Tuesday, June 15, 2021

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Juventus Finds Its Fall Guy in Andrea Pirlo

Andrea Pirlo was given a difficult task and failed at it. But if Juventus misses out on next season’s Champions League, it won’t be entirely his fault.

The jokes almost wrote themselves. Last summer, Juventus announced that it had installed Andrea Pirlo as coach of its under-23 team. It was a thoroughly sensible idea: the perfect place for a beloved former player to cut his teeth in a new phase of his career, the ideal spot for him to take his first job in management.

The same, at the time, could not be said for what came next. Ten days after getting that job, Pirlo was handed another, this time as coach of Juventus’s first team, the one that included not only several of his former teammates, but Cristiano Ronaldo, too. And so the jokes came, cheap and quick and irresistible. Pirlo must have really impressed in those eight days! No wonder he got the job: He’d never lost a game!

The official explanation was only a little more convincing. “Today’s choice is based on the belief that Pirlo has what it takes to lead an expert and talented squad to new successes,” a Juventus club statement read. There seemed to be only three feasible, overlapping explanations, and none of them reflected especially well on the team’s hierarchy.

One — the most likely — was that it had decided to fire his predecessor, Maurizio Sarri, with little time to find a replacement who was not already in-house. Pirlo just so happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The second explanation held that Pirlo was a place-holder, willing to do the job for a year or two, until a more suitable candidate became available.

And third was the thought that, after nine Serie A titles in nine years, Juventus had come to the conclusion that it could employ anyone it wanted — the least talented of the Backstreet Boys, a friendly spaniel, or maybe, at a push, Sam Allardyce — and still win the league.

Whatever the club’s thinking, its folly was ruthlessly exposed over the subsequent nine months. It is not just that Juventus has ceded its title, or even that it has surrendered its dynasty so meekly. It is that the decline has been far steeper, far quicker and far more consequential than the club could possibly have imagined.

On Saturday, Juventus hosts Inter Milan — the team coached by its former manager, Antonio Conte, and overseen by its former technical director, Giuseppe Marotta, and that has swept to the championship this year — knowing that it must win if it is to retain any realistic ambition of playing in the Champions League next season. Otherwise, barring a collapse from one or more of Atalanta, A.C. Milan or Napoli, the ignominy of the Europa League beckons in Turin.

Juventus currently lies in fifth place in Italy, just outside the Champions League places for next season.
Alessandro Di Marco/EPA, via Shutterstock

The likelihood, of course, is that much of the blame for that will be placed squarely on Pirlo’s shoulders. Already, his future is the subject of intense scrutiny in the Italian news media: There have been various reports in the last few weeks of emergency talks inside the club to establish whether he will be allowed to fulfill the second and final year of his contract.

Outside, too, he seems to have been identified as the source of the problem. This week, a handful of Juventus fans confronted — though that is not quite the right word for what was, basically, quite a congenial conversation — the veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon outside a training facility the club was using and asked if it was true that the squad had given up on its rookie manager. Buffon assured the supporters it was not true.

Regardless, Pirlo is experienced enough to know this is how it works. The manager is always the fall guy, and particularly in these circumstances. Juventus had won nine consecutive titles with experienced managers at its helm. The year it appointed a neophyte, it collapsed. It is hardly outrageous to believe those two things might be connected.

For all the significance they are afforded, for all that we hang on their every word and elevate the best of them to guru status, managers do not make quite as much difference as we think. There have been several academic studies on how much of an impact they have on results. The book “Soccernomics” held that managers account for, at most, 8 percent of a team’s performance. “The Numbers Game” had it slightly higher. Neither estimate puts a manager’s significance close to the importance of money, or luck.

That is not to say managers do not matter. Elite soccer, in particular, is a sport of the very finest of margins; often, all that separates great triumph from bitter disappointment is a momentary lapse of concentration here or a little extra fitness there. A single, controllable factor that affects 8 percent of the outcome matters a great deal.

Matteo Bazzi/EPA, via Shutterstock

Pirlo would, on the surface, seem to be proof of that. Juventus had what appeared to be an unassailable advantage over its domestic competition for almost a decade, and yet when it traded an experienced manager for an inexperienced one, it slumped not by a few points, but from first to, potentially, fifth. Eight percent is the difference, it turns out, between Serie A titles and the Europa League.

A little deeper, though, the picture is more complex. The reason that soccer tends to react to disappointment by changing the manager is that it offers the illusion of the simple solution: Fix that 8 percent and everything else will follow. In the case of Juventus — in every case, for that matter — it does not quite work like that.

The club that Pirlo inherited was not quite the smooth-running machine it appeared. His appointment itself was proof of that: He was hired on short notice because the incumbent, Sarri, had proved stylistically unsuited to the squad. Pirlo, from the start, appeared equally ill matched: The soccer he wanted to play did not seem to be the sort of soccer that fit the players at his disposal.

