Juventus currently lie in 5th place in Serie A yet the most troubling aspect is being a massive 10 points behind league leaders Milan. However, not all hope is gone in the club’s quest to seek a 10th consecutive league title because Juventus have a game in hand on the league leaders and there is at least half of the league’s fixtures left to play for. So where has it all gone wrong and what can be done to fix the Bianconeri’s problems?
Discipline: One troubling aspect this season has been the accumulation of red cards- some unwarranted while others were silly to say the least. The two red cards which perhaps caused the most damage came against Fiorentina- facilitating a 0-3 home loss to the Florence based side- and the one in the capital leading to a 2-2 draw with Roma.
Against Fiorentina, Juan Cuadrado was guilty of the most ridiculous red card since his challenge came in or around the opponent’s penalty area. The reasons behind this flurry of red must be addressed by both management and coach Andrea Pirlo. The club must institute fines and other harsh measures so this negative aspect can be curbed.
Coaching & Tactics: There is no doubt Pirlo was one of the greatest players of his generation and probably one of the best three midfielders from the last 20 years. I’d go as far as to rank second only to Spain’s hero Andres Iniesta (again counting only the last two decades).
Pirlo helped Milan win in Europe and domestically and even more impressively went on to help Juve return to glory after his previous club cast him aside. He also was instrumental to Italy’s success in World Cup 2006 and was influential when the Italians reached the final of Euro 2012. However, as a coach, Pirlo has done nothing so far and is not a proven entity.
There is a huge difference between being a great player and an elite coach. There are plenty of cases where important players have turned out to be a failure as coaches and vice versa.
Pirlo’s substitutions have come late in certain games while his initial XI and his tactics have proven to be questionable at best on multiple occasions. Pirlo is learning on the job but this is something a club of Juve’s stature cannot afford if the objective is to challenge on all fronts.
Against Inter, Pirlo’s starting XI and his approach were perhaps as guilty of everything positive the impressive duo Nicolo Barella and Achraf Hakimi did against Juve. Simply put, Pirlo needs to adapt to the players available at his disposal. He needs to bring out the best in them and use a system which does that as opposed to forcing them out of their comfort zone.
Defensive Concerns & Goal Difference: One of the foundations of the club’s current run of success has been their defensive prowess and the ability to almost guarantee a win after taking the lead- even if a narrow 1-0 advantage.
The defensive issues started under former coach Max Allegri’s last 18 months and became even more apparent under last season’s boss Maurizio Sarri and now under Pirlo. If you look at the league table last season, then you can easily say Juve had the 3rd best defensive record after Inter & Lazio yet the goal difference for Sarri’s men was 4th behind Atalanta, Inter and Lazio.
The team seems incapable of dealing with any sort of crosses and set-pieces. While this season the club conceded a header from former player Arturo Vidal (against Inter), the Bianconeri look susceptible whenever opponents have a corner, a free-kick or they put in a cross against the defenders.
The absence of young star Matthijs de Ligt due to recovery from injury (and surgery) first and then more recently due to Covid has not helped but above all the club’s defensive rock Giorgio Chiellini is well into his last months of playing football. Chiellini can no longer stay fit and has become even more injury prone. If Pirlo was one of the best midfielders of the last 20 years, then Chiellini has surely been one of the best centre-backs over the last 12 years along with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos and former Atletico Madrid captain Diego Godin.
The Bonucci Problem: Leonardo Bonucci has not been the same defender since Cardiff 2017 and that was highlighted during his only season with Milan before his return to Turin. Since returning, Bonucci has had only a few solid performances while this season his defending has been poor to put it nicely.
What is even worse is the fact that Bonucci starting has meant Turkish defender Merih Demiral has played less and the improving full-back (used mostly as a centre-back this season) Danilo has had to do too much while the club copes with Chiellini’s and de Ligt’s absence. Almost every centre-back has had to cover for Bonucci’s mistakes this season.
