Match control and stubborn old habits
Although it’s a new season, it seems that some old, annoying habits are still creeping around in our play. It still seems like we have the irritating problem of dominating games comfortably in terms of possession and not conceding chances but being lazy/complacent in terms of converting this into goals. It reminds me of an interesting interview that Andre Villas-Boas gave when he started his ill-fated spell at Chelsea in which he discussed a variety of things. The most interesting topics were those of verticality vs. horizontality and match control, but I want keep the focus on the latter.
In Portugal we have this idea of match control based on ball circulation. That’s what we in Portugal want to achieve in our football: top teams that dominate by ball possession, that push the opponent back to their area. If you go find the top English teams pre-Arsene Wenger they tell you how to control a match in the opposite way without much ball possession, direct football, searching for the second ball.
How does this Juventus squad ‘control’ games? Is it more oriented towards the (threat of the) creation of chances or towards ball retention/circulation? Which one, if any, is better? It’s quite clear to me that we control games by retaining the ball and relying on a remarkable defensive unit that rarely concedes chances, but I wonder about the efficiency of this method of controlling matches if all it takes is one lapse of concentration to break this hold (as demonstrated by Nikola Kalinic’s equalizer). Then again, given the overall success of the team in the last few years and our almost impenetrable defense, I suppose I shouldn’t second-guess the current tactics even though the clear downside is that it can be a terribly nerve-wracking way to control games. Maybe our method of match control can be best summarized in Sun Tzu’s words:
The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.
Good ol Gohan. He started as somewhat of a side-character in Dragonball Z, showing glimpses of his potential, but was always part of the support cast while the big boys did the heavy lifting. Obviously, we all knew he had it in him to unleash his deeper potential; it was all a matter of when, not if. Hence it was no surprise when he defeated Perfect Cell in the Cell Games.
As much as I love to reminisce about DBZ, there is some method to this madness. Our Gabonese midfielder Mario Lemina faces an extremely important four-month period at the start of this new season. He has shown that he has some wonderful footballing talent to him — so much so that Juventus supposedly rejected offers from Arsenal for his services — but still remained part of the supporting cast as Claudio Marchisio, Sami Khedira and Paul Pogba ran the show last season. Marchisio, the main competitor for his position, is tentatively expected to be fit in October, but I personally expect him to truly be back in December at the earliest. Even then, I’m wary of overburdening our Little Prince (no, not that one) which means that the regista position is up for grabs until then. However, Il Mister also expressed his remarkably big expectations of Miralem Pjanic in the regista position when he returns to full fitness, meaning that Lemina certainly has his work cut out for him.
The time really is now. The time to show if he can mix with the big boys. Does he have that dormant Gohan-esque potential within him, waiting to be unleashed at the opportune moment so that he can claim that regista position as his? Or will he quietly play backup to Pjanic and Marchisio when both are fully fit again? The time for questions is over, it’s time for answers.
No place for no hero
I certainly did not intend to write about this initially, but it raised so many eyebrows — including mine — that I just could not ignore the topic. Stephan Lichtsteiner’s exclusion from the Champions League squad quickly prompted a range of theories about potential fallouts between him and the management. Leaving these theories aside, I think this links to something I wrote about in May: the homegrown player quota.
This ain't no place for no hero. This ain't no place for no better man.
This ain't no place for no hero, to call "home."
In this squad, Marchisio and Emil Audero were the two club-grown players and thus the team consisted of 23 players instead of the regular 25. (Thanks, Kaushik, for the corrections.) This made me wonder the following: imagine if two other players in the squad, say Lemina and Paulo Dybala just for argument’s sake, were club-raised we would have had the space for two extra players and, consequently, for Lichtsteiner.
The reason I raise this point again is because our situation with club-grown players seems to be such a problem that we’re including a player that will miss at least half of the group stage just in order to satisfy this requirement. Unless he returns sooner than expected, he was clearly included just because of the quota. So as the squad becomes decreasingly Italian, and although this case wasn’t extremely catastrophic, it serves as a warning that this is an issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. If not? Well then, this ain’t no place for no hero…
From Russia with love… and disappointment
What would you do, to get to me?
What would you say, to have your way?
Would you give it up or try again?
Try Again; Aaliyah (Romeo Must Die)
Where the heck do I even start? Just when you thought the Pogba transfer was the most ludicrous saga you’d ever witnessed as a Juventino, we witness this remarkable fiasco regarding the angel-blue eyed Axel Witsel from Zenit St. Petersburg. I was so used to Juventus never being involved in the often absurd, but admittedly hilarious, shenanigans of deadline day that I was initially furious at Beppe-and-sidekicks for getting us into this embarrassing gaffe in the first place. However, once I learned about the finer details of this episode I realized that, as with everything in life, there’s always more to a story than meets the eye.
On the one hand, fans criticize management’s complacency of leaving the transfer until the final minute. Why wait until the final day when we knew for at least 4 weeks that we were going to need a reinforcement given Pogba’s
social media-paraded departure? On the other hand, the club did make various inquiries for players like Blaise Matuidi, Nemanja Matic, the never-ending love affair with Isco, and of course Witsel himself early in the transfer window. Just because these inquiries/negotiations weren’t publicized as extravagantly as the Pogba saga — to the point where breaking-news stories were created for “the humdrum act of getting on a plane, landing, and then being driven a few miles to a nearby location” — doesn’t mean that they never happened. The clubs simply refused to sell for every target that Juventus had, leaving Beppe with no choice but to have a last throw of the dice with Witsel. Heck, you can even say that it was incredible that he even completed the deal and was within a few hours of formally sealing it given how vehemently Zenit resisted and sabotaged it.
The whole thing is a darn shame really, because it seemed like we had finally found what we needed to fill that confusing gap in midfield. People weren’t quite sure what we needed there: A destroyer? A creator? A passer? Me? With Witsel, it seemed like we had found a nice compromise that ticked all the boxes — physical, solid defensively, decent offensively, good passer and nice hair.
Well, let’s see what happens in January/next summer, because if at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again!
The New Order
As a quick final note, I’m sure all of you are aware of the big changes to the Champions League format that will kick in starting the 2018-2019 season. I just wanted to direct you all to a pretty insightful interview with Gab Marcotti at ESPN FC regarding the result of all the political sparring between UEFA and the big clubs. It will be fascinating to see how this affects Italian clubs especially, so keep your eyes on the (money)ball!