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.

 

The Heroes of Seville Now a Team With No Name

The rise and fall of Steaua Bucharest

Jerzey Dudek, Bruce Grobbelaar and Edwin van der Sar have all saved penalties in a European Final. However the efforts of another will surely top those of the aforementioned custodians; Helmut Duckadam. Not a household name west of Bucharest, but Duckadam, the Steaua Bucharest goalkeeper of the mid-1980s, was branded the Hero of Seville after his magnificent performance in the 1986 European Cup Final penalty shoot out where he saved all four of Barcelona’s penalties and by doing so he chiselled Steaua’s name in to European football history. European competition in late 1970s and early 1980s was largely dominated by English clubs, that was until the indefinite ban after the 1985 Heysel stadium disaster and the ban opened the door for the rest of Europe take their mantle. Since its beginning in 1955 only one other eastern European team has won the European Cup; Red Star Belgrade in 1991, and this makes Steaua’s 1986 victory all the more unique.

A side formed by the Romanian military in 1947, they recruited the country’s best young players with the promise of being able to avoid being called up for national service. Their rise to European success began under the guidance of coach, Emerich Jenei, in the second of six spells as manager, he helped Steaua secure their place atop of Romanian football’s elite with three successive title wins and two cup wins between 1984 and 1987, they narrowly missed three successive doubles by losing the 1986 Cup Final to city-rivals Dinamo. It mattered little, with their domestic dominance almost assured they started their assault on Europe.

Steaua’s victorious European Cup run in 1985/86 was at the start of an astonishing 104 match unbeaten domestic streak which stretched between 1984 and 1989. Captain, Stefan Iovan, a Steaua veteran of 11 years and Victor Piturca, who would go on to score 137 goals in just six years in Bucharest, lead their domestic rule and it no doubt gave them confidence to breeze past Vejle of Denmark and Honved of Hungary in the European Cup. They faced Finnish side, Kuusysi, in the Quarter Final and won 1-0 on aggregate thanks to a Piturca goal just three minutes from time. The Semi Final saw them fend off a talented Anderlecht side, 3-1, to secure their place against Terry Venables’ Barca in Seville. Steaua, despite being in the Final on merit, were given very little chance, especially as they were playing in their opponent’s home country. The game itself was a war of attrition and neither team can be particularly surprised it ended in a penalty shoot out. However Duckadam’s heroics are the stuff of legend and the whole club can be rightly proud of their victory.

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Their European adventures continued over the following three seasons. Under Jenei they won the European Super Cup in December 1986, defeating Dynamo Kyiv, 1-0, with Gheorghe Hagi scoring the only goal. By virtue of winning the European Cup they faced South American champions, River Plate, in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo, however they lost 1-0 to a somewhat fortuitous goal where the ball rebounded off the post, goalkeeper, and straight into the path of Antonio Alzamendi who headed home.

Jenei was replaced by Anghel Iordenescu; a former Steaua player from 1968 to 1982 during which time he became their all time top goal scorer with 155. He joined the coaching team at Steaua in 1984 and was a 36 year old substitute in the 1986 European Cup Final. He became manager of Steaua on a full time basis in 1987 and he carried on where his predecessor left off with two league and cup doubles, including 21 consecutive league wins in 1988. His Steaua side also beat Rangers on the way to a Semi Final appearance in the 1987/88 European Cup. The following season they made their second Final in three years the season after knocking out Sparta Prague, Spartak Moscow, IFK Gothenburg and Galatasaray. In the Final they were comfortably beaten 4-0 by an AC Milan side lead by Arrigo Sacchi and inspired by Dutch trio, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. Sacchi’s Milan side hammered Real Madrid, 6-1, in the Semi Final and would go on to achieve iconic status in Italy and Europe with back to back European triumphs. Their second Sacchi-led win was over Benfica in 1990.

