2011 hasn't exactly opened the way we all were hoping for, that's for sure. We dropped an absurd 1-4 loss at home to Parma, our worst home loss in 44 years or so, though much of the blame can be put on Felipe Melo for leaving us down a man for the entire match. There were no such excuses for our humiliation against Napoli, where Cavani headed (or did he?) a hat-trick past our baffled defense. Much has been said about the parallels to last season, and there has even been large criticism of Beppe Marotta and Gigi Delneri. The heat they've taken is quite understandable, I was disappointed and furious with our performances, but rather than a failed project, it simply has been a reality check that despite how weak Serie A is this year, we're probably not ready to put on the crown.
Which is really disappointing, I know. The quality of the league has been the lowest this season since probably 2006-2007, and I actually believe a team not part of "gli big" could actually win it this year, it's that bad. And up until Christmas break, we let a sliver of hope into our hearts that it was do-able. The players, the management, and the coach all talked about it- again, understandable, but they should have kept expectations low like the beginning of the season. The project this year was to refresh the squad, lower the age, re-instill the grinta, and ultimately, get back into the Champions League, and we're still on a path to fulfill all of those criteria. Are we doing a perfect job? Absolutely not, but hiccups along the way are to be expected. Marotta and Delneri have made mistakes, but I believe their positives vastly outweigh their negatives.
I'm not here to talk about the mercato though, so Marotta is largely excluded. This is about believing in Gigi Delneri as a coach, some have absurdly preemptively declared him to be a failure, and others, even clamoring for the sack. People are making comparisons between the team from last year and this year, and it's a simple one to make: 4-1 losses, pathetic defense, and utter disappointment. It's not a correct one, this team is different from last years. It's far more like the team from August, remember? We conceded 3 to Poznan, Sampdoria, Palermo, and the discussion du jour was how the team hadn't changed from last year. But it did- we improved, and Delneri began to hammer the mistakes out of the squad. The subsequent 3-4 month unbeaten run we went on from then didn't include as many wins as we'd have liked, but was a drastic improvement. Indeed, for 18 games in a row, we didn't concede more than 1 goal.
Why is this squad different from last years? This weeks "crisis" as its called is a blimp in form, a disappointment, not a team teetering on the cliff like last years. The hard-working spirit and grinta we've missed was seen this fall, indeed, it hasn't disappeared. We scored a goal via Legrottaglie against Parma, and Luca Toni had a wrongly disallowed goal right after Cavani scored against Napoli; despite being down, we didn't throw in the towel. I would like to mention that I repeatedly slammed Delneri for seemingly not having the team properly prepared to battle Napoli this weekend, but given the news that has come out this week about his personal life, it's a lot more understandable. Calcio is ultimately a game, and when a brother close in age is in poor health, it is fully acceptable for one to be distracted.
This is a different team from last year, and this is a different coach. We're not going to quit like we did before, we have determined players like Bonucci and De Ceglie, angry about the defeats who want to prove they are worth the Juventus name, not players like Cannavaro, Grosso and Zebina collecting retirement pensions and dreaming of the golf courses they'd soon be playing on. Delneri is certainly a different coach from Ciro Ferrara, too. You all know I don't primarily blame Ciro for the problems of last season, Secco's poorly built team and a medical staff from hell outweigh his "contributions", but certainly around this point last year, he wasn't a protagonist. Ferrara's chief failing, aside from being unable to tactically drill our side, was his inexperience and inability to reverse our decline.
When the defeats started piling up and tensions rose in the locker room and in the stands, Ciro simply didn't know how to turn the situation around- it's not easy thing. He lacked the experience, and perhaps given some of his teammates (not Del Piero, but a certain Nazionale captain) he lacked the authority to kick them in the ass, or better yet, kick them to the bench. While there hasn't been any mention of it for Diego, there were stories that certain other expensive new Brazilian arrivals didn't believe Ciro to be a capable coach. Delneri is certainly different: while some might say he's "not good enough" to be Juve's coach, he certainly has a massive CV of experience. And curiously, this isn't the first time his team has slowed down in January, indeed, he seems to have a pattern of it.
