The Rise of the Foot Soldier…

Giving some love to the under appreciated at Juve.

The Serie A season ends next week and a seventh successive title is heading to Turin, courtesy of a consistent and determined title defence. Huge credit must go to Max Allegri, his coaching staff and the squad for keeping Juve on the right path over the nine-month slugfest. Many can argue the lack of competition in Serie A has meant Juve simply have to turn up and they’ll be champions, however this has been the closest title race since 2002 and those arguments about a lack of competition are often knee jerk, uneducated and myopic. Napoli deserve credit for their determination and keeping the race close, despite not being close to Juve in terms of squad depth or finance. We can criticise Maurizio Sarri, his rotational policy and lack of transfer activity when it was needed most, but that aside, they have made the final couple of months of the season compelling viewing. Outside of the top two, the increase in quality at Milan, Inter, Lazio and Roma (despite the Milanese inconsistent seasons) means there are a handful of genuine challengers for the crown next year. Whether the challengers go all out for a Napoli-style Serie A title assault at the expense of the other competitions they’re in, remains to be seen.

For Juve, European success next season is a must along with keeping hold of their better players during the summer. Their star players have in the main performed to a high standard, injuries, suspensions and a dip in the quality of their performances notwithstanding, and a lot of the glory will rightly be showered upon them. But what about the fringe players? The ones usually on the edges of the photo as the team celebrate with a trophy. The unsung heroes? The players asked to play out of position in an emergency? Without them Juve could never have competed with Napoli and the rest for the whole season. It is that squad depth which sets Juve apart from the chasing pack.

Allegri has shown he is adept at squad management and rotation by being able to adjust the formation and personnel to suit the situation; a tactical chameleon, if you will. Looking at those fringe players in more detail one has to decide at which point they become fully fledged members on the first team. If we use a 20 game start limit to separate them we’re left with a very interesting pool of reserves who can admirably fill in for their colleagues. Players with 20 or less starts are;

Gigi Buffon

Wojciech Szczesny

Kwadwo Asamoah

Mattia De Sciglio

Andrea Barzagli

Daniele Rugani

Benedikt Howedes

Mehdi Benatia

Rodrigo Bentancur

Claudio Marchisio

Stefano Sturaro

Douglas Costa

Juan Cuadrado

Federico Bernardeschi

 

Of those players Buffon, Benatia, Rugani and Costa stand out as regular first team players and they are on the cusp of that 20 start limit. Many of the players have been hampered by injury; Howedes is the name which immediately springs to mind, having made just three starts in his season-long loan from Schalke, however De Sciglio, Cuadrado, Bernardeschi and Marchisio have missed significant time this season. The other point which is easily noticeable is the sheer quality of those players, it’s a difficult case to argue this side wouldn’t challenge for the title on its own and the majority would easily command a place in starting line ups across Serie A. Again, massive credit should be given to Allegri and his staff, not to mention CEO, Giuseppe Marotta, and the board, for moulding such a talented squad which is a healthy blend of youth and experience.

The challenge for the club going into next season and the season after is keeping that level of quality in depth as high as it is now. Looking at the list it is fair to say Buffon, Barzagli and Howedes will not be playing in Turin, or in the case of the first two, at all, within the next couple of years.

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Szczesny has been a very impressive, almost under the radar signing. Either side of the winter break he deputised well for the injured Buffon and should be confident of making the sacred number one jersey his own next season.

Mattia Caldara’s return from a loan with Atalanta will mean Rugani is still likely to be the squad player in central defence, however Rugani may well feel he needs a move away to fulfil his potential and Allegri’s puzzling lack of faith in him may well make up his mind. Even if Rugani does stay in Turin Barzagli’s age may open up the possibility of another central defender joining in the summer. Given the factors that are seemingly pointing towards an exit fairly soon, Rugani has still had a decent season, but it has only been a decent season, nothing special, and given he should have stepped up in Bonucci’s absence his season could be viewed as a disappointment. Many fans are prepared to die on the ‘young Italian player’ hill and this blinds some people’s opinion of him.

