Juventus and Pirlo are gambling that the club legend can get the best out of Ronaldo & Co.
It’s another leap into the unknown for Andrea Pirlo and for Juventus, who are entrusting their mega-investment in Cristiano Ronaldo — $375 million over four years in wages and transfer fee — and their perennial hunt for the Champions League to a new manager who, until last month, had coached zero minutes of football. But Pirlo has been here before. It may look as if his bearded savant, cool-as-the-other-side-of-the-pillow (cit. Stuart Scott) persona means everything has come easily for him, and that he’s been nourished on a diet of certainties and perpetual upward travel, but this is far from the case.
Sure, Pirlo was tagged as a phenom from a young age, outperforming kids two or three age groups above him (and then, as he relates in his autobiography, often crying after because his teammates wouldn’t pass him the ball). But Pirlo, who was born in 1979, came along a decade too late to shine in the Golden Era of Italy’s “No. 10s” (your Roberto Baggios, Gianfranco Zolas and Roberto Mancinis) and a decade too early for the possession and passing game of the 2010s. Lightweight, taciturn and playing a position that was quickly becoming obsolete — like the 7-foot, low-post scorer in the NBA — his career looked to be going nowhere.
So he struck his own path, reinventing himself as a deep-lying playmaker — a role that simply didn’t exist in Serie A at the time, when holding midfielders were hard-hat guys whose main job was tackling, running and giving the ball to guys who can actually play. That he did it at a huge club like Milan, elbowing his way into a midfield that contained far greater stars, makes it all the more impressive.
It happened again in 2011. Pirlo was 32, and Milan, where he spent 10 glittering seasons, winning two Champions League titles and a World Cup, deemed him surplus to requirements, letting him leave as a free agent. He could have gone anywhere; he chose Juventus, despite the fact that a club had just appointed an ambitious up-and-coming manager, Antonio Conte, whose preferred system, 4-2-4, again had no place for him. No matter. He took the leap of faith. He and Conte worked out a way to accommodate him, changing the system to 3-5-2, and Pirlo enjoyed a stellar “second career” at Juve.
Going into management is a different leap entirely, both for him and for Juventus. As a player, you control what you do and if you’re clever enough and gifted enough, you can shape your destiny, as Pirlo did. Twice. As a manager, you work with the players you have. A bit like parenting, you can give them direction and education, preparation and inspiration, but, ultimately, they’re the ones who have to go out and make things happen.
It’s a leap for Juve, too. There is no history of Pirlo the manager, no body of work to evaluate. (We do, however, have his master’s thesis, written as part of his Pro License courses.) There’s plenty on Pirlo the player and Pirlo the man, but those things don’t always translate. So, you have to go with what you believe.
First and foremost is that — contrary to his predecessor, Maurizio Sarri, who described the team as “uncoachable” — Pirlo will be able to actually coach them. What made Sarri say Juventus were uncoachable? Mainly the fact that this is a team packed with been-there, done-that veterans, many of whom have gotten used to winning the league year after year. (In fact, Juve have won the past nine straight.) Sarri was a revolutionary; Juve’s players were blue-bloods whom the status quo suited just fine, thank you.
Pirlo won’t be asked to revolutionize. He’ll be tasked with connecting, motivating, inspiring and man-managing. Juve’s belief is that when you’re dealing with guys who already know how to win, it’s more about the tweaks and nudges. And if they come from Pirlo, it will carry that much more weight.
In this last point, there is a blueprint: Zinedine Zidane. He too was a legend catapulted into a top job at Real Madrid in 2016 with little experience (though more than Pirlo has). He too was known as someone quiet, maybe even a little introverted. But when he speaks, people listen. The hope is that it will be the same with Pirlo: those who know him well say that while his public persona is low-key, privately he’s wickedly funny and engaging.
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In terms of the football, we have very few clues — just some public pronouncements and a friendly match against Novara, a third-division side. Juventus lined up with a back three, like in the Conte era, but without the directness of the past. Instead, it was all about short, intricate passing, positional switches and committing men forward.
It’s a glimpse of what they might do, nothing more. But you see the logic. This club is still all-in on Ronaldo as the anchor, and Pirlo’s 3-5-2 allows him to operate centrally with plenty of support around him, but without the need to exert himself on the flanks. How the other pieces fit around him remains to be seen, because there’s a cynical reading to this as well.
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Pirlo is the cheap, low-risk option for a team that is prepared to take a breather after winning nine straight league titles. According to Gazzetta dello Sport, he’ll earn around $4.1 million a season (plus bonuses) over two years, which is less than one-third of what Sarri got and less than virtually all his players. Makes sense: he’s a rookie, after all. Pirlo is not coming in making demands for signings and throwing tantrums if the front office don’t get him the players he wants.
Juve’s newcomers — midfielders Weston McKennie and Arthur and forward Dejan Kulusevski — also skew young and cheaper. The transfer window is open until Oct. 5, and they’ll probably sign a veteran name-brand center-forward on a short-term deal — like Barcelona’s Luis Suarez or Roma’s Edin Dzeko — to tide them over. But having lost around $80 million last season and with projected losses in 2020-21 (in part due to the global pandemic), this is neither time for heavy investment nor for a comprehensive rebuild.
From that perspective, Pirlo fits the cost-benefit analysis. He’ll command respect from the players and garner the support of both fans and media, at least for a while. Worst-case scenario is that he can’t cut it on the bench, but if that transpires, it’s not the end of the world, since he didn’t cost much.
Pirlo, no doubt, is aware of this. Maybe, in a non-COVID-19, non-Sarri and non-Ronaldo world, he wouldn’t be handed Italy’s most storied club as his very first job. And he knows it won’t be easy, principally because he has to work with what’s available to him and because, unless he wins the league in his debut campaign, he will have done worse, on paper, than anyone who has coached the club in the past nine years.
But that’s OK. Pirlo has been here before and defied the odds. That effortlessness you see? There’s plenty of grinding and sweat behind it.
If he fails? Well, he’ll go back to being Andrea Pirlo, football legend extraordinaire, which isn’t a bad day job either.