Maurizio Sarri’s pre-Coppa Italia press conference was a lot like every other press conference he’s enjoyed/endured throughout the past few years. He sat in a ‘no smoking’ conference room hankering for a cigarette – or 17 – and answered every single question in the same way: casually, but not exactly calmly.
He was asked about his barren trophy cabinet – again. He was asked about the supposed bad blood between he and his former employers SSC Napoli – again. And he was asked about his frontline – again.
It’s his reply to latter question that we’ll be focusing on here; his other replies were the usual ‘I’m only thinking about Juventus’, ‘I’ve won things’ and ‘I need another nicotine patch’. This was his reply to the questions regarding his attacking options:
“Our trident doesn’t make things clear for the opposing defences, rather I mainly assign them defensive positions, leaving freedom of movement in the offensive phase.”
– Maurizio Sarri
What made this utterance from Sarri so interesting to Juventini is the fact that, probably for the first time this season, when their club’s manager said ‘our trident’ everyone knew exactly who he was talking about.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa.
One is the face of the football club, one is one of the most naturally gifted footballers in Serie A (when he’s fit of course) and the other is the 15th best footballer of all time (officially…according to me).
Pretty, pretty good trident, right?
Well yes, on paper.
But as you’ve been told by every lazy football pundit, journalist, blogger, manager, fella down the pub with a tattoo of a pitbull on his neck (not the rapper…although he probably does look a bit like the rapper) has told you over the years: ‘football isn’t played on paper m8!!’.
It’s an annoying phrase – and feel free to hate me for using it – but it is true. While a three-pronged attack of Ronaldo, Dybala, Costa looks like one of the best in Europe on paper, there hasn’t been too many signs that it can work on an actual football pitch.
And the heart of the problem is the relationship between Dybala and Ronaldo.
No, they don’t hate each other (as far as I know), but Dybala and Ronaldo’s lack of on-field chemistry has been a talking point for nearly two years now.
Individually their numbers are still incredibly impressive – Ronaldo has scored 25 goals in all competitions this season, Dybala has 13 and six assists – but watching the two play together is like watching those Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen scenes in ‘Star Wars: Attack of the Clones’ (you know the ones).
In other words: it’s actually just painful. So painful in fact, that no one has even tried to give the partnership a daft SAS, MSN, Brangelina nickname like…ummm…Dyonaldo or Rabala…they don’t even work. It’s hopeless!
Thinking back through the last two years of La Vecchia Signora games, it’s hard to remember a single time both players impressed in the same starting XI. Most of Dybala’s most noteworthy performances in recent times have come while Ronaldo has either been on the bench or running down the tunnel enraged.
Costa was added to this fun mix in Juventus’ Coppa Italia semi-final meeting with AC Milan on Friday night, and it has to be said, the first 30 minutes the trident played together in living memory – largely due to Costa’s myriad injury problems – were pretty decent.
Juventus pressed well from the front, all three members of the frontline cause problems for the Milan backline in a variety of ways; finding pockets of space in and around the penalty area, linking up effectively, and actually just not getting in each other’s way.
However, after that positive 30 minutes things went back to porridge. Dybala and Costa disappeared and Ronaldo became annoyingly omnipresent…which sounds harsh, but peak CR7 over the past decade has been when he pops up sporadically throughout games to make game-winning contributions, not doing stepovers on the halfway line.
Some of this drop-off can, of course, be contributed to the lengthy COVID-19 lay-off – Dybala did have the bloody virus – but there’s still that nagging concern that this is mainly a chemistry issue.
On Wednesday night we’ll find out whether or not the drop-off was mere fatigue or more of a deep-rooted problem.
In the Coppa Italia final, against one of the best teams in Italy, we’ll truly see whether or not the frontline of Dybala, Ronaldo and Costa that Sarri has instilled his faith in is the right one to take Juventus forward.