A Docile Old Lady

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Juventus's Gonzalo Higuain, left, celebrates with his teammate Paulo Dybala after scoring during a Serie A soccer match between Juventus and Sassuolo at the Juventus Stadium in Turin, Italy, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. (Alessandro Di Marco/ANSA via AP)

In the summer of 2012, Sir Alex Ferguson said he knew Manchester United were going to win the league in the 2012/2013 season – Ferguson’s last – on August 17, 2012. That is the day Robin Van Persie signed from Arsenal for £24 million. Fast-forward four years, and you would have been forgiven for inscribing “Juventus” on the league trophy on July 26, 2016. That is the day Gonzalo Higuaín signed from Napoli for £76 million. At the time, that was the third largest fee ever paid for a footballer. Coupled with the purchases of Miralem Pjanic (£27 million from Roma), the Bianconeri managed to pull off the old trick of significantly strengthening their own squad while weakening their closest rivals. The league was a foregone conclusion, and the club set its sights on the holy grail: The UEFA Champions League.

Half a season later, the road has been unexpectedly bumpy. Injuries have played their part as manager Massimiliano Allegri has been forced to use the full range of his (admittedly) deep squad. Before the loss in Florence on January 15, the BBC – Barzagli, Bonucci, and Chiellini – had not lined up together in the league since October 29, a period that spanned twelve games across all competitions. Key players further forward such as Dybala and Marchisio have also been missing for important periods. Meanwhile, new signings Benatia, Pjaca, and Dani Alves have been absent either for injury or international duty, making integration more difficult.

But the squad is deep enough to cope. In the 3-1 reverse to Genoa, the Juventus bench contained Higuaín, Rugani, Marchisio, Chiellini, and Asamoah. All of those names would easily slot into most teams in Italy. It is their away form that has been their undoing as that Genoa defeat – and the other three so far – came away from home. The contrast is stark – Juventus last failed to win a home league game in September 2015. But there is another contrast. Juventus won all three away games in the Champions League group stage, including recording an impressive 3-1 victory at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán where Sevilla have only lost to Barcelona (twice) this season. So it’s their away form in the league raising questions about this Juventus squad. What’s driving this?

Last season, Juventus picked up just one win from the first six games, leading many to question whether the departures of Pirlo, Vidal, and Tevez had taken its toll. The team then went on an absolute tear from the end of October, winning 25 of the next 26 in the league to take the title by nine points. That run was built on grit, doggedness, and belief. The team often dug in and found different ways to win, typified by the crucial win over Napoli when Simone Zaza (yes, him) scored the winning goal. That mentality has been absent this season, perhaps understandably so. The team had to be in peak condition physically and mentally to catch up last year, and the likes of Pogba and Buffon had vintage seasons to silence their doubters. It is likely that complacency has set in. After five straight scudetto and with rivals throwing in the towel before a ball had even been kicked, the intensity that Conte imbued and Allegri worked so hard to maintain was at its shakiest. This is reflected in performances and Juventus have just not turned up for the crucial away games. And although they have been very good at scoring within the first 15 minutes of matches, concentration and intensity levels often drop to allow the opponent back into the game.

Some of the greatest dynasties are destroyed from within, and there have been moments this season when all has not looked right in the Bianconeri camp. Allegri’s comments have signalled a discontent with the mentality of the squad this season. After the Supercoppa shoot-out defeat to Milan in Doha, Allegri angrily remonstrated with the club directors, faulting the team’s attitude and failure to defend as a unit. But Allegri himself has been far from blameless as he has tinkered too much. Now into his third year, the Tuscan’s tactical flexibility and game-to-game management is deemed a particular strength and an edge over his predecessor, Antonio Conte. The problem is the lack of fluency has told in certain games this season as Juventus have often won games through superior quality, rather than tactical design. Moreover, performances have largely been functional, a puzzle in a team that boasts the current Pipita, last season’s leading assist-maker, and possibly the finest ball-playing defender in the world. Although injuries have constrained him, Allegri looks to have suffered from choice paradox and has been unable to settle on a preferred formation. At the same time, hipster favourite Luciano Spalletti has tinkered to great success while Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri has created a false-9 system that allows the Insigne-Mertens-Callejon axis to thrive. Interestingly, Juventus have lined up in an unorthodox 4-2-3-1 shape in the past two games (home wins against Lazio and Milan), and it will be interesting to see if Allegri persists with that when the BBC and Marchisio are fit.

