I’m a cultural goods aficionado, including that of classical cinema. Imagine a world where Alfred Hitchcock and Marilyn Monroe made a documentary about zebras together, with Hitchcock doing the directing and Monroe as the narrator. In real life, this clash of the titans would have, most probably, caused nothing more than on-set conflicts between the two at the expense of le zebre.
Le Zebre, the Italian term for ‘the zebras’, also happens to be one of Juventus’ nicknames. During the star-studded 1980s, the club emblem was the blurred silhouette of a rearing zebra, alongside the two stars forming an oxer in front of the animal. Today, a zebra named Jay is the official mascot of the club. Jay is a cartoon-designed zebra, black and white stripes with fluffy mohawk on top of its head, brownish eyes, and a massive muzzle.
But back to Hitchcock. Hitchcock abhorred method acting, including those who practiced it. He didn’t care about the truth of a scene, and infamously repudiated improvisation; he just wanted his thespians to hit their marks and articulate their lines out as written. Monroe, conversely, exploited method to fine results, especially in her later career, but caused problems and kept people waiting during principal photographies. Hitchcock regarded actors as ‘cattle’. Hitch also didn’t have as much respect for Marilyn Monroe-esque blondes as his Italian contemporary Federico Fellini did, saying in his book-length series of interviews with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966), “We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom. Poor Marilyn Monroe had sex written all over her face.”
Hitchcock’s strengths and Monroe’s cultivated screen persona would’ve distracted the audience from the film’s subject: zebras.
Even though Monroe was a magnolious screen presence, her voice rhapsodizing about the African equines would have probably brought an unfortunate erotic and tongue-in-cheek undercurrent to the film.
Hitchcock, on the other hand, marshalled elements of suspense, and would have been caught out of his depth and out of his comfort zone in a documentary film.
Monroe and Hitchcock together working on such a movie wouldn’t have been a fit.
It wouldn’t have worked.
Remember this mental image. We’ll come back to it.
Cut to 2019. On 16 June—about a month after serial winner Massimiliano Allegri had left the club—Juventus, Le Zebre, presented Maurizio Sarri as their manager in the hopes of getting to witness Sarriball in Turin. Sarriball, in essence, symbolized possession-based, fast-paced football that had yielded promising returns at Napoli and Chelsea between the years 2015–2019.
Sarri did open his sojourn at Juventus with a 14-game unbeaten run in Serie A, a season that saw Inter Milan, Atalanta and Lazio as real challengers to overthrow Juve’s iron fist. When domestic football resumed after the coronavirus shutdown, however, Juve struggled and eventually pipped Antonio Conte’s Inter to the Scudetto only by a single point. They had played some of the most unattractive football in Europe before, but it only got worse after the restart. They won just six of the 14 matches before getting swept aside by Lyon’s away goal in the Champions League, 2–2 on aggregate.
Throngs of fans called for Sarri’s head even before the French Müllered Juve a European Cup exit, for Sarri’s Juventus was a far cry from Sarri’s Napoli. If the latter was a champagne bath with supermodels on the side, the former was a tar cocktail and fish-food pellets on the rocks. The high line and the disjointed press, the out-of-breath movement, the tentative transitions of a poorly structured attack: it was difficult to pinpoint just a dozen areas where things had gone awry. Juventus fans, Cristiano Ronaldo stans, and masochists were the only people who watched their games any more.
These people were further agitated by Sarri’s claims that his team had had a “great” second-leg display against Lyon. (They most definitely did not.) Supporters eventually got what they asked for—Sarri’s head on a plate—a day after being knocked out of the competition they’re so obsessed with winning.
Yet, I get the feeling that Sarri’s sacking was an attempt at hiding the club’s mismanagement in the last three years which had torpedoed the team’s squad balance.
Despite the fact that Juventus is a big club per se and they, for example, spent a small nation’s defense budget worth of money on Matthijs De Ligt in the summer of 2019, Sarri had to operate with surprisingly scarce resources. It wouldn’t even be far-fetched to claim that a core group of four players dragged decadent Juventus over the finish line in Serie A this season: Wojciech Szczęsny, De Ligt, Paulo Dybala, and Ronaldo.
Szczęsny won a Serie A Award for Best Goalkeeper on the back of previous year’s Yashin Trophy nomination.
