When is the right time to say goodbye? Juventus and Napoli have big decisions to make

The recent transfer window showed us how tricky extensions for veteran players can be for clubs. Even a team like Juventus, who are usually universally praised for the way they handle themselves on the market, found themselves with numerous older players they couldn’t move. The trick is ensuring you aren’t paying someone just to reward them for their past performances, you also have to be sure they’ll be able to perform in the future.

Inter learned this lesson the hard way- following their impressive treble run, president Massimo Moratti decided to keep his nucleus, which was for the most part on the back nine of their careers, even though he had lost the manager that made it all work. This approach is the main reason they found themselves in Financial Fair Play jail for quite some time.

While Juventus didn’t win a treble, they locked up Mario Mandzukic and Sami Khedira last year to new contracts that left many people puzzled. Once Max Allegri left Mario Mandzukic dropped in the depth chart faster than Apple stock following Steve Jobs’ passing and finding him a new home has been rather challenging. At least Khedira found a new fan in Maurizio Sarri, but having so many older players on big contracts (Higuain, Matuidi are also on the list) put Juventus in such a financial bind that they were doing all they could to make a plusvalenza on Paulo Dybala after previously sacrificing Joao Cancelo and Moise Kean.

Now Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici finds himself at another crossroads with Juan Cuadrado and Blaise Matuidi who have expiring contracts. Both have become surprising full time starters under Maurizio Sarri- Cuadrado has performed so well that there has been no drop off from Joao Cancelo and Matuidi has been constantly praised by his new manager for his tactical intelligence.

Will Paratici be scared off from what happened this summer? He would be hard pressed to find a better right back than Cuadrado on the market, the Colombian’s ability to cover multiple roles is especially valuable to a club competing on multiple fronts like Juventus so at least a one year extension seems reasonable. Matuidi is a bit more complicated since the bianconeri signed two starting caliber midfielders on substantial Bosman deals with Emre Can and Rabiot.

At least Juventus have a decent margin for error when it comes to these decisions because of their enormous revenues. Napoli on the other hand have to continue to be very prudent when it comes to veterans, it’s no surprise that when it comes to adding new players they tend to always go with young players who have the upside to at least bring a plusvalenza down the road with the added benefit that they tend to have lower wages.

De Laurentiis and sporting director Giuntoli are in a very tough spot with Jose’ Callejon and Dries Mertens- two players who have massively outperformed the transfer fees needed to acquire them. Napoli have tried to prepare for life after these two brilliant players- they brought in Simone Verdi last year to see if he could replace Callejon and more recently Lozano to become the new Mertens, but so far this hasn’t worked out.

On paper you have to admire the thought process here- Napoli spent significantly to acquire Verdi and Lozano essentially a year earlier that they were needed to see if they could move on from Callejon and Mertens. Verdi ended up being a significant bust and has also struggled significantly since joining Torino at the very end of the last transfer window, while so far Lozano has been the least brilliant new addition to the team (this is a nice way to say he’s been flat out bad but needs to be given way more time since he just arrived in Serie A).

De Laurentiis wasn’t afraid to take the negotiations with Mertens and Callejon to the public sphere recently by stating that if “Mertens and Callejon won’t to go live a shitty life in China” to essentially get paid it wasn’t his problem. While that wasn’t exactly diplomatic, especially when you consider how much Mertens has embraced the Neapolitan life style to the point of earning the “Ciro” nickname”, he also isn’t exactly wrong, but because he has such a small margin for error with this decision he has to use the tools at his disposal.

Everyone loves beginnings- hope always springs eternal, when a new addition arrives, fans tend to focus on all the positives they can bring to the table- but once you’ve had a player for awhile, deciding to continue to the relationship can have far reaching consequences. Napoli and Juventus are now on the clock…

Which Serie A team has the most margin for improvement this season?

The second international break of the season is a good opportunity for Serie A teams to take stock of their strengths and weaknesses. Both Milan and Sampdoria went beyond a self appraisal and decided to use the two week window with no games as an opportunity to make a coaching change, but for the rest this break is the ideal time to find ways to improve.

With that in mind, which top Serie A teams have the most margins for improvement? let’s rank them

 

 

Atalanta 

While many, including yours truly, genuinely believed there would be some regression after a stellar season that saw most of their top players perform at the highest level of their careers, Atalanta have been just as devastating in Serie A where they find themselves in third place and with the second highest goal differential in the league.

But unlike the other teams listed in this article, there isn’t much margin for improvement. Duvan Zapata will be out for three weeks following an injury during the international break, the defense has performed better than expected with Kjaer seamlessly replacing Mancini and goalkeeper Gollini earning a selection to the Italian national team. Atalanta will however now be able to play their home matches in Bergamo again after their curva was rebuilt and new addition Malinovski can continue to improve while Ilicic has yet to be as consistently brilliant as last season. Atalanta will have to continue to prove they aren’t a fluke rather than looking for ways to get better.

 

Inter

 

The nerazzurri won their first six Serie A matches of the season before losing to Juventus in a close match at San Siro. They have the best goal differential in the league with plus 10, have received some strong contributions from almost all their new additions especially Godin, Barella and Sensi while Handanovic, De Vrij and Brozovic continue to be some of the best players at their respective position in all of Serie A.

While the nerazzurri have performed at almost their peak level in the domestic league, there’s still some margin for improvement once Romelu Lukaku develops more chemistry with Lautaro Martinez. With D’Ambrosio’s recent injury we’ll also likely see Valentino Lazaro make his debut- the Austrian international has the potential to be an upgrade from what we’ve seen from Candreva to so far this season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lazio 

 

No top Serie A team went through less changes than the biancocelesti who brought back manager Simone Inzaghi as well we as all of their core players. With that in mind, they have fallen short of expectations since they are in sixth place because they are unable to consistently win the matches in which they are the favorites.