What is more alarming is the fact Bonucci’s trademark long passes and even at times his forays forward have become such a rarity. So what justifies starting Bonucci over someone who is more aggressive and less error prone as Demiral? Is it seniority? Is it his past with the club? Is it a bias by coach Pirlo who was his former teammate when Bonucci had his peak days? Playing Bonucci raises several questions because Juve look fragile whenever he is targeted and exposed by his opponents. He has become a weak link.
Club’s Management: While left for last, this is perhaps Juve’s greatest worry at the moment because management- particularly Fabio Paratici and those who work with him- has the club running in the wrong direction.
First of all, Juve’s glaring concerns at full-back (particularly the left-back position) have not been addressed since Cardif 2017. Alex Sandro has stagnated since the 1-4 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League final yet he has remained as the club’s only option as full-back with no one challenging him either because management chose not to sign a left-back or because no one else is worthy of starting in his place.
While Luca Pellegrini is unproven at the big stage, he was immediately loaned out instead of being given an opportunity to push Sandro. The starter against Inter Gianluca Frabotta does not seem to have anything on Pellegrini yet the latter was inexplicably shipped out on loan to Genoa. In fact Pellegrini has more Serie A experience than Frabotta.
Perhaps management’s biggest error is trying to paper over the weaknesses in midfield. Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba, Claudio Marchisio and of course Andrea Pirlo were never replaced in way or another. It’s near impossible to replace them as a whole unit, but at least signing a couple of elite midfielders would have helped. Instead, only Miralem Pjanic could be considered as an established and quality midfield signing when he joined Juve from Roma. He initially did well before he faltered in his last 18 months.
Without going into detail because the list of midfielders signed to complement or replace the departed Pirlo, Vidal, Pogba and Marchisio includes some very mediocre players including Stefano Sturaro, Mario Lemina, Hernanes and Tomas Rincon.
Even the two signings who were supposed to lift the club in 2019 Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey have come at a heavy cost. While both joined as free signings, they are both among the top earners in terms of salary in the Italian league. This means it is also hard to sell them and find a potential new club if they need to be moved.
Ramsey has the skills and can be a delight to watch but he is often unfit and the stats show he cannot play more than 60 minutes so signing him to begin with was a massive gamble. As show in the graph below, only 2 of his starts saw him play at least 90 minutes this season:
As for Rodrigo Bentancur, well he has stagnated and has shown little improvement during this season. In fact, Bentancur’s most telling contribution this season has been the accumulation of yellow cards. He already has 4 yellow cards in league play compared to 9 yellow cards for the entirety of the previous league season.
Only Weston Mckennie has shown great potential and has performed well in a number of games in Serie A and the Champions League. However, he needs to play regularly to grow into a consistent and reliable option for Juve’s midfield. At least he is heading in the right direction. The same cannot be said of Juve’s other off-season signing Arthur who joined from Barcelona (in the deal to offload Pjanic) and has not impressed despite his clear ability to keep possession and move well in tight spaces and when marked by an opponent.
Against Inter, the two goals came from midfielders- Vidal and Barella- while Juve’s midfielders looked inept and incapable of tracking their opposing midfielders who were able to freely roam and score from two opportunities presented to them. In fact, Barella was able to dictate play and perform almost as he wished while the likes of Rabiot and Bentancur looked both uninspired and toothless.
Why did Juve not make a move for Sassuolo’s impressive midfielder Manuel Locatelli who not only is a regular for his club but has also grown into a reliable midfielder for the Italian national team under Roberto Mancini. Locatelli played 6 times for the rejuvenated Azzurri in 2020. Juve could have perhaps tempted his club to sell in exchange for players or perhaps a fee and one player of Sassuolo’s choosing from the likes of Mattia De Sciglio, Daniele Rugani, Luca Pellegrini, Gianluca Frabotta etc…
I would not mention the likes of Douglas Costa because he earns a massive salary (for what he provides) and he probably does not fit the profile of players they would sign on top of the fact Douglas may want to player for a bigger club.
