Since the day Andrea Pirlo was promoted from Under-23 coach — a job he held for all of a week — to the helm of the first team, everyone has wondered what Juventus would look like under his stewardship. This being Pirlo’s first-ever coaching job at any level, there was literally nothing to go on. He hadn’t even presented his coaching thesis until last week. The last month has been consumed with trying to puzzle out the greatest enigma in club history.
But really, it all came down to one question: Would Pirlo actually be any good at this?
The sample size is still incredibly small, but early indications are yes, he just might be.
The opening game of Juventus’ 2020-21 season came hot on the heels of the close of the 2019-20 campaign, and for the most part it was the opposite of last year’s soul-numbing slogs. Juventus played with energy. They were direct. They moved to regain the ball immediately after it was lost. They created a lot of really good scoring chances — so much so that it was only by dint of sheer bad luck and good goalkeeping that Juve didn’t go into halftime up three, even four goals against Sampdoria. The first-half goal they did get was an absolute beauty by my large adult son, Dejan Kulusevski. Samp came out of the second half looking to get back into the game, but ultimately didn’t end up forcing a save out of Wojciech Szczesny until there were 10 minutes left in the game, by which time Juve had picked up an insurance goal on a corner. A textbook Cristiano Ronaldo strike from the channel put things away late, giving Juve a 3-0 win and starting off the Pirlo era in style.
There was a huge amount of speculation over how Pirlo would set the team up, and when the lineup did come out there was a wide variance as to how it was reported. When Juventus sent out their usual pre-match lineup tweet, it was referred to as a 5-4-1. ESPN’s graphic ran it as a 3-5-2. In practice, it functioned more like a 3-4-1-2. Szczesny began his third year as the Juventus No. 1 as he took his place in goal. The back three was made up of Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, and a returning Giorgio Chiellini. Juan Cuadrado was the right wingback, while on the left a surprise start was given to 21-year-old Gianluca Frabotta. Weston McKennie was another surprise starter, as he was paired with Adrien Rabiot in midfield. Aaron Ramsey was given a start in the hole, with the freedom to roam behind Ronaldo and Kulusevski up front.
Claudio Ranieri began his first full year at Sampdoria after replacing Eusebio Di Francesco last year and righting the ship after a bad start threatened to put them in the relegation race. In contrast to Pirlo, there are few with more experience than Ranieri, and on Sunday he marked his 400th Serie A game as a manager. He deployed a 4-1-4-1 setup, with former Juve product Emil Audero at its base. Bartosz Bereszynski, Omar Colley, Lorenzo Tonelli, and Tomasso Augello made up the back four. Another former Juve player, Albin Ekdal, sat in front of the defense, with Morten Thorsby and Jakub Jankto in the middle of the bank of four in front of him. Fabio Depaoli and Mehdi Leris bookended those two, with Federico Bonazzoli serving as the lone striker up front.
Samp took the opening kickoff, but Juve had players in their faces almost immediately, and Ranieri’s players were clearly shaken by the intensity of the press. Four minutes in they were extraordinarily lucky not to go down a man when Ramsey jumped Tonelli upfield. The center-back tripped the Welshman up in what looked like a carbon copy of the July play against Lecce that saw Fabio Lucioni sent off for a last-man foul, but referee Marco Picinnini only showed a yellow. In fairness, it was the only mistake Picinnini made all game — and it ended up not mattering in the least.
Two minutes after that incident the game saw its first shot, a long-range effort from Danilo that curled just over the bar after he received a good square pass from McKennie. Five minutes after that, Ronaldo got his first shot of the day in, receiving a good through ball from Ramsey and charging down the left channel. He could perhaps have let fly a little earlier, and as it happened the angle was acute enough for Audero to parry the ball away for a corner.
Two minutes later, though, he had zero chance on a goal that was truly...KuluSEXY.
(I’ll see myself out.)
The play started with Rabiot, who lofted a pass up the middle of the field about 15 yards to Ramsey, who headed the ball down into the path of Ronaldo. The Portuguese tried to drive the right channel but ran into a double-team, with Augello getting a foot in to get the ball away. Kulusevski was lurking behind the run, though, and he snapped a first-time shot that stayed low, took an incredible bend, and skipped into the net on a bounce. It was the kind of goal that had caused people to take notice of Kulusevski in the first place, and it came on his sixth touch as a Juventus player. May it be the first of many.