Both of Steaua’s legendary 1980s managers went on to manage the national team. Jenei was in charge of Romania between 1986 and 1990, the World Cup in Italy saw Steaua players Balint and Lacatus both play and score as the team made the Second Round before being eliminated on penalties by Ireland in Genoa. Iordenescu followed Jenei into national management between 1993 and 1998 as he took Romainia to consecutive World Cups. The 1994 team, starring Hagi, Ilie Dumitrescu and Florin Raducioiu, lost 4-1 to Switzerland but topped the group before being knocked out by Sweden on penalties in the Quarter Final. In 1998 they beat England on the way to leading the group, but despite avoiding England’s eventual conquerors, Argentina, they were knocked out by Davor Suker’s Croatia in the Second Round. Iordenescu received criticism for the team’s performances in France and he resigned after the defeat to Croatia.

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Gheorghe Hagi was undoubtedly the star of the era as he finished as the league’s top goal scorer on two occasions while playing for FC Sportul, he moved to Steaua in 1987 and went on to score 76 goals in 97 games. A player of immense flair and technical ability, he would go to be hugely successful across Europe over the course of his career. Steaua’s teams of the mid to late 1980s also saw Dan Petrescu, Marius Lacatus and Gabi Balint playing starring roles in their success. Those seminal Steaua teams were mostly compromised of home grown players, this was partly down to the restrictions put in place by the Communist government which contributed to the prevention of players moving abroad and thus influenced Romanian club’s successes in European competition, as a number of other teams were also commanding in Europe during this period. Dinamo Bucharest reached the European Cup Semi Final in 1984 before losing to eventual winners, Liverpool, they also reached the Semi Final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1990, while CSU Craiova made the UEFA Cup Semi Final in 1983. The fall of Communism in Romania in December 1989 somewhat liberated the transfer market and young players in search of a better standard of living, including higher wages, and a different more liberal culture were tempted away from Romania. Western Europe was suddenly accessible to Romania’s top players as Hagi moved to Real Madrid in 1990 and both Lacatus and Petrescu transferred to Fiorentina and Foggia, respectively.

After the 1988/89 domestic double, Steaua failed to win the league for three seasons and It can be argued they suffered something of a hangover after the drubbing by Milan in 1989 and losing their better players after the Romanian revolution the same year. Their domestic difficulties continued as there was a 1984/Doctor Strangelove-style undercurrent throughout the late 1980s. Military-owned, Steaua, were constantly in dispute with city rivals, Dinamo, who were owned by the Romanian Interior Ministry. It was reported the Ministry bugged the offices of Steaua and interfered with their transfer dealings. Worse was to follow for Steaua, as although they had been separated from the military since 1998, in 2011 they were sued by their military founders for using of the Steaua name, stating the team had been using it illegally since 2004. The government ruled in the military’s favour in December 2014 and Steaua were banned from using their colours, name and logo; more importantly their history and previous honours would also remain under the military’s ownership. Fortunately for the integrity of the team now called FCSB and football in general, UEFA still recognises the trophies won by FCSB under the Steaua name to be theirs, so the history hasn’t merely been wiped out by the court rulings.

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The 1990s saw more allegations of corruption against a number of top flight teams including FC Brasov and Ceahlual Piatra Neamt; known as the Coopertiva, they allegedly exchanged wins to ensure the other teams involved weren’t relegated. These allegations, in a belated attempt at honesty and to try and rid the game of corruption, were admitted by several of the involved clubs of their own volition and not in a court of law.

While the Romanian national teams of the 1990s may have had more media attention it can be argued the Steaua side of the mid-1980s marked a real golden generation for Romanian football. Nowadays the Romanian league is one of the lowest ranked in Europe (20th in 2018, below Cyprus and Israel) and while FCSB will never scale the heights of their golden era they hold a unique place in the rich history of Europe’s premier club competition. The courts and the military may want to take that away from them but the heroes of Seville will always remain in the hearts of their fans and players.

