Millions of Italian children went back to school on Monday. So did the manager of Juventus. Andrea Pirlo was completing the final stage of his Uefa Pro licence course, defending a thesis he had submitted two weeks earlier under the title “My Football”.
His writings will soon be made available, joining those of every other coach who has passed through Italy’s famous Scuola Allenatori (Managers’ School), in the library of the technical centre in Coverciano. Most of us, though, will get our first real insight into Pirlo’s vision for how the game should be played when Juventus host Sampdoria in their Serie A opener on Sunday.
The decision by Italy’s reigning champions of nine consecutive seasons to trust their first team to a man with no prior coaching experience remains an extraordinary gamble. Juventus originally hired Pirlo to run their under-23s this summer but promoted him nine days later to replace the sacked Maurizio Sarri.
Their hope is that he can follow a similar path to Zinedine Zidane, his recent experience of playing at the highest levels allowing him to build a rapport with, and draw the best out of, stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet Zidane spent two seasons coaching Real Madrid’s B team before ascending to the top job. Pirlo took charge of his first-ever game, a friendly against third-tier Novara, last Sunday.
Perhaps he will thrive regardless. Juventus will once again have the deepest squad at their disposal, the departures of Miralem Pjanic, Blaise Matuidi and Gonzalo Higuaín offset by the arrivals of younger and more dynamic alternatives in Arthur, Weston McKennie and Dejan Kulusevski.
There is particular interest to see how Pirlo integrates the last of these. Juventus signed the 20-year-old Kulusevski in January but left him on loan at Parma, where he scored 10 goals and assisted eight more last season while mostly starting on the wing. Only two players in all of Serie A covered more ground per game; such energy could make him a fascinating foil to Ronaldo up front.
Yet Pirlo has also made it clear that he still expects further additions. Juventus thumped Novara 5-0 but the manager told Sky Sport in his post-game interview: “I need a striker as soon as possible.” Juventus had been linked with a move for Luis Suárez but now appear to have switched their attention to Edin Dzeko.
With almost a month to go until the closing of the transfer window, Pirlo’s eventual first-choice XI is anyone’s guess. Juventus alternated between a back three and a back four against Novara, hinting at a preference for a fluid system, and the manager has stressed that he wants a possession-based approach. Beyond that, time will tell.
What is clear is that he has work to do if Juventus are to complete a full decade of domestic domination – let alone pursue their greater goal of conquering Europe. The Bianconeri ended last season in dismal form under Sarri, winning two of their final eight league matches. Their seven defeats and 43 goals conceded were both unwanted records for this era of unbroken success.
Inter remain their most likely challengers after finishing as runners-up in August. The single point between them in the standings was misleading – Juventus’s title was sewn up with two games to spare – but Antonio Conte still closed the gap significantly during his first season in charge.
It was no sure thing that he would return, his frustrations at a perceived lack of support from the club spilling out during the latter part of the season. Conte decided to stay only after clear-the-air talks with directors, but is still waiting to see his transfer priorities delivered on in this window.
Inter’s biggest signing, Achraf Hakimi, had been pre-announced in July, and should provide a major boost to a manager whose best teams have always relied on high-quality contributions from full-backs. Aleksandar Kolarov is another helpful addition, capable of lining up on the opposite side or slotting into a back three.
Yet Conte is still waiting for the experienced midfielders whose absence he has lamented since arriving in Milan. Arturo Vidal and N’Golo Kanté are targets but Inter need to trim their wage bill to make room. Meanwhile, questions persist about Christian Eriksen and how he fits into the manager’s plan for this team.
Not that Inter are the only ones capable of vying for the title. Lazio were only a point behind Juventus before the coronavirus lockdown and have added much-needed depth up front with the capture of Vedat Muriqi. As brilliant as Ciro Immobile was on the way to winning the European Golden Shoe, his exhaustion was evident during the frantic final act of the campaign.
Atalanta, too, looked capable of toppling Juventus until their dreams were dashed by a rotten handball rule. They have sold Timothy Castagne to Leicester but have continued to defy gravity previously despite the departure of similarly talented individuals. The decision of the captain, Papu Gómez, to turn down a lucrative move to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr feels more significant for their short-term prospects.
Is it unthinkable that Milan could also challenge? They were top of the table for the period after the restart, collecting 30 points from 12 games as Stefano Pioli forced his bosses to rethink their plan to hire Ralf Rangnick. A 38-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic will continue to hog headlines but it is a young and precociously gifted midfield that ought to generate the greatest excitement, with Sandro Tonali, 20, joining Franck Kessié, 23, and Ismaël Bennacer, 22.
Then there are Napoli, Coppa Italia winners strengthened by the club-record signing of Victor Osimhen, as well as Roma, operating under new ownership. The Giallorossi also finished last season in better form than Juventus, but a second cruciate ligament tear for Nicolò Zaniolo feels like a devastating blow.
There will be opportunities, as ever, for others to surprise us. Could Cagliari, closing in on a deal for Diego Godín, recapture the magic that propelled them up the table early last season, or might free-scoring Sassuolo take another step? No new face will capture the imagination at Fiorentina quite like Franck Ribéry did last summer, but Sofyan Amrabat, Giacomo Bonaventura and Borja Valero offer different options in midfield.
Newly promoted Benevento, Spezia and Crotone have their work cut out after modest transfer campaigns but Genoa have done little to upgrade a squad that scraped to safety last season, Verona have lost key starters and Parma will struggle to replace Kulusevski, while Torino are on to their third manager of 2020. Bologna, Udinese and Sampdoria look to be in better shape but each had their wobbles last term.
So much feels unpredictable in a season that begins amid the continuing pandemic. A positive Covid test for Napoli’s owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, this month was a reminder that Serie A’s success in bringing the last season to its conclusion does not immunise it from future disruption.
Still, the sense of anticipation is building. The kids are back at school and Serie A is returning. Will there be new lessons to learn this term, or simply a freshly qualified teacher at the front of the class, leading us through a familiar black-and-white story?