“Winning is not important,” former Juventus striker Giampiero Boniperti once remarked. “It is the only thing that matters.”
The phrase has become synonymous with Italian football’s most successful club, the 31-time Serie A champions who are, by a considerable distance, the most popular side on the peninsula. Juventus’s results at the start of the current campaign, however, suggest that a new slogan may soon be required to replace Boniperti’s as the Bianconeri’s unofficial mantra.
Six games into the new season, the Old Lady find themselves languishing in 15th place with just one win to their name. Already 10 points behind league leaders Fiorentina, the chances of a fifth successive scudetto are slimming by the week. While the Italian public has learned to never write them off, the rest of Serie A is growing increasingly hopeful that this is the year Juve’s monopolisation of the league title comes to an end.
It was not supposed to be this way. Despite losing some big names, the common consensus was that Juventus had again had a successful summer in the transfer market, bringing in a mixture of talented youngsters and experienced professionals in a bid to stay on top of the Serie A pile.
In Max Allegri, who led Juve to their first Champions League final since 2003, they had arguably Europe’s best coach in 2014/15, while the retention of Paul Pogba ensured that the most coveted footballer in the world would remain in their ranks for another season. The title was, in short, seen as theirs to lose.
Although 10 points is a sizeable margin, it would be premature to declare that the team from Turin have already relinquished their crown: with Roma, Inter, Napoli and Milan all possessing notable weaknesses of their own, Juventus’s squad depth and substantial know-how could still see them over the line. Having strolled to the last two scudetti, it would be foolish to write them off after their first dip in years.
Nevertheless, there are clear issues with Allegri’s team at present. Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Napoli showcased many of them, Juventus failing to match the sharpness, intensity and clinical edge of their opponents. That loss came just three days after a 1-1 draw at home to newly promoted minnows Frosinone, who had been beaten by Torino, Atalanta, Roma and Bologna in their four previous encounters.
Big name departures
In analysing Juve’s performances so far this term, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the departures of Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo has significantly harmed the side. Tevez was not just the team’s top scorer – the former Manchester United man netted 39 goals in 66 league appearances for the Bianconeri – but also the heartbeat of the team. His infectious work ethic inspired others around him, aiding Juve’s intention to press high up the pitch and win the ball back in advanced areas.
Vidal, meanwhile, is such a complete player that he would probably go straight into any XI on the planet. The Chile international was frequently deployed as Juve’s trequartista under Allegri last season, knitting the team’s midfield and attack together and using his energy and stamina to overpower opponents in the engine room. Pirlo, now 36, is clearly now past his best, but he certainly would have been a useful squad member this campaign. His passing range and ability to control the tempo of a game was essential to Juventus ever since he moved from Milan in 2011; and while the decision to let him join New York City FC was understandable, his presence in the squad for another year would certainly have helped Juventus in this period of transition.
Beyond their exceptional technical qualities, all three men also provided a sense of leadership that has been lacking in recent weeks. In Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Patrice Evra, Juventus still have their fair share of big characters with a vast amount of experience under their belts, but the loss of Pirlo, Vidal and Tevez from the spine of the team has had a substantial effect on Juventus that they themselves may have underestimated.
There has been a degree of misfortune with Juve’s attempts to fill the void left by the departing trio: Claudio Marchisio, the underrated homegrown midfielder, has played just 46 minutes in Serie A, while Sami Khedira has yet to make his debut after injuring his thigh in pre-season. Kwadwo Asamoah remains a long-term absentee, while Mario Mandzukic and Alvaro Morata have both spent time on the sidelines.
This has not just affected the personnel selected by Allegri, but also the formation in which they line up. While the 48-year-old was praised for his tactical adaptability last time out, being forced to switch between different shapes has left Juve looking disjointed and incoherent in their opening six matches.
Many of the new signings have impressed in patches, with others likely to get better as the season progresses. Juan Cuadrado has looked like his former self again after a disastrous seven-month spell at Chelsea, providing speed and directness on the flanks, while the all-action midfielder Mario Lemina has been a success in his three appearances to date.
Hernanes has also showed his quality, at least when Allegri has fielded him in an advanced rather than deep-lying midfield role, as has exciting Argentine youngster Paulo Dybala up front. As the team begins to gel – 10 newcomers were added to the group in the summer – Juventus should move up the table pretty quickly.
The concern for Allegri is that when everything finally clicks it could already be too late. Fiorentina are unlikely to genuinely contend for the title, but being 10 points behind them after just six games is a worry. Juventus have already lost as many league games this season as they did in the entirety of 2014/15 and one more than in 2013/14, when Antonio Conte’s record breakers amassed 102 points and lost just twice.
Wednesday’s Champions League group stage clash with a similarly underperforming Sevilla side represents a good chance for the Old Lady to get back on track. Their 2-1 victory over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium two weeks ago remains a rare high point at the start of the campaign, with last year’s runners-up perhaps already tempted to turn their attention away from Serie A and towards trying to go one better in Europe’s principal club competition.
If Juventus are to repeat the achievements of last term – both domestic and continental – they will need to improve rapidly. At a club where “winning is the only thing that matters”, failure is simply not an option.
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