The Blue and Yellow Calcio Miracle

How Hellas Verona took on the elite and won

Such was the dominance of the big city clubs in Italy that only twice in over 20 years prior to 1985 had a team outside of Turin, Rome or Milan won the Scudetto, this dominance still continues as the following 32 years have only seen the title be lofted elsewhere on just three occasions. This statistic is what makes Hellas Verona unique, one of the last smaller teams and probably the smallest of all, to win Italian football’s biggest prize. Hellas were, and still are, a club of modest stature and prior to their Serie B title win in 1981/82 they only had a 1956/57 Serie B title to their name.

In the early 1980s Serie A hosted several superstars of the era; Brazilians, Zico, Socrates and Falcao, future Ballon D’or winner, Michel Platini and German striker, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, were among the elite. There was also the small matter of Diego Maradona’s transfer from Boca Juniors to Napoli in 1983 for a then world record fee of £5m. Platini and company may have been the marquee names but players such as Preben Elkjaer and Giuseppe Galdersi were about to gate crash the party.

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Under the guidance of quiet and unassuming, Osvaldo Bagnoli, Hellas were promoted to Serie A for the 1982/83 season after flipping between the top two divisions for much of the previous decade. In a country still heavily influenced by Catennacio, Bagnoli became the master of a counter attacking hybrid, where the team defended very compactly and were happy to concede possession only to break on the counter with their attacking full backs, Mauro Ferroni and Luciano Maragon, ably assisted by sweeper, Roberto Tricella.

Danish striker, Preben Elkjaer was arguably the star of the team. Bought from Belgian side, Lokeren, in 1984, after playing a vital role in Denmark’s Euro 1984 campaign, he scored 11 goals in his debut season and was the club’s joint top goal scorer. During Hellas’ title-winning season, Elkjaer scored a memorable goal in their 2-0 victory over Juventus; he received the ball in midfield, during a challenge outside the box he lost his right boot but continued and struck home with his bootless-foot. His efforts for club and country were recognised by UEFA as he came third and second in the Ballon d’Or award in 1984 and 1985 respectively. He scored a total of 48 goals in his four years for the Gialloblu, not a huge amount by modern football standards but one has to take into account the strict defences who patrolled Serie A at the time. He helped Denmark to the Semi Final of the 1986 World Cup with a hatrick against Uruguay in a 6-1 win, that Denmark side containing Jesper Olsen, Michael Laudrup and Jan Molby is still considered to be one of the finest the country has produced.

In the days of tough-Italian defending Hellas had their own physical, ball-playing defender. Hans-Peter Briegel, brought agility, pace, technical ability and a goal scoring instinct to Verona’s title challenge. Instantly recognisable because of his preference to play without shin pads, he weighed in with 12 goals during his two years in Italy, nine in the title winning year, and was instrumental in Hellas conceding a league best 19 goals during that season. He played in two World Cups, 1982 and 1986, for West Germany and made 72 appearances. He also made history in 1985 as the first foreign-based winner of the German Footballer of the Year.

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Hellas quickly settled in to life in the top division by finishing fourth, although they drew more games than they won, they only lost six times, proof that Bagnoli had already moulded Hellas in to a tough, determined team who were more than capable of competing with the country’s best teams. Their Serie A results included a fine 2-1 home win versus runners-up, Juventus, although The Old Lady gained some revenge for that defeat by defeating Hellas 3-2, after extra time, in the Coppa Italia Final. Nonetheless Hellas’ reward for an impressive first season was qualification for the following season’s UEFA Cup.

Hellas reached the UEFA Cup Second Round before losing on away goals to Sturm Graz of Austria. They finished a respectable sixth place in Serie A; missing out on a European place by just three points. They only managed two away wins but only lost once at home and were victorious against the top three teams; Roma, Juventus and Fiorentina. On loan journeyman striker, Maurizio Iorio, finished as Hellas’ top goal scorer with 14. Again they suffered Coppa Italia disappointment as they made the Final but were beaten by Roma.