So management has erred by overlooking the dire need for a left-back as well as not strengthening the midfield with at least one quality midfielder who can make a difference and help Juve compete better in Europe. Another name linked with Juve is Lyon’s Houssem Aouar who can solve many of the club’s issues from retaining possession to creating on top of being young and experienced enough after several impressive appearances for Lyon in both Ligue 1 and the Champions League.
A main hurdle to signing Aouar is obviously the fee involved, but perhaps Juve could tempt Lyon by negotiating a move of certain players in the opposite direction- someone such as the aforementioned Douglas Costa or even Federico Bernardeschi and Sami Khedira (expiring contract soon). Other options may include sending out someone as Dejan Kulusevski on loan for a season in return for facilitating the move of Aouar to Turin.
Juve have also an opportunity to sign someone such as Lyon’s other star Memphis Depay who will be out of contract in the summer of 2021 yet the club continues to be linked with older, makeshift and unimpressive attackers.
There is no doubt another problem created by management’s mistakes is the financial situation. The club cannot afford to spend without selling first. Obviously signing players on a free transfer helps but such moves are often negated when you are paying massive annual salaries to the free signings (again examples are Ramsey and Rabiot).
The club has also moved into the direction of signing stars, expensive ones for that matter, over methodical and opportune signings that were the hallmark of Juve’s rebuilding and rejuvenation process early on in the current successful era. There are plenty of examples including Andrea Barzagli (now retired), Pirlo (mentioned previously) and Paul Pogba as well as the key signings of Vidal and Carlos Tevez who came for relatively low fees.
So the club has signed the world’s biggest sport brand in Cristiano Ronaldo and the best young centre-back in the world in de Ligt but both came at a very high cost. Surprisingly, the club did not sign another high profile player (upcoming star just as de Ligt) in the form of BVB’s young star Erling Braut Haaland.
Another mistake by management was the initial hiring of Maurizio Sarri- his profile certainly does not fit with the ethos and the standards set by Juve over the past 8 seasons prior to his signing. He was expected to revolutionize the club’s performances yet he stumbled to the league title relying heavily on the likes of superstar Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and de Ligt.
The club had to fire Sarri after his seemingly distant relationship with a number of the squad’s players, the poor run in Europe (exit at hands of none other than Lyon) and the unimpressive performance throughout the season with very few exceptions, including that impressive 2-0 win over Inter punctuated by Dybala’s delightful goal.
The club compounded the situation above by hastily assigning the novice Pirlo as the next coach. However, for management Pirlo serves as the perfect ploy because if Juve fail then he can serve as a scapegoat while his initial hiring would be accepted by the club’s fans since he is a beloved figure based on the not so distant successes under both Antonio Conte and Max Allegri. In addition, Pirlo’s hiring and potential firing would not cost the club’s coffers anything worthy of note when compared to Sarri’s wages (by the way Juve continue to pay his salary).
Hence, it is a trifecta of errors by management summed up by three key elements which are the missteps in the transfer market, the hasty hiring for the coaching position last summer and this one and of course the financial constraints inflicted on the club due to the management’s policies.
Will management rectify the mistakes done since 2017? In fact, the club began to move away from a trusted process even before the disaster in Cardiff in 2017. Gonzalo Higuain was one example- the record signing by an Italian club prior to the addition of superstar Ronaldo by the Bianconeri of course. Higuain- just as CR7 after him- was signed to expedite Juve’s rise in Europe and to supposedly bring the Champions League trophy back to Turin.
Has either move turned out to be a success? That is a divisive topic depending on how fans perceived the signing of Higuain- many were for it but there are some who were against it. Higuain did not help deliver the much desired European trophy. The same applies to the signing of CR7 with the majority being for it yet there are some who are against splashing such massive sums that could in turn be detrimental to reinforcing other positions in the squad such as the midfield.
The same dilemma arises when questioning whether management’s philosophy in recent years- in terms of transfer campaigns, branding and financial planning- has yielded the desired outcome or perhaps turned hostage the club’s future standing.
Time will tell… and obviously how far Juve will go in Europe will have a big say in this assessment.