Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 September 2020

Juventus now demand Champions League success - is rookie manager Andrea Pirlo the man for the task?

Former midfielder has taken over from the sacked Maurzio Sarri and enters his first job as a senior head coach

“I wouldn’t advise anyone to predict me having a future as a coach. It’s not the sort of job I’d be enthusiastic about. Too many things to worry over, and a way of life too similar to being a player."

So wrote Andrea Pirlo in the spring of 2013, in his quirky autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play. His thoughts had turned to what he might do once he finished governing midfields, issuing pinpoint passes and greeting the applause of worldwide audiences with that air of unflappable nonchalance.

Like many of Pirlo’s opinions, the idea that management was not for him was delivered with a degree of certainty.

Somewhere along the way, after Pirlo’s last match as a professional in 2017, something changed. He tip-toed into the idea of coaching and suddenly found himself on a fast-track that will bewilder even the supercool Pirlo.

As a player, his great skill was to set the tempo of the most intense, high-pressure matches; as a coach, everything around him has happened at breakneck speed.

Only a year ago did Pirlo, 41, embark on his Uefa Pro Licence courses, the qualification that allows a manager to take charge of a top-division club in Europe. Only 10 days ago was he appointed as manager of Juventus under-23s. On Saturday, he left that job to become head coach of Juve’s first team, the champions of Italy.

Cue the banter from within the Juve dressing room, where a clutch of players still know Pirlo best as the former teammate with whom they won four successive league titles.

“So, do I have to call you ‘Mister’ now?” joked Gianluigi Buffon, the goalkeeper who, at 42, is about to enter the 26th year of his illustrious career. Pirlo, at 41, is his junior.

The Old Lady, as Juventus are known, have abruptly partnered with a very young man in managerial terms. The marriage must carry risks. Pirlo is Juve’s third manager in as many summers.

Massimiliano Allegri, who had just won his fifth successive Italian championship at the club, was pushed to the exit in 2019. Maurizio Sarri, who had just won the Europa League with Chelsea, replaced Allegri and Sarri’s Juve clinched the league title two weeks ago. Last Friday they were knocked out of the Champions League by Olympique Lyonnais and within 24 hours Sarri had been sacked and Pirlo promoted.

What Juventus now expect, or demand of a coach is crystal-clear: a Champions League title. Their last was in 1996. Allegri reached two finals, but lost them both. Sarri’s central failure was the 1-0 first leg defeat his Juventus suffered in Lyon way back in February. They won 2-1 on Friday but went out on away goals.

From the directors seats at the Juventus Stadium, Sarri’s football also looked too ponderous, one dimensional, and the dependence on Cristiano Ronaldo, 35, Juve’s top goalscorer and the biggest single investment in a footballer the club have ever made, began to seem systemic.

Those are among the issues Pirlo, the man who wrote that management entails “too many worries”, will find waiting in his in-tray as he sets about transferring the intelligence and analytical strengths he showed as a player to the touchline.

“He’s a quiet leader,” according to Cesare Prandelli, Pirlo’s manager for four years with the Italy national team. “But when he peaks, the rest of the dressing room sits up and listens.”

A World Cup winner, twice a Champions League gold-medallist - with AC Milan, where he played most of his club career and where he evolved from attacking playmaker to deeper-lying midfielder - Pirlo’s playing distinctions are fresh enough in the mind to give him instant dressing room authority. Juventus supporters will likely back a man who, in spite of his Milan past, was associated with a period of domestic dominance.

His employers know his type are now fashionable. Juve have noted, enviously, the success at Real Madrid of Zinedine Zidane, an ex-Madrid player who had only coached in the youth system before he was elevated to the main job. It’s the same backstory as Pep Guardiola's at Barcelona.

Pirlo can meanwhile look around Serie A next season and see former teammates like Gennaro Gattuso (Napoli) and the Inzaghi brothers, Simone and Filippo (Lazio and Benevento) working as managers, all still in their early or mid-40s. But they have been in senior jobs for some years.

Pirlo is the absolute novice in a hotseat where patience is no longer part of the package.

Updated: August 9, 2020 04:32 PM

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