Juve kept up the energy, and Samp had little in the way of an outlet. Juve were soon out and out dominating play, and in the 24th minute Ronaldo came very close to his first goal of the year. This time it was a fast counter, starting with a fantastic slide tackle by McKennie. Ronaldo fed Ramsey, who returned the ball as his teammate bombed forward. Ronaldo once again may have held the ball just a little too long, but this time he beat Audero, only to have the ball rocket back off the bottom of the crossbar.
The first scary moment in the back came about three minutes later, after a Sampdoria corner pinballed around the box before arriving at the feet of Ekdal, whose shot was blocked by Danilo, with Jankto putting a follow-up wide. Juve kept on pressing, and Ronaldo missed another excellent opportunity when he side-footed a deflected Ramsey cross a whisper past the post, then McKennie went for a goal on his debut but drove it over. Depaoli posed the first true danger for Samp in the dying minutes of the half on a counterattack, but pulled his shot across goal well wide.
Ranieri took advantage of the continued implementation of the five-sub rule, and made a triple change at halftime, inserting Fabio Quagliarella and Gaston Ramirez up front and withdrawing Tonelli for Maya Yoshida. Ramirez made an instant impact, and as he had done late last season on the day Juve clinched the scudetto. Bonazzoli put a right-sided cross over the bar in the 52nd minute, and Samp zipped the ball back downfield and saw Ramirez put in an enticing ball to the back post that Bonazzoli was unable to reach.
But that only really amounted to poking a bear with a stick, and Juve clamped down, with Ronaldo just missing the top corner with a deflected shot within 60 seconds of Samp’s last chance. A few minutes later, the superstar tried a replica of the gravity-defying header he hit in Genoa last year on a Frabotta ball but couldn’t make contact, then the young wingback just missed a cross from the other side at the back post. Samp had one good look when Quagliarella pounced on a bad clearance, but he couldn’t make his old team pay and put it wide.
Pirlo made his first substitution in the 67th minute, ending a good shift for Frabotta and inserting Mattia De Sciglio. De Sciglio’s continued presence has been a source of exasperation for a lot of fans, but he announced himself with a bang four minutes after coming on, receiving a diagonal ball and then firing a shot that took a deflection and cannoned just wide.
In years past — both last year under Maurizio Sarri and the year before under Massimiliano Allegri — the absence of a second goal would have induced heart palpitations amongst the Bianconeri faithful. But in this game that feeling never came. Despite only leading 1-0, it rarely felt like Juventus wasn’t in total control. Chances kept coming, like a free kick that Ronaldo actually got on target but right at Audero, but it still never felt like the game was hanging on an edge waiting for an equalizer.
But Juve eventually did get their insurance goals. The first came off a corner with 12 minutes left to go. Kulusevski’s delivery was a good one, but McKennie and Bonucci got in each other’s way as they went up for the ball, allowing it to fall in. But Bereszynski whiffed on the clearance, allowing McKennie to stab it toward goal. Audero managed to get an arm to it, but the rebound fell to Bonucci, who slammed it into the roof of the net.
Sampdoria got their first shot on target not long after, and nearly got themselves back into the game in the 82nd minute when an Ekdal header deflected off Bonucci, forcing Szczesny into an excellent save in the middle of his goal, keeping the ball close to him and holding it with Quagliarella lurking for the rebound.
Juve kept looking for a third and nearly had one when McKennie again tested Audero. The shot had enough power to keep going after the keeper got down to parry it, forcing him to take a swing at it with his foot that cleared the ball off the line with millimeters to spare. But the third goal did finally come when Ramsey fed the ball into the right channel and Ronaldo finally got himself his goal with an excellent finish, tucking it just inside the far post to polish off an excellent opening game.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. I almost decided not to rate him, but that last save was too good. Still, it was a very easy day for the Pole.
DANILO - 8. This was a low-key masterpiece by the Brazilian. His best game in a Juve shirt by a wide margin. He led the team with four interceptions, added two tackles and three clearances, and very nearly scored the first goal of the season. Oh, and he led the team in touches with 119, pass attempts with 99, and was just off the lead in pass completion. All from a right center back position. Who knew?