Luis Alberto, Milinkovic Savic, Acerbi and especially Immobile have performed at their top level which doesn’t leave much room for growth beyond hoping new center back Vavro and wingback Lazzari can become the impactful additions they were expected to become. Lazzari had gotten off to a strong start but then struggled enough to lose playing time to Marusic.

 

Roma

The giallorossi are one of the most exciting team to watch in Serie A because of their free flowing offense and their leaky backline. Roma should be a bit concerned with the fact Dzeko and Kolarov have been their two best players, but they can also point to some significant margins for improvement once Pellegrini, Under and Mkhitaryan return from their injuries and once Gianluca Mancini and Chris Smalling can get more reps playing together.

 

 

Juventus 

 

Right before the international break, Inter were reminded of the saying “if you want to be the champ, you have to beat the champ”. Juventus displayed their depth and ruthlessness at San Siro in the final Serie A match and reminded the rest of the league why they’ve won the last eight scudetti.

If that wasn’t frightening enough, the bianconeri have considerable margins for improvement- Sarri now has more time to implement his ideas and because of the depth of his squad, he can alternate between two formations. Douglas Costa is returning from an injury, Dybala has started to develop better chemistry with Cristiano Ronaldo, and speaking of the Portuguese striker, it’s only a matter of time until he goes on a scoring streak.

If that weren’t enough De Ligt can be considerably better than what he’s shown so far, Rabiot could eventually replace Matuidi and Chiellini will be back for the stretch run of the season.

 

Milan 

 

The rossoneri are three points away from relegation zone and four behind Napoli for the last Champions League spot so they have some clear margins for improvements while also having hope they can completely turn their season around. Their new manager Pioli has been in a similar situation when he took over at Inter a few years ago and it’s hard to imagine Paqueta’ and Piatek not turning things around in a new system.

Look for Pioli to get the most out of new additions Leao, Hernandez, Bennacer and Rebic while Caldara could be an upgrade over Musacchio as Romagnoli’s partner. A healthy Bonaventura would also feel like what Galliani would describe “as like a new addition”.

 

Napoli 

 

While the partenopei are in nowhere near as dire a situation as Milan, they have the most margin for improvement of any top team. Koulibaly has really struggled since missing the pre season because of the Africa Cup, Milik will finally be fully fit for the first time this season after rehabbing from a painful injury, while both Manolas and Lozano have yet to perform at the level expected from two of the most expensive additions in the club’s history. Ancelotti’s squad could also receive a significant boost from a return to form for Lorenzo Insigne and Faouzi Ghoulam.

 

Pioli’s Task- improving Milan while implementing Gazidis’s plan

Most of us claim to want transparency even if it means hearing things we don’t want to hear and few things are more infuriating in life than being deceived. If you tend to agree with the above statement, then you won’t have much of a problem with what Ivan Gazidis has said about Milan in his two highest profile statements about the club he’s running along with Boban and Maldini.

The introductory press conference for new manager Stefano Pioli was an opportunity for Gazidis to remind the media and rossoneri fans’ that he and his colleagues inherited a dire financial situation following the Elliott Fund having to bail out the mysterious Chinese owners and Mirabelli’s disastrous spending spree from a few summers ago. 

The former Arsenal directors reminded everyone that club had to make some painful decisions, including passing on participating in the Europa League and focusing on cheaper players, to be economically viable long term because of the mess they were asked to clean up. But while this maybe true, the fans are now tired of hearing about so many different financial terms since now they just want to have some sporting successes.

The seventh coaching change since Max Allegri was sacked in early 2014 felt like another “been there, done that” moment for those following Milan. What ended up costing Marco Giampaolo his job weren’t just the poor results but almost certainly his unwillingness to execute the plan Gazidis had clearly laid out in his other big public statement of the year- his long interview with Gazzetta dello Sport at the end of May.

Say what you will about Gazidis, but he was a man of his word- he stated Milan would target young players who had the potential to become stars at Milan. This would help keep costs down with wages while also potentially generating some future plusvalenze- we then saw the club acquire Bennacer, Leao, Hernandez and Duarte to become the club’s future stars.

With that plan in mind, hiring Marco Giampaolo made a lot of sense. At Empoli and Sampdoria he had an excellent track record of developing young players like Torreira, Skriniar, Praet, Andersen and even Patrik Schick who has sold for an exorbitant transfer fee. On paper not only would Giampaolo get the most out of one of the youngest squads in Serie A, but he would also bring back the offensive minded football we associate with Milan.

Well you know how it turned out- Giampaolo was unmitigated disaster in every aspect. He seemed confused with his lineup (Andre’ Silva starting only to be loaned a few days later), Paqueta’ and Piatek regressing significantly, no offensive improvements, but consistently starting the Biglia, Calhanoglu, Rodriguez and Castillejos of the world over the players Milan was looking to develop was just a bridge too far.

While Milan flirted with the idea of hiring Luciano Spalletti, from a financial stand point it never really made much sense considering he’s still under contract with Inter through 2021 with a substantial annual salary. Instead Milan ended up hiring his predecessor at the nerazzurri Stefano Pioli, who was “welcomed” to the club with a virtual protest on social media demanding his sacking even before his introductory press conference.

The protest wasn’t so much directed at Pioli but rather the direction of the club and by the time the press conference took place, you could see many Milan fans had gotten through the seven stages of grief and had talked themselves into Pioli. When you look at the managers who have been on the rossoneri’s bench since Allegri left, you can certainly make a case Pioli ranks towards the top.

Pioli was able to get Lazio to third place back in 2015, while time at Inter ended with a typical pazza collapse, he had won 12 of his first 16 Serie A matches with the nerazzurri once he replaced De Boer. Pioli received universal praise for the way he handled Davide Astori’s tragic death at Fiorentina and the team got considerably worse last season when Vincenzo Montella (another former Milan manager) replaced him.