The 1984/85 season saw changes in how referees were selected for Serie A matches as a result of measures brought in after the 1980 Totnero scandal in which a betting syndicate were found to be attempting to influence Serie A and B games, the result saw seven teams and 22 managers and players prosecuted. Lazio and Milan were amongst the teams to be relegated to Serie B. Before Totonero the referees had been selected by a committee but in an attempt to avoid any accusations of corruption the referees were selected randomly the week before the games. Italy is fond of a conspiracy theory and today allegations of favourable refereeing towards the teams from the big cities are still rife. It was hoped by randomly selecting referees a more level and transparent standard of officiating would be brought about.

Hellas’ title-winning season is deeply ingrained in the folklore of the club and Serie A. They were undefeated in their first 14 games and the 2-0 victory over a strong Juventus side (bootless-Elkjaer goal and all), was a defining moment, as was the 1-0 home victory over Roma in March. Diminutive striker, Giuseppe Galderisi, finished as top goal scorer for Hellas with 11; noted for his work rate and accuracy he would go on to play for Milan and in the United States. He later become a reputable lower league manager and his most recent stint the dug out was at Lega Pro side, Lucchese in 2016. Hellas secured the title with a game to spare and in the end the gap to second place was four points. Again Bagnoli’s side proved difficult to beat as they drew 13 games and lost just two, one of which was against runners-up, Torino.

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The conspiracy theorists were given more ammunition in 1985 when the decision was made to revert back to the older method for selecting referees by committee. It is hoped it is merely a coincidence that this happened the season after a provincial team won the title and heavy favourites, Roma and Juventus, finished sixth and seventh. However, it remains a contentious issue for those who don’t follow teams from Rome, Milan and Turin.

The 1985-86 season was something of an anti-climax as they finished way down in tenth position and only managed a solitary away win. Away defeats, 5-0 and 5-1, to Napoli and Udinese, respectively, affirmed their struggles away from Verona. They did however reach the second round of that season’s European Cup after beating Greek side, PAOK, 5-2 on aggregate. They were knocked out by Juventus in controversial fashion after a contentious penalty gave Juve the aggregate lead in the second leg. The first leg in Verona finished 0-0, however the second leg, played behind closed doors due to punishments handed out after the Heysel Stadium disaster in the Final the previous year, ended 2-0 to Juve.

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Much like Zdenek Zeman’s Foggia team of the 1990s, Hellas became a cult team in Italy and around Europe following their title win and subsequent European appearances. Inevitably, like Foggia again, their better players became very attractive to the country’s bigger clubs; Midfielder, Pietro Fanna, Roberto Tricella and Hans-Peter Briegel joined Inter, Juventus and Sampdoria in the years after Hellas’ title win.

Their league fortunes fluctuated over the next five seasons as Hellas mostly finished in mid-table, however they finished fourth in 1986/87 and made a club-best Quarter Final in the following season’s UEFA Cup. They were relegated in 1990 and Osvaldo Bagnoli left the club that summer having overseen the most glorious period in the club’s history. However, the financial pressures of higher wages for players who were in a now ordinary team, coupled with the subsequent relegation took their toll and Hellas were liquidated in 1991 before reforming in 1992 under the name Verona. Bagnoli had already moved on to his next role and achieved success with Genoa in 1992 as they finished fourth and reached the UEFA Cup Semi Final. Success in Genoa facilitated a move to the San Siro to manage Inter in 1992 and the team finished second under his guidance the following season. He retired shortly after his sacking from Inter in 1994 and in January 2018 he was made Hellas’ Honourary Vice President.

To purely attribute Hellas’ title win to the random selection of referees is extremely short sighted, Bagnoli moulded a team of hard-working, talented and tactically aware individuals into a title-winning team. Much of the credit for their triumph is heaped upon the players given Bagnoil’s quiet nature, however he was a great motivator and had a very strong bond with his players and staff; the very fact he only used 17 players in 1984/85 demonstrates the faith in his first team squad. It is sometimes a surprise to see a squad whose focus is solely on tactical awareness and good old fashioned teamwork win a title as it doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen. Favourable comparisons with Greece’s Euro 2004 victory and of course, Leicester City’s 2016 Premier League win, are obvious. Those two victories, not unlike Hellas’, are probably the last of this kind we’ll see for some time, if ever again.

