t did not take Andrea Pirlo long to get back in character as Il Maestro. On Monday he had been a student, successfully defending his thesis to complete his Uefa Pro Licence course at the Manager’s School in Coverciano. On Sunday, he was a teacher, helping the new kids at Juventus to integrate with their returning classmates whilst ensuring the highest standards were maintained.
Or perhaps that is selling him short. Pirlo did not just keep Juventus ticking along in his first game in charge, but guided them to a commanding victory of the sort that had been rare in recent times.
The 3-0 margin of victory against Sampdoria tells only part of the story. Pirlo’s thesis runs to 30 pages, with chapters addressing different phases of the game, but he sets out his core vision in an opening sentence marked in bold and underlined: “The founding idea of my football is based on a desire for proactivity, playing with possession and on the attack.”
A glance at the numbers on Sunday could tell you already that Juventus delivered – hoarding more than 66% possession and attempting 20 shots. The game itself revealed so much more. Juventus were dynamic, fluid and fast, ripping into their opponents. The contrast with the team of last season was immediate and stark. Pirlo’s predecessor, Maurizio Sarri, had lamented his team’s ponderous passing, observing that “when you move the ball this slowly you get assaulted and you lose it”. On Sunday, Juventus were the aggressors.
An injection of youth may have helped. The Bianconeri start this season with the oldest first-team squad in Serie A, according to the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, but Pirlo placed his trust immediately in three younger players – the new signings Dejan Kulusevski, 20, and Weston McKennie, 22, plus the left-back Gianluca Frabotta, 21.
Only one of those had been expected to start. Kulusevski was voted as Serie A’s best young player while at Parma last season, collecting his award before kick-off on Sunday together with Paulo Dybala – the 2019-20 MVP. Juventus signed the Swede for €40m in January but left him with the Ducali until the end of the campaign.
McKennie’s inclusion was more of a surprise, the American previously presumed to sit behind fellow new arrival Arthur in the midfield pecking order. But the real eyebrow-raiser was Frabotta, a graduate of Bologna’s academy who made his senior debut in August but who had been expected to spend this season out on loan with a team in Serie B. An injury to Alex Sandro had left a vacancy in the starting XI but Luca Pellegrini or Mattia De Sciglio were more obvious candidates to fill it.
Pirlo’s selections were vindicated. Kulusevski opened the scoring with a beautifully taken goal, curling a first-time finish around a defender and into the bottom corner after Cristiano Ronaldo was dispossessed on the edge of the box. McKennie had the 1,000 permitted fans at the Allianz Stadium on their feet when his sliding tackle launched an attack that ended with his Portuguese teammate rattling the crossbar.
Frabotta could not boast quite such an eye-catching moment but his energy and selflessness down the left were just as valuable to the team. Juventus’s formation was hard to pin down, switching between something like a 3-4-3 in possession to a 4-4-2 when the ball was lost, but Frabotta looked just as comfortable supporting the attack as dropping into the defence.
To talk about formations at all might be missing the point. In his thesis, Pirlo writes at length about his belief that players’ roles on the pitch are no longer defined by specific positions but instead the “functions” they fill.
One of his key concepts is that a player in possession should find himself at the centre of a diamond of passing options – with teammates making themselves available in front and behind as well as on either side. Crucial to that idea is having certain members of the team who maintain width at all times, something Frabotta did throughout.
By filling that function so diligently, together with Juan Cuadrado on the opposite side, he made it possible for teammates to roam more freely. The other great success story of this opening game for Juventus was Aaron Ramsey, who gave his most complete performance since joining the club – swapping positions constantly with Ronaldo and Kulusevski in the final third.
It was the Welshman who served the final pass before Ronaldo’s aforementioned shot on to the bar. On another day, he might have had a hat-trick of assists. As it was, he settled for just the one, a simple yet incisive through ball that Ronaldo drilled in off the post in the 88th minute to make the score 3-0, after Leonardo Bonucci had stabbed in Juventus’s second from a corner.
Pirlo was a composed presence in the dugout, his quiet reflection and tailored suit providing a visual contrast to Sarri’s nervous pacing and compromise sweater. He celebrated Kulsevski’s opener by turning away from the pitch to look for a bottle of water.
His full-time analysis was similarly even-keeled, Pirlo observing that his team should have scored more goals during a dominant first half and acknowledging they lost some control for a period in the second. Mostly, he was encouraged by how his players were responding to him. “I hope we can continue this relationship of mutual exchange,” he said. “I liked to speak with the manager when I played and I think it’s important to have a dialogue today.”
This was not a moment for sweeping conclusions. Sampdoria finished 15th last season and another lower mid-table campaign seems likely. Claudio Ranieri lined them up initially in an unambitious 4-5-1, and Juventus looked less comfortable once he introduced Fabio Quagliarella and Gastón Ramírez at half-time. Another referee might have awarded the visitors a penalty when Federico Bonazolli struck the ball on to Bonucci’s arm, though it was at point-blank range.
Juventus were far from flawless but Pirlo’s first game in management could certainly be described as an encouraging start. “It will take more time to put together the systems that inspire me,” he said. “The teams of [Pep] Guardiola, [Carlo] Ancelotti and [Antonio] Conte left a big impression on me, but only to use as a prompt – I have no desire to copy and paste. I have my own ideas and I will take them forward.”
Il Maestro is only just getting started in his new role. Already, though, he occupies a familiar position at the front of the Serie A class.