The mind games began at the end of May. Not from a pretender to the Juventus throne, but from Maurizio Sarri’s predecessor.
Sarri had yet to be announced as the Old Lady’s new coach back then but Massimiliano Allegri seemed to have a very good idea of who the club were lining up as his replacement. In his goodbye press conference, he once again stoked up the debate that had raged throughout the final two years of his tenure.
Does how you win matter? Last time he checked Juve’s motto, he didn’t think so. It claims “winning is the only thing that counts” and Allegri is a born winner. In coaching, guys like him are few and far between. As he sees it, you either got it or you don’t. Winning is not something you learn.
“I could give you an example,” he said, “but if I do, I’d bring the house down.” Some in the room thought Allegri meant Sarri who, at the time, had lifted only one trophy his whole career: the Serie D Coppa Italia.
In his final TV interview before heading off on his holidays, Allegri did what he often does, downplaying his own role in Juventus’ success while championing the work of the club and its players. He dismissed the idea that his successor has a big job on his hands to maintain the standards he set. “It’s a winning team,” Allegri said. “It’s a team that has got what it takes to keep winning. It’s a team that’s way better than the rest and has a 90 percent chance of winning [the league] again.”
Innocent and nonchalant in his delivery, Allegri would never have said such a thing in the event he were staying. It was, perhaps, a subtle way of applying some pressure on his successor.
While many still make Juventus favourites for the Scudetto, which would be their ninth straight if successful, they do seem less of a sure thing than usual.
For a start, Sarri’s appointment is the most left-field since that of Gigi Maifredi in 1990. Sure, the circumstances are different. Sarri is undoubtedly better prepared and more experienced than Maifredi was then. Juventus, as a club, are united behind him and he’s taking over a winning team. Make no mistake: if Sarri can get his ideas across and make a group of players this talented play in the style he implemented so successfully at Napoli, then we could be about to see the best Juventus of all-time.
But doubts remain.
Are the goalkeepers as comfortable on the ball as he needs them to be? Is a defence used to defending man-to-man, backing off and defending its own penalty area prepared to go zonal and step up, playing with wide open spaces behind it? And what of the attack?
One of the challenges Sarri faced when attempting to impose his style at Chelsea in England was the tentativeness or unwillingness to play quick combinations. Midfielders needed too many touches. Wingers held onto the ball too long, stopping and starting, allowing opposition defences to regroup and re-organise.
On Juve’s preseason tour, Sarri spoke about the re-education process for his new squad and how he needs time to change the habits of players who’ve worked under different coaches with different ideas for such a long time. His biggest challenge might be the players’ muscle memory. Sarri must convince Giorgio Chiellini, 35, and Cristiano Ronaldo, 34, to play another way. In fact, during the Asia leg of Juve’s preseason, he described his job as organising 10 players around CR7.
Sarri is the one who will have to adapt to the winner of multiple Ballons d’Or, and to Juventus. It’s not going to be the other way round. And so, a coach used to relying on a contingent of 13-14 players now has to keep a squad of superstars happy, something Allegri made look easy, and the club hasn’t helped Sarri in this regard.