Thursday was the official beginning of a new era for Juventus.
New manager Maurizio Sarri was introduced Thursday at a press conference at Allianz Stadium. Along with general manager Fabio Paratici, Sarri took questions for over an hour and outlined both his road to this moment and gave a few hints about what the road ahead might look like.
For some of the most interesting quotes from the presser, check out Calvin’s recap here. In this space, we’re going to take a look at some of those quotes and figure out what they might mean. How will Sarri handle his new charges? What might we see in the future?
Let’s take a look.
He was the first choice — or at least that’s the party line
The general perception among the fan base is that Sarri was the booby prize after Juve struck out in attempts to get Pep Guardiola and/or Mauricio Pochettino to decamp to Turin. Speaking first at the press conference, Paratici didn’t mince words, telling the assembled reporters: “We chose Maurizio because we felt he was the best coach for Juventus right now, just as (Max) Allegri was five years ago and (Antonio) Conte three years before that ... He was absolutely the first choice.”
How much the fans buy this assertion — especially the subsection that was insisting Guardiola would Apparate into Continassa at the last minute until the second that Juve officially announced Sarri’s appointment — remains to be seen. What is certain is that Sarri was the best option amongst the realistic options. Whether Paratici and club president Andrea Agnelli took a swing at the unrealistic and missed before settling (if that’s the right word) for Sarri will likely never be known for sure.
But from Paratici’s words, the front office is obviously confident in Sarri’s ability to succeed at this club.
Sarri sounds more flexible than he’s given credit for
Sarri has long been knocked for being incredibly rigid in his tactics, but if you listen to how he talked about tactics you might start to doubt that notion.
Apart from noting that he had used a 4-3-1-2 formation long before the 4-3-3 that he settled into at Napoli and Chelsea, he also pointed out the differences in the system at those clubs. He stressed the futility of trying to change the characteristics of the players on his roster, adding: “The philosophy of football remains largely the same, but you must have the mental elasticity to adapt to the players and figure out how to win games.”
This part of the press conference was a refreshing thing to hear. Not only does it suggest that we won’t see Sarri try to force square pegs into round holes once training begins, but it also suggests that we won’t be seeing the kind down-to-the-studs remodel that a change to a coach whose system is so radically different from his predecessor’s sometimes entails. The team still needs additions, most especially in the midfield. But Sarri definitely looks ready to take what he has at his disposal right now and try to maximize them within his attacking philosophy.
It also seems to preclude any drama over Cristiano Ronaldo being squeezed into a system rather than being allowed to do how Ronaldo do. Sure, there will probably be some new responsibilities for the superstar, but much like Eden Hazard, Sarri looks like he knows better than to stifle what makes him unique.
We may know what Sarri’s first-choice attack will be
At one point Sarri sang the praises of three of Juve’s stable of attackers in particular. “Ronaldo is talented, so is (Paulo) Dybala, Douglas Costa is a potential top player who hasn’t really shown what he can do consistently,” he said to the assembled reporters.
Did we just find out Sarri’s first choice in attack? It’s entirely possible.
In my article following the announcement of Sarri’s appointment, I specifically mentioned two of those three players and pointed out the similarities between them and players of Sarri’s past. Dybala, who had a hell of a time trying to adapt to Ronaldo’s arrival last summer, had some of his best games late in the season playing as a false 9. Sarri has had a lot of success playing false nines over the years, from Hazard last year to Dries Mertens at Napoli. It’s not an extravagant leap to think that he would tap Dybala to a similar role — especially as an analogue to what Mertens, who scored 28 goals in his first year in that role, did in Naples.
I also matched up Costa with a player from Sarri’s past — particularly Jose Callejon.
The Spaniard was a constant terror on the right side of Sarri’s front three, buzzing around that wing, providing quality crosses and cutting inside to get on the end of service from the other end. How many goals has he scored against Juventus by either heading or tapping in on a far post run?
Costa’s combination of pace and technique is unmatched on any roster in Serie A, and the list of players on the rest of the continent who can do what he does isn’t exactly long, either. On top of that, he can do it from either side of the field. In full form Costa can do what Callejon did — except he would be 10 times better at it.
If Costa and Dybala fill those kinds of roles effectively and dovetail with the “talented” Ronaldo (and the award for Understatement of the Year goes to....), Juve’s front line could be an absolute terror—and they’ll have even more depth backing them up in the likes of Moise Kean, Mario Mandzukic, and Federico Bernardeschi. This could be really fun to watch.
We still don’t know what’s going to happen to Gonzalo Higuain
One of the less talked-about but most intriguing aspects of this summer will be what will happen to Gonzalo Higuain. On the chopping block to cut some costs after the front office detonated the team’s carefully laid-out wage structure to bring in Ronaldo, Higuain had a lost season during separate loan spells at AC Milan and Chelsea, where he reunited with Sarri for the second half of last season.
The coach guided him to the Serie A record for goals in a season four years ago, so he obviously knows how to get the best out of him. But keeping him puts a big number back on the wage bill, and creates a huge logjam on the forward line. If he were to play up front, what would Dybala do? What about Mario Mandzukic? What would the effect be on the development of Moise Kean, who could very well be the team’s No. 9 for a decade or more if he comes good and the team treats him right.
Sarri was full of praises for Higuain, saying he could play “another 3-4 years at a high level.” But whether those years are with Juventus or somewhere else remains to be seen. It’s sad, really, because it’s was clear last year that he had developed a love for the club and didn’t want to leave, but he may have to in order to keep the roster uncluttered.
We didn’t hear about squad management
Squad management is Sarri’s biggest weakness. Former players have criticized him in the past for marginalizing the parts of the squad that doesn’t make his starting XI and his top subs, and his actions bear that out.
If that persists, it will be a huge problem.
Juventus is still the oldest team in Serie A, and of the top contenders for the Champions League. Ronaldo will be 35 by the time the Champions League knockout rounds start. Giorgio Chiellini will hit that mark before the season begins. Even the players who in their physical primes have suffered from overuse over the last few years. Miralem Pjanic, in particular, has see a significant drop-off in form during periods when he’s not given enough rest. In order to keep the team fresh for a deep run in three competitions, rotation is a must, and Sarri must learn to use his squad depth if he’s to succeed. It’s also risky in the long-term too; if a young player like Rodrigo Bentancur or Kean ends up on the outside of Sarri’s rotation looking in, they could have their development stunted or even demand to leave.
Of course, Juve is far deeper than Napoli or even Chelsea, so it may be that he discovers it easier to rely on his squad players simply because they’re better that what he used to have. Unfortunately, no one put that question to him during the conference, so we’ll have to sweat this out and figure out how he’ll deal with this issue as the season wears on.