Juventus' position makes for awkward viewing for Andrea Pirlo

Since 2011 his predecessors have guided Juve to the Serie A title. He can alleviate some of the gloom by winning the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday

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Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso always looked out for one another, had each other’s back. They were teammates through almost 350 matches. They won the biggest prizes in tandem - a World Cup for Italy, two Champions League titles and Serie A gold medals for AC Milan. They were a perfect complement, Gattuso’s warrior extrovertism alongside the cool, unflustered Pirlo.

That’s how they were as midfielders, the yin-and-yang who first played together for Italy’s Under 21s in the late 1990s and were still together for the most recent of Milan’s league titles in 2011. A decade on, that club, where Pirlo and Gattuso shared in a golden era, are top of the table, which makes awkward viewing for Pirlo in particular, given he is now Juventus’s head coach and all his predecessors in that job since 2011 have won Serie A.

Gattuso, the head coach of Napoli, stands between Pirlo and a first managerial trophy. Napoli, as Coppa Italia holders, meet Juve - who won their ninth successive league under Maurizio Sarri last August - in the Supercoppa Italia, a one-off fixture shunted into mid-January because of the Covid-19 crisis.

The timing heaps extra importance on it, from Pirlo’s point of view. His Juve have just slipped to 10 points behind AC Milan, and they lost 2-0 to second-placed Inter Milan at the weekend. Juventus have a match in hand, but it is no gimmee: It’s against Napoli, who have crept up to third and, to the delight of Gattuso, scored 11 goals in their last three matches, all wins.

The Pirlo appointment always had an element of gamble about it. He was a hugely admired Juventus player - he spent four seasons in their midfield, after leaving AC Milan - but as a head coach, he is a tyro, a novice, fresh out of his qualifying courses which he sat only last summer. Then came the crash-course, in at the top, with some painful bumps. Pirlo’s Juventus are nine points worse off than Sarri’s were at the equivalent stage last season - 17 league games played - and no better off than Juventus were in the most problematic season of their nine-year monopoly of the title, which was when Max Allegri oversaw a poor start but rallied to a terrific second half of the 2015/16 campaign.

So much for the precedents. It was the supine nature of the loss to Inter that concerned not only Pirlo, but senior players who have been involved in all those titles. “We couldn’t have played worse,” said the head coach. “Time catches up with everyone,” mused Giorgio Chiellini, the Juve captain, ominously, “and cycles come to an end. A 10th league on the trot will not be easy, although we will keep at it.”

Chiellini, 36, acknowledged the defence he marshalls was made to look unusually vulnerable by Inter’s brisk counter-attacking, and outmuscled. “When you don’t win the one-on-ones then you make things difficult,” Pirlo told his players, before accepting his responsibility for the second league defeat of his debut season. “If the team didn’t play to the plan, it means the plan wasn’t understood. The coach has to accept the blame first and foremost.”

Soccer Football - Serie A - Napoli v Spezia - Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, Naples, Italy - January 6, 2021 Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso REUTERS/Ciro De Luca
Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso. Reuters

As Juventus were falling to Inter, Gattuso was celebrating a spectacular victory over Fiorentina. Or, perhaps just as significantly, while Pirlo was outlining and rehearsing the gameplan that never materialised for the Inter game, Gattuso was surprising his squad with a day off, and a group meal out. “I saw the players were a bit fatigued mentally,” Gattuso said, “and so we just went out for a nice plate of pasta and talked nonsense, unwinding together and having a smile.” The dividend: Napoli 6, Fiorentina 0.

Gattuso, 43, is in his sixth job as a head coach, his instincts about when to act the disciplinarian and when to lighten the pressure are informed by a varied body of experience, from managing in Switzerland, Greece, Serie B and at AC Milan. “He was also a great player,” said the Napoli captain, Lorenze Insigne, “so he knows we sometimes need to disconnect.”

Pirlo, 41, was perhaps an even greater player, and certainly a more naturally skilled one. But he is not six months into being a head coach. When points are dropped, as they have been in eight Serie A games so far, critics see a freshman still learning about when to ease up and when and how to impose his authority.