with 37 goals in all competitions in 2019-20. Pirlo can take encouragement from the fact that he still has some top quality young players that could form the backbone of a new squad. He has two of the world’s best young defenders in Dutch star Matthijs de Ligt, 20, and Turkey’s Merih Demiral. That apart, the likes of Paulo Dybala, Federico Bernardeschi, Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot show there’s no dearth of talent in this team. Apart from a few new signings, all it needs is a manager with a calm head and vision. These are interesting times in Turin and when the new Serie A campaign begins in little over a month, all eyes will be on Andrea Pirlo, the manager.
FIRST PUBLISHED11.08.2020 | 11:00 AM IST