26th January 2011.
On this day, Andrea Barzagli arrived at Juventus. That is the unofficial birthdate of Andrea Agnelli’s Juventus. Agnelli, who took over from Jean-Claude Blanc as President in 2010, had already made bold statements about resurrecting a team that finished 7th in the last two seasons and the shrewd signing of World Cup winner Barzagli set the precedent for a transfer record that can hardly be bettered across Europe in the last 4 years.
That summer, Juventus began building a team that would dominate Serie A for the next four years. Buoyed by the prospect of playing at their brand new Juventus Stadium, sporting director Guiseppe Marotta scoured Europe in search of young talent. Antonio Conte, a Bianconeri legend in his playing days, was recruited from Siena and so were Andrea Pirlo (Milan, free transfer), Arturo Vidal (Bayer Leverkusen, €10.5m) and Stephan Lichsteiner (€10m). The signings of Vidal and Pirlo in particular, set the benchmark for a highly successful midfield recruitment drive that continues to this day. The following summer, Paul Pogba arrived on a free. In January 2015, Stafano Sturaro came in for €5.5 (excluding add ons) and more recently, World Cup winner Sami Khedira has come in on a free transfer (again!).
In the first game of the 11/12 season, a 4-1 victory over Parma, Conte started with 10 Italians. The game is significant for many reasons, chief among them, the manner in which Pirlo picked out Lichsteiner for the opening goal, a combination that will be repeated many times over in the coming years. And it was this game that provided the seminal moment to mark the start of the new era on the pitch. Andrea Pirlo had been at his magical best during the game and he had been joined on the pitch by Vidal, brought on for club legend Del Piero midway through the second half. Fast-forward to the 74th minute and Pirlo dinks a perfectly weighted lob for Vidal, who has made a clever run to beat the offside trap. Two touches later, one to chest the ball and the other to volley it, and the net ripples. At the time, the significance of the moment was lost on all but now we know – that goal had ushered in the new era.
Two other games further defined that season for Juventus – the 1-1 draw with Milan at the San Siro with Sulley Muntari’s incorrectly disallowed goal, and the 4-0 thumping of AS Roma. The first showed that Lady Luck was once again shining on the Old Lady and the second, with two of the goals coming within the first 10 minutes (both scored by Vidal) perfectly summarising the intensity at which Conte’s team played the game.
That year, Juventus hustled to the Serie A title without a top-class centre forward (a problem that would not be resolved till the signing of Carlos Tevez in 2013) and finished the season unbeaten, the first Italian team to do so in the 38-game format. Symbolically, Andrea Pirlo was voted player of the year and went on to star at Euro2012. The Pirlo-Marchisio-Vidal axis in midfield was special to watch. It was the perfect blend of the artistry, dynamism and tenacity. At the back, the Italian wall of Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini forged a partnership that would serve as an example of the potential merits of playing 3 at the back. Bonucci especially, with his libero-style ability to build attacks from defence, became a crucial cog in the Juventus machine.
By and large, that team remained the same for the next few years. The likes of Kwado Asamoah (left-wing back) and Llorente (striker) were added to give the team an extra dimension. Special mention goes to Paul Pogba, who came to Juventus as a troubled, under-appreciated protégé and is likely to leave as one of the most expensive footballers ever. His impact during his first year was so incredible that Conte adjusted to a 3-5-1-1 system to accommodate him. His growth is inseparable from Juventus’ and in a way, he is a symbol of how far the club has come since the dark days of Calciopoli.
Yet this team found European success hard to come by. There were highs – the 3-0 victory over defending UCL champions Chelsea at the Juventus Stadium had fans dreaming again, and there were lows – the mechanical way in which eventual winners Bayern nullified the whole team, Vidal excepted, in the quarterfinals of that year. Regardless, Conte’s European record will forever be dominated by the 2014 season. The manner in which they limped out of the group stage on a soggy night in Istanbul created a mini-complex that Allegri has done well to remove. However, what pains fans the most is the failure to reach the Europa League finals, held that year at the Juventus Stadium. 2-1 down from the first leg at the Stadium of Light, the naivety shown against a fairly limited Benfica team, with that prize at stake, was a misleading representation of the team Conte had forged. It is for this reason, as much as the failure to make an indelible mark on the CL, that Conte’s team is considered a failure in Europe.
The domestic record books will be kind to Conte’s team. The records point tally of 102, achieved in his final season, was achieved against a relatively strong challenger – It is important to remember that Roma began that season with 10 straight victories, 9 of them clean sheets and ended by with their own record points tally of 86. In every way, they had reached the pinnacle of the domestic game. Conte knew this, and he knew that the only road forward led to European glory. Given Allegri’s success in leading Juventus to the UCL final, Conte’s suggestion that they could not compete with Europe’s best now looks foolish. But hindsight is 20/20 and the sentiment, difficult as it must have been for a proud man like Conte to express, wasn’t far off. Allegri slowly compromised on Conte’s principles in order to go further in Europe.
Posterity will judge him favourably yet it was clear to observers that Juventus had lost something as a result, the perpetual intensity that made them great in the first place but hindered them from going even further. Perhaps it is an indictment on Conte that he did not stay longer to try and find a way to conquer Europe on his own terms. But in a sense, his job was complete.
Juventus have always been known as domestic bullies and European underachievers. It’s a reputation reinforced by their record 30 (or 33) Scudetto and SIX losing CL finals. It’s a reputation they would love to shake. But Conte was brought in to restore Juventus back to the proud Italian club they were known (and hated) as. Whichever way you look at it, with the help of his trusted playmaking lieutenant, he definitely achieved it.
A lot has changed recently. Juventus can now sit near the top of the football food chain. Conte’s team is in the middle of reconstruction. By the start of the 2015/2016 season, it is likely that Tevez, Pirlo and Vidal will have all left the club. As the club refocuses on young prospects like Sturaro, Simone Zaza and Paulo Dybala, the likes of Pogba, Lichsteiner, Barzagli and Llorente will probably not last for more than one more season.
The Juventus I fell in love with was all fire and brimstone; relentless running and aggression married to clockwork organisation. And in the middle of all this chaos, was Andrea Pirlo, the conductor, strolling gracefully into pockets of space. The likes of whom football may never see again. As he follows Conte out the door, I tip my hat in acknowledgement of the end of an era.