De Ligt—after a fluctuating start to the season, including a baptism by fire on his debut against Napoli and a number of penalties conceded—stepped up as the season wore on. A towering figure in defense, he also became the youngest defender to score at least four goals in Europe’s top five leagues this season, outscoring all but three of his teammates. If the move to Italy’s most successful club fazed him, he did well to hide his feelings, as his status as the best and most talented centre-back of his generation remains intact.
A sui generis force of nature, Ronaldo likewise Ronaldoed his way through the season, scoring a club record 37 goals in all competitions, including the game-winner in their title-clinching game, against Sampdoria, and both goals against Lyon in the Champions League. His 31 strikes in the league campaign won his team 24 points, more than any other player for their side. Thus the faith vested in his example was not misplaced.
As for Dybala, he received a well-deserved Most Valuable Player award for pouncing in the fall time like a wolverine after snowfall. He single-handedly changed the rhythm of the flow game after game by his sheer intelligence, confidence, and technical excellence. Unfortunately, he was also hamstrung in his efforts to be a false nine and a real one, to create something out of nothing, to breathe life into his team.
When Neymar of PSG had to come deep and when he was forced to try to dribble through the opposition all by himself, against Atalanta in the Champions League quarter-finals, his head coach, Thomas Tuchel, had the luxury of replacing central duo Idrissa Guyeye and Ander Herrera with Leandro Paredes and Julian Draxler to inject exuberance, penetrative interplay, and Hollywood passes into his team. This, in turn, allowed Neymar to retain the ball in more dangerous areas, essentially deciding the game with gusto.
Sarri and Dybala did not have such upgrades on any of their midfielders.
The gap between the top four and the rest was damning, calamitous even.
Rodrigo Bentancur was in all likelihood the fifth-best player on the team, but as promising as his all-roundness was and is, the Uruguayan was never going to lead Juventus’ sluggish midfield to Champions League glory. (After a coronavirus-enforced break in play, his performances also became more and more subdued.)
‘Sluggish’ is the term that most aptly describes Juve’s midfield 2019–20, bar post-coronabreak version of Adrien Rabiot.
Whereas Sarri’s Napoli had Jorginho dictating the tempo of play, and Marek Hamsik and Piotr Zielinski or Allan driving like raging bulls in front of him, Sarri’s Juventus had Sami Khedira starting nine of the first 13 Serie A matches and four of the first four Champions League ties. This was before a knee surgery and a tear in the abductor muscle held him out for the rest of the season. Ronaldo and Dybala couldn’t hide their frustration with such an inept midfield that had massive problems with even the general concept of one-twoing. In fact, the former was more often than not reduced to spreading his arms, giving overheated glares, and shooting long shots in desperation.
There was hardly any joy when he happened to score, there was relief. Relief that he could look at the man in the mirror post-game.
Juve’s midfielders were stodgy even by Serie A standards. The midfield hadn’t been spent on in three years, prompting debate as to whether the board had any sufficient plan for the club’s future. One read the starting eleven and then stopped midway through in ennui. The board, led by chairman Andrea Agnelli and sporting director Fabio Paratici, must have cursed their failed effort to capture Frenkie de Jong from his then-club Ajax in 2019. Juventus missed a playmaker capable of receiving the ball in front of defence and having the responsibility for orchestrating the formation via vertical passing or sallying the ball himself.
Now, Sarri had a guise of not good enough squad players who were baffled by what they were asked to do. Players who played in a way that left the Italian frantically trying to parse their style into something coherent.
Perhaps the most household name of the midfield, Miralem Pjanic, was almost without exception anonymous and failed to drive the team forward under Sarri. He pulled his weight when others did well, but completely disappeared when they didn’t. Current Inter Miami midfielder Blaise Matuidi’s picture could have been the antonym next to “Sarriball” in the dictionary, for his technique and creativity were those of a horse. Restricted Aaron Ramsey was never going to be a regular starter, seeing that he’s made out of glass. The same applied to overpaid winger Douglas Costa. He could only have been deployed as an occasional supersub.
