Juventus evolution goes beyond Sarri's attire as they reach summit | Nicky Bandini

By on January 13, 2020

Maurizio Sarri had to update his wardrobe after taking over as manager of Juventus. A man who has always felt most comfortable in a tracksuit showed up for his first day of work in Turin sporting a shirt and tie. He soon confessed that his contract obliged him to wear such a uniform when representing the club away from the football pitch. For matches, a compromise was reached. Sarri’s sideline attire at Juventus has typically featured suit trousers and a zip-neck sweater.

Do the clothes make the man? At the end of Juventus’ win over Roma on Sunday, one journalist asked Sarri whether this first half-season at the club had changed him. “I don’t know,” he replied. “My wife tells me I’m the same dickhead I was before.”

Certainly, he finds himself in a familiar spot professionally. Sarri has guided his team to first in Serie A at the season’s midway stage, just as he did with Napoli in 2015-16 and 2017-18. His opinion on the significance of being crowned as Italy’s ‘campione d’Inverno’ (winter champion) remains the same as ever: “It’s a title that does not exist.”

Since Serie A expanded back to 20 teams in 2004, however, the winter champion has only twice failed to push on and finish in first place. The exceptions both belonged to Sarri’s Napoli teams. There was no shame, back then, in being outlasted by a Juventus side with far greater financial resources. This time around, he will have no such excuses.

Sarri has shown evolution beyond his attire over the past seven months. Previously perceived as a rigid tactician with a tendency to over-rely on certain players, he has shown himself willing to experiment more widely with Juventus’s deep squad.

Maurizio Sarri issues instructions to Paulo Dybala during the win over Roma. Photograph: RemotePhotoPress/Shutterstock

It took less than a month, from the start of the season, for Sarri to abandon his favourite 4-3-3, recognising that such a system would not allow him to get the most from an in-form Paulo Dybala. The Argentinian was better suited to playing centrally, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo in a front two. And when the Portuguese started to struggle with form and fitness, Sarri found ways to get Gonzalo Higuaín on the pitch instead – even if that meant provoking a stadium-exiting strop from Serie A’s most expensive player.

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Where Sarri started the same eight footballers in more than 30 of Chelsea’s Premier League games last season, only three members of his Juventus squad – Ronaldo, Miralem Pjanic and Leonardo Bonucci – have made more than 15 starts thus far. He has used 24 players already between Serie A and the Champions League.

The Roma match marked the first time that he had named an unchanged side, though it is hard to say whether he got his selection right. Juventus won chiefly because their opponents imploded, conceding twice in the opening 10 minutes. Aleksandar Kolarov’s loose marking allowed Merih Demiral space to score a back-post volley, before a calamitous series of decisions gifted the visitors a penalty. Pau Lopez should never have passed the ball to Jordan Veretout, stood facing his own goal with Dybala in close attendance, but the Frenchman also dithered too long after receiving the ball and responded with an instinctive tug on his opponent’s shirt after being dispossessed.

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? An explosive start for Juve!

?? Demiral finishes impressively from a free kick, and the Bianconeri take their first step back toward the top of Serie A pic.twitter.com/bkJcEfp90O

January 12, 2020

Roma were the better team thereafter – at half-time they were 2-0 down but had outshot their opponents 10-3 – yet the loss of Nicolò Zaniolo to a torn cruciate ligament in the 36th minute was a devastating blow. The 20-year-old has been indispensable for Roma this season: offering acceleration and directness in transition. The injury was sustained on a characteristically brilliant dribble that had supporters roaring before he was brought down outside the Juventus box.

As he departed on a stretcher, visibly shaking with tears, Ronaldo leaned in and stroked his hair. Zaniolo would later post the image on his Instagram account, promising to come back stronger. It seems unlikely that he will play again before the end of this season, though, his availability for Euro 2020 is also in doubt. There are similar worries for Juventus’ Merih Demiral, who suffered an identical injury jumping under a high ball.

Roma remained dogged without Zaniolo but, despite dominating possession and pulling one goal back from the penalty spot, could not carve out the chance they needed to equalise. Juve’s victory moved them two points clear of Inter, who had drawn at home to Atalanta.

In truth, the Nerazzurri were fortunate to take a point. They made a perfect start, Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez combining before the latter drilled a shot past Pierluigi Gollini. But the goalscorer should have been sent off for a cynical foul before half-time, using his hand to trip Rafael Toloi as the Atalanta player tried to follow up after seeing a header saved at close range.

The failure of VAR to intervene remains inexplicable. Yet Atalanta refused to let anger knock them off course. Gian Piero Gasperini withdrew the ineffective Duvan Zapata – making his first start since injuring his thigh in October – and sent on Ruslan Malinovskyi, who dropped into deeper positions and helped to unblock a clogged midfield.

Atalanta equalised through Robin Gosens and had their chance to take all the points when Alessandro Bastoni barged into Malinovskyi inside the box in the 88th minute. This time the penalty was awarded. Luis Muriel, who had scored 10 out of 10 Serie A spot-kicks in his career, stepped up to take it. Inter’s goalkeeper, however, excels in situations like these. Samir Handanovic plunged to his right and pushed the ball away. In doing so, he moved alongside Gianluca Pagliuca as the two goalkeepers who have saved the most penalties – 24 apiece – in Serie A history.

Samir Handanovic gets down to deny Luis Muriel.

Samir Handanovic gets down to deny Luis Muriel. Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images

For Handanovic, this felt overdue. “I hadn’t saved one in two years,” he observed, before his manager recycled familiar laments about the shallowness of Inter’s squad. They were missing two important pieces through suspension here – Milan Skriniar and Nicolò Barella – but tired legs are also a convenient excuse for a team that has faded late in several big games.

In any case, the title race remains wide open. Conte shares Sarri’s opinion on the meaninglessness of winter titles. Still, the Inter manager will hope his rival can continue the habit he has had so far, of failing to upgrade them to the real thing.

Talking points

Internazionale 1-1 Atalanta, Lazio 1-0 Napoli, Cagliari 0-2 Milan, Roma 1-2 Juventus, Verona 2-1 Genoa, Torino 1-0 Bologna, Sampdoria 5-1 Brescia, Fiorentina 1-0 Spal, Udinese 3-0 Sassuolo

Zlatan Ibrahimovic reopened his account with Milan, scoring the second goal in a 2-0 win over the suddenly lifeless Cagliari. According to the league’s stat-keepers, he also recorded the second-fastest sprint of any player in a red-and-black shirt. Which, admirable though it is, does feel a bit damning on his teammates who are not approaching a 40th birthday. Boy, do Milan need the help of anyone who can stick the ball in the net, though. They have scored two fewer as a squad than Ciro Immobile on his own. There was another huge one from the Italian to sink Napoli and extend Lazio’s winning run to 10 games.

Not the high point of the season: Verona’s game against Genoa had to be delayed for 15 minutes because the lines of the pitch were wonky.

Staff work on the pitch in Verona.

Staff work on the pitch in Verona. Photograph: Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

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