One trophy down, three to go.
While the prospect of a treble does indeed seem like a pipe dream — given the living hydra of a Serie A race and the remaining heavyweights in the Champions League — the recent Supercoppa Italiana victory over Napoli was indeed a much-needed palate cleanser for Andrea Pirlo’s side, and surely the ritual, even as short-lived as it was, of lifting the trophy and popping some champagne was enough to whet the appetite for more silverware. Winning three straight games by a combined score of 8-0 just feels good.
I wrote in early February of last year arguing that Juventus should part ways with Maurizio Sarri, whether or not the former banker led the Old Lady to the Scudetto. He did, of course, win that trophy, and he subsequently was canned. My claim wasn’t the hottest take in the world, but it did indeed to prove prescient — the club was winning for the most part, although the competition in Italy wasn’t nearly what it is this campaign, but there was the glaring concern of a supposed attack-minded coach and the lack of goals for the Bianconeri. There was the rigidity of Sarri’s system. There was perhaps, most of all, a feeling that the players were never really on board the Sarri train.
I think that fact, for me, speaking in hindsight, was the red flag that should’ve set everything off. A manager is first and foremost a manager of people, not of tactics or style. Sarri somehow managed to win the league but remain problematic enough to warrant dismissal in the club’s eyes, and I have to think that the disconnect with the players was a significant reason.
The longer I’ve watched Pirlo stalk the sidelines, the more I am convinced that, unlike what I wrote about Sarri almost exactly a year ago, the first-year manager deserves a second year even if a rival in Milan wrests the Scudetto out of Juve’s hands for the first time in a decade.
Pirlo’s tactics have failed and succeeded but do seem more malleable and sensible than Sarri’s. Pirlo’s team isn’t winning every big game (hello, Inter) but they are, at least, winning some (hello, Milan and Napoli). But more than tactics or wins — given enough wins, and there have been at this point — Pirlo already appears to command the respect and love of the players, whether that’s the kids from the Under-23 team or Cristiano Ronaldo himself, more so than Sarri ever did.
There is innate and natural about Pirlo as manager, and the club should bring him back even if the hardware hegemony is broken.
Slowly coming around: Dejan Kulusevski, Arthur Melo & Rodrigo Bentancur
I’m thinking back to the first two or three months of Pirlo’s appointment, when many of us were happy with how forgotten, old, or second-thought players were doing so very well under the manager in his first escapades with the club.
Danilo, swapped for Joao Cancelo and some moneybags, was suddenly a totally resurrected player as a third central defender. No longer was he a last-resort fullback who you hoped wouldn’t make a grave mistake; he was and has been calm on the ball, sure in his tackling, and capable of the occasional extraordinary moment. Juan Cuadrado was undergoing yet another renaissance — how many have there been for the Colombian? — not as a true right back but as a right wingback. Alvaro Morata, whose (re)transfer to Juventus was met with mixed feelings to say the least, joined the club guns blazing.
There were other players, though, who we worried about.
Dejan Kulusevski was a potent goal scorer and playmaker at Parma a year ago as a teenager, but the change in system — from counter-attacking to ball possession — seemed like it might be a challenge for the Swede, and indeed it was. Pirlo deployed him as a wingback sometimes, as a trequartista sometimes, but in those first couple months there was more to brood over than there was to celebrate, aside from that very first goal of the season. Kulusevski looked clunky and out of place.
Arthur, an absurdly expensive signing — I know, I know, it was all about cooking the books with Miralem Pjanic going the other way, but still — looked almost completely useless, running around in tiny circles and only making passes under 10 yards. Rodrigo Bentancur looked a shadow of what we’d hoped he might become at the club, seemingly distributing the ball to the opposition more than to his own teammates.
Yet slowly but surely, all of these players have progressed, even if it’s in very, very small ways (looking at you, Bentancur!). Kulusevski has been played closer to goal, and even though he’s missed opportunities and made some questionable decisions he’s still putting the ball into the back of the net and connecting well with other Juve attackers. Both Arthur and Bentcancur might be coming off their best performances of the season over the last couple of games.
If Pirlo can find a way to not completely lose any player, to not cut anyone useful totally out of the rotation — the way it felt Allegri did with Paulo Dybala at the end of his tenure, or the way Sarri did with Mario Mandzkukic — he’s going to have a very deep, very happy squad at his disposal.
The making of a star: Weston McKennie
There’s no way of knowing how much credit Pirlo deserves for McKennie’s ascension; at the end of the day it’s the player who plays, and my gut tells me that McKennie himself deserves the vast majority of the credit for what a weapon he’s turning into before our eyes. At 22 years old, the American is blossoming into a star and already seems like someone who could grow into a regular fixture for the Bianconeri for years to come.
We talked about it some on the most recent podcast, but maybe the most compelling thing about McKennie might not even be that he’s become an important piece for the midfield, shocking as that has been over and over, but instead how he has become an important piece for the midfield. Instead of a ball-winning, energetic defender like Blaise Matuidi, McKennie has become a kind of Aaron Ramsey 2.0, with incisive, intelligent runs, clever flicks and distribution in the attacking third, all the while still possessing the energy and drive to track back to the defensive third and win the ball. And oh yeah, he’s a hell of an aerial threat.
There’s a lot to unpack with McKennie’s play, and we probably won’t be able to do so thoroughly until the end of the season, but even if Pirlo’s only credit with the Texan’s success is that the manager gave him the minutes on the field, there’s a lot to say about that. I know every once and a while the Allegri nostalgia starts to take some Juve fans, but I’m having heart palpitations imagining Allegri playing a contract-expiring Sami Khedira ahead of McKennie and forcing the American back to Schalke.
Suffice it to say: Pirlo recognizes what McKennie is becoming, and he’s playing No. 14 at the most important times. It’s ballsy, and it’s paying off. Bentancur has been at the club for years; Adrien Rabiot seems to have all the tools; Arthur came with a price tag from one of the world’s most heralded clubs; Ramsey is experienced and, when he’s playing well, versatile — it would be easy for Pirlo to explain any of those players playing over McKennie, but he’s playing the player who deserves to be played.
I am more than impressed with how Pirlo has grafted his personality and managerial mien into this club. I suspect this was the reason the hire was made, and to an extent his ability to connect with the players was something that was fairly predictable in theory, though something else in practice. But it has indeed paid off. His natural charisma, his recent playing days, his history with the club, his famous demeanor — all this has paid dividends so far this season, and hopefully for many seasons to come.