Medhi Benatia, as we will see with Costa, has been in imperious form since the winter break, quite the opposite of the clumsy and timid player he had become over the previous few months. His man of the match performance in last week’s Coppa Italia Final drubbing of Milan capped off a superb six months for him.

Stephan Lichtsteiner is also another player on who is a borderline first team regular and is gracefully bowing out of action in Turin after seven years of service to the Bianconeri, he has given the best years of his career to Juve and his efforts are gratefully appreciated. Along with Kwadwo Asamoah, he’s steadily performed when asked to. He was part of the game changing tactical move by Allegri in the away win at Tottenham Hotspur and he also provided two assists for Mandzukic to spark Juve’s revival in Madrid.

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De Sciglio has divided opinion between Juve fans and seems to still be under the ‘solid but unspectacular’ cloud he has been under since his Milan days. He isn’t a Dani Alves in terms of attacking threat but he is certainly very reliable and can comfortably claim to have had a good first season in Turin, despite a raft of injuries. It will be interesting to see how often Allegri uses Cuadrado at right back next season given it’s not his natural position.

Lichtsteiner’s departure and Asamoah’s impending move to Inter could mean be a case of re-building in both full back areas. There are already plans to do just that as Leonardo Spinazzola returns from loan and there is a high possibility of adding Manchester United full back, Matteo Darmian, in the mercato.

Of the trio of central midfielders (Marchisio, Sturaro and Bentancur) only Bentancur can claim to have had a good season and he of those is the only one who can realistically expect to be still in Turin for more than a couple of seasons. All three have made fleeting appearances, the reasons behind their average squad status are debatable, although Bentancur’s age and experience, Sturaro’s ability and Marchisio’s fitness and being favoured over Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi, would all be valid reasons.

Bentancur has shown some ability and maturity this season, particularly against Real Madrid in the absence of Miralem Pjanic. Sturaro and to a lesser extent, Marchisio, are no longer of the ability and standard required to play for Juve. I’m not as down on Sturaro as most of my fellow Juventini, but he is limited at the highest level. Marchisio suffers from the same problem as Rugani whereby Juve fans are besotted with a player, no matter his ability, who has been at the club since his teens. While I’m not completely heartless it is obvious he is nowhere near the form of a few years ago. Sturaro would be on most people’s list to leave in the summer and although Marchisio can still perform in the Juve midfield, a move away for either wouldn’t be a complete surprise, especially as the arrival of Emre Can from Liverpool could be imminent.

At the beginning of the season it was expected that either Bernardeschi or Costa would oust Cuadrado from the right wing. Both haven’t started as much as they would’ve liked and while it is frustrating for Juve fans both have been carefully integrated into the starting line-up. The fruits of Allegri’s labour have produced some match winning displays from Costa, he’s arguably been Juve’s best player over the second half of the season and it’s fair to say Juve’s eventual canter to the title would not have happened had Costa not been on form.

Injury has stifled Bernardeschi’s progress somewhat but he is young enough to be able to break into the first 11 on a regular basis next season. His brief first team involvement has shown him to be a very capable player and like Lichtsteiner has made a big impact in the games he’s started. He scored a crucial goal against Olympiakos to secure Juve’s passage into the Champions League Knockout Round and also scored on his first return to his former home in Florence.

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Cuadrado’s early season performances were typical of the player; frustrating and inconsistent, and he still continues to provide both joy and despair in equal measures. Like Costa, he has provided some vital goals for Juve; the goal in the 3-1 home victory over Milan and the deflected goal against Inter spring to mind. Although he can be extremely inconsistent his presence in the Juve squad should never be underestimated.