Certainly Milan fans will judge Pioli mainly based on results, and it won’t be easy for him since he will face a much tougher schedule than what Giampaolo dealt with in his first seven matches, but how he develops Milan’s young players will be just as significant. But how those results are achieved will be equally important- Pioli will have to get Piatek and Paqueta’ back on track, continue to develop Leao and Bennacer while finding out if Caldara and Hernandez can be starters on defense alongside Romagnoli since  Gazidis and the rest of the management team need to see their vision executed on the pitch.

 

International Break Coaching Carousel

The second international break of the season is typically an opportunity for Serie A clubs to (over)react to a poor start to the season and make a coaching change. The extra week of training allows for a new manager to more easily settle into a new reality, so we’ll likely see a change or two, while other managers may receive the dreaded vote of confidence.

While many assumed Vincenzo Montella would be the first manager replaced, especially since he hadn’t been hired by Fiorentina’s new owners, the former Milan manager has actually strived after a poor start. Ironically the managers most in danger of losing their jobs (and one of them will have likely received a pink slip by the time you read this) were all hired during the summer so in a sane world you would assume they would be getting a bit more time. 

  

 

Available Jobs

 

Milan- despite the chaotic win against Genoa, the rossoneri are seriously considering sacking Marco Giampaolo. The former Sampdoria manager has looked confused in every aspect of his job- his lineups featured some desperate decisions (Andre’ Silva starting two days before being loaned out as the most egregious example), he hasn’t developed the players the club acquired in the summer, Paqueta and especially PIatek have regressed on his watch, he gave up on the formation he used all summer and has made puzzling statements during interviews- an important aspect of the job at a club of Milan’s magnitude.

Beyond improving on results, the most important task for Milan’s next manager will be to develop Bennacer, Leao, Hernandez, Rebic and get Paqueta and Piatek back on track because of the significant expense of acquiring them. Milan also needs a manager who will get them to play as hard as they did under Giampaolo’s predecessor Rino Gattuso. 

 

Genoa- after avoiding relegation in the final match of the season, president Preziosi bolstered the squad significantly in the summer by signing defenders Zapata and Barreca, promising striker Pinamonti and (shockingly) former Ajax starting midfielder Schone. Preziosi entrusted the team to Aurelio Andreazzoli who was known for playing a version of Sarriball at Empoli while using a 3 man defense.

There were strong indications Andreazzoli would be sacked after the 4-0 loss to Lazio and the subsequent defeat against Milan makes his situation even more dire. Genoa will need a manager who can guide them out of the relegation which won’t be easy considering that all three newly promoted teams look well equipped for Serie A- to add insult to injury, former Genoa manager Juric has done very well with Hellas Verona.

Sampdoria- the blucerchiati lost two of their best players in the summer in Praet and Andersen and even the most optimistic person couldn’t have expected Quagliarella to come close to repeating his previous campaign. Eusebio Di Francesco will likely be sacked by the time you read this, his situation (and that of his eventual replacement) will be further complicated by the fact the club has been rumored to be sold for the past few months. Just like Genoa, Sampdoria need a manager who can get them results immediately.

Udinese- just a few weeks ago, sporting director Marino shared some harsh words about manager Igor Tudor and it feels likely that a change will happen in next few weeks. While Udinese were surprisingly able to hold on to De Paul, they have one of the lowest payrolls in Serie A, further proof that a state of the art club owned stadium isn’t a silver bullet to solve all problems. The Friulani will need a manager able to get the most out of Fofana, Mandragora, Lasagna and De Paul to avoid relegation.

 

Managerial Candidates

 

Luciano Spalletti- certainly understandable that Milan fans would love to see him replace Giampaolo since he did get Inter back to the Champions League for two years in arrow, but considering that Spalletti is still earning over 4 million after taxes from Inter (and has a long term contract) it’s almost certain he’ll take a sabbatical year like Conte did with Chelsea, rather than taking over a team in crisis mid season and one that will have to deal with Financial Fair Play restrictions for foreseeable future. This also applies to Max Allegri, who will almost certainly coach abroad next season.

Claudio Ranieri- the architect of the Leicester miracle did quite well at Roma when he replaced Di Francesco. He solidified the defense, made a much needed goalkeeper change and almost got the giallorossi to the Champions League. Ranieri is an ideal stop gap option for a big club, on top of being very tactically sound, he’s used to the pressures of managing a big club- plus he’s a very likeable guy which helps with how a team in crisis is perceived.

Stefano Pioli- Fiorentina got significantly worse last season when Montella replaced him. Pioli also did fairly well when he took over at Inter mid season but did suffer an end of the season classic Pazza Inter collapse, he also received universal praise for how he handled Astori’s tragic death. Pioli can also be more than just a stop gap manager for a club like Sampdoria or Genoa, while for Milan he would be likely a bridge to next season.

Rino Gattuso- his reputation as a manager has certainly improved when you consider he had a Milan, that was no better than current version and likely worse, contending for a Champions League spot going into last match of the season. Gattuso was linked to Genoa after their devastating loss to Lazio and a return to Milan cannot be fully excluded.

Rudi Garcia- the former Marseille manager had an overall successful stint at Roma and could be an option for Milan should they decide to go with a manager who could lead them beyond this season.  

 

Beppe Iachini- while he’s mainly known for being the longest tenured manager of the Zamparini era at Palermo, last season his reputation took a hit when he failed to save Empoli who eventually went back to Andreazzoli and achieved better results. Iachini will likely either be a backup option for the clubs who fail to sign Pioli or could return to Udinese.