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7.5. Johnny on the spot with the rebound goal, and he added in a team-leading five clearances. Also of note — he completed eight of 12 long balls. With this much more direct style of play Pirlo seems to be installing, those could end up becoming very important again.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Just typing his name again is joyful. The fact that the defense looked so much better just by his mere presence is jarring. He was his usual self even after everything he went through a year ago. The only thing missing was one of those bombs forward from the back three he liked to do under Antonio Conte and Allegri. He may break a lot, but he just doesn’t age.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. Made three tackles on the wing and added in three key passes for good measure. He’s played this wing-back spot a lot in his career, and without some of his defensive responsibilities he’s going to be someone to watch going forward.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. Excellent night Sunday. Second only to Danilo in touches and pass attempts, completing 92.2 percent of them. Kept up that constant press in the midfield, doing all the unsexy things that the midfield didn’t really do a year ago.
WESTON McKENNIE - 8.5. Dude was absolutely everywhere. Made four tackles, three interceptions, two clearances, a key pass, and hit the target with two of three shots, which were either turned into a goal on the rebound or barely cleared off the line by Audero. It’s not an understatement to say that his energy made the team go. If this is his baseline, Schalke got ripped off.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - 7. A really good game on a surprise start. I have some thoughts about the potential loan of Luca Pellegrini, but if Frabotta keeps playing like this, I’ll take him as a long-term understudy.
AARON RAMSEY - 8.5. Where the hell was this dude last year? Ramsey made the attack happen with an incredible performance, logging an assist, six key passes, and six tackles, which led the team. He didn’t do nearly as well in the hole when Sarri experimented with a 4-3-1-2 formation early last season, but whatever differences Pirlo’s interpretation of the position has from that had Ramsey going. After a month of calling for him to go, if he keeps on doing this — and more importantly keeps healthy — I will reverse that quickly.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 7.5. A constant danger up front, and he opened the season’s account with an absolutely gorgeous goal. He also made three key passes and threw in a tackle and two interceptions out of possession. Juventus has found another jewel to go with their No. 10.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Finally got himself his goal late and added two key passes. There were a few times I would have liked to see him pick up his head and pass, and two early where I definitely think he should’ve taken his shot a little earlier, but overall he was a constant danger, even if his finishing left a little bit to be desired in the early going.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Nearly scored a great goal early in his shift, and held the left down well down the stretch. If he stays healthy, I can see a role for him as a defensive closer in either wing-back spot.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. I was a little disappointed not to see him start, cause I want to see him go, but he did well to help close things out.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. Helped close things out up front from a front two. Interesting to see if he’ll be used in that way if he stays with the team.
MERIH DEMIRAL - NR. I’m hoping that this was just a case of minutes management for Chiellini as opposed to some reoccurrence of muscle problems, but I haven’t heard anything to say otherwise, and it’s a good idea to let Demiral run after he was out for so long.
Whoo, where to start here? I’ll try to be brief since this recap is long.
Pirlo’s coaching thesis, which you can read here in translated form (thanks to commenter amirnyc for dropping that in the comments of my Ronaldo piece!), emphasized recovering the ball as soon as possible after losing it, in as dangerous a position as possible, and using passes to create free space for the attack. Another point of emphasis was the formation of a diamond around the man with the ball in possession, which allows for breaking an opposing press by providing as many passing options as possible, eventually breaking the line.
You could see all of that materializing on the field Sunday night. The energy of the team, especially in the press, was of a kind that hasn’t been seen in years, maybe since Conte left. It told in the fact that Ramsey, playing as a trequartista, was the man who led the team in tackles, and by a significant margin. The team was able to break any opposing pressure in a way that Sarri’s team never figured out. The attack would build itself up, but was also far more direct, and created dangerous chances throughout the game.
This was as fun to watch as Juventus has been since Allegri broke out the Five Star formation four years ago. The kind of football that people thought Sarri would bring. It’s entertaining and it kept Juve in complete control for the majority of the match.
That’s not to say that I’m crowning Pirlo — although I’m hella enthusiastic right now. But we all thought Sarrismo was taking hold before the October internationals came and the team cratered. There’s a lot of football to play against teams much better than Sampdoria. But it’s a really encouraging start, and Juventus are fun again. That’s not nothing.
That encouraging start will see an early test in the next two weeks. That starts with a trip to Roma on Sunday. Then Juve welcome Napoli to the Allianz a week later before adjourning for the international break.