Costa competed for playing time with Federico Bernardeschi who, on his part, did a lot of running but little to nothing of note (a goal every 19th game). Matuidi’s age-mate Gonzalo Higuain was a shell of his former self and should have already packed a suitcase for his departure to the Americas. Giorgio Chiellini, injured. Danilo, a human scattergun on both ends, if anything. Alex Sandro, uninspired. Juan Cuadrado, a right winger playing at right back. A back-up left back, non-existent.
The septet of Higuain—Pjanic—Dybala—Ramsey—Rabiot—Costa—Bernardeschi made a combined €46.3 million this season, more than the gross domestic product of Tuvalu, the island country. Tuvalu, however, produced as many goals as the players in question did in the Champions League knockout stages, against Lyon, and in the last two rounds of the Coppa Italia, against Milan and Napoli.
This amounts to 480 minutes of football against the same sides that allowed 0.96 goals per game in Ligue 1, and 1.21 and 1.32 goals per game in Serie A, respectively.
The thinness of the squad got so dire that in the second leg, Sarri had to swap the injured Dybala for Marco Olivieri, a Serie C forward with four goals in 22 games under his belt, to form a superannuated attacking trio together with Ronaldo and an over-the-hill Higuain. To add insult to injury, he sprang around with the full intent of doing his part in helping his club to overcome the underdogs.
He wasn’t indifferent, indifferent being the default mode for many Bianconeri field players.
This last substitution of Sarri’s stint at Juventus was not just an unfortunate turn of events—it was the defining concept of the state of the club: a disparate group of individuals, one or two hungry striplings, and myriads of unsellable has-beens on huge wages, with larger-than-life egos and differing objectives.
Even if Juan Cuadrado had covered Sarri in shaving foam and even if Szczęsny had offered him a cigarette during the title jubilations, few Juve players noted his dismissal in any way on social media.
According to Luca Momblano and Corriere dello Sport, Ronaldo, foremost, grew to be incandescent at Sarri’s philosophy, and a day after the sacking, CdS noted that a number of other players, as well, dissented from the gaffer’s ideas, including captain Giorgio Chiellini.
ANOTHER LAYER OF GOLD PAINT FOR A SHIPWRECK
Being the head coach of a big club is akin to the métier of a rail yard worker, both need to be careful where they can lay their hands.
If Juve’s central area was to Sarri what the documentary genre was to Hitchcock, then Ronaldo was to Sarri what Monroe would’ve been to Hitchcock. As a pop culture icon, Monroe might even up Hitchcock’s tier even if her professional merits are at times ridiculed and belittled by schmucks. (Over the years, even Ronaldo has been branded ‘only physical’, ‘predictable’, ‘the most-overrated big-game player ever’, and ‘the most-selfish footballer of all time’. In August 2018, the heralded Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic additionally said that Ronaldo is “an egotist and I’d never want him in my team”. At the time of the Euro 2016, two years earlier, Paul Hayward of the Telegraph had commented, “I know why, but it’s still odd to think that Ronaldo is easily the most mocked of all the game’s great players.” ESPN’s James Tyler concurred.)
The fact remains that Monroe was one of only three white movie actors to feature on Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century, alongside Marlon Brando and auteur Charlie Chaplin. This is due to the fact that Monroe has grown so gargantuan in importance, she is almost a thing, a one-human product. Unwillingly, her persona not so much transcended, as it (has) encapsulated white beauty standards and spun several high-profile copycats across the “caucasian” continents. (Do remember that Erling Braut Håland wouldn’t be a footballer if it weren’t for Ronaldo, and that, as a child, Kylian Mbappé plastered his room with Ronaldo posters.)
In acting, her style has outlasted the stoicism of her on-screen love interest, Clark Gable.
Even off-screen, her understanding of social as well as racial justice has outlasted the cultural insensitivity of John Wayne.
Before Monroe died, of probable suicide, in 1962, she expressed interest in playing the title character in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964). I imagine it would have made for an interesting viewing. But I reckon she wouldn’t have found Hitch’s restrictive and borderline abusive behaviour toward actresses too appealing.
Ronaldo’s displeasure toward Sarri’s blueprints would not be much of a surprise. Unlike Zidane, under whom Ronaldo experienced perhaps his most fruitful spell of football, Sarri preferred (and always will prefer) to approach the game through a defined system rather than through the strengths of the individuals at his disposal. Like Hitchcock with his actors, he allows minimal freedom for his forwards to show their own creativity.