 

Winners and Losers of first (full) month in Serie A

The first full month of the Serie A season was filled with drama, starting with Mauro Icardi’s last minute transfer to Paris St Germain and ending with Montella’s Fiorentina playing champagne football at San Siro against his former team Milan. Over the course of the September we’ve seen numerous stand out performances, as well as some clunkers- so to recap it all, let’s name our Winners and Losers

 

Winners

 

Stefano Sensi- while Inter signed one of the best defenders in the game, Manchester United’s number nine and one of the starters on Mancini’s Azzurri, the former Sassuolo midfielder has so far been the best addition on any team in Serie A of the season. While on paper he’s very similar to Brozovic, he interprets the role with a completely different frame of mind than the Croatian who is far more eccentric.

Sensi has played both in front of the defense and in a more advanced position so far this season, and while he isn’t a box to box midfielder quite like Arturo Vidal, he has so far made the same type of impact the Chilean international gave Conte in his first season at Juventus- and I don’t write this lightly. 

Beppe Marotta/Antonio Conte- their Inter will be seriously tested against Barcelona and Juventus before the international break, but they couldn’t have gotten off to a better start- they eliminated all the cancers from the locker room and won their first six matches including the derby in a very decisive manner. While Inter has won the transfer window and September scudettos many times in recent years, the fact they have these two in charge should give their fans hope they can shed their “Pazza” ways.

Aaron Ramsey- it’s hard to pick a Juventus winner but since they are in second place and have won eight titles in a row, they deserve to have a representative. While the former Arsenal midfielder has not surprisingly missed time due to an injury, when he’s actually played, he’s made such an impact that Sarri went back to the 4 3 1 2 formation he used at Empoli and in his first few matches at Napoli. Ramsey has brought a spark to Juventus’ midfield which has been a weakness at the club for quite some time, he’s also developed good chemistry with Paulo Dybala who is looking to get his career back on track after a difficult past 18 months.

Atalanta- there have been a lot of prisoner of the moment takes on Atalanta because they lost their first two Champions League matches, but they did use the revenues that come from competing in Europe’s top competition the right way by extending Gasperini’s contract, keeping all of their stars and bolstering their depth with quality players (they are also renovating their stadium which is now team owned but that was planned before they finished in the top four).

While they have struggled in the Champions League, Atalanta have been brilliant in Serie A by showing their usual offensive flair and ability to come back in matches. With many teams improving in the league and because they had multiple players having career years in 2018/19, many expected Atalanta to regress, but so far they look even stronger.  

Frank Ribery/Rocco Commisso-while it was going to be very hard for Atalanta to repeat last season, for Fiorentina the only way was up after avoiding relegation in the final match of the 2018/19 campaign. New owner Rocco Commisso has brought a lot of enthusiasm to the team, he retained Federico Chiesa who was heavily linked to Juventus and bolstered positions of needs. But the cherry on top of the sundae, Ribery has been everything you could have asked for- dominating performances on the pitch, particularly at San Siro where he received a standing ovation, developing great chemistry with Chiesa to whom he can be a mentor and putting Fiorentina on the map globally with his arrival and the way he’s played.

Cristiano Giuntoli- Napoli came up short in races for Pepe and James Rodriguez but those may have been blessings in disguise based on what we saw from Lozano so far. Napoli’s sporting director also landed Elmas and Di Lorenzo, who have so far been revelations on the team at positions of need and at some point Kostas Manolas should become an upgrade to Albiol as Koulibaly’s center back partner.

Newly Promoted teams- if the season were to end today, all three newly promoted teams would avoid relegation, I know it’s very early but in recent seasons we’ve seen “neopromosse” look out of their element right away. Lecce have been very intriguing thanks to manager Liverani’s propensity for attacking regardless of who they are facing, Brescia have looked like this season’s version of Parma while Hellas Verona have made up for their lack of talent with gritty performances.

Paulo Fonseca- the former Shakhtar manager was first a great recruiter on the transfer market by convincing numerous players to join him in Italy’s capital and he re energized Dzeko who signed an extension at the end of the summer. Roma so far have played a very exciting and distinct brand of football offensively and certainly look in the mix for a Champions League spot despite losing their captain (De Rossi), best defender (Manolas) and top goal scorer (El Shaarawy) during the transfer window,

 

Losers

 

Roma defense- as great as Fonseca’s offense has looked so far this season, the backline has been a mess. The giallorossi had a bad defense last season and then they lost their best defender in Kostas Manolas and tried to replace him with inexperienced Gianluca Mancini and Manchester United reject Smalling. At least Roma finally has an above average keeper, but they also have clearly the worse defense of the teams competing for a Champions League spot.

Kalidou Koulibaly- shocking to see him listed here since along with Chiellini, he’s been the best defender in Serie A the past three years. Koulibaly struggled in numerous matches, highlighted by his own goal against Juventus and a red card that cost him a two game suspension and a fine. It’s just a matter of time until he turns it around and a slow start was to be somewhat expected since he had no pre season with his new defensive partners Manolas and Di Lorenzo because of the Africa Cup.

SPAL- the club from Ferrara lost their best player in the summer with Manuel Lazzari joining Lazio and are in serious jeopardy of being relegated because of the above average newly promoted teams to Serie A this season.

Marco Giampaolo- while there were concerns with his ability to handle the pressure of being the manager ay a top club, few doubted the fact that tactically he was supposed to be Milan’s best manager since Allegri. But we have yet to see any of the offensive identity we saw Giampaolo give Empoli when he replace Maurizio Sarri or Sampdoria where Quagliarella had a career season at an age most striker are already retired. Giampaolo has looked very confused with his lineups (remember Andre Silva starting the season opener before leaving the club a few days later?) and in press conference and is now acting like a dead man walking despite the fact Milan had a fairly easily schedule to start the season.

 

Sampdoria- Giampaolo’s former club have the worse goal differential in Serie A at minus ten and are dead last in the standings. The blucerchiati have been up for sale for awhile and will need whoever buys the club to make significant investments in January to avoid relegation.

