After a month of waiting, Juventus finally has their new coach. As announced on Sunday morning (at least on the East Coast here in the United States), Juve have hired Maurizio Sarri away from Chelsea to be Massimiliano Allegri’s successor.
Let us take a moment of silence to honor the hopes and dreams of the last of the Pep Guardiola holdouts.
In all seriousness, Sarri was always the most realistic of replacements for Allegri once it became clear that the club wasn’t interested in bringing back Antonio Conte. But make no mistake, Sarri now has his work cut out for him — this season and beyond. He has some great qualities as a coach, but also some major drawbacks, and he’ll have to balance those out if he is to continue Juve’s domestic success and finally end Juve’s Champions League drought.
The biggest positive of Sarri’s arrival is obviously the way he approaches the game. For all his worthiness, Allegri’s maddening habit of getting a one-goal lead and sitting on it ended up being his downfall. He did have one brief spurt at the end of the 2016-17 season when his “mad experiment,” the so-called Five Star lineup, attacked with abandon and ground their opponents into the turf. That team, lining up in a 4-2-3-1, ran over everything they saw from them middle of January on, before falling 4-1 at the hands of Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Cardiff. Allegri looked spooked by the result of that game, and after the first months of the next season saw the team leak goals at a rate that had not been seen up to that point in the Conte/Allegri era he pulled back hard, only ever unleashing the team when he absolutely had to, like the second leg of the 2017-18 UCL quarterfinal against Real Madrid and the second leg of the round of 16 against Atletico Madrid this past season. The rest of the team’s games tended to be won by a moment individual skill after a match that ranged from difficult to watch to ugly as sin — a source of immense frustration for fans given the bevy of attacking talent the team had at its disposal.
If all goes right, there will be no such frustration once Sarri’s system has had time to sink in. Sarri’s Napoli teams were consistently the most dangerous attacking clubs in Serie A. Gonzalo Higuain set the league record for goals under his watch. Dries Mertens went from a mildly productive winger to a 28-goal scorer as a false 9 the year after Higuain left to join Juve. The system that he developed at Empoli and perfected in Naples produces a flowing attacking game that is fun to watch and produces a ton of goals.
More than anything else, that system is the biggest plus of Sarri’s arrival.
Some of the Sarri’s detractors have dinged him for being tactically inflexible as opposed to his predecessor. But in Allegri’s later years at Juventus — especially this past season — “tactical flexibility” started becoming a synonym for “lack of identity.” This season was the first year under Allegri that the team’s nominal default formation remained the same from the beginning of the season to its end. He used 38 different lineups in 38 Serie A games. Players ran around aimlessly in attack, trying to get into position to do something special on their own rather than attacking as a unit. The 2018-19 version of Juventus was a group of individuals rather than a unit working as a collective.
Sarri’s arrival will change that. The system the media dubbed Sarrismo will provide the identity that the team hasn’t had since the Five Star experiment. There will certainly be some teething issues at the beginning of the upcoming season, and there are a few additions the team will have to make in order put the right pieces in place. In particular, the team needs an Allan-type in midfield, someone to control the defensive phase while players like Miralem Pjanic, or perhaps Aaron Ramsey, take on the kind of role that Marek Hamsik served further forward. The arrival of a player like that — Tanguy Ndombele, please, world? — would be a boon to Pjanic in particular, who isn’t a fit in the regista role and needs to be further up the field.
Sarri’s arrival could help a number of players on Juve’s roster. Daniele Rugani established himself as one of Italy’s center backs of the future under his tutelage at Empoli, and Sarri repeatedly tried to pry him out of Juve’s grip both at Napoli and Chelsea. The soon-to-be 25-year-old has hit snags in his development during his time at Juve and is entering a make-or-break season. A reunion with his old coach might be just what he needs to finally establish himself. Douglas Costa could easily shake off a lost year as an analog to Jose Callejon. But easily the player who could benefit the most besides Rugani is Paulo Dybala. The Argentine had immense difficulty adjusting to the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, stranded wide on the right where his talents couldn’t be put to their best use. But some of his best performances of the year came late in the season when Allegri used him as a false nine, and the similarities between that and Mertens’ breakout two years ago can’t be overlooked. If Sarri can use him the way he did the Belgian, we could be looking at an absolutely unstoppable attack.
That’s not to say there aren’t warts in Sarri’s makeup. The biggest issue that’s been nagging at me since he became the front-runner for the job has been his abysmal record in squad management. I’ve always remembered an interview given by Emanuele Giaccherini — who spent a year-and-a-half in Naples under Sarri — after he moved to Chievo in the winter of 2018. Giaccherini had played just 344 minutes of league football under Sarri, and a week after his transfer he told Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia), “For him, there are only 14-15 players ... For [Antonio] Conte everyone’s important and no one’s indispensable. For Sarri, his starting XI are indispensable and the others come after.”
That’s a huge red flag for a number of reasons. In the first place, squad rotation is essential to keeping the team in peak condition at the end of the year — especially for a team whose ultimate goal is the Champions League. We saw the effect that Allegri’s lack of rotation early in the season had towards the end. Mario Mandzukic looked like a spent force for much of the second half of the year. Even Blaise Matuidi looked like he needed a break. With a roster that is still very much on the older side that relies on players like Giorgio Chiellini and Ronaldo — both of whom will be 35 before and during the coming season, respectively — rotation is absolutely crucial, particularly with the expectation to compete deep into three competitions. Such an attitude can also be detrimental to the team’s future. If Sarri continues to underutilize his whole squad and talented young players with bright futures like Rodrigo Bentancur and Moise Kean end up on the outside of those 14-15 players, they could easily start agitating for moves elsewhere, or else have their development stunted if they chose to remain. Either eventuality would cause major damage to some big parts of Juve’s future.
Some have pointed to his tumultuous time this past year at Chelsea as proof he has difficulty holding a locker room, but this criticism is, in my view, spurious. Tactics have never been the main focus in the EPL, and both Sarri and Conte ended up on the wrong end of that attitude while trying to implement their systems over the last three seasons. That he managed to make the League Cup final and win the Europa League regardless of those issues is probably a better indication of his abilities. He’s certainly on the pricklier side — some fans are still up in arms about the infamous bird-flipping incident last year — but he isn’t an instant recipe for locker room discontent, provided he keeps everyone happy on the playing time front.
All in all, the good outweighs the bad here.
Sarri’s reputation as someone who delivers beautiful football but no trophies — the biggest shot that Juventini took at him during his years at Napoli — has been broken to an extent following his Europa League triumph this year. He’ll be inheriting the deepest, most talented roster he’s ever had — including one of the best players the world has ever seen. So long as he doesn’t grind players into the ground by ignoring that depth, there’s no reason to think that he can’t have success. Of course, there’s the normal definition of success, and there’s the way Juventus has come to define success over the last eight years. If this team doesn’t improve on its Champions League results of the last two years — you know, the reason Ronaldo was signed in the first place — Sarri’s time with the team will be short.
And then we’ll have to listen to the dreamers going on and on about Pep for another summer.