I am on record a number of times preaching the need for patience when it comes to assessing Maurizio Sarri. I have said that the former banker deserves a long leash extending at least to the end of next year. I have petitioned the club’s management to pursue, over the summer, players who will fit Sarri’s idea of the game better than those currently at his disposal. And I have pointed repeatedly to the fact that, all things considered, Sarri’s Juve have done just fine — sitting at the peak of the Serie A table, advancing to the semifinals of the Coppa Italia, and topping their group in the Champions League with a favorable draw in the round of 16.
As one does at the beginning of a new and strange relationship that seems exciting and auspicious at the start, I have said let’s see where this thing goes.
But I’ve changed my mind.
After Juve’s shock loss on Saturday to Hellas Verona, in which the Bianconeri not only dropped all three points but failed for an entire 90 minutes to look anything like the best side in Italy, the club must part ways with their manager this summer, whether or not they win the Scudetto.
Now a third of the way through February, the most generous reading one could give of Juve’s season, in terms of tactical change from last year, is that there have been occasional hints of Sarrismo. Taking a more cynical point of view, this looks like Max Allegri’s Juventus with a considerably more porous defense and a chunk of grinta taken out of their side.
Right now, Juventus are a team carried only by sporadic moments of individual brilliance. Such is the quality in the team that this works quite a bit of the time, whether it’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, or someone else. But this is not a sustainable recipe for success. Sarri’s ideas are taking too long to root deeply into the team, and it’s time for management to fix their mistake rather than double down.
It’s not you, it’s me!
I genuinely like Maurizio Sarri. I may even go so far as to say that I love him. For one thing, he’s got one of the most compelling narratives you can imagine for a football manager, rising through the ranks of nearly every division of calcio to quite truly the pinnacle of the sport in his country. I love the fact that he chews on a freaking cigarette stub on the sideline; it’s disgusting and amazing. I love the fact that he doesn’t wear a suit. I love the fact that he’s not as consciously manipulative as Allegri was in press conferences. I love the fact that he probably gives away too much. I love the fact that he had the ambition to come to Juventus in the first place.
For me, Sarri is everything you could possibly want in an Italian person: he’s equally frustrating, enigmatic, brilliant, absurd, and innovative. That’s what I remember from spending eight months in Italy: every individual there could be the protagonist of a very good novel, a fact that isn’t true of every country (my own included).
Sarri is so damn Italian, and I love it.
What’s more, his record speaks for itself. While at Napoli, Sarri came almost inches away from dethroning Juventus at the height of the Bianconeri’s powers. His team combined aesthetically pleasing football with absolutely devastating precision. Sarriball in Naples was like watching a jaguar stalk its prey through a jungle, maneuvering impossibly, calculating, waiting, pouncing, angling, devouring — while watching Allegri’s Juventus was like watching a python: it struck once or twice and then pretty much just squeezed. Even in one year at Chelsea, where he earned a top-four finish and the Europa League crown, Sarri’s side was more visibly influenced by his ideas.
I love Sarri, I believe in his approach to the game, but Sarri is not a fit at Juventus. That’s why the breakup needs to happen sooner rather than later. And I hope the 61-year-old finds one last club at which to implement his ideas, a club that can tolerate a few years of growing into Sarriball, but that club is not in Turin (unless Torino want to give him a shot!).
Being the manager of Juventus means you need to succeed immediately at the highest level. Sarri has not proven he’s capable of that. There is palpable regression from the last few years. And with Ronaldo still at a relatively elite level despite just turning 35 years old, this side needs a coach who can capitalize without spending multiple years to fine-tune tactics and acquire certain players with certain traits.
No answers, just blame-shifting
Sarri has provided very little in terms of answers, both about Juve’s overall form and about individual losses. He spends most of his time blaming the intensity or mindset of the players, and rarely accepting any of the culpability himself. After the loss to Hellas Verona, Sarri went so far as to blame Juve’s past success for creating a sense of entitlement.
“This team is accustomed to winning comfortably in recent years and we have to get it into our heads that we can’t afford to waste points.
“I hope the lesson will be learned, because we’ve been discussing it for some time. It’s difficult, because the team trains well, but then can’t bring out its full potential during a match situation. We have got to resolve this situation.”
He does at least say “we” rather than “they,” but even so.
I also have to respectfully disagree with my esteemed colleague Sam, who wrote the following in his recap of the Hellas Verona game:
On a tactical level, Sarri approached this game fairly well. The 4-3-3 was a better option against an organized three-man defense like Verona, which could have funneled a more narrow formation like a 4-3-1-2 into the teeth of the back line and nullified the attack. The problem is that, with a couple of exceptions, the team simply didn’t show up to play. Verona imposed themselves on the game and the team never reacted in a way that could change things. While watching the game I struggled to come up with ways that he could have used subs to change the game, simply because it wasn’t a tactical problem.
I think Sarri got the tactics wrong from the get-go of this game.
The lineup may have been announced as a 4-3-3, but as we’ve seen in the last number of games, even if Douglas Costa is listed as a right winger he drifts centrally (even to the left side of the pitch) quite often. Ronaldo and Higuain played close to each other, much more like two center forwards than a left winger and a striker. Ronaldo is no longer a left winger, and Sarri’s version of a 4-3-3 needs a left winger who gets chalk on his boots for most of the game. Ronaldo isn’t that, and he hasn’t been that for some time.
Do I know exactly what tactics should have been employed? Or what tactics Sarri should be using to fix this mess of a side? What players, what combinations, what strings to pull? Of course not. I’m an editor for a living; I’m not a football manager. Even so, noting that there’s a problem doesn’t take an expert; you need a doctor to reset and fix a broken arm properly, but you don’t need the doctor to tell you the arm is broken in the first place.
Yes, Hellas Verona deserve a ton of credit for their win, especially for those first 30 minutes (which Sarri noted in the press conference), but when your only two or three scoring chances come from moments of aberration — the amazing Douglas Costa run through the center of the pitch where he hit the woodwork, the cheeky pass from Rodrigo Bentancur that sprung Ronaldo for the goal — then you’re doing something very wrong.
(As a Hellas Verona sidebar, it’s extraordinary that this recently-promoted side both defeated Juventus in Verona and were extremely unlucky to come away pointless after the game in Turin. That first game between these two sides occurred back in September, and the visitors possessed a respectable 41 percent of the ball and equaled Juve in shots on target with three for each side. The only reason Juventus won was because of a second-half penalty, but the first game was as wrong as the second game.)
Hindsight is 20-20, but now is not the time to double down
To me and to many of us, the marriage of Sarri and Juventus already appears to be a failure. The Old Lady just happens to be talented enough to make it not be even worse than it already is. Barring a very rapid period of growth and success in the final four months of the season, things are going to stay this way. Juventus may or may not win the Scudetto. Juventus may or may not win the Coppa Italia. Juventus certainly won’t win the Champions League.
At the current “growth” rate of Sarriball, it’s going to take at least two additional years, plus a batch of different players, to get anywhere close to true change. This club does not have time for that. And instead of sticking by Sarri out of some strange sense of loyalty, management needs to cut losses when June arrives and they’re watching Liverpool and [insert opponent here] play in the Champions League final from their couch, and hire someone who’s going to truly maximize what the squad has without going to the very foundations.