 

Ranking the reasons to be optimistic about Inter

It’s only been five games and they had a fairly easy schedule to start the season, but no matter which caveat you want to add, there’s no doubt Inter couldn’t have had a better start to the season in Serie A. In addition to the results on the pitch, cross town rivals Milan are in a full blown crisis, Napoli suffered a deflating home loss to Napoli and Juventus has shown some cracks in their armor.

But can Inter sustain this success? Let’s rank the reasons why it’s likely they will:

 

Singular focus on Serie A

The home draw to Slavia Prague in the Champions League, the easiest match of the group stage is either part of the plan to “pull a Napoli and punt the Champions League” or a potential blessing in disguise to give Conte’s squad a better chance at a deep scudetto run. Should Inter be eliminated early in the group stage, they can put all their eggs in the Serie A basket earlier into the season.

 

Team can improve thanks to Valentino Lazaro and Alexis Sanchez

So far Inter have received a significant boost from their new additions. Stefano Sensi is arguably so far the most impactful new player on any Serie A team, Barella is living up to the hype of his substantial transfer fee after being eased into the starting lineup slowly, Lukaku has been decisive even when he doesn’t score, Godin has shown why he’s considered one of the best defenders of his generation and Biraghi played well in his first start against Lazio.

In the coming weeks we could see Valentino Lazaro get into the right wing back rotation and Alexis Sanchez will try to regain his Arsenal (or Udinese form) while giving a breather to the starting strikers. Lazaro was a fairly significant investment for the club, so look for Conte to try to turn him into his new Victor Moses, while Sanchez is a great low risk/high reward investment.

 

Depth

Lazaro and Sanchez will bring more depth to a team that has already had to use some of its backups this season. D’Ambrosio has played as a center back and rotated with Candreva on the right wing, Asamoah and Biraghi are both starting caliber players at left wing back, while Vecino has limitations as a player his physicality and nasty streak make him a good compliment to Sensi, Barella and Brozovic 

Politano can be a deluxe version of one of Conte’s favorite players Emanuele Giaccherini. The former Sassuolo winger has a knack for making an impact off the bench and he can play in multiple roles in Inter’s current formation. Even much maligned Ranocchia was useful at the start of the season while both De Vrij and Godin nursed injuries. 

 

Conte and Marotta

Inter has won countless August and September scudetti in recent years. They are often called the winners of the summer transfer windows and/or get off to a fast start only to collapse in epic fashion before the season even gets to its second half. But because of the changes at the top, there’s ample reason to believe things will be different.

Beppe Marotta brought a Juventus like business approach to Inter. Rather than coddling Mauro Icardi last season, he was publicly stripped of the captain’s armband and was shipped out of town along with Nainggolan and Perisic, two players who also brought numerous distractions. Marotta hasn’t been afraid to speak publicly during difficult moments (maybe something Milan’s current directors can learn from) and has taken the pressure off Conte by handling tough situations head on.

Marotta built a team in Conte’s image and now the former Juventus and Chelsea manager is in the conditions to succeed, the focus is on the group of players rather than individual stars and there’s plenty of quality through out the squad. 

In recent years I’ve described Conte as the type of manager that takes a team from A to B- someone you want to take over when your club has hit rock bottom. It will be interesting to see if he can now take the foundation Spalletti built to the next level- after his recent experiences, odds are he will. One thing that Conte has clearly already improved Inter on is defeating provinciali types- in recent years, the nerazzurri squandered numerous points against the bottom table teams and so far have won those matches convincingly. 

 

Defense

While Serie A is certainly no longer a league focused on catenaccio, the old adage that offense wins game and defense wins championships is often still true. Last season Inter had the most clean sheets in Serie A and they added a blue chip player in Diego Godin to fortify a strength, Handanovic has continued to look brilliant this season- particularly in the match against Lazio- and both D’Ambrosio and Ranocchia have responded well when called upon. Conte will also likely ease in Alessandro Bastoni in his center back rotation after his positive season on loan at Parma.

 

Ranking the reasons for concern with Milan

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Feels like Berlusconi is still motivating Milan players with the Hip Hip Hurra routine because the club simply hasn’t improved despite numerous changes at ownership, director, manager and squad level.

While you could say the loss to Inter in Saturday was rock bottom since they had no shots on goal and the gap with their cross town rivals was clearly evident, just a few weeks before Milan had lost to Udinese who since that performance has looked like the worst team in Serie A. The situation is clearly dire, but the you can only solve a problem If you admit there is one, so let’s rank the reasons for concerns at Milan from mildest to most severe:

So far Marco Giampaolo looks like a liability rather than an improvement over his predecessors

Like many others who cover the league, I pointed out numerous times that at bare minimum Giampaolo would be Milan’s best manager since Max Allegri from a tactical standpoint. The former Sampdoria skipper had previously replaced Maurizio Sarri at Empoli, a natural transition for the Tuscan club since both play similar styles- high press, building from the back without emphasizing long balls and building the team around an offensive mentality.

Well so far Milan’s game plan has looked exactly the same as it as under the previous two managers- get the ball to Suso and hope he creates something from nothing. While he was at Empoli and Sampdoria, Giampaolo also improved numerous young players- Torreira, Skriniar, Andersen, Praet- and got a career season out of Quagliarella. That is hard to replicate at Milan when we still see players like Biglia, Calhanoglu and Castillejo starting over the promising young studs Boban and Maldini acquired.

It’s also safe to say Milan played with much more intensity under Gattuso, who also handled the media in a much more proficient way. It’s not out of the question that see him return to replace Giampaolo before the end of the year.

 

 

 

Piatek and Paqueta’s regression

Milan’s summer transfer window was quite underwhelming in part because of the fact (now former) sporting director Leonardo rightfully decided to spend significantly last January to go all out to make a Champions League spot, which would have then given the club the revenues needed to continue the rebuild. While the decision made sense, the fact that Milan came up just short of making it back to Europe’s biggest competition has now put the club even more behind the eight ball.

