sarri sarriball juventus

Unfortunately, Juventus fans have to endure a mismatched marriage at the moment. Sarri and Juventus’ players are not a perfect fit for each other. Our tall midfield does not complement Sarri’s strategy to keep the ball on the ground very well. What is the benefit of having height in the squad when the ball is never played in the air? What is the benefit of having some muscle on the pitch when players are instructed to unleash a pass rather than engage physically with the opposition? What good are 30+ year old players that offer experience, but don’t have the stamina to implement the press effectively? I’m hoping we achieve some sort of success this year and I generally enjoy Sarri’s ideas, but I sometimes watch Juventus matches and see square pegs trying to force their way into round holes. 

Another lackluster performance results in a single point for Juventus, despite the superiority the home team had over its visitors in……every…….single…….department! Player versus player, coach versus coach, bank account versus bank account, this match should’ve been a simple Thursday afternoon scrimmage. It was anything but that. What is truly troubling is my lack of surprise regarding the performance, let alone the result. A team like Juventus should’ve been able to breeze past Sassuolo’s squad with ease, yet I felt a bit detached towards the outcome of the match when the final whistle was blown.

It doesn’t take a football genius to see the issues that Juventus have had throughout the last 60 days when the 4312 formation has been cemented as Sarri’s “go-to” setup. An uninspiring and sluggish midfield, a Portuguese “superstar” not fully fit (or fully motivated), the weekly appearances of Bernadeschi, …………the list goes on. I don’t consider myself a novice to this sport so I tend not to place much emphasis on a single match, nor am I an expert that can offer a perfect solution to Sarri (I don’t even have his e-mail). A muddy pitch, a tired squad post-Atletico Madrid, or maybe the small mental lapse on Buffon’s part which gave Caputo a goal could all be argued to have played a factor in the draw against Sassuolo. It’s a cruel sport sometimes. You have to deal with a lot of randomness embedded within football. A multitude of variables can have a tremendous impact in any given match, and the greatest minds in this sport fully understand that the ball is round, and anything can happen. But I think there are some deeply rooted underlying issues with Juventus’ performances.


It Takes Two

I recently read Carlo Ancelotti’s book titled “Quiet Leadership” for the second time (yes it’s that good!). He describes his detailed coaching experiences from managing Serie B’s Reggiana, to his dynastic tenure at AC Milan, as well his trophy winning campaigns in England, France, Spain, and Germany. One of the most revered coaches on the planet, highly respected by every player he’s coached, enticed by numerous 60 year old Italian women, and still able to outfox the likes of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Ancelotti bases his longevity on his humility and seeing the “truths” within the sport. Specifically, the truth that it takes two to have a successful marriage. If anyone can recall, Ancelotti’s tenure at Bayern Munich was one to forget, albeit his domestic success. Bayern’s performances were “mild”, the players didn’t respond well, and Champions League glory evaded them. Rather than an intriguing chapter in football history, Ancelotti’s tenure at Bayern Munich can be boiled down to a single uneventful page. Quickly read and soon forgotten. Scaling even further back through football history, Ancelotti once coached Juventus without much success, despite having a plethora of ridiculous talent at his disposal (Van der Sar, Ferrara, Montero, Conte, Inzaghi, Del Piero, Tacchinardi, Zidane, Zambrotta, Davids, Tudor, Trezeguet). One begs to question why a top tier coach could be successful with one talented team, and fail miserably with another.

Ancelotti speaks about the necessity of harmony between a coach and his players in his book. This isn’t rocket science for a sports fan. A coach needs the players to execute his vision, and the players need a coach to unleash their full potential. Ancelotti, like many other coaches, recognizes that not every club is a perfect fit. Sometimes the marriage doesn’t turn out to be an expected all-consuming romance, but the bride’s family has a lot of money so why not give it a shot? But to be a successful manager, he needs certain assets at his disposal. Just imagine Pep Guardiola joining a club that isn’t ready to spend $1.3 billion on new signings……..see what happens.

