It is strange for a club to fire its manager after winning the league. It’s not unheard of, as Real Madrid once fired Vicente Del Bosque after he’d won both the Champions League and La Liga twice, but it’s still strange. To do it in two consecutive years however suggests a nutty desperation, a flailing attempt to claw at what the club probably already knows has passed.
Juventus won Serie A last season by 11 points, but their Round of 16 exit in the Champions League caused them to part ways with Massimiliano Allegri, even after five straight league triumphs. Maurizio Sarri only got to win one Italian title this season, as another Round of 16 Champions League exit — this one to the seriously unfancied Lyon on Friday — saw Sarri get a boot in the ass out the door.
Winning the Champions League has become something of an obsession for Juventus, to put the stamp on this era of domestic dominance for them. They haven’t lifted the European Cup in 24 years. Still, they’ve made the final twice in the past five years, losing one each to the giants of Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona. As Pep Guardiola can attest, the Champions League can be a wicked bitch goddess.
Making it all the more peculiar is that this is the second straight season where Sarri has guided his team to a trophy, only to get canned immediately. He saw Chelsea through to the Europa League title last season, before being replaced by a beloved former player in Frank Lampard. The same happened again in Turin, where he’s being replaced by Andrea Pirlo. Sarri must wonder how he ended up in this time loop and where his Irvine might be.
Sarri’s firing isn’t just about failure in Europe again, though that was the major factor. Juventus are at the end of this cycle, and their performances certainly showed it. They only amassed 83 points, their lowest total in 10 seasons. The 43 goals they conceded were the most in 10 years as well. Their 76 goals scored were only the fifth-most in Italy, and dwarfed by Inter’s and Atalanta’s totals. The metrics suggested they were lucky to even score that many goals, though having Christiano Ronaldo in the team usually means you’ll always outscore what you produce. How long that can continue with him advancing in age is a real question, however. Ronaldo had 31 goals, but 12 of them came from penalties. They clearly had lost some of their spark.
But Juve’s problems were infiltrating the foundation before Sarri got there. He only had to deal with the visual damage. Their meek exit to Lyon on Friday was the perfect representation of what’s gone off. Ronaldo scored twice, once from the penalty spot, but was one of two players to have more than three shots total. The other was fellow-AARP member Gonzalo Higuain. Only Federico Bernadeschi created more than one chance. Juventus weren’t helped by Pablo Dybala limping off only 13 minutes after coming on, as he is the only other player besides Ronaldo to break double-digits in goals.
What was clear on Friday, and through most of the season, was that Juve have gotten old and stale. Only Dybala, Matthijs de Ligt, and Bentancur are major contributors under the age of 25. Ronaldo is 34. Leonardo Bonucci is 32. Juan Cuadrado is 31. Blaise Matuidi is 32. Giorgio Chiellini is now 35 and missed most of the season after his knee turned to putty (and that’s probably it for him as a first-choice defender). There is some recognition of this among the Juve front office, which unloaded Miralem Plajnic to Barcelona in exchange for Arthur.
But the reconstruction, or remodeling, needs more than that. They can start to build a spine through De Ligt, Arthur, Bentancur, and Dybala, while trying to squeeze one more season out of Ronaldo’s waning powers. But that’s not enough to run with Munich, Man City, Liverpool, Madrid, and Barcelona to win the Champions League.
Domestically, Juve’s decade-long run is facing a serious threat. Inter finished only one point behind them, and Antonio Conte has them poised to keep moving forward, especially if they can hang on to Lautaro Martinez and bat away Barcelona’s advances. Whether Atalanta can continue to conjure their black magic from their squad of rejects and discoveries is anyone’s guess. AC Milan have constructed an exciting young team that looks set to push them back to where they once were, though next season might come too early for that yet for the Rossoneri. Lazio hung tight with Juve for most of the season, and still have the league’s most prolific striker in Ciro Immobile.
What the Juve board really expected of Sarri couldn’t have been all that fair if he got whacked for this season. It’s an aging squad lacking creativity, and no system was going to goose that to previous heights. Installing a beloved name like Pirlo might quiet the fans for a hot minute, but he’s never coached anywhere.
Perhaps Juventus think Pirlo can emulate Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane, a former playing legend who moves into the manager’s seat and brings about success, but Zidane had at least coached Madrid’s reserve team for a season and a half. And Zidane had far more talent at his disposal upon his hiring than Pirlo will find.
It seems odd that nine-straight Serie A titles are seen as not enough. And the increasing desperation, exhibited by the revolving door of managers, suggests that Juve know the barbarians are at the gate.