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Manu’s Grab Bag: Eulogy

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We talk the end of an era, the only two winners of the evening and what’s next.

Juventus v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Much like it wasn’t built in a day, Rome didn’t fall in one day, either.

By historian standards, the fall of the Western Roman Empire doesn’t have one exact date, it encompassed the long process of decline it suffered for 100 years aided by mismanagement, internal strife, religious changes and general incompetency. Sure, we focus on the sacking of the capital as the definitive moment when Rome fell because it fits the story better and as humans we tend to enjoy nice, tidy conclusions. And what better conclusion than Rome getting sacked by Germanic barbarians? Still, when looked at it as a whole you can argue that the Western Roman Empire fell much, much earlier than the day Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus in 476. What is inarguable is that the deposing sure made a nice exclamation point, a real “How did we get here moment?”

(Also kinda nice? The last emperor of Rome being called Romulus, same as the founder and first king of Rome. History is fun!)

Much like a crumbling empire, we knew Juventus’s reign as the Italian champs was done long before it became official last week. However, as they dragged themselves to the finish line in search of a silver lining to end the season we were still lacking that definitive moment to signal that an era was officially over, a proverbial sacking of the city, if you will.

How does a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of an AC Milan team that had never won at Allianz Stadium as an exclamation point sound, though? If you want to follow the analogy, it sure is poetic that this was overseen by Andrea Pirlo, a key player in the early years of Juventus reign and someone who was a starter in the Stadium’s first Serie A game.

Let’s cook.

LVP: Everyone

It’d be unfair of me to point to one single player for the debacle that we saw on Sunday. There’s a couple of saving graces as Matthijs de Ligt was pretty good and Alex Sandro was not horrible, but outside of that it’s hard for me to point out any other guys in the starting XI that didn’t play abysmally.

We could start with Wojciech Szczesny, whose poor clearance attempt directly led to Brahim Diaz’s opener. Or the comedy of errors that we know as the Juventus midfield a unit that only seems to be getting worse by the week. Do we want to talk about Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata? A pair that did so little in 90 minutes of playing time that I openly wondered if Felix Correia or any of the U-23 kids could have done any worse.

Even Federico Chiesa and Juan Cuadrado, two of the most consistently good performers for Juve this season affected the game only slightly more than you or I sitting at home.

This was such a throttling that it’s deserved that everyone who started the game gets to share the award. Such a spectacularly bad performance merits so. Really, only two people came out looking good out of this whole debacle.

Season Leader: Cristiano Ronaldo (13 Points)

Winner: Paulo Dybala

Paulo Dybala was getting ready to come on the pitch for the last 15 minutes or so of the match. We all know by now that Dybala has had a poor, injury riddled, complicated season to say the least. However, his talents remain unquestioned and the fact that he always seems to deliver when facing AC Milan seemed like good signs that he could have impacted the game in a positive manner. Especially a game that seemed bereft of any sort of creativity in the final third.

Of course, before he could come on the pitch, Ante Rebic scored the second goal of the evening for the Rossoneri — a pearl of a shot that nestled into the upper corner giving Szczesny no chance, but that he also had all the time in the world to unleash given Juventus horrendous closing out effort — and a dejected Dybala walked back to the bench to consult with his coach fully knowing that the game was probably over right before he had a chance to make an impact.

Dybala did come on anyway and led all players in shots attempted which tells you everything you need to know about how bad the game was for the hosts and how much better it could have been had La Joya been given more minutes, especially considering how ghastly Ronaldo and Morata were up to that point. Just inexcusable team management by Pirlo — who we will get to in a moment — and management that we wouldn’t have seen from the other big winner of the night.

Winner: Maurizio Sarri

Turns out, maybe he wasn’t the main problem after all, huh?

The more and more into the depths this Juventus team sinks, the better the short lived Maurizio Sarri team looks. Now, don’t get me wrong, Sarri’s Juve was also bad, this is not a revisionist take about how actually good they were because they were very much not.

While they did win the Scudetto, it was equal parts due to their own credit and due to the trailing teams imploding after the COVID-19-induced break, however they did actually win the league and despite the rough patches the team was never in peril of missing Europe.

