Any grand prospect went down the drain with the loss against Benevento, where the performance was unbecoming for a team that needed to be borderline perfect to pull off an improbable comeback. The aggression and vigor showed the week before against Cagliari was nowhere to be seen. Maybe it is complacency or arrogance but, for whatever reason, the squad seems to hit at wall after capturing three wins in a row. If the problem can not be overcome against a languishing Benevento side at home, then there is little hope for the future.
The Bianconeri will have to look behind and not in front in the standings from here on out, at least to avoid the doomsday scenario of slipping out of the top four. It would be bloodbath, both on the sporting side and economically. But there are a lot of balls in the air till the rest of the season, whose faith will depend on the team fares down the stretch, with the results being just a part of the story.
It is inevitable that coach Andrea Pirlo has come under fire, but it is tough to fully evaluate him from the outside. On the surface, his tactics and ideas are quite intriguing, then he has rarely been able to make lineup choices due to continuous absences. He has tried everything from a strategic standpoint, from the recent uber-aggressive XI to a more conservative one during the Winter. Neither solution has worked out well for more than three or four matches in a row and it felt like he went back to the drawing board after every loss, which by itself is a weakness.
But the job goes beyond that, it is not just Xs and Os. For what is worth, his style, pressers and general demeanor appear adequate and seems to get along with the players, which was not always the case with previous managers, and that is crucial. However, more elusive elements have left a lot to be desired, like preparedness and the approaches to games, which have way too frequently been lackadaisical. But we are not privy to know how much of that is up to the coaching staff or instead to the players, who ultimately go on the pitch.
It is pretty clear that, by hiring an inexperienced gaffer and a former top footballer, Andrea Agnelli wanted a more hands-off approach when it comes to managing the group as it transpired that Maurizio Sarri was too smothering with his requests and precepts. However, even with all the star power, charisma and experience in the locker room, the players often have not had the right kind of attitude and discipline and that has been maybe the number one problem.
Looking at other European giants, continuity seems to be the way to the pinnacle and Juventus have had very little of it over the years. Another coaching change, with all its ramifications, would set the clock backwards again. Hindsight in 20/20 but the best shot at winning Champions League would have come by giving Massimiliano Allegri another chance with Cristiano Ronaldo on the roster. It is true that he had at least partly run his course and that the elimination at the hands of Ajax remains the most ugly-looking and inexplicable one in recent memory, but that is where the team was best positioned for the ultimate glory. It instead looks like a mirage right now.
Whether going back to Allegri would be actually be a quick fix is to get back on track is a very interesting question and could be the topic of endless debate. Axing Pirlo would be ballsy since he was hand-picked by Agnelli and there is nobody else to blame there and it is not like ousting the chairman is a viable option. He had successfully rolled the dice before with Conte and Allegri, which were far from slam-dunks when picked. He would basically have to disown his decision, but I do not think ego will get in the way if it turns out that it what is best for the team.
As further confirmation of quite terrible season all around, the international break brought two COVID cases, Leonardo Bonucci and Merih Demiral, and a very disappointing incident involving Paulo Dybala, Weston McKennie and Arthur, who have been disciplined by the team. Alex Sandro and Aaron Ramsey have instead recovered from their thigh issues, with the former likely playing over Dejan Kulusevski in the hole, while the former will battle it out with a pair of defenders but also Adrien Rabiot, as Danilo might be moved to the midfield.
3-4-1-2 Szczesny; Danilo, De Ligt, Chiellini; Cuadrado, Bentancur, Rabiot, Chiesa; Ramsey; Morata, Ronaldo.
Bonucci, Demiral (COVID)
Buffon, Dybala, McKennie, Arthur.
Torino were ravaged by a COVID outbreak at a terrible time as they had begun to find their groove, picking up few positive results in a row under new coach Davide Nicola. The virus wiped out few of their top contributors for an extended period of time and, besides causing them to miss matches, it affected their form after they returned as well. As a result, they have dropped three of the last four matches, against Crotone, Inter and Sampdoria. They had particularly bad showings versus the Squali, but it was the first one after the forced stoppage and they were very depleted, and the Blucerchiati, which was their third game in a week, which always tends to be tough for the minnows. In between, they pulled off an improbable late comeback versus Sassuolo.
Therefore, it is pretty tough to fully gauge their level form and the international break is a further variable. They have a game in hand, against Lazio that will probably be rescheduled late in the season, and a one-point advantage over the 17th-placed Cagliari and Parma are not far behind. The relegation struggle is poised to be a rock fight, with one or two well established sides going down.
They have surely become a more typical side of this area of the standings under the gritty Davide Nicola, quickly doing away with Marco Giampaolo’s aspirations of playing a proactive brand of football. The squad had already rejected his 4-3-1-2, forcing him to return to their customary 3-5-2, now it is interpreted in more conservative fashion.
They have made a pair of good pick-ups in January, bringing in Antonio Sanabria from Betis and Rolando Mandragora from Udinese. The latter has been a full-time starter as anchor of the midfield, pushing Tomas Rincon to box-to-box in lieu of Karol Linetty, making it further muscular. However, Mandragora has been a sneaky offensive weapon with his set pieces and shooting. The striker was slowed down by Coronavirus at first, then he scored in two matches in a row after he worked his way back. He is likely to be Andrea Belotti’s go-to partner going forward, and he is a more well-rounded and technically gifted player than Simone Zaza, Federico Bonazzoli and Simone Verdi.
However, the gaffer has proven that he can keep everybody involved and the other three attackers have all had their moments off the bench. In that regard, they have not been shy in tweaking their scheme when they had to score, making it either a 3-4-1-2 or a 4-4-2 based on the situation. The growth of Amer Gojak, who can feature either as offensive-minded box-to-box or as left winger, and Verdi’s versatility gives them some leeway on that front. Gojak is also taking minutes away from Sasa Lukic, who was great to open the season but has not been very effective for some time.
The recent events hurt them, but in generally they are a very scrappy team that makes it tough for the opponents. They have been able to rally back multiple times under the new managers, displaying great character and determination. Inter had to dig deep to down them even in a suboptimal state. They could be successful if their defense fully recaptures its best form and they appeared to be on track before Nicholas N’Koulou and Bremer got infected.
They are never going to be the most explosive side, but Belotti and Sanabria form a well-assorted duo that also possesses some unpredictability. They generally have some playmakers on the wings but they lose some pop in this one with Wilfried Singo sidelined by a thigh injury as the possible replacements are workmanlike. Their back-line, including Salvatore Sirigu, has been more blunder-prone than in the past though, plus it will be undermanned as also Lyanco is unlikely to feature. They will surely get up for the Derby and it is that time of the year when it is challenging to face desperate sides, so the Bianconeri better not botch another approach.
3-5-2 Sirigu; Izzo, Buongiorno, Bremer; Vojvoda, Rincon, Mandragora, Lukic, Ansaldi; Sanabria, Belotti.
Singo (thigh pull).