Alberto Lingria/Reuters

That sort of disjointed, disconnected thinking has infected almost everything Juventus has done for some time, perhaps since it last reached the Champions League final in 2017. The signing of Ronaldo — a hugely expensive indulgence, even if his performances preclude its being called a mistake — is the most glaring example. But there are many more.

Juventus has spent the past few years desperately trying to offload whomever it can in order to reduce its salary commitments and to comply with European soccer’s financial regulations, often relying on curious swaps to do so: João Cancelo for Manchester City’s Danilo, Miralem Pjanic for Barcelona’s Arthur. It has left many on the squad feeling unwanted and uninvested.

At one point, Juventus lent Gonzalo Higuaín to A.C. Milan and then Chelsea, only to welcome him back when Sarri was appointed. It then spent a summer trying to offload the playmaker Paulo Dybala, arguably its most gifted attacker other than Ronaldo, in order to pay Higuaín’s wages.

Dybala stayed and, eventually, Higuaín left. Last season, Juventus was forced to leave Emre Can off its Champions League squad — without offering him any warning — because its playing resources were so bloated. He departed soon after, along with a clutch of other exiled veterans.

Even the signing of Ronaldo — a commercial success and, broadly, a sporting one, too — has hardly been an exercise in joined-up thinking. At this stage in his career, Ronaldo is effectively a pared-down attacking spearhead; he cannot, or at least does not, run and press as he might have done a decade ago. And yet Juventus has presented him with two coaches whose approaches work only if attackers do just that: first Sarri, and now Pirlo.

Marco Bertorello/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It is easy to see why Juventus would want to assume that Pirlo is the source of all of its troubles, to decide that changing the coach, swapping out the rookie for a more garlanded name, has the air of a panacea. It was a gamble, and it backfired. He wasn’t good enough, not yet. It was too much, too soon.

That might all be true, but it is not the root of the problem. Pirlo is not a cause; he is a symptom. The issue, for Juventus, is not with the man who got the job, it is with the people who gave it to him, whose expertise runs so deep that they took a coach with eight days’ experience and threw him into one of the most challenging jobs in Europe, and expected it all to work out fine.

A coach, after all, makes only 8 percent of the difference. The other 92 percent comes from the structure and the organization and the thinking behind the manager. Perhaps, as Juventus confronts its demise, the blame should be apportioned on similar lines.

Pool photo by Richard Heathcote

It is the memories passed down between the generations that slowly, steadily accrete into something that becomes a tradition, and so it is with the greatest tradition in English soccer: worrying about the diminishing majesty of the F.A. Cup.

Those who were there speak in hushed tones of the year that Manchester United was forced to pull out because the authorities wanted the team to play in a tournament in Brazil instead, or of the time that Liverpool sent out a squad of under-7s because the club had a more important game in Qatar the next day.

But every club has its own story: a set of reserves sent out to play so as to save the first team for the league; a manager admitting that the cup is a distraction from the much more important business of securing 14th place, rather than 15th, in the Championship.

Nowhere is this played out in more somber tones than on British television, where the only thing that interrupts the self-flagellation about the demise of the magic of the cup is the advertising proclaiming that it is, in fact, alive and well. It is a rich irony, because what has destroyed the cup more than anything else is television, both because of the money it has poured into the Premier League and because of its insatiable demand for content.

One of the things that made the cup final special was the fact that it had a whole day reserved for it: We called it “cup final day.” There is no better gauge of its reduction in status than the fact that this year the game — Chelsea vs. Leicester on Saturday — will be squeezed in between Southampton’s meeting with Fulham and Brighton’s match with West Ham.

Still, there is hope. The other problem faced by the F.A. Cup these days is that it is almost always won by a team that considers it, at best, a consolation prize and, at worst, an afterthought, as Chelsea will if it emerges victorious at Wembley this weekend. It is nice for Chelsea, winning the F.A. Cup, but its eyes are cast on much brighter horizons.

Things are different for its opponent, Leicester City. Leicester has never won the cup. It came close, three times, in the 1960s, but lost in each final it reached. For some time — possibly until it won the Premier League in 2016 — those defeats defined the club, at least in the eyes of a generation of fans. This weekend is a long-awaited chance to address that longing.

Winning the cup would mean a lot to Leicester — so much, in fact, that it might even have the power to change the meaning of the cup itself, to prove that the rumors of its demise have been exaggerated, that it does not have a fixed value, but rather that it signifies rather more in some contexts than in others and that, in the right hands, it still matters very much indeed.

Pedro Nunes/Reuters

From a Premier League perspective, this pandemic season has not brought quite so much chaos as anticipated. Manchester City, for the third time in four years, stands as English champion. It is the same in Germany, where Robert Lewandowski’s Bayern Munich picked up a ninth consecutive championship last weekend.