Let’s examine another case. Jose Mourinho took over Real Madrid in 2010 with its star studded cast. It wasn’t uncommon to think that a new dynasty would emerge from this union. World class players in every position paired with Mourinho’s tactical know-how seemed like the perfect recipe. What was the result of that 3 year relationship? One league title, one cup, one Supercup. Far below Real Madrid’s expectations (coincidentally Don Carlo came in shortly after and won La Decima). A great coach and a great club do not automatically synergize to create something more valuable than the sum of their respective individual values. This may be Juventus’ dilemma……


The Sarri Era Begins

Maurizio Sarri came into the club with a mixed bag of optimism as well as criticism from its fanbase. The expectation of a much more spectator friendly style of play was parallel with the club’s ambitions of attracting millenials. The expensive acquisition of the highest rated Instagram influencer player coupled with rubbish bold kit designs were meant to establish Juventus as the “cool kids on the block.” It’s easy to illustrate the effects of these plans from a marketing perspective today, but the playing style on the pitch is far from what was expected with the appointment of Sarri, and to a certain degree, the signing of Ronaldo. After 3 months into the season, Juventus fans have had a difficult time distinguishing what separates our current style of play versus Allegri’s Juventus last season. A squad that continues to unimpress in front of goal despite the attacking talent at its disposal, lapses in concentration, slow decision making, the regular appointment of Khedira in midfield, etc…….we’re all familiar with this story. What is more troubling is the regression of Sarri’s philosophy at Juventus. The fast flowing, one-touch, high pressing, and fearless style of play was evident in the first few matches (at least in flashes). Now?………Not so much. On occasion, we might see a crisp Dybala-Ramsey-Higuain connection in the final third, but Sarri’s trademark passing triangles throughout the backline and midfield are nonexistent. So what’s the deal? And more importantly, what should we expect going forward? Let’s take a deeper dive.


Lessons from Naples

The peak of Sarri’s football philosophy came into fruition during his 2017-2018 season at Napoli, where a bucketload of goals were scored week in, week out. Can you recall the last time Juventus scored 5 goals in a single match? Me neither. What Sarri had at Napoli that he doesn’t have at Juventus today are a certain build of players at his disposal needed to implement his brand of football. The quality of players wasn’t as important as the personal characteristics each one was required to have (I believe Juventus has always had quality on their side). Sarri’s attacking style favours quick passing vertically, horizontally, and diagonally up the pitch while in constant movement, which requires agility, balance, and awareness. His defending style of high pressing, high defending, and constant pressure requires agility, acceleration, and stamina. You don’t need a high IQ to run towards an opponent that has the ball 5 meters away from you, but you do need quick legs to impose yourself.

Fortunately for Sarri, Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis provided him with everything he needed. In attack, the trio of Insigne, Mertens, and Callejon were able to press opposition defenders successfully. If the opposition tried to pass triangularly around them, Napoli’s frontline had the agility to pivot direction and chase the receiver of the ball in order to force a mistake. Agility and acceleration are directly correlated to height and size. Napoli’s frontline trio were all shorter players (under 6 feet). The same strategy was implemented in the midfield. The collection of Hamsik, Allan, Jorginho, and Zielinski provided Sarri with an entire midfield of players under 6 feet (Hamsik was 6’0 with his mohawk) that had the necessary attributes to implement a successful press and move up the pitch quickly once the ball was retained. Youth was also a major factor in Napoli’s “Sarriball” style. Both attack and midfield were on the right side of 30 and could sustain the demands of their coach throughout the full 90 minutes of a match. The result was a shifty midfield that could stick and move like Muhammad Ali, and connect with the forwards to systematically put them in a position to score a clean goal (often a beautiful one at that). Napoli’s possession remained high, the ball was often in the opponent’s side of the pitch, and Napoli gave Juventus a scare for their title. Luckily Koulibaly saved our backsides and the rest is history.


The Kings of Press

Jurgen Klopp once said “The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it. The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.” The term “gegenpress” was popularized by the German manager during his time at Dortmund (one of those fabricated “hip” German words to describe team pressing). Another famous coach who was able to implement a successful press with his squad was Pep Guardiola. Pep’s Barcelona (2008 to 2012) is often argued to be the greatest football squad ever assembled. 3 league titles, 2 domestic cups, 3 Supercups, 2 Champions League trophies, 2 UEFA Supercups, and 2 FIFA Club World Cups (for what they’re worth). What did Pep have that others didn’t? Apart from an Argentinian monster, a pack of short, low center of gravity players who could quickly sprint towards opposition and force mistakes before quickly transitioning to a possession-based attack. Does this style of play sound familiar? Even in midfield, with the exception of the scoundrel Sergio Busquets, Barcelona had a short, agile, shifty group of players that could move the ball, and move it well (even Mascherano was only 5’7).

