FEATURE | European Manager of the Season, 12th: Ivan Juric | OneFootball

FEATURE | European Manager of the Season, 12th: Ivan Juric

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Soulfly — the renowned American heavy-metal band — hosted a show in Milan in 2009. Ivan Juric, 33 back then, was contemplating how to get on with life after retirement. It had been 16 long years since he opted for Calcio professionally. As a midfielder, he was decent but never received the attention of the big players in Italy. As for Croatia, he had a handful of opportunities here and there. But that’s all. In a way, life had become monotonous.

Besides football, Juric had managed to carve out a soft spot for music in his heart. He was passionate about a distinct genre of rock music. In his narrative, he was moved by “aggressive things”.

“I started at 14 with Metallica and Megadeth. Death metal is my passion, bands like Napalm Death, Obituary and Carcass, real artists… Definitely ‘Kill’em All’: it changed my life,” he reminisced in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine (issue no. 78) in the year 2010.

Therefore, upon getting the news that Soulfly would do a live concert in Milano, he could not resist the temptation. Among zillions of fans, he rediscovered himself as a different person. He shared the memories of how chaotic the situation had become that day, how crazy the crowd were, and how he had avoided getting hurt amid the uproar. But this is what he yearns for — ”aggressive things”.

One year later, he was not a professional footballer anymore, eventually free of the shackles of the duties for both the club and the Croatian national team. He followed his mentor Gian Piero Gasperini, who was Juric’s manager in Genoa. Joining Gasperini as his assistant coach at Inter a year after hanging up his shoes was the best decision Juric had taken, and the current Torino boss would not deny that.

Under the guidance of Gasperini, Juric learned the basics of coaching and man-management. The protégé was with the master during the latter’s peaks and valleys, at Inter and then at Genoa. But finally, the separation took place when Crotone came calling for the expertise of an aspiring gaffer.

After Crotone, three different spells with Genoa followed. Two summers later, aided by a vibrant and watchable way of playing the game, Hellas Verona firmed their feet at the top deck of the Italian footballing pyramid under the stewardship of Croatian. Then, last summer, Serie A saw a massive overhaul, with a host of clubs shuffling managers like cards. Juric’s rise to prominence brought him near to Turin, with Torino securing the manager’s services in what was considered a cunning move by the city rivals of the Old Lady.

Juric took over a Torino side that had finished 17th — seven places behind the Croat’s Hellas Verona — in Serie A last season and 16th the previous year. In both campaigns, they were rather closer to relegation than to the top half of the points table. As a result, a big summer transfer window was imminent. But where was the fund? Juric later admitted that he was not aware of the club’s poverty-stricken financial conundrums, taking a dig at the club hierarchy publicly in the press conference,

“It’s legitimate, we lost a lot of money during the pandemic, but the staff and I were not aware that the club was in austerity. I was surprised. This is the situation, we didn’t know that when we accepted, but it’s still the most stimulating challenge I’ve ever had. It’s a massive challenge, in fact, losing important players, others who got injured and only bringing in new faces on loan. This is the situation, I accept it, but I was not aware of it.”

An outspoken version of Juric shushed Urbano Cairo, the club president, with his cunning use of words. But his demand for more funds fell on deaf ears as Torino ended up spending less than many of their rivals and only more than Salternitana, who had just entered Italy’s top flight, in the summer transfer window.

Despite the miserable backing in the market, Toro acquired news names both on permanent deals and on loans. But a plethora of players had already returned from their respective loan spells; Juric considered keeping some of them at his disposal, with notable names such as Ola Aina and Koffi Djidji earning the coach’s favour immediately.

Despite all the success that Juric has amassed over the years with his footballing philosophy, it has never made him uncertain of his beliefs, as resonated during his spell as the manager of the Piedmontese side thus far. Since day one, he has never changed his formation, irrespective of his team’s results on the pitch. Being a scholar of the Gasperini school, Juric has always epitomised the significance of the 3–4–2–1 formation.

It is a structure that gives his team the right balance between attack and defence. With two wingbacks bombing down the flanks and four midfielders taking part in sustaining the harmony in the midfield, the team appears to be adept at manoeuvring some of the most heartwarming football played in Italy these days. Playing with three defenders at the back, many coaches have accomplished many miracles over the years, making Juric a believer in the process.

Jonathan Wilson’s book, “Inverting The Pyramid”, explains how different managers approach their pressing game differently. The thesis dives deep, showcasing how Jurgen Klopp makes his players press an opponent from all angles by almost creating a circle of bodies around the opposition enjoying the control of the ball.

Much like the philosophy of Jupp Heynckes’ pressing game, a team, managed by Antonio Conte, on the contrary, prefers pressing one-v-one. His pressing methodology directs a player to press his designated marker and win possession as soon as the marker gets the ball, perhaps with intense tackling or a bold interception.

On the other hand, the interception-based module is apparently overserved in the game of Julian Nagelsmann, whose principles in pressing embody the idea that a player needs to win possession back from his opponent by anticipating a pass and intercepting the passing lanes. Nagelsmann’s pressing requires smart players, while Conte and Klopp could do with the hard-working ones. Juric’s pressing plan, inspired by Gasperini, lies between that of Nagelsmann and Conte. Of course, due to the lack of suitable players, Juric’s pressing game has not flourished in Torino yet, but it still remains an exciting aspect of Torino’s plot.

When it comes to goalkeeping, the 2021/22 season has worked like a spell of redemption for Vanja Milinković-Savić, the younger brother of Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić. Before the arrival of Juric, Vanja had managed to gather 12 league appearances under the authority of five different managers since joining the club in 2017. In one season under Juric, the 25-year-old has already accumulated 28 appearances, including 27 in Serie A.

