Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

Maurizio Sarri has the pedigree to galvanise Juventus to more Serie A success

The former Chelsea manager looking to follow in footsteps of Carlo Ancelotti and Antonio Conte by winning trophies in Turin

Maurizio Sarri faces Parma in his opening Serie A game at the Juventus helm. AFP
Maurizio Sarri faces Parma in his opening Serie A game at the Juventus helm. AFP

Let it never be said that Serie A, whose season begins Saturday, does not write helpful scripts. Narrative No 1: This title race can only be a race if a pair of former Juventus managers apply their expertise to the giant task of dethroning Juventus, winners of the last eight scudetti.

The exes concerned are true experts. Carlo Ancelotti, embarking on his second campaign at Napoli, could not quite lever the second-best team in Italy to Juve’s standards last season, but has grounds for hope ahead of this one. Antonio Conte, meanwhile, has arrived at Inter Milan with all the purposeful intent he brought to Juventus through the years when the first three of their octet of consecutive titles were achieved.

Ancelotti and Conte, serial champions both, have something else in common, besides a Juventus past: They used to manage Chelsea, and won the Premier League there at their first attempt.

A pertinent fact, not an arbitrary observation when you set these worldly, savvy coaches up against Maurizio Sarri. Sarri also used to manage Chelsea, up until June. He won the Europa League, but, unlike Ancelotti and Conte, did not win the Premier League at his first time of asking, so neither he nor Chelsea deemed it wise for him to have another year in partnership.

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Viewed from West London, the appointment of Sarri to succeed Max Allegri, who led Juventus to five titles on the trot, seemed mildly surprising.

But to judge the 60-year-old Italian on the awkward relationship he developed with some of Chelsea’s supporters - the falling-out was about footballing style, not personality - would be to miss the key rationale behind Juve’s swoop for Sarri. In Serie A he has a pedigree, having worked small miracles, above all as Ancelotti’s predecessor at Napoli, where he inspired as convincing a challenge to Juve’s domination of the league as most of the current Juve squad can recall. And he did it with thrilling football.

Sarri, whose presence at Saturday’s opening fixture at Parma is in some doubt because he has been suffering from pneumonia, acknowledges that the deficit of major titles on his CV poses questions. He is used to that.

“I haven’t won a lot,” he said ahead of embarking on what he describes as “the peak moment” of an unusual career, “and there will always be sceptics around. I heard them when I was at Empoli, at Napoli and at Chelsea.”

Empoli were the first club Sarri coached in a top division, a mere five years ago. He is a rare latecomer to elite management, a driven, independent-minded outsider who was combining part-time coaching in Italian lower-league football with a career in finance until well into his 30s. By that age, Ancelotti and Conte were international midfielders with European Cup medals.

What Sarri’s scenic, roundabout route to the top has helped to preserve is his purist outlook. This is a manager with dogmas, a principled emphasis on speed of pass and the creative use of possession. At times at Chelsea, it was derided as too mannered, even formulaic. At Napoli it seldom was.

At Juventus, the marriage of "Sarriball" - as the founder of Sarriball dislikes his style to be known - with the so-called Old Lady’s tried-and-tested systems looks the most intriguing narrative of the 2019/20 season. Conflicts are bound to arise. Sarri will be working with footballers with some of the best medal-hauls in history, and imposing his authority.

What happens, say, if Sarri, who argued with a defiant young Chelsea keeper Kepa Arrizablaga about Kepa’s tactical substitution for a cup-final penalty shoot-out, tells Gigi Buffon, who has rejoined Juve as second-choice keeper but first-choice dressing-room leader, he will not be using Buffon in a cup competition? How does he gently restyle a Juventus whose tendency to build their game around Cristiano Ronaldo ran the risk, at times last season, of making them predictable?

The new manager will relish the chance to maximise the potential of Juve’s new recruits: Matthijs de Ligt, the €80 million-plus (Dh325m) central defender, still only 19; Aaron Ramsey, whose inventive streak and energy should be assets Sarri can mould. Alongside Ramsey, signed on a free transfer from Arsenal, he inherits Adrian Rabiot, a midfielder in search of a fulfilling understanding with an employer and with a coach, having fallen out with Paris Saint-German and with the France manager, Didier Deschamps.

Gonzalo Higuain is still a Juventus player, too, and if he remains beyond the close of the transfer window, he has two directions he might go: either as the Higuain who made an awkward fit at Sarri’s Chelsea for six months. Or as the Higuain who was galvanised at Sarri’s Napoli.

Updated: August 23, 2019 09:14 AM

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