Maurizio Sarri’s brief but somewhat underwhelming mediocre stint at Chelsea can be drawn upon as well. In consulting with a few Chelsea supporters and watching many matches myself, I formed the understanding that the adoption of Sarriball never came into fruition because of Chelsea’ subpar defense. Rudiger, David Luiz, and the fullbacks were never comfortable passing the ball between themselves with Jorginho at the center. Whenever Chelsea’s backline was pressed, ball possession would be overturned and Chelsea would concede a goal. Sarri didn’t have the players needed to compliment his system. That being said, credit for a third place finish and a Europa League victory is due. The stand out performers under Sarri were Hazard, Pedro, Jorginho, and Willian. What was their common denominator? They were all 5’7 or shorter. Even Kanté started becoming a more complete player while under the tutelage of Sarri and whose growth is now paying dividends under Frank Lampard’s regime. This set of shorter players allowed Chelsea to enjoy more possession in the Premier League than Napoli ever did in Serie A under his tenure. Who were Chelsea’s underperformers in the Premier League? Giroud, Morata, and Ross Barkley. Can you guess what all 3 of these players had in common?


Juventus: Present Day

So, let’s connect some dots. Juventus’ midfield septet of Bentancur, Can, Khedira, Matuidi, Pjanic, Rabiot, and Ramsey have now all been soaked in holy water from the great mountains of Sarrismo. So why isn’t the midfield passing well? Why isn’t it fluid? Why does the midfield often look like it’s lost in a parking lot? Pjanic and Ramsey are under 6 feet tall and have demonstrated their ability to play Sarriball effectively. Fluid movement, one touch passing, pressing when opposition is near. Ramsey doesn’t start often (due to injuries), but there is no denying that his link up play is beautiful and his reading of the game is above average in our current system. Pjanic doesn’t need any praising from me, assuming you are a Juventus fan and have watched him play. Nothing else needs to be said about this great man. But the others? All above 6 feet. We’ve seen sporadic link up play from Rabiot on occasion, but his movement is very linear, much like a train restricted to its tracks. Emre Can cannot pass well and much like Khedira, has the turning radius of a decommissioned tugboat. Bentancur is quite shifty at times, but I rarely see one touch passes from him and he has a tendency to hold onto the ball for too long, a big no-no for Sarriball.

So what does this mean? Big players do not fit into Sarri’s system very well. Marek Hamsik was the tallest midfielder (at 6 feet with mohawk) to fit into Sarri’s system successfully, but he’s considered an anomaly. Watching Serie A since the 90s, I can say with full confidence that Hamsik is one of the greatest midfielders to grace our league with his presence. His aggression, intelligence, passing repertoire, energy, and one-touch technique was the reason why Juventus tried to sign him on multiple occasions (unfortunately we signed Christian Poulsen instead). We now have the privilege of watching Khedira and Matuidi entertain us with their graceful touches. Pressing with taller, slower players not only hampers Sarriball, it exacerbates any weaknesses the system might have. By not pressing with appropriate acceleration, Juventus players leaves large problematic gaps behind them while gifting opposition players more time to think in transition. A key strength of Sarri’s defending style now becomes its greatest enemy when fielding bigger players.

One must also look at which non-defensive Juventus players have lived up to their potential upon Sarri’s arrival. While this topic is up for debate in some Juventus fan circles, it’s easy to see the impact Dybala (5’10), Douglas Costa (5’8), Pjanic (5’9), and Cuadrado (5’10) have had this season. Sarri likes to keep the ball moving on the ground and these shorter players compliment his philosophy perfectly. Higuain (6’1) is also enjoying a renaissance season and is the exception in this argument. He too is considered to be an anomaly given his high football IQ, his one-touch passing technique, and his outstanding chemistry with Sarri as manager. On the flipside, it’s easy to see that Bernardeschi (6’1), Ronaldo (6’2), Khedira (6’2), and Can (6’0) have all played below expectations. One must also consider Mandzukic (6’3), who has unfortunately been given bench duty all season and has not featured at all this year. Is he too tall for Sarri? Transfer rumours aside, it’s mind-boggling to see Mandzukic receive bench treatment while Sarri featured the likes of Arkadiusz Milik on a regular basis at Napoli. But Milik only scored 10 league goals over 2 seasons under Sarri; he was 6’1.