Quantity over Quality – Juventus heading for more trophies but at what cost?

A familiar story is building for Juve but are they sacrificing entertainment along the way?

Last Wednesday’s win away to Tottenham Hotspur saw Juventus progress to another Champions League Quarter Final, their third in four seasons. Their form in Serie A since November has been imperious and they’re matching Napoli stride for stride in the Scudetto race. They have also made their fourth Coppa Italia Final in a row where they’ll face Milan. Given they’re still fighting for trophies on three fronts the actual performances have been less than convincing and some wins have been downright fortunate at times. Any regular viewer of Juve’s games will be very aware of their inability to control games, move out of second gear and kill teams off at the earliest opportunity. Welcome to Juventus 2018, ladies and gentlemen.

Less than inspiring performances and dull 1-0 wins have been the rule rather than the exception since the start of the season, the opening Champions League game group game was away to Barcelona, a team they comprehensively knocked out in last year’s Quarter Final. After a regulation start to the season Juve suffered a 3-0 defeat in Spain. The defeat can be attributed to a lack of confidence when the first goal was conceded, but it was plain to see they didn’t play anywhere near their potential. Defeat to Barca meant the other games then turned into must not lose scenarios and not losing five games in a difficult group certainly wasn’t an easy task as Juve continued to grind out undeserved wins with average performances. The return fixture against Barcelona came a game after a nightmare inducing defeat, away to Sampdoria, in which Juve were outplayed. The Barca game followed the same pattern as the first where the team seemed almost too scared to attack. Max Allegri had set up his team not to lose, given the defeat earlier in the season this was understandable, however this was the penultimate group game and a win would have secured qualification. This made the lack of ambition by not pressing for the winning goal unbelievably frustrating and the outcry from fans was justified as the team had the perfect chance to progress. Qualification was secured with a win away against Olympiakos in the final game and it felt as if this was Allegri’s plan from the start; to use the maximum number of games to spread out the effort in the group stage. Juve were through but far from convincing.

The aggregate victory over Spurs is still fresh in the memory and for long periods of the tie Juve were outplayed, no one can argue with that. Whether this was by design or not Allegri must take the blame for lining up with a two man midfield for the home leg, especially when one of those midfielders was the woefully poor, Sami Khedira. He must also take some blame for the defensive style which was incorporated after Juve raced into a 2-0 lead, it can be said the players may have played this tactic too well and Spurs’ domination snowballed from there. Indeed such was the shock on both sides when Juve went two up that had they gone for more goals (and they were unlucky not to add to their total in fairness) the tie would’ve been over before the second leg in London. As it was, Spurs came away feeling as though they had the advantage after their dominance turned into goals and Juve had been made to look very ordinary in front of a worldwide audience.

The second leg had a very similar feel to it although Juve were able to deploy Blaise Matuidi and Paulo Dybala after they didn’t feature in the first leg due to injury. Spurs though were the better team again and had they won the tie not many would’ve complained as Juve allowed themselves to be dominated for the majority of the game. This poses its own questions; was the first leg in the players’ minds? were they just desperate not to concede? or were they suffering from an inferiority complex? Whatever the reasons, the first hour of the second leg saw Juve look a shadow of the side who had reached two of the last three Champions League Finals. Allegri though must be credited for his substitutions and Juve didn’t look back after the side appeared more balanced in the second half. Given the general atmosphere surrounding the win it can be argued Allegri has dodged a bullet with this result, he will ultimately be judged on the team’s Champions League performances and they’ll will need to play much better in the Quarter Final or they could be on the end of an embarrassing exit.