To make things worse, the two players Leonardo invested significantly on last January- Paqueta’ and Piatek- performed very well for Gattuso but have regressed substantially under Giampaolo. Milan’s new manager is having a hard time figuring out where to use the Brazilian midfielder and Piatek is the latest victim of the curse of the number 9 jersey at Milan.

Best players are still Donnarumma and Romagnoli

First we had Mirabelli, then Leonardo and now we have the triumvirate of Boban/Maldini/Massara running Milan’s mercato since Adriano Galliani stepped aside once Berlusconi sold the club. Mirabelli spent a small fortune without acquiring a single building block while wasting valuable resources on numerous busts which is the root cause of the rossoneri’s current FFP problems, Leonardo swung and missed on the disastrous deal with Juventus for Higuain and Caldara.

This summer Milan targeted young players with a lot of potential and lower salaries, and while Bennacer, Hernandez, Leao and Rebic have significant upside, at this time it’s hard to argue against the fact Donnarumma and Romagnoli are the only players currently on Milan’s squad who could play a significant role on Juventus, Inter or Napoli. Certainly Giampaolo has been a letdown as manager, but there’s still a significant lack of talent on the team.

Serie A is getting better and Milan continues to fall behind, to make things worse they have to deal with Financial Fair Play parameters for the foreseeable future

Despite all the criticism he received for his tactical limitations, Rino Gattuso had the rossoneri competing for a Champions League spot going into the second half of the last match of the season. That outcome seems completely far fetched for this current campaign since we have 3 teams who clearly look in the top tier (Juventus, Napoli and Inter) while last season we had two spots for the Champions League up for grabs going into the final match day.

So with just one spot likely realistically available to qualify for the one competition who can bring the revenues Milan is desperate for to improve the squad, the margin is even smaller. If that wasn’t bad enough, Atalanta improved their squad this summer and will soon have a modern club owned stadium, Lazio kept all of their top players and added a difference maker in Manuel Lazzari while Roma seems to have found a manager who can get the most out of their talent in Paulo Fonseca.

While Inter was able to deal with their Financial Fair Play parameters in recent years by making substantial plusvalenze on their top youth team players, Milan’s Primavera team managed to get relegated last season.

 

How Beppe Marotta became Serie A’s Mister Wolfe

There are so many unforgettable characters in “Pulp Fiction”, but none are as cool as Harvey Keitel’s portrayal of Winston Wolfe. He’s the classic fixer, the person rich people or criminals call to clean up a messy situation because of their ability to think clearly under pressure and to efficiently get out of even the most complex problems.

While I don’t imagine Beppe Marotta has ever wore a tux to a party that is taking place early in the morning like when we are first introduced to mister Wolfe, Inter’s current executive director is now Calcio’s version of Mister Wolfe. After a very successful spell at Sampdoria, he was one of the architects of Juventus’ resurgence post Calciopoli and is now building a very strong foundation for Inter who are desperate to return to the glory days of the treble after a difficult stretch of years.

The season just started and we know Inter are notorious for falling apart at the worse possible time, but if you also look at how disorganized Juventus has appeared since his departure, there’s a case to be made this has been Marotta’s best summer ever when you factor Conte, Godin, Lukaku, Sensi, Barella’s arrivals coupled with Mauro Icardi leaving but not for Juventus.

To be fair Marotta inherited Inter right when they were about to get out of Financial Fair Play hell. His sporting director Piero Ausilio and his predecessors in the executive director role deserve a lot of credit for making significant plusvalenze on home grown players, which allowed Marotta to spend considerably more this summer.

Certainly, Antonio Conte wouldn’t have come to Inter until he had guarantees they would be able to spend significantly on the transfer market, but Marotta convinced him to join him at Inter after the two of them had a falling out at Juventus (Conte famously never mentioned him during his farewell from the bianconeri) because of disagreements on the transfer market.

Everyone remembers the famous quote on not being able to afford the restaurant that costs 100 euro with a 10 euro bill, but this summer Marotta broke Inter’s transfer record twice by signing first Niccolo’ Barella and later Romelu Lukaku, who had become like Moby Dick for Conte since he had tried to sign him both at Juventus and Chelsea. Inter also signed Diego Godin to a very expensive Bosman deal to complete a new version of the BBC but it turns out that so far the nerazzurri’s best addition came from Sassuolo.

While at Juventus, Marotta developed a great relationship with Sassuolo’s director Carnevali- they completed many deals which benefitted both teams on the pitch and financially. But with the way Stefano Sensi has played since he arrived at Inter, you can make a case Marotta saved the best deal with the neroverdi for his new club (just picture how good Sensi would look in Juventus midfield right now).

Certainly the incoming players have been impressive, but Marotta’s best work may have come with the Mauro Icardi situation. He set the tone right away at Conte’s introductory press conference, he stated that the Argentine striker as well as Radja Nainggolan would not be part of the project (he later on added Ivan Perisic to the list) and while many assumed Marotta would eventually have no choice but to send him to Juventus, who went so far as not assigning number 9 to keep it ready for Icardi.

Certainly, it would have been better to sell Mauro Icardi on a permanent sale, but Marotta was able to get him out of the league altogether while working on a deal that would give Icardi a significant financial incentive by staying at PSG since his contract with the French club would pay substantially more than what Inter would give him should he return. 

Marotta was able to shed Icardi, Perisic and most of Nainggolan’s significant wages by sending them off on loan. Juventus would have liked to be able to do the same with the likes of some of their unwanted veterans since now their payroll is very bloated at a time that they are also in the red on their balance sheet, it’s safe to say that Paratici and Nedved have struggled a bit in their first summer transfer window at Juventus without Marotta.

