TOP OF THE LEAGUE, BUT THERE’S A LOT LEFT TO BE DESIRED: DECODING THE JUVE CONUNDRUM
The year is 2020 and Juventus are dominating Italian football. Again. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d gone to sleep in 2012 and woken up the next day to find nothing new. However, much has changed since Juve’s first title win after ‘Calciopoli’, the match fixing scandal in 2006 that saw them relegated to Serie B along with them getting stripped of two Serie A titles.
La Vecchia Signora has grown older and wiser, concocting the absolute perfect antidote to all those issues in 2006 in the form of winning the scudetto eight times in a row. Let that sink in for a moment.
First with Antonio Conte bringing the club from Turin back to the top of Italian football, a former Juventus favorite who was replaced by Massimiliano Allegri who took over in 2014. Despite Conte making waves in Italy, he was unable to get anywhere with his Juve side in Europe, failing miserably to replicate the side’s form from Serie A into the elite European stages.
Allegri, a manager the Allianz Stadium faithful were completely against initially due to his history with Milan and what seemed like a lack of ability to influence his team’s to play exciting attacking football. Quite to the contrary, he continued exactly where Conte left off and if anything, was more successful, hungrier and became a massive part of Juve’s increased dominance in Italy as well as totally outdoing what Conte achieved in Europe, managing to help the Bianconeri to their road into the Champions League final twice, once against Barcelona in 2015, losing 3-1, thanks to the usual masterclass put on by a Man of the Match display by Iniesta and also against Real Madrid in 2017, succumbing to a 4-1 demolition job that was spearheaded by the all too familiar face of Cristiano Ronaldo and the newer breed of Galacticos.
So fast forward to 2020 again and what do we see? Total domestic dominance? European glory? Superstars paving the way for Juventus to put Italy on the map as the best club in world football? Well, not quite. The superstars are aplenty with none other than Cristiano Ronaldo as the face of the operation, arguably the best player on the planet at one point. At 34 years of age, the Portuguese has remained evergreen despite not getting any younger and Juventus have had to unsurprisingly pay through their nose with the deal costing the club €31 million a season as well as his initial €100 million transfer cost. Even the most cynical and argumentative Calcio fan would struggle to argue why Ronaldo isn’t a superstar but it’s not all about him. There are the likes of Paulo Dybala, the heir to Lionel Messi’s throne as Argentina’s all-conquering talisman along with Gonzalo Higuain, one of the most seasoned strikers in the game at presence along with Juve legends such as Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. Miralem Pjanić, Blaise Matuidi, Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey form one of Europe’s most layered midfield ensembles. And to cap off the embarrassment of riches, the recently added Matthijs de Ligt bought for a handsome €75 million after a breakthrough season at Ajax.
Despite having all the tools at their disposal, Juve haven’t quite been the dominant force we have been used to in the 2019-20 season. The hiring of Mauricio Sarri, the former Napoli and Chelsea coach has majorly changed the air at the Allianz Stadium. Sarri is an advocate for a control-based footballing philosophy that is brave and incredibly easy on the eye is something Juve fans were desperately looking for, even during the heyday of Conte and Allegri who had the tendency of being conservative at times. The veteran coach, however, hasn’t quite managed to transcend ‘Sarri-ball’ to his players which has led to some very surprising results in the current campaign for Juventus. To say the surprises have been far from pleasant is irking an already irritable Juventus fan’s sensibilities. With the Italian media constantly stirring the rumors of Pep Guardiola taking on the reigns at the Bianconeri, such growing speculation stems from a frustration that has become unanimous over Juventus fans due to a lack of cohesiveness on the pitch, despite them topping the Serie A table.
The dip in form of Miralem Pjanić after starting the campaign brilliantly is similar to Jorginho’s fate during his debut season at Chelsea under Sarri where he was slaughtered left, right and center for his defensive drawbacks in the pivot role. Matthijs de Ligt has not eased into life in Turin and at present, the Dutchman has not replicated his heroics at Ajax which wowed the world. All in all, cohesion seems to be the operative word of which there has been a lack of and often, the responsibility has been on Ronaldo’s shoulders, something he has done in record-breaking fashion by scoring 11 consecutive goals. Despite that, the groans and whistles haven’t stopped.