What has changed in one year? Upon moving to Turin, Juric needed a custodian who would be proficient with his feet and long-range passing. The Croat found his perfect man in the Serbian, although the recent run of games has seen the former Verona coach preferring Etrit Berisha to Milinković-Savić with the gloves.

In all, Vanja Milinković-Savić has massively benefitted from the appointment of Ivan Juric. Even if he has not cemented his starting berth at Torino, he has already proved his worth, which would surely help him forge a future in Turin or maybe elsewhere.

Other than Vanja, Bremer has also cherished the sweet fruits of Juric’s presence this season. Signed from Atlético Mineiro in the summer of 2018, Bremer had already made an impact with his defensive attributes in the top tier of Italian football before the arrival of Juric, but the 2021/22 campaign has placed him in a different sphere when it comes to stardom, with the defender nowadays being linked with a move to Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, AC Milan, Juventus, Chelsea and several other heavyweights across the globe.

Let’s put aside the transfer talks and focus on how he has come so far. As mentioned earlier, Juric’s defensive system consists of three centre-halves and two wing-backs. Bremer’s adaptability helps him play any of the three defensive positions at the back.

When Ricardo Rodriguez, who is another name to have seen the face of development under Juric’s guidance, is unavailable, Bremer fills in for the left-sided centre-back. He can play down the middle and the right. In terms of blocks in Serie A, Bremer has 83, almost 35 more than any other player in Torino. In terms of interception, the South American tops the list of players across the top five leagues in Europe.

Furthermore, his bulky physique and towering leap sometimes put defenders in a dilemma while defending set-pieces against the Brazilian. Nonetheless, when it comes to scoring from headers, there remains room for improvement. It’s indeed undeniable that all of the progress has not happened overnight and under Juric’s attentive eyes in one season, but it is under the Croatian that Bremer has enjoyed his best days from a footballing viewpoint.

Like Bremer and Vanja, Juric’s short stint has seen the rise of Josip Brekalo (signed on loan from Wolfsburg in the summer), Tommaso Pobega (on a season-long loan from AC Milan), Antonio Sanabria, and some others, given that everyone had expected the likes of Saša Lukić, Wilfried Singo, and Andrea Belotti to do well before the inception of Torino’s new dawn under Juric.

Ivan Juric being stubborn about his 4–3–2–1 formation may not have helped the team offensively, with Torino remaining the scorer of 46 goals from 37 matches with an average of 1.24 goals per 90 minutes in Serie A. But the structure has denied opponents scoring in abundance as well, with I Granata emerging as one of the most defensively-solid sides in the division. They have conceded only 38 goals to date.

And four of those 38 came in Torino’s away meeting with Atalanta, one of the most exciting encounters of the 2021/22 Serie A season. Atalanta, led by Juric’s professor Gian Piero Gasperini, hosted Torino last April at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia. The meeting between the professor and his disciple had already left no spot devoid of enthusiasm, but Sanabria’s goal in the fourth minute of the match saw both teams pushing their limit.

After the Paraguayan’s opener, goals from Luis Muriel and Marten de Roon put La Dea in the driving seat. Lukic had scored a brace through two commendable spot-kicks before Remo Freuler’s own-goal extended the scoreline to 4–2 in Torino’s favour. Some thought the match was over, but, in reality, it was far from it. Mario Pasalic and Muriel engraved their names on the scoresheet as a wild game of football, combining four penalty kicks, came to its conclusion.

The game against Atalanta was the first time Torino had conceded four goals this season and they have not done so since. In all, the Turin-based side, under Juric, has never lost a game with a two-goal deficit but once, against Udinese in February.

On the other hand, their first mammoth victory came against Salernitana, with goals from Sanabria, Bremer, Pobega, and Lukic charging the home side to a 4–0 triumph over the newly-promoted Italian side in Serie A earlier this season.

Then, their second 4–0 win witnessed the men in deep red thumping Fiorentina on home soil. One could also count the 1–1 draw against Juventus at Juventus as Juric’s biggest achievement this term. On the back of losing two consecutive defeats against Udinese and Venezia, Juric managed to scrape a point against the crosstown rivals. However, Torino went on to lose their next game against Cagliari. As the saying goes, even the best of the players suffer from the worst days. Torino had a bitter taste of it.

Granata’s worst nightmare was their early disqualification from this year’s Coppa Italia, with Sampdoria knocking the Toro out in the second round of the respective competition. But Juric did not shed tears this time, as he had done in 2018 after losing to Genoa’s third-division neighbours Virtus Entella and embracing elimination from Coppa Italia in what was Juric’s final game as the Rossoblù manager.

The chorus of “alè, alè, alè, alè, Jurić, Jurić” may not sound pleasing to the ears of Juventini, but it has emerged as Torino’s only shot at the resurrection. Embarking on a new journey of searching for a needle in the haystack, the winner of 2014-15 Panchina d’Argento has already steadied the ship that was on the cusp of sinking deep.

As for the brand of football, it has been utterly pleasing. Under the new manager, who is just six years older than AC Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Torino look poised to finish in the top half of the table once again. Next season, they might be within the touching distance of Europe. Maybe one of Europe’s hottest clubs will make a swoop for the coach. But nobody is certain of the future. What we are certain of is that Toro are experiencing a rise on an upward trajectory.

With a net spend of around -€3million and despite Juric losing players such as Lyanco and Soualiho Meïté in the transfer market, the improvements that Torino has overseen with their limited resources are simply outstanding. And indeed, it is nothing short of a miracle. If you don’t believe in miracles, you should listen to Albert Einstein, who was once quoted as saying, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

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