Juve will be raising the Serie A trophy aloft on 20 May after the home game with Hellas Verona and while the team will take the plaudits, they wouldn’t have won seven consecutive Scudetti without the help of the squad. So when you see Asamoah’s face in amongst the players with the trophy or De Sciglio taking selfies with his family, remember they’re the foot soldiers, players just out of the limelight. They are often underappreciated and rarely thanked, but they are as much a part of the title win as Higuain’s and Chiellini’s and fully deserve to wear their winners medal with pride at the season’s end.

 

Which Way Now? – Juve at a crossroads after Madrid KO – Part one

Plenty of questions to be answered as the Bianconeri find themselves in familiar territory

Juventus’ deflated win against relegation fodder, Benevento, was a classic case of art imitating life. Twice they held the lead only to be pegged back by the bottom side, they won, eventually, and a magnificent Douglas Costa goal will have glossed over the performance; a win is a win at this stage of the season. The lethargy and down trodden mood was palpable after Juve’s defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League Quarter Final first leg and it hadn’t shifted by the time they took to the field four days later in Campania. Juve and Napoli have set an incredible pace in Serie A (either club could conceivably not win the league having secured over 90 points) and the game in Turin at the end of this month could well be the title decider. Despite the exciting climax to the domestic season their European adventures haven’t been as encouraging, to be fair they’ve made a dramatic rise in status over recent years with two final appearances, those finals have provided average performances but ultimately two defeats. The defeats have been greeted with a certain amount of optimism for the following season and confidence has been building for a while that Juve are finally within touching distance of their final opponents, Barcelona and Real Madrid, however, this confidence has been built on words and misty-eyed optimism rather than substantial actions and despite the shocking manner in which Juve were knocked out by Real Madrid last week it leaves Juve at a huge crossroads.

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The horror with which Juventini greeted the announcement of the starting line-up for the first leg of the Real Madrid tie must have been almost audible across Europe as they lined up with a two-man midfield, just like the Champions League Final of 2017, Allegri’s focus was on the wings where Alex Sandro was deployed on the left a Costa on the right. Miralem Pjanic and Medhi Benatia were suspended so Rodrigo Bentancur, ahead of Juve stalwart, Claudio Marchisio, and Andrea Barzagli stepped in. One has to question Allegri’s reasoning for playing Barzagli, a man who time and again was beaten by the threatening pace of Son Heung-min in the second leg game of the previous round against Tottenham Hotspur. Against Real he lined up, albeit in a different position, against Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. The only reason apparent reason behind Barzagli’s inclusion is his experience, but that will only get you so far when you’re up against arguably the best attack in Europe.

On the flip side, Bentancur’s fleeting appearances in the first team have given reason for optimism and his first half performance against Real was as composed and mature as one could’ve hoped for; he was willing to track back, make tackles and start Juve’s sporadic attacks. His performance can’t be faulted. Similarly, Sami Khedira’s first half display was at odds with his less than consistent 2017/18 season, in Pjanic’s absence he played a great game just when it was required. Personally it was amusing to see him being the subject of lavish praise at half time only to be lambasted by fickle elements of Juve’s support in the second half, some things never change. His second half display wasn’t up to the standard of the first but he certainly wasn’t Juve’s biggest culprit; he was more a victim of circumstance, of Real’s second goal, that was the killer.

That goal; the product of some more childish defending between Chiellini and Buffon, combined with Juve’s innate ability to be their own worst enemy, was simply one of the finest you’ll ever see and whether you agree with applauding the opposition or not, the ovation from the Juventini inside the stadium was more than justified. As a football fan sometimes you just have to applaud the opposition, it doesn’t happen often and had his effort ended up in row z everyone would’ve laughed, it didn’t and the team’s confidence drained away. Their perceived lack of confidence in big European games has been mentioned by many pundits and it’s hard to argue against that when it is clear the players’ heads drop when they concede in these big games. In the end the match statistics were fairly even; Real had 14 shots to Juve’s 12, 5 shots on target to Juve’s 2 and 56% to 44% possession. However, the overall impression was that Real were in second gear for much of the game, whereas Juve, in order to get anything from the game, had to play at their top level. Juve do not have the luxury of Cristiano Ronaldo, not many teams do, but Juve simply do not have a player of his calibre, a match winner, and it is apparent without Pjanic that Juve lack a dynamic creative presence on the pitch.