Elsewhere, though, the picture is different. Inter Milan had waited 11 years to win Serie A. Lille is two games from winning its first French title in a decade. Atlético Madrid needs two more wins to claim the Spanish championship for the first time since 2014.

But no club had waited quite so long as Sporting Lisbon (yes, yes, I know: Sporting Clube de Portugal). Until this week, it had been 19 years since the club last won the league, almost two decades of watching its two great rivals, F.C. Porto and Benfica, trade the title between them.

Under Rúben Amorim, its promising coach, Sporting has ended that purgatory in style, going through the season undefeated. That it did so in a season of empty stadiums is a shame, of course, but it did not seem to diminish the celebrations in Lisbon on Tuesday.

A word, too, for Ajax, champion yet again in the Netherlands. Rather than mount the trophy it received for winning the Eredivisie in its museum, the club chose to melt it down and create tens of thousands of little stars, one to be sent to each season-ticket holder, a reward for their perseverance in this most difficult of years, something to hold close as a memento of the year they had to stay apart.

Never, it seems, underestimate the vengeance of a governing body scorned. In the month or so since the chaotic life and unmourned death of the European Super League, UEFA has been unsparing in its pursuit of the dozen clubs who concocted the plan, its own little Catilines.

Nine of the teams were made to sign a humiliating mea culpa, repudiating their rebellion and promising never to do it again. Particular venom has been reserved, though, for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, the three holdouts. UEFA has commissioned a disciplinary panel to decide their fate, and the domestic leagues of Spain and Italy may follow suit. The latter is already threatening to deny Juventus a license for next season unless it performs repentance.

There is no doubt, of course, that much of the anger over the proposed breakaway was justified. There is little reason to sympathize at all with any of the clubs involved. But that does not mean that UEFA is best advised to use its new power — or, rather, its long-term foes’ sudden impotence — as nothing more than a cat o’ nine tails.

Bringing the mutineers to heel provides short-term satisfaction, of course. It flexes the muscles, slakes the thirst for vindication. But it also risks failing to engage with some of the ideas that lay beneath the self-interest and opportunism of the breakaway — some of which, like proper financial controls, are worthy of consideration.

Jon Super/Associated Press

Most of all, though, UEFA is in danger of calcifying the status quo, offering it a false status as the final form of the game and demonizing all change at just the point when European soccer needs it most. Not change as devised by the elite, perhaps, but change of some sort.

Currently, the economics of the game work for, at most, a couple of dozen clubs: those owned or operated by nation states or individuals of fabulous wealth, and the lesser lights of the Premier League. That is not enough. The central problem with the Super League was that it sought to put a pin in history, to freeze the elite forever as it happens to be now. UEFA’s taste for retribution risks doing precisely the same, but for the game as a whole.

A brilliantly curious question from Bill Eash. “The layout of most Premier League fields includes a small extension outside the playing field,” he points out, correctly. “Most of that surface is sloped to the barriers. I wonder: Are injuries incurred by that design? And what’s its real purpose?”

Yes, very occasionally, players hurt themselves by being forced to run at full speed down a hill into a barrier, though thankfully not as often as you would think. And no, I have no real idea why some stadiums — Old Trafford has the starkest off-field slope, I think — are designed like that. I guess it’s to do with drainage, but it has always struck me as a strange idea.

Pool photo by Ian Walton

Laurence Guttmacher has a similar “question of culture,” as he put it. “Soccer teams play a man down while someone warms up before entering the pitch. Basketball players enter a game after prolonged periods on the bench. Both sports involve similar physical demands, so why the difference in approach?”

I haven’t watched enough basketball benches to confirm this thesis, but if it’s right, my instinct is that it must be rooted in some sort of tradition — soccer players do it because they always have, and basketball players don’t because they never have — and that basketball is probably wrong on this one. It would, I think, be a good idea if the players stretched before coming on. That’s just good sense, isn’t it?

Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

And the final one of this orthodoxy-challenging trifecta comes from Carl Lennertz, who asks about the relationship between “the transfer fee versus what the player earns.” This is an especially good one, and it is a subject we should think about more.

Essentially, they are totally disconnected. There is no consequential link between a players’ salaries and the fees they can command: A player earning $250,000 a year could cost $50 million to sign; a player on $10 million a year might be given away for some nominal sum. Both are left entirely to the market to decide. I wonder, though, if it might not be a bad idea if that changed, and transfer fees were to become more, well, explicable.

By contrast, Rob Haxell is here to pick holes in arguments, particularly my (borrowed) suggestion that there might be ways of reducing the elite teams’ ability to hoard talent. “I wonder how Liverpool would feel about Virgil van Dijk being available on a cut-price deal this summer because they didn’t give him enough playing time?” he wrote, fully aware that an injury exemption would not be an especially difficult thing to draw up.

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