The Spurs tie has really highlighted the fact Juve have been playing beneath their ability for a long while. Looking back, one can barely remember the last time they dominated a team and played to the best of their ability. Even those Juve fans with memories akin to an elephant would only be able to remember two or three games this season, the exceptions being Milan, away, and home games against Torino and Sassuolo. Those games apart it is be nearly a whole season since Juve dismantled both Barca and Monaco in successive rounds of the Champions League, On those occasions Juve showed what they’re capable of when the confidence is sky high. Unfortunately it hasn’t happened often enough for a team of their calibre.

More recently in Serie A Juve have won 13 of 14 games and have yet to concede a goal in 2018. While these fantastic statistics show the spirit and determination of the current squad the majority of the performances have been similar to those in the Champions League. To go into each game in detail would induce sleep in most people, suffice to say the away win against Lazio a fortnight ago captured Juve’s season perfectly; borderline dreadful performance where one or two players are hardly worthy of being paid for turning up and ultimately rescued by a moment of brilliance from one of their stars to secure victory. This has become normal viewing for Juventini this season, as these creativity deficiencies are more apparent when they’re continuously grinding out poor performances.

Allegri’s preferred choice to partner Miralem Pjanic is Sami Khedira, again I am in no position to question his decisions but his insistence of choosing a player well past his best over Claudio Marchisio cannot be conducive to good team performances. It is plain to see Marchisio isn’t, and probably never will be, at his pre-injury form, however it is fairly obvious he is still a more competent player than Khedira. His introduction to the starting line up against Udinese highlighted his abilities as Juve’s general shape and midfield coherence was much improved from that of the last month or two. Other than the Marchisio/Khedira question the squad is quite balanced and deep though it is unfortunate that injuries have decimated the attacking players recently. Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi are both out indefinitely, Mario Mandzukic has also missed significant time too. This has meant a narrow formation has been deployed recently and again Allegri’s options have been limited in terms of formation and style.

We can dispute player selection and tactics all day but one valid question remains, one which isn’t mentioned too often while Juve are winning; given the repeated dour performances and narrow wins we have to ask is this the limit with Allegri? Should we expect his Juve teams to perform like this season after season? He is well known to be a fan of squad rotation and building his team for a big trophy push after Christmas. Given recent viewing it can be said this still hasn’t happened as we haven’t seen Juve start to dominate teams in a way which is expected of them. But on the other hand, it most definitely has started as they’re still fighting for three trophies in mid-March. Let’s remember Juve won the domestic double and made a Champions League Final last season by playing this way; In second gear most of the season and producing the odd emphatic win to appease supporters for a few weeks?

If this is the hallmark of Allegri’s playing style and season management then Juve fans should accept it and support his methods. He will always use two legs of a cup tie to win rather than one. He will use the whole 90 minutes to win a game rather than 60. He will look ahead and rotate his squad to give the team a better chance of success. His methods may be disagreeable to some but remember he has delivered the title every year, two Coppa Italia wins and two Champions League Finals since his arrival in 2014.

Those fans hoping Allegri will be sacked should be careful what they wish for. Juve have a very competent, trusted manager and those wanting his resignation should ask themselves who would replace him? If he changed his style overnight and risked more by turning Juve into a gung-ho, attacking unit it might result in a few more comprehensive victories but would surely compromise their rock solid defence and would also reduce the opportunity to rotate the squad and prevent fatigue and injury. Juve would do well to stick with Allegri rather than venture into the land of console gaming in search of entertainment and goals.

The uproar over a lack of entertainment could all be ridiculed as hyperbole, a simple trophy-spoiled fan reaction to below-par performances. However as Juve are looking to rub shoulders with Real Madrid and company on regular basis their lack of consistent, high quality performances is a cause for concern and right now it appears the team hasn’t built on last year’s success of reaching the Champions League Final. Obviously success in its definite form would mean only returning from Kiev with the trophy would be considered to be success. In more realistic terms success can be defined as improved performances and gliding past teams with minimum effort, this at least would’ve been an improvement on last year. So have Juve been a success this year? That is the big question. Are they sacrificing quality over quantity? The recent Netflix series has shown, if any proof were needed, that Juve is obsessed with winning the Champions League. However given current performances it’s going to be a while before the trophy is in the Bianconeri cabinet again. Although it just may be the moribund style is part of Allegri’s plan to make Juve into a squad of grizzled, seasoned veterans who will eventually be capable of making the trophy their own.