The difference is that authority and experience that Delneri commands. Take last January- Both Sampdoria and Juventus started the season brilliantly, but had stalled coming into the New Year. Whereas Ferrara desperately tweaked formations (and began the Marchisio as mezz'ala experiment, goddamnit) to a 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 that didn't look too different, Delneri turned the situation around with different tactics and his authority. He benched Cassano, the talisman of the side, and changed the way his team played. Contrary to some news reports, Delneri didn't bench him for behavioral reasons (though the two have had their differences) but tactical. Samp played the ball on the ground, with decent passers like Poli and Palombo pulling the strings. They'd pass it to Cassano, who drifted wide to collect and would provide that final creativity. But the losses and draws started piling up for Samp as their offense bogged down, and early dreams of the Champions League spot faded.
Delneri didn't change formations, but he certainly changed the way it played. He opted for a more physical approach, to battle through games and grind out wins, and this involved benching Fantonio for the more aerial and physical Nicola Pozzi. Stefano Guberti was drafted in as a genuine out-and-wide winger to create more wide space and crosses for Pazzini/Pozzi. It worked. Sampdoria wasn't winning over the purists, but they ground out wins over Udinese, Atalanta, and Siena, not the most rigorous of competition, but points on the board that got the team back on track. Cassano was re-integrated into the squad and Delneri changed his style of play to be more central and more clinical. Sampdoria beat Fiorentina 2-0 in February, drew Inter at the San Siro, and then defeated Juventus in early March to set themselves on the path to Champions League qualification.
I'm not sure what we'll see from Delneri as far as tactical variations go, but he's proven he has the authority to deal with players who kick others in the face, as well as the tactical nous and experience to shake things up to get results. My guess is that he'll be hammering defense into our players and tactics, of course once he is finished grieving. This isn't the first time it's happened, again, this team is more like that of August and September. Remember the defense standing still as players waltzed around, scoring at will? After our defeat against Palermo, I ranted, and then was able to copy-paste it into the Cagliari match review:
Palermo Cagliari looked like they did last year, attacking, fast, cohesive, and we looked like our first few weeks of Serie A. Decent, but lacking concentration at key moments. If I was at Vinovo, I would be throwing books at every player in defense or central midfield, for standing still when the ball is in the box. Don’t f***ing do it! I don’t care what you do, short of rugby tackling a player or Paul Scholes-style handballing it in the box. Clear it! You can do without any aim whatsoever, I don’t care if the ball goes to Sirigu. Another option is throwing your body at the ball to try and block a shot. Whatever you do, don’t stand still and gaze on as Lech Poznan Palermo waltz into a tap-in goal. It’s absurd.
If I was Delneri, I’d station Momo Sissoko about 25 yards out, and have him pepper the goal with strikes. None of them are going in, so the entire practice session would be about watching deflections and stops, and getting it back out to him. It could also serve as a lesson for Momo- sit outside the opponents box, and try and collect loose balls. Seriously, that whole thing is annoying as hell. I was going to move onto something here, but I’m still annoyed as hell about this non-movement in the box defensively. It’s been among the whole team, and it is just a simple basic elementary error that cannot happen. When the ball is in the box, get it out. Marking your man is nice and all, but if he’s sitting at the 18 and someone’s about to have a free tap-in, you should probably get on it.
It's not quite the same, as this weeks goal-frenzies seem to be a problem of poor marking as opposed to merely standing around in the box. (Note to Juve: That's not a challenge to regress to watching ping-pong in the 18' and doing nothing) But it was a defensive problem, we had the worst defensive record in the league. There were news stories in those weeks that Delneri was hammering defensive practices into the player, both individual 1v1 situations (Motta and De Ceglie particularly) but also the team working as a unit. Not surprisingly, the goals conceded started to dry up. We went on a run of 18 or so where we didn't concede more than 1. Until this past unholy clusterfuck of a week, we actually had one of the tightest defenses in the league, a dramatic change from the Zemanlandia that reigned at the beginning. Perhaps just as important as solving the issue is the crucial fact that Delneri recognized the root of the problem. Ciro never seemed to figure that out, and if you can't see the problem, switching formations and tactics won't really help.
In Gigi we trust.