During their playing days, Andrea Pirlo regularly made Gennaro Gattuso the butt of his jokes.
Pirlo would constantly mock his fellow midfielder’s grammar, steal his phone to send messages to AC Milan’s general manager Ariedo Braida and, in conjunction with Daniele de Rossi, torment Gattuso with one practical joke after another.
Gattuso once got so angry that he tried to “kill” Pirlo with a fork.
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So, Gattuso was never going to pass up the opportunity to mock his former team-mate’s daunting first move into management, after it was announced on Saturday that coaching novice Pirlo had been appointed as Juventus’ new boss.
“He’s screwed now!” Gattuso quipped during his interview with Sky Sport Italia after Napoli’s Champions League loss at Barcelona.
Gattuso was, of course, joking but he did have some salient words of warning for his good friend.
“He’s lucky to be starting at Juventus, but this profession is one where a great playing career is not enough,” he added.
“You have to study, to work hard, and you don’t get much sleep.
“Being a player and being a coach is really not the same thing at all. It’s a totally different profession and we can’t learn it just from books; we need to get in there and work hard. It’s a different world.”
Juve’s chief football officer, Fabio Paratici, sees things differently, claiming that Pirlo was the “natural” choice to replace Maurizio Sarri, who was sacked less than 24 hours after Juve’s Champions League elimination by Lyon on Friday night.
However, while Pirlo clearly knows the club well, and has an excellent rapport with president Andrea Agnelli, his appointment has come as a massive surprise.
After all, the 41-year-old has zero coaching experience, at any level. He was only put in charge of Juve’s Under-23s a fortnight ago and had yet to oversee a single game.
It has been suggested in some quarters that this situation is no different to Barcelona’s decision to hire Pep Guardiola in 2008 or Real Madrid’s move for Zinedine Zidane in 2016.
However, Guardiola had already spent a season in charge of the Blaugrana’s B team, which was pivotal when one considers the successful promotion of Sergio Busquets and Pedro to the senior squad.
Zidane, meanwhile, had been in charge of Real Madrid Castilla for two years, and had also served as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant during their Decima-clinching 2013-14 campaign. In short, the Frenchman had been expertly groomed for the top job.
Juve were planning to do likewise with Pirlo but that long-term plan has been replaced by a short-term solution. Of course, Pirlo could prove just as comfortable in the dugout as he was in the middle of the pitch.
He has been given one of the most demanding roles in world football – Sarri was sacked two weeks after clinching the Serie A title – but this is not a man that struggles with the weight of expectancy.
“I don’t feel pressure,” Pirlo wrote in his autobiography. “I don’t give a toss about it.
“I spent the afternoon of Sunday, July 9, 2006 in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup.”
Pirlo’s reputation as one of the best and most intelligent midfielders in the history of the game will certainly stand him in good stead when it comes to dealing with a dressing room full of superstars.
Sarri certainly struggled to convince Giorgio Chiellini & Co. of the validity of his footballing philosophy. There were reports that the players also struggled with his rather detached demeanour.
Pirlo, though, is renowned as a man of few words. He also prides himself on having a face that few people can read. His biggest challenge, then, could be building the kind of bond with his players that Sarri failed to establish.
If he gets his tactical approach right, though, the rest should follow.
It was clear that Sarri’s system of player became a struggle for Juve’s squad this season; there will little joy to be seen in their play.
Interestingly, he has previously expressed his admiration for his predecessor’s footballing philosophy. However, he has also insisted that he prefers to adapt to the players; rather than the other way around.
“I like Sarri’s game, a game with a lot of passes,” he previously recently told fellow World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro during an online chat. “I would have been able to fit in well.
“But formations are not fundamental. What counts is the occupation of space. One needs to have very clear ides and principles of play.
“I have in my head my mode of playing: with the ball at your feet and with the desire to always play to win.”
Pirlo, of course, was renowned as one of the game’s more cerebral playmakers – the fact that his autobiography was entitled ‘I think, therefore, I play’ says it all – and Renzo Ulivieri, the president of the Italian Coaches’ Association has labelled him “one of the deepest thinkers in world football”.
Of course, it does not take a genius to work out Juve’s weakness. During his brief stint as a pundit on Sky last season, Pirlo himself pointed out, “The problem is the midfield.”
Juve have already made moves to strengthen in this area, having signed Dejan Kulusevski and Arthur for next season, and Pirlo’s appointment is likely to lead to a renewed bid to land Sandro Tonali, the prodigious Brescia talent long touted as ‘the new Pirlo’.
It is certainly essential that Juve do a better job of providing their new coach with the players he needs after selling Sarri short in that regard.
As Gianfranco Zola told Sky, “This is a courageous move from the club and based on the quality of the man, but Pirlo will need their support going forward. It’s not simple.”
Indeed, Paratici made a pointed reference to Juve’s desire to play a brand of football that can prevail in Europe.
The Champions League, as Sarri discovered, is now the yardstick by which the Bianconeri measure their success. Scudetti are no longer sufficient to save a coach from the sack.
Pirlo, of course, will have far greater support from the fans, the players and the directors than Sarri ever had, because of his existing ties to the club. However, he is smart enough to realise that he was very much the low-risk, low-cost option.
Firing Sarri has cost the club about €20 million (£18m/$23.5m) in wages, and hiring Pirlo instead of the other top contenders for the job, including Mauricio Pochettino, has saved Juve a small fortune at a very difficult time for football due to the financial crisis caused by Covid-19.
There is also the fact that Guardiola, Agnelli’s long-term target, is set to become available next summer, when his contract expires at Manchester City.
Pirlo, then, will be afforded little time to show that he can prove himself at least capable of winning the Champions League as a coach.
If he fails to convince during his first season, then he really will be screwed.
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