Where do we go from here? Well, if it were up to me, I would caution any fan wishing that Pogba comes back. Yes he was a force to be reckoned with under Mister Allegri, but how Pogba would fare under Sarri is a question that deserves some attention. Pogba is tall, strong, capable of finding a long pass, and isn’t scared to lunge in for a tackle. But like Bentancur, he too can hold onto the ball for too long, which allows the opposition to retreat, regroup, and defend. He’s great at spraying the ball around, but quick 1-2 passing and dedicating energy towards the defensive cause is not his cup of tea. His acceleration is also subpar. A PogBack project could easily turn into PogBust. If it were up to me, and I do play fantasy calcio in my head every night, I would try to lure in Marco Verratti. If you’ve read this article up to this point, the reasoning is obvious.


The 500 Pound Elephant

The presence of Cristiano Ronaldo is another issue altogether, but does need to be addressed in light of Ancelotti’s “perfect marriage” assessment. Whether he was brought in to help Juventus win the Champions League, or to simply sell shirts, is a deep rabbit hole that I will avoid, but his presence has been felt on the pitch with mixed results. From a tactics perspective, Ronaldo is not a great fit for Sarri. There’s no argument to support it, not that I’ve seen, other than him being a fantastic player. But his talent is accompanied by a large degree of selfishness. In addition, playing a high defensive line pushes your opposition further back and makes them unintentionally more compact. Ronaldo has graced the footballing world with his brilliant offensive awareness for more than a decade, but a closer look will reveal that his highest scoring seasons have all been in systems that emphasized counter attacks vaulted from deep defensive lines. Manchester United, Real Madrid, and the national Portugal team implemented systems where defenders sat deeper thus opening up the pitch to allow Ronaldo to operate more freely. A combination of playing in Serie A, where the marking is tighter, coupled with Sarri’s high defensive line, has forced Ronaldo into territory where he is swarmed with opposition players more often than what he is used to. Furthermore, he is being forced to pass to his team mates more often in the build-up, which was never his strong suit. Ronaldo also lacks the desire ability to defend up top. Because of this, the high forward press becomes somewhat useless when the opposition knows that they can play out from their right side; hence why Matuidi has become a necessity for Juventus at the moment.

As a result, we now have a system that only operates at 66% of its potential beyond the defensive line. Sarri is forced to overcompensate for Ronnie’s lack of defending by having a tractor like Matuidi cover the ground left behind him. Regularly fielding Matuidi comes at the expense of being able to successfully build play on the left side of the pitch. Ronaldo’s height is also not utilized in Sarri’s system. One of his trademark goals has been the jumping header inside the opposition’s box, often executed at the far post. With the team playing more centrally in the 4312 while keeping the ball moving on the ground, these chances are now scarce. His presence has also affected Dybala, a player whose skillset and height compliments Sarriball perfectly. Ronnie is still regarded as one of the best footballers of all time, but when a player does not fit the system, or to put it more correctly, when the system tries to accommodate for a player, his teammates are negatively affected (Dybala for example). Just ask Cavani what happened when PSG signed Ibrahimovic…..


A Pending Divorce or Marriage Counselling?

Unfortunately, Juventus fans have to endure a mismatched marriage at the moment. Sarri and Juventus’ players are not a perfect fit for each other. Our tall midfield does not complement Sarri’s strategy to keep the ball on the ground very well. What is the benefit of having height in the squad when the ball is never played in the air? What is the benefit of having some muscle on the pitch when players are instructed to unleash a pass rather than engage physically with the opposition? What good are 30+ year old players that offer experience, but don’t have the stamina to implement the press effectively? I’m hoping we achieve some sort of success this year and I generally enjoy Sarri’s ideas, but I sometimes watch Juventus matches and see square pegs trying to force their way into round holes.

I am not claiming that Champions League glory is unattainable, all you have to do is watch Chelsea’s 2012 campaign to understand that the best team doesn’t always win, so we do have a shot. But I can’t see “Sarriball” ever flourishing with our current squad. I don’t want to be completely pessimistic and do believe we can improve in small steps, but we have some serious headwinds to trek through before we, as fans, feel confident in competing against the other heavyweights in Europe. This might be a good time to step back, shake off any frustrations you’ve had with Juventus this season, and perhaps practice some form of gratitude to stay sane. I know for a fact that I am thankful that we didn’t swap Dybala (5’10) for Lukaku (6’3)……….

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