For two seasons in a row, Maurizio Sarri has been replaced by a managerial novice. First at Chelsea, where Sarri was forced out in favour of Frank Lampard, and now, following last week’s Champions League elimination to Lyon, Juventus took the bold decision to replace the Italian with Andrea Pirlo.
The embarrassment of this decision cannot be understated. Sarri won the league in his first season with Juventus, finishing one point ahead of the strongest Inter Milan side in recent memory. Yet, a club who had given their past two managers at least three seasons decided to replace a title-winning manager with Pirlo, who has not even acquired the coaching badges required to be a UEFA Champions League manager.
Just before the resumption of the Serie A season post the COVID-19 break, we posted an article detailing how this was potentially Sarri’s ‘last chance’. Up until that point, Sarri’s Juventus looked bereft of all the hallmarks of his famous Napoli side. The team lacked tempo, and Sarri himself said he could not find a way of helping his players adapt to his system. We questioned if the lockdown could help him properly instil his methods. This was his last shot at keeping ‘Sarriball’ as a positive term in European Football. Four league draws and losses apiece and 7 wins later though, and there was no sense of a major improvement in Juventus’ performances.
Now, in August 2020, his reputation is perhaps at its lowest. Following the Round of 16 exit to Lyon, Sarri is out of a job for the first time since December 2011. Despite the past two seasons being his most successful and trophy-laden years thus far in his career, the 61-year-old now represents a figure of “boring football”.
There were plenty of defenders for the Italian, including Milan legend Arrigo Sacchi, who called Sarri’s task at Juventus ‘Mission Impossible’. However, the main bulk of the media have been quick to criticise the Italian. Sky Sports described his issues as being his ‘Stubbornness to implement his own playing style’. Whether right or wrong, there is backing to this view.
When Chelsea were beaten 4-0 by Bournemouth and 6-0 by Manchester City in the 2018/19 season, Sarri refused to budge on his ideals. “My target is to play my football, not to change,” were Sarri’s words following the game against Pep Guardiola’s side in February 2019. This season, we have seen similar statements. Sarri has repeatedly maintained his goal of bringing his football to Juventus.
Sadly, the beautiful football from his Napoli days has failed to return. His football at both Chelsea and Juventus has been called ‘slow’ and ‘methodical’, and his training sessions, as described by The Athletic, ‘repetitive’. Yet Sarri’s Napoli was noted by Pep Guardiola as one of the best teams he had ever faced. Visiting highlights from just two seasons ago feels like entering a parallel universe, where you can see Napoli blitz teams with quick one-touch football. It begs the question; why has it gone wrong?
The issues lie more in what Sarri was taking on, rather than any transformations Sarri made. At Chelsea, the team was built for 3-at-the-back defensive football, and Sarri was tasked to turn them into a cohesive attacking unit. Antonio Conte set Chelsea up inside their own half against Manchester City in early 2018, and now Sarri needed to get Chelsea playing like City. Yet, to do this in one season was too large a task.
In the 17/18 season, while Napoli dominated the ball with over 60% possession per game, Chelsea were close to 54%. Chelsea were pragmatic, using over four formations for more than 90 minutes, whereas Napoli were exclusively wedded to a 4-3-3. According to Understat, Napoli doubled Chelsea in shots from slow build-up play. The playstyles were completely different.
When Sarri moved to Chelsea, it should have been viewed as a transitional season. A view to become the golden picture of attacking football in 2-3 years. Yet he was moving to a club that had sacked 9 managers in 11 years. The Chelsea fans were very demanding of success, and the previous year had been deemed a failure after missing out on the Top 4. For managers like Sarri, Mauricio Pochettino, and Pep Guardiola, patience and complete commitment from fans, players and directors is needed. Yet at Chelsea, and now Juventus, Sarri made his biggest mistakes. He was never going to receive this in London, nor in Turin. Even a 3rd place finish and Europa League win were not enough to excuse demolition jobs carried out by City and Bournemouth.
Juventus meanwhile were not looking for a manager, but for a UEFA Champions League title. The failure to win one for over 25 years has eaten away at them, especially considering failures in 2 separate finals across the 2010s. Yet as reported in The Athletic, the hierarchy of Andrea Agnelli, Pavel Nedved and Fabio Paratici were all very convincing to Sarri at first; they were determined to give him time. Even at Christmas, Agnelli stated the club had been ferocious in their pursuit of Sarri.
Time was definitely needed too because Juventus would have to transition from defensive football. Again, Juventus were averaging just under 55% of the ball, despite fielding players like Cristiano Ronaldo. Even without Sarri, Napoli were still holding more of the ball than Juventus in 2018/19. The decision to fire Sarri directly off the back of a defeat in the UCL paints the club as an impatient figure. Whether Sarri knew Juventus would be as cutthroat as Chelsea is a mystery, but both clubs have cost him his reputation.
It’s hard to see how a big club outside of Italy will take a chance on Sarri. Add one more high-profile failure and the 61-year-old is surely done at the top level. He will not adapt or change his methods, so his next coaching job must prove ‘Sarriball’ is still viable at the top of the European game. This means he must be extremely careful in his next step.
Sarri must pick a club where he will either be given the tools to carry out his methods, or patience so he can cultivate them himself. For instance, he cannot afford to go to another club where the only full-backs are wing-backs like Marcos Alonso, or the only midfielders are defensive like N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić. And if he does, he needs absolute assurances that the rug will not be pulled from underneath him after a year of transition. Lest we forget Pochettino’s first season with Tottenham. Trying to implement a pressing style of football, Tottenham would finish 5th and 6 points off 4th. Even Pep Guardiola at Manchester City could only finish 15 points off top spot in his first season in charge.
In a sport where memory is at its shortest, can the classic Napoli side where they romped to 91 points be remembered? That side scored 77 goals and conceded less than 30. Had it been this season, Napoli would have won the league by 9 points. In order for this to be remembered over the recent failures, Sarri must take time away from football. Most importantly though, he must heavily consider any coaching offers he receives. His last chance at sustaining his reputation was spent, and now, he must carefully rebuild it before it crumbles in front of his eyes.
Written by Alex Barker | Feature Image by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
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