Mini Blether: Old Lady’s Knickers Down

Juventus, the Old Lady of Turin, Italy’s team. Hated and loved throughout Italy, the epicentre of scandal, corruption and indeed the source of much of Italian football’s glory at home and abroad.

A club who are often relentless in periods of success, whether that may be the 5 consecutive titles in the 1930’s; dominance through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s; further success in the late 1990’s or indeed the recent 9 consecutive Serie A titles. Throw in cup success and victories in European competition in the 80’s and 90’s and it is clear that amid everything, amid all of the negative issues – the corruption, the hatred, the money, the cherry picking of the best players from other sides; that Juve are a real superpower on the Italian and European stage.

This year however (2020/2021 season) that period of dominance appears to be coming to a close. Notwithstanding any “Pazza Inter” collapse (far from out of the question for those who follow Italian football) it ;looks like the Serie A title may be heading to Milan with Antonio Conte’s Inter side having built up a substantial lead in what was a 3 horse race (Inter, AC Milan and Juve) but has quickly become a 2 and then 1 horse affair in recent weeks. The Juve motto of “Fino alla Fine” (until the end) will be being belted out and clung on to by those connected with the club, hoping that Juve’s history of being relentless until the end and never giving up can combine with Inter’s historical nervousness or ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory to provide a further twist in the title race and hand Juve a 10th consecutive title.

Whatever happens though, and at the time of writing an Inter league title victory seems most likely, questions will be asked of Juve. If we wind the clock back a few years, Juve were led by Max Allegri and played a functional but largely successful brand of football which led to numerous titles and appearances in 2 Champions League finals in 3 years also (lost both). At that point, the relentlessness of the Juve machine alongside limited challenge at home – both Milan sides with ownership, leadership and management issues leading to underwhelming performances, alongside an attractive but ultimately unsuccessful Napoli side under Sarri – led one to believe that such was the solid foundation on which that Juve team was built that focus and progression could continue towards the ultimate goal of Champions League victory also. To this end, Ronaldo was signed to great fanfare from Madrid and Allegri was ultimately binned in favour of finding a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football to then lead to Champions League glory (punishing defeats in recent finals had come against the flair and football of Barcelona and Real Madrid teams).

The logic may have seemed obvious to those in power, Juve were so good and so relentless that Serie A was a foregone conclusion and so the only focus needed to be on the Champions League. It had been proven that the team was good enough to get to the final, but that ultimately on the biggest stage the relentlessness functionality of the football had come up short against more glamourous footballing sides, each with specialist matchwinners in their ranks (Messi and Ronaldo). A star signing was brought in to offer this match winning edge, while experiments with “Sarriball” and now the young innovative coach approach of Andrea Pirlo have all actually now led to a regression to where Allegri had the team a few short years ago.

The club’s Chairman, Andrea Agnelli is a man who knows his mind. Seeking the ultimate glory to back up his own ambitions to be one of the top men in Europe football, he has been ruthless in his pursuit of glory over these past years. A man at the centre of plans to shake up European football, the re-formatting of the Champions League or the formation of a breakaway European Super League are all ideas and proposals which have been set out or supported by the Juve Chairman. These as well as comments suggesting that recent upstarts such as Atalanta do not perhaps deserve a place in the Champions League (regardless of qualifying for it) owing to their lack of history or lack of prestige compared to more established footballing powers (who didn’t qualify). This all speaks of a man who considers himself and his club to be at the very top end, the old money, of the footballing class system. Given the historical success of Juve as outlined earlier in this Mini Blether, it is hard to argue with the logic here. The position regarding the “new money” clubs not being deserving of a place at the top table does not however perform well in the scrutiny of an acceptance of clubs like PSG, Manchester City or Chelsea being allowed access, a different type of nouveaux riche compared to Atalanta perhaps?

Juve now find themselves at a crossroads. Lack of European success. lack of ability to build on the foundations set up but which were ultimately not sparkly or shiny enough and now it looks like even the sure thing that was the domestic title may have been lost.

The short-termism of adding Ronaldo to an ageing spine of a squad and then the desire for better, sexier football which arguably doesn’t suit the main men is now obvious – Ronaldo (older, not a player suited to the high press or short passing game); Chiellini and Bonucci (older and again not blessed with great pace suited to high tempo, sexy football) and a variety of players shoehorned into unfamiliar positions including full back (Cuadrado, Bernadeschi, Danilo) which al limit the effectiveness of the “total football” or slick, passing football approach desired. Having built a club and a squad to win at all costs, win ugly if required and having done so, a seismic shift in approach was never going to be seemless, not least with the core squad and expensive additions added.

Where to now though? Sarri was dispensed with after a single (title winning) season, the fruits of Sarriball not really coming to prominence in the way that was hoped. Now Pirlo, tasked with a similar football style revolution is appearing to struggle, at least in terms of results and consistency on the pitch. Juve, as self proclaimed and self assured footballing royalty cannot afford to let further Serie A titles slip in coming years, nor can they afford further years away from semi finals and finals of the Champions League as they seek to establish a new style of football and consolidate the domestic situation – all as their top table compatriots like Bayern, Barca and Real add to their trophy cabinets, or “new money” clubs like PSG or Man City muscle in.

Maybe this is the reason that a shake up or a European League has been mooted – disguise the fact Juve were about to fall. Or make things a closed shop before too much new money, or too many well coached teams bring themselves up to a challenging level – such as Atalanta or some of the recent Ajax sides who have spanked Juve recently, but don’t sit at the same top table. Jealousy and fear maybe, disguised at brass self assuredness and self worth?

Difficult times and difficult decisions to be made therefore. Stick with Pirlo and trust that the squad can evolve quickly? Dispense with the midfield legend and hope that a new manager can quickly, efficiently and successfully introduce a new brand of football with the existing squad? Bring back Allegri to win at all costs? The next move could be really critical for Agnelli.

The saving grace may be a similar short term approach taken by title incumbents Inter, who effectively built a short term title winning squad of experienced pros. Time and the loss of a couple of key players may see that squad burn out. AC Milan have a young squad with potential for growth and evolution into a top side (assisted in the short term by Champions League money potentially), but again their staying power at the top is not guaranteed at present and with the loss or burnout of players in the short term they could find themselves in similar positions to Roma or Lazio, struggling to eep up with the pace at the top and needing a season or 2 to regroup and recharge before trying to progress again towards the title. This may all play into Juve’s hands, far better resourced and with a greater squad depth they would see themselves as capable of taking advantage of any burnout of other sides. However, just like Juve’s dominance of Serie A in previous years none of the above can be guaranteed.

History tells us that Juve will be back in some way shape or form, and with the money available at the top end and so the financial muscle of the club compared to others in Italy and indeed Europe, this seems more of a when rather than an if at the moment.

At this point in time however, the Old Lady has her knickers down and is in an exceptionally vulnerable position. Not only has European success not arrived despite substantial investment, but the domestic side is slipping. With an ageing squad and muddled philosophy, there doesn’t seem to be a clear pathway forward. There is therefore a significant risk that Juve could be bumped off of the top table and end up having to sit with some of the other old guard clinging to former glories – Juve and Manchester United looking enviously at the sexy new money clubs like City or PSG winning all the Euro titles and wondering where it all went wrong. What happens remains to be seen, but it is clear that Juve are facing one of their biggest challenges in their recent history.

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