I previously talked about the concept of a replacement level player, I think we are now seeing the value of a replacement level manager. Sarri had his flaws and if reports are true and he had lost the locker room, there was no option but to move on from him, but he was at the very least an experienced manager that could read and react games significantly better than Pirlo does.

Don’t get me wrong, Juventus is at this place not entirely because of Andrea Pirlo, but with a roughly similar team and with many of the same flaws, Sarri did a significantly better job on hindsight.

Watching this team crash and burn must make Mister Sarri a very happy — and very rich — man indeed.

Loser: Andrea Pirlo

Ok, let’s get into it. After a season of being very much in the Pirlo bandwagon, I think this might be the final nail in the coffin for his Juventus managerial career.

On the one hand, a lot of the problems that affect this club are not of his own doing. It’s not his fault that the midfield is a train wreck, it’s not his fault that injuries and COVID-19 ravaged the depth of the team pretty much the whole season or that an insane schedule, coupled with a short offseason made an already complicated situation significantly more so. Putting it simply, it’s not his fault he got his first managerial job leading a decaying giant with massive expectations that turned out to be far from the actual level of talent within the team.

With that being said and despite all those caveats, at this point it is clear that while the team is flawed, his performance as a manager only added to those flaws instead of diminishing them. This game was as bad on the pitch as it was on the bench. While I understand lining up Chiesa on the left to start — a flank that he has looked more and more comfortable as the season goes on — and allowing Cuadrado to operate from his favorite position on the right, to start the game, after halftime it was clear that a switch was in order. A large part of Juve’s success in the first game against this same Milan team was Chiesa wrecking Theo Hernandez — a guy who is good in attack, but iffy at best defending — on the right flank. You already knew that was a weakness, why not attack it?

I’m not the first to make this point but why take so long to make the subs? Why stay with the status quo when the team is clearly doing poorly? Why take so long to bring in Dybala? Why not let Arthur play earlier? Why keep playing Rodrigo Bentancur a guy that at this point is a shell of the player he was last year?

Why after finding some solidity playing a more traditional, less changing 4-4-2 formation does he switch back to the hybrid formations that have clearly not worked up until now? The biggest indictment overall is that despite everything, with a full squad at his disposal, this team is playing worse than they were when the season started.

It’s an almost certainty he will be let go once the season is over and rightfully so. However, I do hope he gets a chance to go back to the U-23 ranks and fine tune his managerial chops. Despite all the difficulties of the season I think he can find success and he did have good games overall where he showed what he can achieve as a manager — the first AC Milan game, the two legged semifinal win over Inter and the 3-0 win over Barcelona jump to mind — with more time and fewer expectations.

In the end, this was a lot like giving someone barely out of drivers ed, a seat at the Mercedes F1 Team with all the difficulties and expectations that go along with it. Sure, a lot of the blame has to go to whoever thought that was a good idea to begin with, but at the end of the day Pirlo had the steering wheel and he can’t be completely blameless for wrecking the car.

Parting Shot of the Week

In ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 doc “Muhammad and Larry” you get an inside look at the pre-fight camps and buzz from the heavyweight fight between the reigning champ Larry Holmes and a 38 year old previously retired Muhammad Ali.

At this point in his career, Ali is a full on washed boxer, only swayed to step back into the ring due an obscene purse price. Still, somehow, someway Muhammad Ali was a favorite going into the fight. People believed in Ali, he looked the same, he talked the same and he was Muhammad Ali, the greatest of all time, surely he would come through once again.

Of course, Ali was a shell of himself, he was battered by Holmes while offering absolutely no pushback before Ali’s trainer called the fight on the stool in the 10th round. He might have looked like his former self, but he sure wasn’t the former heavyweight champ.

That was all I could think of while watching this current iteration of Juventus. They look the same and they sound the same and they are wearing the black and white stripes and they still play in the same stadium. They still have some of the same players and the new names sure sound imposing in theory. But this team isn’t the same Juve that reigned supreme in Italy for almost a decade, they sure ain’t the same team that made Allianz Stadium a fortress or the team that win or lose would leave it all on the pitch.

You can’t win forever and no reign ends well, its part of sports. This era of Juventus football is over, let’s see what is in store for the next one.

See you Wednesday.