Vive la revoluce! – Zdeněk Zeman, Foggia and the Serie A tactical rebellion.

“If you score 90 goals then it shouldn’t really worry you how many are conceded.”

Zdeněk Zeman

 

Italy’s Serie A in the early 1990’s was dominated by defences, a time of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Giuseppe Bergomi and Jurgen Kohler. 1991/92 and 1992/93 champions, Milan, scored 74 and 65 goals during the 34 game campaign, their third successive title win in 1993/94 produced an astonishingly low 36 goals, however they only conceded 15 that year as defences tightened their grip on the best league in the world.

Meanwhile, in Apulia, southern Italy, something was starting which would forever change the way modern managers thought about attacking football. Foggia, were starting their rise up into Serie A and were about to threaten the established order at the top of the league as they became one of the 1990s cult teams. Their stay in the top division would only last four seasons but their aggressive attacking style earned them and in particular, their manager, Zdeněk Zeman, many admirers. Lead by the tactical maverick they finished as Serie B champions by six points in 1991/92 and went on to finish ninth, twice, 12th and 16th in Serie A.

Czech-born, Zeman, came from a sporting background, including volleyball and handball, although he never played football and is the nephew of Cestmir Vycpalek, a coach who lead Juventus to two championships in 1971/72 and 1972/73. In 1975 Zeman completed a degree in Sports Science; something which would heavily influence his future training methods and began coaching with the Palermo youth team. He joined Foggia in 1989.

Heralded as an innovator during his time at Foggia, his tactics are straight from a game of Football Manager and have their origins in the Dutch-born ‘total football’. He used a 4-3-3 formation which allowed the full backs and wingers to join the central striker to form a swarm of attacking players and resulted, more often than not, in goals. On the flip side his teams always played a very high defensive line, pressed the opposition midfield and as a result of the attacking full backs being caught out of position the team was very susceptible to the counter attack. In their Serie B championship season they conceded the most of the top six teams and the following season in Serie A, Foggia conceded the second most goals but also scored the second most too, this would become a very familiar statistic for Zeman’s teams. This tactical style of high pressing and overlapping full backs is widespread today however in the ultra-conservative Serie A in the early nineties it was a radical approach, much like ‘total football’ and ‘catenaccio’ before it.

Zeman’s training regimes were notoriously tough and centred around fitness and physical condition as he demanded his players fully buy in to his tactical revolution. Upon being questioned about the rigidity of his training methods he once replied sternly “no one has ever died from them.”

He never found major success with Foggia, their biggest achievements were just missing out on a UEFA Cup place by three, five and seven points in successive seasons as they continuously punched above their weight. His cavalier attacking approach was ultimately his downfall though as his defence was painfully exposed on occasions. During their first season in Serie A, Foggia drew 4-4, 3-3 (twice) and were defeated 5-2 and 8-2. The 8-2 defeat was after leading at half time, 2-1, away to eventual champions, Milan.

Zeman’s time at Foggia had reached a peak after just four seasons and although they continued to excite crowds across Italy the squad was in decline. The previously unknown players were now stars of the Italian game and were snapped up by bigger clubs. Giuseppe Signori, Francesco Baiano and Roberto Rambaudi all moved elsewhere in 1992. Future famous faces of European football such as Dan Petrescu, Igor Shalimov, Jose Antonio Chamot and Luigi Di Biagio all came and went during Zemen’s reign and as a result the team floundered and he left the club for Lazio in 1994. Foggia were relegated at the end of the 1994/95 season and have never returned to the top division since.

