In Maria Konnikova’s excellent 2020 book “The Biggest Bluff,” the author tells the tale of her unlikely journey from a complete poker novice to an honest-to-God professional. In said journey, she is helped by Erik Seidel, a Poker Hall of Fame inductee and her coach throughout the book.
In one particularly poignant passage, Konnikova — who at this point is starting to play real-life tournaments — tells the tale of a hand gone wrong in which she gets wiped out by an unlucky river card flop that takes her out of the tournament. Seeking comforting words — and royally pissed off — Konnukova looks for her poker mentor. As she tells the story to Seidel about how this bad bounce ruined what at the moment had been a perfectly played hand, Seidel asks the author to retell her entire strategy and after making sure that she had indeed played the cards she was dealt perfectly; Seidel tells her to forget the entire thing happened. That’s poker, he essentially says, sometimes you get a bad bounce but as long as you played your cards to the best of your ability and can rationally defend your process and said process was the correct one, that’s all that matters.
You can’t control luck, the only thing you can control is your decisions.
I kept coming back to that passage while thinking about how to write a final season grade for the beleaguered — and now former — manager of Juventus, Andrea Pirlo.
(And I kept thinking about it in general when it comes to decision making in my life, really, because it’s great advice. One of many in the book, which I strongly recommend.)
Was Il Maestro just a victim of a declining, poorly constructed squad? Was the result of the season just a series of bad breaks and unlucky bounces? Did he play the cards he was dealt, to perfection? Or is he to blame for the overall underachieving year that the team had?
Really, you could make a solid case for either rationale. It was a shock that he was appointed in the first place as just a couple of weeks before being promoted to the senior team, Pirlo was slated to take over the U-23 squad while it was expected that Maurizio Sarri was going to continue to lead the senior Bianconeri.
Whatever spin the Juve brass tried to give the Pirlo announcement, I think we can all agree that it was a last-minute decision. Sure, there had to be some implicit trust and acknowledgment of his potential because he wouldn’t have gotten the U-23 job otherwise, but there is no chance that he was the first choice name to take the reins after Sarri’s surprise ousting.
So despite a good amount of unfounded optimism and a good first game right off the gate — that blitz over Sampdoria really got a lot of people excited and don’t you dare deny it — the season was an experiment in stops and starts, peaks and valleys as the entire spectrum of the Andrea Pirlo as a coach experience was essentially.
There were a number of highs, like the romp over FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou to secure first place in the Champions League group stage, the much-needed victory over then-leaders AC Milan at San Siro by a 3-1 scoreline in which the team finally looked like it was turning a corner after the winter break, the Supercoppa win and the last couple of matches of the league year. The biggest achievement of the season was a fairly impressive Coppa Italia run that included eliminating Inter in the semifinal round — after being dismantled by them in league play — and a solid win over a really good Atalanta to lift a trophy that had eluded them for a couple of years.
However, for every high there was a low and sometimes those lows were really low.
The deepest valley is by far the lackluster showing over two legs against Porto that left the team out of the Champions League in the round of 16 for the second year in a row. A set of two matches in which the team not only looked lackadaisical and sloppy but legitimately out played and out hustled by a Porto team that had nowhere near their level of raw talent. Two league eviscerations at the hands of the Milanese clubs that really burst the bubble of any aspirations the club might have and a number of historically negative results against mid to low table teams like Benevento, Fiorentina, Torino, Hellas Verona and Crotone were other lowlights of the season.
I’m not even including the large stretches of the year in which the team tried to play a system of football that was often vulnerable and that it seemed the players were not grasping completely as they finished with one of their worst defensive seasons in years.
So, with all that being said and following our main thesis here about how to judge Pirlo, did he play his cards right?
I think it’s undoubted he got dealt a crap hand to begin with. We might never know whatever happened behind closed doors that led to the decision of firing Sarri, but what we do know is that with little time to prepare given the COVID-19 pandemic, no offseason to really speak of and a limited budget, Pirlo was put in a position to fail from the get-go.
There’s also the issue regarding the squad that was handed to him. All of the question marks — especially regarding the midfield — turned out to be correct, and it was that unit specifically that needed to be significantly better built, for him to really develop the style of football he wanted. Despite those caveats, this was still mainly the same team that had just won the Serie A title plus the additions of talented youngsters Dejan Kulusevski, Federico Chiesa, Arthur and Weston McKennie as well as the return of fan favorite — and allegedly a Pirlo request — Alvaro Morata.
He did have horrible injury and COVID luck as almost every single player in the squad dealt with one or the other — or both! — at some point in the season, but that wasn’t a unique problem to Juve as most other clubs dealt with situations similar to that as well.
To me, Pirlo’s biggest fault was that he stuck with a system that was impossible to deploy correctly with the time and resources available to him and took way too long to switch back to a more pragmatic way of playing that could get the best out of this flawed squad. Not to harp back on Sarri, but whatever your opinion of his stint here was and of him as a manager in general — my take? Not great! — he at the very least realized that he wasn’t going to be able to do a whole heck of a lot of Sarriball with this squad and ended up putting forth a team that wasn’t great but that at least took advantage of the players he had and was a penalty shootout away of lifting a domestic double.
I’m sure if Pirlo could, he’d try to play a more conservative approach earlier like the one we saw in stints during the year and especially towards the last few matches. I’m sure that if he could he wouldn’t have entrusted Rodrigo Bentancur on that holding mid position for so long and play a counterattacking style more often. These are rookie mistakes and well, that’s exactly what he was. Still, a rookie mistake is nevertheless a mistake and Pirlo made plenty during his season in charge of Juventus. Mistakes that undoubtedly cost the team during the season and his job in the long run.
I do believe in his potential moving forward, I do think he showed a lot of good stuff regardless of the circumstances and especially against good competition. I’d love to see him be given another shot at the helm of another team, now that the Max Allegri signing has been completed.
I’d especially love to see how he does with a full preseason, with players that are more suited to the way he wants to play, lower expectations, more time to see his project through and better injury luck. AKA, how to treat a project helmed by a rookie coach.
(If there is any credence to the rumors of him being considered for the Sassuolo gig, I think that’s a great landing spot for him.)
But if we are grading this season and this season alone as much as I like the guy — and as much as he will continue to be a Juve legend — there is no other option than to give Il Maestro a failing grade.