All in the mind…?

What happened next is well documented, the reasons (rumours) why it happened are debatable. Simply put, Juve froze, choked, bottled it. From a position of relative comfort we contrived to throw it all away. The team which ‘played’ the second half were a shadow of the team of the first half. A thoroughly nondescript, lifeless and nervous performance.

Welcome back, Juventini. First a warning, if you’re of a nervous disposition please stop reading now. I’m here to talk about a problem, I’m lay prostrate on a psychiatrist’s couch, staring blankly into the mid-distance as I pour out details of an ever increasing problem….Juve are simply so fragile in big games.

Confidence is a huge part of competitive sport and Juve seem to suffer from the same inferiority complex which was supposed to affecting Barcelona recently (more on them soon). I had noticed it during the Roma game at the Olimpico last season, the focus was on qualifying for the Champions League final, but the team went missing in that game, overrun and out muscled (remember a win would’ve clinched the Scudetto against our nearest rivals, a week early). During the Supercoppa game in August the same thing happened. A nothing game in terms of competitiveness but a big game as the world’s eyes were on us after Bonucci left. At the time I thought nothing of it put it down to just playing poorly, however after Tuesday’s Barca game I noticed a tweet which mentioned how ‘scared’ Juve looked in big games. I pondered this theory and a another article was born. So whoever you are, you started this article, thank you.

The seed had been planted several months earlier and was now fully grown, creeping up the walls and poisonous to the core. Juve are turning this into a phobia. It’s not because of a lack of quality on the pitch. Is it a a fear of failure? More likely. It has been mentioned before when trying to explain England’s failures; players are too scared to take a chance, to put their foot on the ball, to make a last ditch challenge and we are seeing this more and more from Juve on the big stage.

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Take the last three big games; Real Madrid, Lazio and Barcelona. The Lazio game, as mentioned above, was significant as it was the first competitive game since the egotistic mercenary left and the BBBC had been reduced by one. A seminal moment in the history of calcio. The other two games speak for themselves, a Champions League Final and a could-do-without-losing away game to a team we had so comprehensively beaten in the same competition last season.

If you take a look at the starting line up versus Real – Barzagli at right back, Alves on the right wing and Mandzukic opposite him, it’s hardly the most fluent line up ever. We were faced with a bizarre and frankly embarrassing situation of playing Sturaro on the left wing when it became apparent Mandzukic was playing with an injury. That being said the first half was impressive, the players were a determined union of spirit and organisation, in fact I would say we were the better team and very much in place to lift the trophy. What happened next is well documented, the reasons (rumours) why it happened are debatable. Simply put, Juve froze, choked, bottled it. From a position of relative comfort we contrived to throw it all away. The team which ‘played’ the second half were a shadow of the team of the first half. A thoroughly nondescript, lifeless and nervous performance. The 4-1 scoreline may have flattered Real somewhat but only in terms of goals, we allowed them to dictate the play and completely dominate us.

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Against Lazio the nerves returned as Benatia and co looked like a bunch of strangers hand picked from the crowd 10 minutes before the game. I attribute this to a degree of uncertainty of how Bonucci’s departure would affect us as a curious Serie A watched on. A truly dreadful performance, as soon as Immobile scored their first the team’s confidence drained away and we were left to limit the damage. On this occasion the scoreline flattered us.

In both games we were left in absolutely no doubt the midfield was the problem area, Pjanic’s threat nullified by the lack of a defensive partner was cruelly highlighted. I’m afraid Khedira, Marchisio and Sturaro for varying reasons do not play that role well. Khedira in particular, a World Cup winner of vast experience, was made to look unbelievably average and slow.

The forward line doesn’t escape the beady eye of shame, on a few occasions we have seen Dybala and Higuain go missing in the big games. Against Real, Dybala was poor, to the point where the ball just kept coming back when it was played forward. He became a timid shadow of the spirited, dynamic player we’re used to. Higuain too, a player who thrives on service, has more times than Dybala, simply not turned up and just been left plodding around the half way line as we desperately defend. On these occasions some may question the effort of the forwards, but the viscous cycle of effort/failure/fear is already well under way by then so they cannot be completely blamed for a lack of effort.

Barcelona away is always a big test, no matter how their fortunes have perceived to have changed over the last couple of years. The line up raised a few questions, but Allegri’s hand was forced for a few of the decisions (Khedira, Chiellini, Marchisio and Mandzukic all injured), but the baffling brain fart which meant Benatia started over Rugani is still confusing me. Rugani has played well over the first few games of the season and it’s clear to everyone watching Juve recently that Benatia just isn’t consistent enough to play in a game like this. I’m certainly not pointing the finger at full débutantes Mattia de Sciligo and Rodrigo Bentancur, both played admirably (I’m claiming a little snobbish, moral high ground after talking up MdS and Rodrigo in pre season, this flew in the face of the common opinion of Juve supporters). However it really doesn’t excuse another second half meltdown.

In a similar vein to the Champions League Final we played well in the first half, creating a few chances and keeping them at arms length at the back. Then it happened, everyone stood still and allowed Messi to score from the edge of the area. Game over. Just before half time. Heads dropped, confidence seeped away into the Catalonian night sky and we saw a very familiar turgid, insipid second half. The type where nothing happens, no spark, no urgency. Nothing. As if our fate has been accepted. The second and third goals were merely incidental.

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Putting things into perspective, as I don’t want you to think I’m in serious need of a huge dose of Prozac, there are five Champions League games left and arguably our most difficult one is out of the way. Yes we lost, but not many fancied us to win there. The Supercoppa is just that, a glorified friendly, a time for some semi-competitive action. Maybe Lazio took it more seriously than we did, not to be too arrogant here, but we have bigger fish to fry and injuries that close to the start of the season are an unnecessary nuisance. The Champions League Final pitted us against a side who are almost unbeatable, the best team in the world by far. To have matched them for 45 minutes is an achievement considering the square-pegs-in-round-holes team Allegri fielded that evening.

Over the summer Allegri and co have worked to increase our quality in depth, imagine if Matuidi and Costa had been playing for the Bianconceri against Real. It’s pleasing to see those investments already paying off. Mid-table deadwood like Lemina and Rincon have gone (although I have a soft spot for Rincon so maybe I’m being a little harsh) and have been replaced with genuine quality.

We’re a massive confidence-based team. Our play and demeanour is hugely linked to our confidence, when we’re on form we’re simply unplayable – Barca and Monaco spring to mind – however once that first goal goes against us, I have seen us completely change. Of course it’s entirely psychological and something only a combination of management and results on the pitch can resolve, but we’re also a top team, one of the few teams who can genuinely be considered a winner of the Scudetto and Champions League. A team in the spotlight. The resurgence of the Milanese hasn’t gone unnoticed and so the domestic pressure has been ramped up somewhat. The world is looking on as we continue to fail when it matters most.

We’re not just losing these games because of superior tactics, players or just plain bad luck. We’re actually our own worst enemy; losing these games is our fault, all three were very winnable and we were in a position to do so.

Just imagine for a moment if we had…

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