Lazio were undoubtedly a step up in his career and he is credited with allowing a young Alessandro Nesta to flourish in the first team as his elegant, ball playing abilities suited Zeman’s style and allowed the defence to turn into the attack at a moment’s notice. He experienced more trophy-less heartache though as they finished second and third in his two seasons managing the Biancocelesti. He stuck with his tactical philosophy and his first season included huge home victories over his old club, Foggia, and Fiorentina, 7-1 and 8-2, respectively. Zeman’s second season was mostly successful as their third place finish guaranteed UEFA Cup football again and his tactic of playing to outscore the opposition, no matter how many they conceded was highlighted with successive wins over Sampdoria and Atalanta by a combined score of 11-4.

He was replaced by Dino Zoff in January 1997 after he was fired as a result of Lazio’s poor start to the season. It wasn’t until the season after that we saw him on the touchline again as he moved to the other end of the Olimpico and took charge of rivals, Roma. He guided them to fourth in 1997/98 as they scored 67 goals, a tally only matched by champions, Juventus. As we know that isn’t the full story with Zeman as the team conceded 42 goals (Atalanta, who were relegated, only conceded six more). The following season brought a fifth place finish and the team scored the most goals in Serie A. However, like being stuck on the set of a Bill Murray movie, this was all beginning to look a little familiar; lots of entertaining, high-scoring games, but no trophies. He was replaced by Fabio Capello at the end of the season as Zeman’s career and novelty value attraction had levelled out somewhat. One positive note which Roma fans can thank Zemen for is giving future Roma legend, Francesco Totti, his chance in the first team. Under his guidance he matured immeasurably and was awarded the captaincy in October 1998, he went on to score 27 goals in two seasons with Zeman as manager.

Zeman, despite his revolutionary style, is still virtually unknown outside of Italy, but his style of football has been replicated, to a greater or lesser extent, by modern coaches such as Maurizio Sarri, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp and if Zeman had have been starting his managerial career today he would undoubtedly have been held in similar high regard across the world as his modern peers.

Today he would have been referred to as a type of hipster coach; passing triangles, sports medicine and high pressing. It can be argued if football in the 1990s was the global behemoth it is today Zeman would surely have had a chance to manage one of the top European clubs. As it is he was something of a 1990s version of today’s hipster; an under the radar, sharp dressing, chain-smoking revolutionary who changed the face of attacking football and didn’t mind ruffling a few of the bigger clubs’ feathers.

While at Roma in 1998 he accused the mid-nineties Juventus team of using performance enhancing drugs. His accusations which involved a number of then Juve players led to a long trial in which club doctor, Riccardo Agricola, was given a suspended sentence for administering banned substances to players between 1994 and 1998, his sentence was overturned on appeal in 2005. Needless to say Zeman wouldn’t be getting a call from Turin asking him to manage the team anytime soon and his unwillingness to alter his tactics to stem the tide of goals conceded will certainly have tarnished his reputation with the bigger Italian and European clubs.

A lot of football is about timing and this era in Serie A of strong, impenetrable defences was waiting for an attacking revolution. Zeman had filled his Foggia team with unknown, young players and moulded them in his style to become a neutral’s favourite as they hugely overachieved in his managerial reign. This preference of younger players benefited his whole ethos as he was able to instil his own playing style on them rather than trying to change the ways of older, experienced players. This also attributed to his lack of genuine success on both sides of Rome as he took over squads full of expectant and trophy-hungry experienced professionals, not to mention directors with limited patience who didn’t have time for Zemen to bring in the players he wanted in order to continue his trophy quest.

The major trophies never found their way into his possession; just two Serie B titles and one Serie C2 title to show for over 40 years on the touchline. One cannot help but think if he had focused his efforts on improving the defence his teams may have won a trophy or two. However knowing Zeman’s stubborn insistence for entertainment over wins, changing his ways would’ve boarded on the blasphemous and would’ve detracted from the verve and flair with which his teams attacked. Nicknamed The Bohemian, Zeman is now 70 and was recently sacked from Serie B, Pescara. To see such an empty mantelpiece in the Zeman household is a tragedy for one of Italian football’s most influential and controversial characters.