Serie A must be the most competitive ‘least competitive’ league in Europe.
Juventus recently tied up their ninth straight Scudetto, to the surprise of absolutely no one. The name on the trophy remains the same, but once again, the winners were made to sweat for their glory.
It didn’t come easy to I Bianconeri, and had the coronavirus outbreak not killed Lazio’s relentless momentum, it may not have come at all. It did arrive, though, and in doing so, Maurizio Sarri finally completed his 30-year rise from banker to tactical mastermind.
Only, his tactics played little part in Juve’s success, and of the Old Lady’s nine consecutive title wins, this was the least convincing and most concerning of them all.
Plenty of optimism and anticipation greeted Sarri’s arrival in Turin back in the summer of 2019, having guided Chelsea to a third-place finish and Europa League success during his only season in England. It’s safe to say that the Italian’s spell at Stamford Bridge received mixed reviews however, with many supporters growing wearisome of his possession-based style of football.
It certainly didn’t contain the same zip and penetrative-incision with which his entertaining Napoli side blessed Serie A for several years, but it’s impossible to blame the coach entirely. The Blues appeared less receptive to his ideas, and he had a harder time moulding such top stars into brand new footballers.
So, having seen the highs and lows of Sarri’s demanding, high tempo system, we all expected Juve to follow in I Partenopei’s footsteps and to win – but win in style.
I Bianconeri achieved only one of those feats, however.
If anything, Juve have regressed from the effective, if somewhat pragmatic, football of Massimiliano Allegri, a world-class coach they abandoned due to his ‘results over style’ ethos. And the Turin club have also diverted from their own motto, “Vincere non è importante, è l’unica cosa che conta.”
“Winning is not important, it’s the only thing that counts.”
It’s a good job these supporters have been used to such practises, then. The football this year has been turgid, there are no two ways about it. Sarri’s favoured 4-3-3 formation has failed to get the best out of the players available to him, and they have surprisingly struggled in the creativity department.
I Bianconeri have continued to dominate possession – something they have done for years anyway – but the end product and cutting edge has disappeared from their game.
The final ball has never looked more complex to this group of players, and the attacking trident Sarri settled upon in June appear to live permanently on different wavelengths to one another. Douglas Costa enjoys running in behind defences and stretching backlines with his pace, Paulo Dybala drops deep and creates chances from between the lines, and Cristiano Ronaldo likes shooting from everywhere.
The lack of cohesion among them has been startling. In fact, the general problem with this Juventus team is that most stars are playing for themselves, and not for each other.
Sarri’s higher-risk strategy has also opened up holes at the other end of the pitch, too. Juventus’ trademark trait under Allegri was their ability to open the scoring and then sit on their one-goal advantage, suffocating opponents who had already given up all hope of actually getting back on level terms.
But the ex-Napoli coach is never content to run the clock down, and his gung-ho approach has seen Juve surrender leads on more than one occasion this season, even dropping points against Milan and Sassuolo, having taken two-goal advantages.
The imperious, impenetrable and unassailable Juventus of old is long gone – their opponents actually fancy a crack at the champions nowadays. That loss of fear factor has affected the group badly, and they have been forced to play second fiddle far more often than they would have liked this season.
This fall from their perch was encapsulated nicely in a 2-2 draw with Atalanta, who refused to allow Juve a touch of the ball in their opponents’ half for over eight minutes of continuous play. Mentally, I Bianconeri are no longer winning matches before taking to the field.
Luckily however, they do still have the edge on teams when they step foot on the turf.
Juventus have some very, very good players. And even when they are not gelling, not in sync or simply not up to scratch, they still possess enough firepower collectively to get by. That, more or less, has been the story of the Old Lady’s season.
Enough Costa crosses will eventually lead to one meeting the head of a teammate. Even if Dybala is playing on another planet to his colleagues, he can still carve out unmissable chances – or do it himself. And if Ronaldo takes enough shots from long range, one will finally strike the hand of a defender, and he’ll gleefully tuck away the penalty.
Fortunately, the Portuguese star and la Joya have shown some chemistry since the re-start, and without their sprinkling of stardust, the champions would have been in a whole world of trouble.
Juve have won 13 games by a single goal margin this campaign, and unlike the controlled, surgical performances under Allegri, Sarri’s men have ridden their luck along the way, scraping through matches with the odd moment of inspiration.
Not to mention that title-runners Lazio and Inter’s massive drop-off in form since football’s return gave I Bianconeri an unchallenged crawl to the red tape. Underwhelming, and a touch fortunate, to say the least.
All in all, very few players can say they’ve enjoyed their football this season. If they can, they’re probably lying. But even at 70% of their powers (or even less), this Juve side dragged themselves over the finish line.
A year of transition was expected, and having won the title, it’s ‘mission accomplished’. There will be no margin for error for Sarri and his conflicted disciples next year, though. Winning is no longer the only thing that counts.