After his strong contributions to Juventus’ rebuild, Marotta is well on his way to doing the same at Inter- he’s now become Serie A’s mister Wolfe.

Serie A’s Overpaid and Underpaid Players

While we no longer had the ambiguous Hazard quotes about potentially joining Real Madrid, we still had our usual September international break story lines. There was speculation on Messi’s future, (way too premature) January transfer window rumors and Gazzetta dello Sport’s annual article on player wages in Serie A.

We of course had confusion on the fact that wages in Italy are reported after taxes, while in most other leagues- particularly the Premier- the figures are given before taxes. The main take away is that gap between Juventus and the rest of league has widen this year, in part because of the bianconeri’s inability to move numerous expandable players  while adding three top earners in De Ligt, Ramsey, Rabiot in addition to Higuain’s return and because Milan have taken significant steps to reduce their payroll.

When looking at the individual salaries, it’s important to lay some ground rules. Younger players obviously tend to earn considerably less than veterans, even young stars like Fabian Ruiz (1.5 million), Chiesa (1.7 million) and Sensi (1.8 million) combined earn considerably less than Higuain’s 7.5 million) and some teams have essentially a hard cap on how much they pay their top players- Torino are paying Belotti, Sirigu and Izzo all 1.7 million annually, while both Milinkovic Savic and Immobile are at 2.5 million at Lazio. On the other hand players that arrive on Bosman deals like Can, Godin and Ramsey earn an inflated wage since there was no transfer fee to acquire them.

Once we account for these criteria, we can then try to figure who is underpaid, but let’s start by going over some overpaid players:

Mattia Destro 2 million: I’ll always think of Galliani ringing the striker’s doorbell during one of his last transfer window in charge at Milan. With the exception of the 2016-17 season, Destro has struggled since leaving Roma, he has scored 10 goals combined in the past two season while being Bologna’s highest paid player by a considerable margin over Sansone, Medel and Soriano who are at 1.5 million.

Radja Nainggolan 3 million: the Belgian international could have even earned more had he moved to China, so he deserves praise for going to Cagliari for a very unfortunate personal and leaving cash on the table- but he also earns more than his excellent temmates Pavoletti and Cragno combined and has looked out of shape before suffering an injury during the international break.

Pepe Reina and Lucas Biglia combined 6.5 million: this summer Milan set a hard cap on wages for new players at 3 million euro net which is what they are paying Rebic and what they offered Correa (most of their new additions were paid 1.5 million or less including Theo Hernandez, Bennacer, Leao and Kurtic) so it really stands out to see a backup keeper making 3 million and a backup like Biglia earning as much as captain Romagnoli at 3.5 million.

Javier Pastore 4.5 million: we know Monchi made numerous disastrous signings, but Pastore has single handedly changed the way Roma operates- they are now determined to only sign players over 27 on loan and to invest transfer fees just on younger players. The former Palermo striker earns more than Zaniolo (who just signed an extension) and Cristante who arrived for a substantial fee from Atalanta.

Mandzukic/Khedira 6 million each: when you hear that Juventus are planning on extending Cuardrado and Matuidi’s contract, you have to wonder if Paratici learned anything from this summer when it was almost impossible to move his overpaid veterans. At least Khedira has retained his starting spot with new coach Sarri (at least until he inevitably gets injured) and there’s hope Mandzukic will be sold to a Qatari team after he was excluded from the Champions League list and the squad for match against Fiorentina.

 

There are of course numerous players that are (at least relatively speaking) underpaid:

 

Allan 2 million: Napoli overall get the best bang for their buck considering you can make a case they have the most talent after Juventus and yet have the fifth largest payroll (Juventus, Inter, Roma and Milan are all ahead in most cases by a fairly substantial amount). While they will eventually have to pay some of their younger players, they are still getting amazing value with Allan who also still has a contract trough 2023.

Stefan De Vrij 3.8 million: the Dutch center back is the rare Bosman signing who feels significantly underpaid. The former Dutch defender may not get as much attention as Skriniar (also underpaid at 3 million plus bonuses) but make no mistake about it, he’s one of the elite players at his position in Italy and a perfect fit in Conte’s three center back formation.

Alessio Romagnol3.5 million: just like De Vrij, Romagnoli could command a much higher salary on the open marker if he was available today. The former Roma center back also earns considerably less than Donnarumma’s current annual salary of 6 million.

Luis Alberto 1.8 million, Acerbi 1.5 million: in many ways as the Spaniard striker goes, so does Lazio- when he performs the biancocelesti are almost unstoppable. As previously mentioned, Lotito’s club currently has a hard cap on wages but they will likely have to make some adjustments to it once Milinkovic Savic signs a new deal, which will likely come with an exit clause. When that happens, we’ll likely see a domino effect that will also impact Francesco Acerbi, who has been a superb replacement for De Vrij and is also carving a role for himself on the Italian national team.

 

 

Serie A’s Blue & Red Chip Players

Now that the transfer window is (FINALLY) over, we can fully assess the squads for the top Serie A teams. When ranking teams and breaking down their player personnel, I always use a method that NFL general manager Mike Lombardi employed both as an executive and analyst: name the blue and red chip players.

A blue chip player is a true difference maker, an elite player at his position who could start regularly for a title contender. A red chip player on the hand is someone who could be a significant contributor on a team that is competing for a Champions League spot. While putting together this year’s version of this column, I once again avoid putting players new to Serie A in the blue chip category because we don’t know how they will adapt to a new league.

 

So without further due, let’s take a look at how many blue chip and red chip players each top Serie A team has:

 

Juventus 

 

Blue Chip: Szczesny, Chiellini, Ronaldo, Douglas Costa 

Red Chip: De Ligt, Bonucci, Alex Sandro, Pjanic, Khedira, Ramsey, Rabiot, Dybala, Bernardeschi, Matuidi, Mandzukic, Can, Higuain, Buffon

The bianconeri are so deep that their main backups would likely contend for a Champions League spot if they had their own team so it’s not surprising to see a long list of blue chip players which could have also easily featured also Cuadrado and  Demiral. 