Sarri established his reputation at Napoli where he created a fluent, highly sophisticated, and exciting style of play that saw Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, and José Callejón leave snake-like tracks and dizzied defenders at their wake, with overlapping full-backs breaking the lines. This was hardly going to be possible with Ronaldo.
Wherever he plays, Ronaldo’s presence is bound to upend and upstage his teams to play in a certain way. But despite being in immaculate condition, he’s no Mbappé or Adama Traoré causing havoc with his speed out wide. Despite the odd moment of showboating, his knees and his height make it impossible for him to be a Neymar or a Hazard. And despite his fine stamina, he never was, not even at his peak, a Håland consistently pressing on defenders.
For Sarri, pressing aggressively in the opponent’s half is a key component of his methodology.
In addition, having Ronaldo’s presence on the team that is no longer a direct Champions League contender, conditions that everything that Juve does has to go through him. The problem is that he is still—especially defensively—one of, if not the most immobile winger in the game, and hence recreating the consistent fluency of Napoli 2017–18 seemed a mission impossible.
On condition that he scores nearly a goal per game, the Portuguese has been accustomed to being afforded the licence to roam and to do whatever he wants, being at his most dangerous when he can finish off counter-attacks, crosses, and killer passes from point-blank range, bolstered by intermittent bursts of energy. Something that isn’t exactly Sarri’s cup of tea.
Throughout their time together at Juve, it was evident that Ronaldo and Sarri did not fit. While both of them had given us manifestations of genius before, they were not going to do so with each other.
Considering the fact that Juve fans treat their talisman like they would treat a conflicted messiah, it was obvious which one of them would have to leave: Sarri.
All of this indicates that he was doomed to failure. He caught a fish he had no business reeling in.
Sarri did the best he could, did things in his own way all the way from press conferences to game plans. In one particularly candid answer, he even argued before the media that his players brought his ideas to life quite well when in training. They just somehow forgot how to do that when it really mattered. Did they not trust their boss? Were they afraid that Juve’s winning habits were eroding?
For once, football destroyed the simple moral fable of a man, who once coached local amateur sides, and got so close to being fully vindicated by reaching the pinnacle of the sport, three decades later. Sarri wasn’t afforded the resources nor the time to show what he’s really about. (One of the astutest, one of the most passionate, and one of the most remarkable coaches in Europe.) Even Pep Guardiola faltered in his first, trophyless term at Manchester City before money showers allowed him to transpose his style from Bayern Munich and Barcelona to the Premier League. (It’s also worth remembering that Sarri got considerably closer to progressing past Lyon in the UCL than Guardiola who has the most expensively assembled squad in world football.)
Arrigo Sacchi, the legendary coach, put it best. “It was a courageous choice to bring in Sarri [by Juventus],” he said, “but think about it. It’s like you’ve got Riccardo Muti, one of the great orchestra conductors, and instead of bringing him the musicians to play a symphony you bring in some rock stars. They’re great but not adapted to him. Sarri found a team that’s already been built, that has won a lot with a very good coach [Allegri] who sees football in a completely different way to the collective-based game he wants to introduce. Today Juve are a hybrid.”
Sarri was asked to film a documentary about zebras when that clearly isn’t his strong point. As journalist James Horncastle inadvertently pointed out about a month ago, the differences between the club and its former coach ran deep, all the way to the latter’s sense of fashion.“The initial focus when Sarri got the job was as much on whether he’d accept the dress code expected of a club like Juve and put on a suit and tie for the first time since he left the bank, as it was about his style of play.”
This is why his players ended their season disconsolately looking at the ground, and themselves. They were slump-shouldered walking away from the reflection of yet another failure in Europe. It was a depressing and harsh sight for Juventini to see. Still they—and a generation of zombie pseudo-critics—should forgive the self-effacing Italian, if they haven’t already.
He didn’t have a chance.
He was scapegoated by the directors at Juve, and he knew it. When Agnelli addressed Juventus’ ninth consecutive Scudetto, the name Sarri was not dropped once. Wonder why.
Sarri deserved more than to be duly chucked aside and replaced by an amateur. But that’s the way it is. He’s earned new cigarettes and more drinks.