 

Conditioning, mentality, and tactics only take you so far; players do the rest. In that respect, today’s Juventus lags behind vintage versions, despite the eye-catching signings. Between 2010 and 2015, the manager could call on Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba, and Claudio Marchisio to form his midfield. That quarter is as good as any in Juventus’ history. Today, only Marchisio remains. The effect of this change cannot be overstated as only recently, Juventus possessed arguably the most balanced midfield in world football. Unsurprisingly, even Juventus famed transfer team have struggled to replace them. Since January 2015, Juventus have signed Stefano Sturaro, Romolu, Roberto Pereyra, Sami Khedira, Mario Lemina, Hernanes, Miralem Pjanic, Juan Cuadrado, and Marko Pjaca. None have hit the heights of the legendary quartet. Pjanic – the marquee signing to replace Pogba – has only recently hit his stride. Indeed, Pogba, sometimes maligned in England for his flamboyancy, has been especially missed this season. His verticality, pace, and passing range would bring a new dimension to a team that has looked laboured during the second half of games.

While some signings are write-offs – Hernanes, for example – others may still come good. Lemina, Sturaro, and Pjaca are highly rated, and Pjanic looks to be a key part of Allegri’s new tactical setup. Yet the current crop is unlikely to match their predecessors. Nor should they. The convergence of those four powerhouses in Juventus midfield owed more to luck than design. Only Vidal warranted a fee (roughly $15m) with Pirlo and Pogba coming as free agents and Marchisio a youth product. Moreover, the players had either been written off (Pirlo) or not given opportunities (Pogba). And the blend of qualities they brought was unique: Pirlo the pass-master running out of legs, Vidal the epic box-to-box warrior, Pogba the elegant and unpredictable driver, and Marchisio providing a foil for all of them. Notwithstanding the importance of the BBC and the role played by Buffon, Tevez, and Morata, this quartet was the core of the Juventus team for the previous five years, and it is no surprise that the team’s fluency and mentality has suffered so much this season.

Juventus remain huge favourites to win the league – they hold a one-point lead with a game in hand. The team has enough depth and quality to see them over the line, and of course, they have Pipita, Gonzalo Higuain.

And that name brings us full circle. Singing Higuain was neither just a grand gesture nor a ploy to secure a record-setting sixth straight scudetto. Rather, the signing had one distinct purpose in mind: win the UEFA Champions League. It is by this yardstick that the team will be judged this season. Crucially, Juventus have benefited from the luck of the draw as they face FC Porto in the first knockout stage. Many people may not consider them serious contenders, but they have the quality and experience to challenge this year. Moreover, Real Madrid showed last year that a favourable draw can sometimes be the critical variable. In some ways, their stuttering Seria A form could lead the larger teams to underestimate them while keeping them fresh and focused. The days of Pirlo, Vidal, and Pogba are gone, and a new cycle has started to take shape in Turin. How they would like to start off with an elusive Champions League trophy. For their super-captain, Gianluigi Buffon, this may be his last chance yet.

4 Comments

  1. Oluwamayowa Idowu (@MayowaIdowu) says:

    RT @takingCustody: @Mikey_Fam takes a look at the Old Lady and her bumpy road to the sixth straight scudetto. https://t.co/M70soaT0oo https…

  2. Oluwamayowa Idowu (@MayowaIdowu) says:

    @Mikey_Fam on Juve’s muted dominance this season. https://t.co/TDEXYeX9bH

  3. @Kiigenn says:

    RT @MayowaIdowu: @Mikey_Fam on Juve’s muted dominance this season. https://t.co/TDEXYeX9bH

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