Maurizio Sarri's revolution at Juventus leads to inevitable Serie A title but flaws have been exposed
Italian's first scudetto in his debut season in Turin was expected and truer tests will lie in the Champions League
Maurizio Sarri has always been an unusual sort of revolutionary. He had been a coach for 29 years before he landed his first major trophy. He is the footballing idealist who used to work in investment banking. He is the former banker who does everything he can to avoid wearing a suit.
On Sunday, Sarri, 61, became the oldest manager to become champion of his native Italy, with a Serie A title in his first season in charge of Juventus. “If you’ve won it with me, the guy who never won anything, you must be really good,” Sarri joked to his Juventus players after Sunday night’s 2-0 victory over Sampdoria sealed the scudetto with two matches in hand.
The remark sounded slightly barbed. Sarri led Chelsea to the Europa League title in 2019, in his sole season working outside Italy, and - as he likes to point out - oversaw championship seasons in the lower reaches of Italian football during his long climb up from the amateur ranks.
He is not really such a novice. He is in his fifth full season in Italy’s top division, where his work in building a thrilling Napoli between 2015 and 2018 will for a long time recommend him as a genuinely daring and visionary manager.
What his Juventus have not done, yet, is mirror Sarri’s best Napoli teams for entertainment. He may simply need time, and perhaps stronger arguments about why a Juventus now celebrating their ninth successive title should open themselves up to revolutionary changes of style when they know so well the formula that delivers league titles.
In this peculiar stop-start season, overshadowed by the national tragedy of the coronavirus epidemic, Juventus have done one or two revolutionary things under their non-conformist coach. For a start, they let in far more goals they ever did in winning the league under Antonio Conte (2012, 2013 and 2014) or Max Allegri (five years up until 2019).
Mean old Juve, the club who never used to concede more than 30 in a season and sometimes as few as 20, have been leaking them with abandon under Sarri. Thirty-eight and counting in 2019-20, including four in 18 mad minutes at AC Milan and three in 25 minutes at Sassuolo this month alone. The win against Sampdoria featured the first clean sheet in eight games, and only the second Juventus victory in six.
And this at the club who added Matthijs de Ligt - at the time the third most expensive defender in history - to their roster last summer. “We had problems at times understanding the coach’s approach,” said Leo Bonucci, the veteran pillar of the back line.
But Juve have probably the best possible striker to compensate for shortcomings at the back. This has been another awe-inspiring season for Cristiano Ronaldo, who, had he not struck the crossbar with a penalty on Sunday would have taken his tally of league goals for the season to 32 in his 32 appearances and his record since the June restart to 11 from 10.
Sarri can claim some credit for maximising his best match-winning asset, channeling 35-year-old Ronaldo’s energies in the most productive areas.
The hand of the coach, a studious planner, was apparent in the goal that put Juventus 1-0 up against Sampdoria: a direct free-kick that Samp expected Miralem Pjanic to shoot from, or to float a cross with, was drilled square to Ronaldo, who benefited from the element of surprise to thump in his 31st league goal.
Greater stamina from rivals would have tested Juventus’s flaws. Lazio, who looked the most accomplished team in the division for perhaps two-thirds of the season, fell away badly. Inter Milan, under Antonio Conte, have been exasperatingly brittle.
Atalanta, the most watchable Italian team of the season, lack the depth and resources to be contenders in both Serie A and the Champions League, where they have reached the last eight.
In that competition, Juve are halfway through the last 16, and trailing 1-0 to Olympique Lyonnais in the postponed tie they will complete on August 7 in Turin. Paulo Dybala, a success under Sarri, is a fitness doubt for that game.
Much hinges on it, and on further progress in the European Cup. Sarri may need to get Juve to the final to feel completely secure of being on the touchline for the next season of his three-year contract.
He and his employers will look at how the likes of Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Real Madrid finished their league seasons and know that Juve may have won the Italian title, as usual, but that they did so displaying their flaws more obviously than the in-form clubs now preparing for Europe.
Updated: July 27, 2020 05:27 PM