My friends have sometimes called me a real-life Tony DiNozzo.
For those of you who don’t watch NCIS, the character played by Michael Weatherly for the show’s first 13 seasons had a trait that I very much share: he was a huge cinephile who could produce a movie quote for almost any situation imaginable.
Within hours of the twin announcements that Juventus had sacked Maurizio Sarri and promoted Andrea Pirlo from the Under-23 team to replace him — barely a week after having given him the B team job — one particular quote began running on loop my brain. It takes place about three-quarters through “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” Our heroes have just escaped the Death Star on the Millennium Falcon. We then cut to Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader discussing the placement of a homing beacon on the hero ship, with the former anxiously stating, “I’m taking an awful risk, Vader. This had better work.”
While I don’t philosophically connect the team I love to one of the more evil organizations pop culture has ever produced (though I’m sure the rest of Serie A would probably consider it apt), nor do I relish the possibility of what happens to Peter Cushing’s Tarkin about half an hour of running time later happening to Juve, I still find the quote very much fits what happened over the weekend. Since taking over as president of the club a decade ago, Andrea Agnelli has never taken a risk anywhere close to the magnitude of the one he took when he handed Pirlo the reins of the first team. This is a complete leap of faith, an immense gamble that will have one of two outcomes. It will either succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and finally get Juventus over the last remaining hump to true greatness, or it will blow up in Agnelli’s face.
That’s really the only thing anyone can definitively say about how events have turned the last few days. Pirlo, for all his greatness as a player and his status as one of the catalysts of Juve’s rebirth in 2011, is a complete unknown as a manager. He has never coached on any level. Hell, he hasn’t even completed the coaching course at Coverciano. Based on the rules, he is allowed to take the job by dint of having attended the most recent course, with his badge to be officially conferred after he hands in his thesis in October.
This is what makes this move so fascinating, as well as a little terrifying — we literally know nothing about what he might do. Anything that we would normally write about a new manager doesn’t apply in this scenario. The usual analysis about how the players might fit into the manager’s tactics, how the manager might adjust his tactics to fit the players, what changes or reinforcements the manager might want to bring in through the transfer market? It’s all out the window. Total defenestration.
Quite literally all we have to go on when it comes to trying to divine what he might be thinking is an Instagram livestream that he did a few months ago during lockdown with former Italy teammate Fabio Cannavaro:
“It depends on the players, but I do like 4-3-3 with everyone bombing forward. A lot of possession, I want to keep passing the ball around, even behind the bench if necessary!
I like 4-3-3, but of course if you realize the players can’t really work that way, you adapt and use them in a different system. If you get too fixated on a system and your players can’t do it, then you’re wasting time and not getting the best out of them.”
While that second paragraph must certainly be music to the ears of every fan who rent their garments over the inflexibility of Sarri, it’s still a very brief snippet contained inside a livestream that was meant to entertain — and maybe just give each other something to do — during the pandemic. Admittedly, my Italian is horrible and I had to read those bits in translation (my ancestors shame me from beyond), so it’s impossible for me to tell whether he was being serious or simply fooling around. The latter option is a possibility. Despite his reputation as the sport’s ultimate stoic, anyone who’s read his autobiography knows that behind the scenes he’s one of soccer’s ultimate pranksters, so it’s not out of the question that he was just joking around with his old teammate, as the crack about passing behind the bench might indicate.
We probably won’t have much of a clue as to what might be going on in his head until Juve start playing preseason friendlies, whenever that might be. Until then we are left to speculate as to what he’ll do—and to why he’s even in this position in the first place.
The cynical view is that this is a pure money move. Pirlo is reportedly earning around €1.8 million this year. That’s less than a third of what Sarri was earning, even less still than Massimiliano Allegri’s salary was and less than a sixth of what Inter currently pays Antonio Conte — which, if you believe the reports, was about where Mauricio Pochettino’s salary demands were. Considering lost revenue from the shutdown and the early Champions League exit, the fact that Sarri still has two years of his contract due unless he negotiates his release to manage elsewhere, and the outrageous financial outlay that is Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s certainly easy to think that Agnelli simply went for the cheapest option he could to give the last years of Ronaldo’s contract a final throw of the dice.
If that throw were to come up seven, then Pirlo would be the Juventus version of Zinedine Zidane, which is obviously what Agnelli is hoping for. Of course, Zidane did have far more coaching experience than Pirlo, leading Real Madrid’s B team for several years, albeit (and no one really remembers this) quite poorly, before becoming Carlo Ancelotti’s top assistant with the first team before finally getting the job when Ancelotti was fired on one of Florentino Perez’s whims.
But the thing that keeps me —and others, based on some conversations I’ve had — from completely buying into that cynical take and succumbing to thoughts of certain doom is that if there’s anyone alive who can pull this insane scheme off, it’s Pirlo. He’s one of the most cerebral players who ever lived. Renzo Ulivieri, the head of the Italian Coaches Association and the man who ran Pirlo’s coaching course, said over the weekend, “He knows more about the game than most coaches who have been working for years...He’s very focused, smart, can analyze possible instruments looking to the future of football. Pirlo is someone who looks forward.”
When it became known that Pirlo was taking the U-23 job, most of us thought that him taking the top job was ultimately a long-term plan. It’s entirely possible that Pirlo knocked the socks off Agnelli in meetings about that position so much that he decided to accelerate that timetable. Maybe it was more of a money move. Or maybe Agnelli is having one of those gut feelings Silvio Berlusconi always boasted about when reminding the world that he discovered Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello, and Ancelotti.
Of course, toward the end of Berlusconi’s time at AC Milan, he was using that track record to justify himself as he burned through legends like Clarence Seedorf and Filippo Inzaghi, both of whom were sacked after a season or less at Milan. Pirlo is coming into a situation that is at least more advantageous than late Berlusconi-era Milan in terms of talent and general transfer budget, but it remains to be seen whether his record will be better than his old Rossoneri teammates.
And that phrase, “it remains to be seen,” is really this move in a nutshell. The decision to entrust Pirlo with the first team will decide the direction the club goes in the next few years — but based on the information at our disposal it’s simply impossible to guess whether that will lead to a triumphant extension of their current string of dominance or a complete tear-down and rebuild. Things have never been more uncertain going into a season than they are right now, and that’s both thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
Agnelli has taken a great big step into the unknown. Whichever direction it takes us, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.