Losing games to Napoli, Verona and Lazio as well as drawing games to Sassuolo and the newly promoted Lecce, things that don’t normally happen with a side that have steamrolled oppositions for the better part of the bygone decade.
Another huge change this season has to be the improved competition with Inter taking the extremely controversial decision of bringing Antonio Conte in as gaffer on a whopping €10 million contract in the first season, rising to €12 million including bonuses for the next two to replace Luciano Spalletti which proved to a massive move in Serie A as major figures switching allegiances is so against the norm. Demanding a massive transfer market and obtaining it through the ownership of Zheng and sporting director Marotta, two familiar faces at Juve saw the Nerazzurri make one of the loudest statements in the transfer market this season. Inter’s dealings over the summer included bringing in big names such as Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Stefano Sensi and the veteran Diego Godin. Their financial forays did not just end here as Christian Eriksen joined their ranks in a deal amounting to £16.9 million. Inter have ramped up the pressure on Juve in Serie A, something the usual league leaders haven’t been used to in what has become a footballing monopoly.
Out of nowhere like a soaring eagle ready to latch on to its prey are Lazio. The Biancoceleste have been in rampant form, overachieving to say the least and finding themselves just a point behind Juve have been the surprise package. Ciro Immobile has been at his clinical best with 27 goals in 26 Serie A games, making his Dortmund debacle a mere afterthought now. Lazio, who were able to hang on to the highly rated Sergej Milinković-Savić this summer have profited from his fantastic playmaking skills which have aided in rocketing their side right into the conversation of regaining the scuddetto after almost 20 fruitless years.
So why aren’t Juve having a typical record-smashing Serie A campaign is the question that keeps doing the rounds. Well let’s remember that Juventus, as a club are probably their own worst critics, never satisfied of their unstoppable success and always hungry for more. Winning the league, or domestic doubles isn’t enough for Italian football’s emperors. Keeping the Juve faithful satisfied hasn’t been an easy task for Sarri as their thirst for success has been validated by the club with such an unmatched consistency over the years that their need for domination lies even above just winning matches. Sarri, himself was quoted saying in December, “Clearly this is a big challenge for me. It’s been difficult since I accepted the job because I arrived in a team and in a company that has won a lot.”
“We want to continue to win in Italy and to be competitive in Europe. In Italy, winning the scudetto is almost an obligation, while in Europe we do not feel this, but only as a great challenge to make all the Juventus fans happy. It will not be easy, but I am happy to be here and to have accepted this challenge.”
Currently losing 1-0 on aggregate to Lyon in the last 16 of the Champions League, Juve find themselves at a critical stage of the season. European success is the pinnacle and a 2nd leg comeback could mean fans hop back on the Sarri train. The challenge remains the same for the former Napoli boss- can he transcend his style of play to the players or will the camera continue to capture moments such as Ronaldo and Dybala complaining about their teammates in the tunnel in regards to the lack of support on the pitch.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala were caught on camera during the midweek #UCL loss to Lyon 👀
Ronaldo: “We are left alone out there, the midfielders are giving us no support.”
Dybala: “Nobody is getting the ball.
Ronaldo: “I know, not even the second balls, nothing.” pic.twitter.com/4TajUw6NHL
— Football Factly (@FootballFactly) March 1, 2020
Let’s remember there’s still everything to play for this season as Juve are competing on all three fronts. Favorites to ascend into the Coppa Italia final, bringing an away goal to the Allianz, courtesy of a 1-1 draw against Milan, the defending Serie A champions are firmly in the hot seat. Chasing down the scuddetto for a 9th time in a row, triumph seems inevitable despite Lazio emerging as a worthy competitor.
Their brilliant 2-0 victory over Inter could be a sign of the times to come as Juventus have put themselves in the ascendancy for the league and as Sarri would tell you, this wasn’t just a case of 3 points earned.
“This Juve is getting closer to what I want.”
A question La Vecchia Signora fans must ask themselves is what real success means; winning everything or a style of play that complies with the Juve way of going about things. Patience is the name of the game and while their frustrations are similar to Barcelona fans’ about Ernesto Valverde and look how that ended up. All that can be said as of now is that there’s a lot left to unravel.