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The second leg was supposed to be a foregone conclusion and given their performances against both Barcelona and Real this year it was perhaps even more unbelievable Juve scored three and kept a clean sheet (almost). The team and Allegri deserve a huge amount of credit for not simply preserving energy ahead of the final Serie A games. Allegri finally ditched the two-man midfield and it was obvious to everyone watching that Juve are a much better team when they have support for Pjanic in the shape of Matuidi and Khedira. The focus on the wings and getting crosses into the area paid off and it was a huge reason behind Juve’s success on the night. Special mention must go to Khedira who quietly had one of his best games of the season, if he could sort out the consistency issues he can still play a part for Juve. Mandzukic too, who looked well off the pace versus Benevento, must be praised for his two goals and impressive centre forward play. As for Juve’s sickening exit, the debate around the injury time penalty will continue long after I’m dead and buried and it’s a subject for another time.

Allegri has to take the blame for the exit after playing the two-man midfield when it has been proven time and again to be ineffective against quality opposition and they had to go all out in Madrid after the poor showing in the first leg. The inclusion of Bentancur in the first leg, despite his encouraging performance, over Matuidi or even Marchisio, is puzzling, especially when he was facing Kroos, Modric and Isco. Playing Alex Sandro on the left may work domestically and it has to be acknowledged that injuries and suspensions have forced Allegri’s hand somewhat, however it clearly didn’t work and Asamoah was left exposed to Real’s counter more often than not. Last season’s Champions League Final saw Juve play Dani Alves on the right, Mario Mandzukic on the left and the ill-fated two-man midfield. Same tactic, same outcome. It is both bizarre and frustrating to expect a different outcome by using the same tactic against the same team.

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So the European campaign ends in disappointment and Juve’s response will be crucial. It is easy to point the finger at a lack of domestic competition given they’ve won six titles in succession, this is partly true as the Serie A title isn’t wrapped up yet and although it is within reach Napoli have pushed them all the way. The Coppa Italia final versus Milan next month would seal Juve’s fourth successive domestic double. Domestic dominance is becoming almost given for Juve and glancing at the table after the Real defeat would show a team who has dropped only 12 points all season. They are the cream of Italian football and Real Madrid, as in the Final last June, simply swept them aside in the first leg. It can be argued of the two knockout ties this year Juve have only played well for one game and a 20-minute period versus Spurs, it isn’t an exaggeration to say they were outplayed for the rest of those ties.

It is mildly embarrassing for a team to be revered and feared in their homeland only to be made to look inferior against quality continental opposition. Remember Italy is one of Europe’s flagship leagues and although competition from Napoli, Roma, Lazio and Inter have increased the pressure and improved the league as a whole, it can be said barring a few other teams (Milan, Fiorentina and Atalanta) the rest are very poor, with the bottom six or seven extremely so. Although this example is probably comparable with England or Germany, their top teams are still producing quality performances in Europe and there isn’t a real question over the lack of competition in those leagues.

If Juve aren’t careful they could fall in to a similar trap to Celtic in Scotland, they are by far and away the best team in the Scottish Premier League but are out of their depth in top European competition. A slight exaggeration when compared to Juve but it’s a little too close to the truth for some. Juve were mostly unconvincing in the group stage, they almost certainly stole the aggregate win over Spurs in the Knockout Round and were not so much outplayed by Real but always somewhat inferior, a step behind, and gave themselves too much to do despite their heroic efforts in Madrid. Unfortunately, it isn’t it isn’t the first time Juve have simply looked miles behind Europe’s elite teams.

The time for reflection, finger pointing and dissection is over, with the post mortem out of the way the second part will focus on the way forward.