Douglas Costa’s speed and dribbling ability make him “fuori categoria” in Serie A (a player that is so unique there’s hardly any comparison in the league). Szczesny has been so good since arriving in Italy that those familiar with Serie A never thought for a second that Buffon was returning to Juventus to be the starter, while Ronaldo and Chiellini are still elite players at their positions despite their age. 

Last year many would have had Pjanic as a blue chip player (not me though), but his value is diminished since he doesn’t take as many free kicks with Ronaldo on the squad. Dybala went from being arguably the most valuable player on the transfer market in all of Serie A to someone who has to compete with Higuain for playing time while Khedira is a blue chip player in the eyes of pretty much any manager he ever had.

 

 

 

Napoli

 

Blue Chip: Koulibaly, Allan, Fabian Ruiz, Callejon

Red Chip: Mertens, Meret, Manolas, Zielinski, MIlik, Insigne, Lozano

Aside from Ronaldo, it’s hard to argue against Fabian Ruiz being the best player who joined Serie A from abroad last season. Napoli were able to hold on to Koulibaly and Allan who just like Fabian Ruiz could be starters on Juventus, while Callejon continues to reinvent himself and add to his game- Ancelotti has already used him a central midfielder during summer friendlies.

Aside from Dino Zoff, you can make a case that Meret has everything needed to be Napoli’s best keeper ever, while Manolas is a more than adequate replacement for Albiol. Milik is coming off a season in which he scored 18 goals in Serie A with no penalties, while Lozano looks like the perfect jolly for Ancelotti to use in different ways to compliment his front line. 

In order for the partenopei to truly contend with Juventus, they’ll need two out of Ghoulam (who was a red chip player before his injury), Malcuit and Di Lorenzo to exceed expectations this season.

 

Inter

 

Blue Chip: Handanovic, Skriniar, De Vrij, Brozovic

Red Chip: Lukaku, Godin, Barella, Sensi, Lautaro Martinez, Politano

Clearly Inter have a blue chip manager who will make players like Candreva look like red chip players most of the time, but let’s try not to be influenced too much by Conte. Inter have been able to won their first two games with Ranocchia and D’Ambrosio starting, but they’ll be even better with De Vrij- a Bosman signing who should get more praise as an incredible addition- and Godin are also starting (he was the one new addition from abroad I wanted to make a blue chip right away).

Brozovic was the nerazzurri’s most important player last season- when he performed well, they almost always won. He’ll now be joined by Sensi and Barella in a midfield with a lot of quality but very little size. Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez are difference makers on their own, but also look to be a duo that compliments each other rather well. Conte insisted on holding on to Politano and he could be quite valuable as both a wing back and a second striker.

 

Milan

 

Blue Chip: Romagnoli, Donnarumma 

Red Chip: Paqueta, Piatek, Bennacer, Suso, Bonaventura 

Say what you will about Galliani but on his watch Milan acquired Romagnoli and launched Donnarumma, two elite players at their respective positions. Since then Fassone, Leonardo and now Massara/Maldini/Boban have acquired young players who have the potential to become blue chippers- especially Paqueta, Piatek and Bennacer. The good news is that new manager Marco Giampaolo has a great track record of taking players to the next level, but doing so at Milan is a bit more complicated than at Sampdoria where there is much more built in patience.

 

Roma

 

Blue Chip: Dzeko

Red Chip: Zaniolo, Pellegrini, Kolarov, Mkhitaryan, Florenzi, Pau Lopez

 

None of the teams mentioned so far lost as many quality players as the giallorossi with Manolas, De Rossi and El Shaarawy departing. Considering he’s coming off a season in which he scored nine goals, it’s probably generous to put Dzeko as a blue chipper, especially when you consider his age, but he does impact matches in many different ways. On the bright side for Roma, Zaniolo has a everything needed to become a top player and while I didn’t list Diawara and Veretout, they have the characteristics to be quite functional in Fonseca’s system plus Pau Lopez already looks like a massive upgrade to Olsen. 

 

Atalanta

 

Blue Chip: Papu Gomez

Red Chip: Freuler, Toloi, Ilicic, Zapata, Muriel, Castagne 

 

In many ways, Gasperini is a poor man’s version of Conte- not just because of the formation they use, but also because of their ability to make average players look like difference makers. Ilicic and Zapata had career seasons at Atalanta last season and it’s very likely Muriel will follow their path. Freuler is one of the most underrated midfielders in Serie A, he’s the player many think Diawara is to this day. Look for Castagne to take a leap this season and it will be interesting to see how the defense adapts to Mancini’s departure- if Kjaer or Palomino perform like red chippers then Atalanta can once again compete for a Champions League spot. 

Lazio

 

Blue Chip: Milinkovic Savic, Acerbi, Lucas Leiva

Red Chip: Immobile, Luis Alberto, Lazzari, Correa

I’ve been known for overrating the biancocelesti, but they have a more impressive core of players than Roma and Milan in my honest opinion. Acerbi made everyone forget how good De Vrij was at Lazio, Milinkovic Savic was able to win award for best midfielder in Serie A In objectively a down season while Immobile already has 3 seasons with 20+ goals in Italy. Lazzari was already devasting at SPAL but now has so much more talent in a system he knows like the back of his hand while Correa can build on his outstanding second half of last season.

 

Miscellaneous teams

 

Blue Chip: Quagliarella, Sirigu

Red Chip: Belotti, Chiesa, Izzo, Nkolou, Cragno, Pavoletti, Pezzela, Milenkovic, Gervinho, Schone