I, like a lot of people, was not pleased the first two or three months of the season. It was good to see Juventus winning games and picking up points, but the way they were doing it wasn’t something that probably screamed long-term success. The defense was a mess, with the midfield looking as disjointed as it has in years. Juventus were having to win by outscoring people rather than getting contributions from up and down the starting lineup (and beyond).
While, being relatively critical of his team, at the same time Juventus manager Max Allegri preached patience when he spoke to the assembled Italian press members before and after games. He has never wanted his team to be a finished product in the early months of the season, and this year has not been any different. His desire was to have his team start to truly hit its stride come the new year and the second half of the season as the fixtures get more and more important and Juve look to compete on all three fronts as long as they possibly can.
Funny how that’s all worked out...
We sit here the day after Christmas with the official halfway point of the Serie A schedule all of 90 minutes away. Eighteen league games are officially down and in the books, and after Juventus travels to the Bentigodi to face Hellas Verona this weekend, there will be 19 games league remaining.
They’re not in first place right now, trailing league leaders Napoli by a single point heading into this weekend. But I feel safe in saying this: The fears I had about how the team was playing back in September and October aren’t here anymore.
There’s a pretty obvious reason as to why, too.
Juventus have beaten Napoli and Roma while picking up a draw (that probably should have been a win) against Inter all within a span of three weeks. Throw in their 2-0 win over Olympiacos in the Champions League group stage finale to secure qualification into the knockout phase and it’s safe to say that December has treated Juventus quite well.
Here’s the catch(es) in all of this:
- Juve’s doing this as Paulo Dybala, who was a man possessed in the first two months of the season, deals with what has to be one of the worst stretches of form he’s had in his young but incredibly accomplished professional career.
- Alex Sandro, one of the best left backs in the world, hasn’t even looked close to being one of the best left backs in the world for much of this season.
- Gianluigi Buffon, who’s so damn important to this team even when he’s not required to make superhuman saves whenever possible, has been out of the starting lineup due to injury ever since Juventus’ 1-0 win over Napoli at the San Paolo on Dec. 1.
- Other important players have also picked up injuries along the way — including a suddenly in-form Mattia De Sciglio, who has been so steady at right back before having to miss time.
But here we are.
And Juventus are playing rather well these days.
This is something that should be music to your ears. (And maybe a pleasant change from all the Christmas music you’ve been hearing over the last few weeks.)
Of course, no matter how well the team is playing right now, there’s still room to grow and get even better. You need to look no further than this past weekend’s 1-0 win over Roma where the team looked good for 70 minutes and then almost lost its lead — and the three points that came along with it — after a major dip in the final 20 minutes. As good as the last months worth of games have been, there’s still the time or two at the very least over the course of the game where this team will be its own worst enemy. (Look at all the chances Gonzalo Higuain couldn’t convert in front of goal or what resulted in Wojciech Szczesny having to make that save on Patrik Schick in stoppage time this past weekend.)
When it comes to where this team was compared to where it is now, I’ll take present day Juventus any day of the week. That is obviously something that Allegri had so desired even as his team put in sputtering performances both domestically and Europe. Those showings are gone now, being replaced by (mostly) quality showings against pretty much all three of the other Scudetto contenders this season.
Knowing what kind of key stretch of the schedule that lied ahead of them, Juventus obviously needed to get better as the calendar went from November to December.
Maybe the most important thing that’s different from the first two months of the season is that Juve have found its stability at the back, with the likes of De Sciglio, Giorgio Chiellini and Medhi Benatia providing quality performance after quality performance to extend Juve’s run of eight games in all competitions without allowing a goal. (The last coming in the 3-2 loss to Sampdoria on Nov. 19.)
The switch to a three-man midfield — sorta out of necessity, sort of because Dybala is not in the starting lineup the past three weeks — has added to the strength this team suddenly has defensively. Blaise Matuidi is certainly making his case to be Juve’s best signing of the 2017 summer transfer campaign with his performances as of late, giving the squad so much damn energy and defensive cover that only seems to become more and more important as the games have gone by.
No matter what you throw out there, it’s resulted in Juventus looking like the team that has battled off every title challenge for the last half-decade in Serie A.
Basically, we’ve seen Good Juventus a whole lot more than Bad Juventus ever since that god-awful result against Sampdoria in the third week of November. The road to get there might not have been the most logical or glamorous, but the future looks a lot better than it did a couple of months ago, that’s for sure.