It’s been a gut-wrenching three days. From out of the blue, one of the most popular and most important players of Juventus’s six-year run of titles is gone, and gone to a team positioning itself as a direct rival to the team in Serie A.
Leonardo Bonucci blossomed from the scapegoat of the awful 2010-11 season to the best center back in the world over his seven years at Juventus. Now, he’ll be at AC Milan after a €42 million move.
The move has been stunning for many reasons. It’s speed, for one thing, was remarkable. Transfers of this profile don’t often come together in 72 hours. The destination and price is another. One would think that the best defensive player on the planet would come for far more, especially in a domestic transfer to a team that is making a run at your crown. In this case, the player’s desire to remain in Italy is the likely held sway, and if there’s one thing you can’t blame Bonucci for it’s that, given how recently his youngest son dealt with serious medical issues.
It’s certainly been a shock to the system, but what’s done is done, and now it’s time to take stock. What has Juventus learned from this saga, and how do they move forward?
Here are six things to take away from the Bonucci affair.
Scrutiny for Max Allegri
Many are grasping for reasons why this move has happened. Perhaps we’ll have more concrete information in the coming days and weeks, perhaps not.
I think it’s safe to assume, however, that a lot of this move had to do with Massimiliano Allegri. Their now-infamous screaming match after a 4-1 victory of Palermo in February and, the subsequent benching of the player for the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 against Porto, almost certainly had a more long-term effect than was ever let on in public, and I would bet large sums of money that their relationship turning toxic was the most important catalyst in this divorce.
What’s worrying about that is that Bonucci was not the only player Allegri had clashed with on-field last season. There were also highly visible touchline spats with the likes of Stephan Lichtsteiner, Mario Mandzukic (in December) and Paulo Dybala.
That last name is the one that should send a chill down your spine.
In January, Dybala declined to shake Allegri’s hand — actually pulled it away from him — after being substituted in a 2-0 win over Sassuolo. Allegri played down the incident, but his relationship with Dybala has looked strained ever since, and the look on the striker’s face when he was substituted in the Champions League final was not the look of a man who was on the same page with his manager.
The relationship between Allegri and the dressing room has looked off-kilter for a while. A fan with a camera phone and a keen eye spotted him ranting about his players to Giuseppe Marotta and Fabio Paratici after Juve lost to Milan on penalties in the Supercoppa, and combined with the aforementioned incidents with players it doesn’t speak well to his relationship with the clubhouse.
This is something that needs to be closely watched. If there are any signs of conflict between players and coach, serious consideration must be given to showing Allegri the door. This is particularly true of Dybala, who is a key to the team’s future.
Most people take the position that no player is more important than the manager but I disagree here. A manager is easier to replace than a player of Dybala’s caliber. Maybe it’s different for a team like Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, but Juve aren’t at that level financially.
If Allegri’s actions provoke any more player exits, he simply must be sacked.
Juve’s attitude toward exits must change
One of the biggest obstacles to Juve taking the ultimate step and regaining the Champions League crown is the lack of continuity in the roster. The last three summers have seen the departures of Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo, Alvaro Morata, Paul Pogba and now Dani Alves and Bonucci. That’s a who’s who of elite players to replace.
Over the last few years, when transfer rumors start swirling around a top player, Beppe Marotta’s response is always the same and goes something like this: “We won’t hold a player against his will.”
That seems like an admirable sentiment, but it’s becoming counterproductive. The idea that Juve will let anyone go so long as they ask is basically an invitation to clubs with more money to try to get in touch with a player’s agent and dangle obscene amounts of money to try and tempt them into asking for a move.
This philosophy was basically the soundtrack to the recent Alex Sandro rumors, and one of the reasons most people initially believed that deal was a certainty, and it was pretty much the only thing that came out of the Juve camp when the initial reports of Bonucci’s move trickled through the media until they officially announced the sale.
Until this public stance changes, teams will look at Juve as easy pickings to add talented players. That in turn will force Marotta and Paratici to look for new players and continually force the squad to adjust to new pieces.
That’s not what the traditional favorites in the Champions League like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich have to do. When Real were linked with Bayern’s star striker Robert Lewandowski yet again at the end of the season, Bayern CEO Karl Heinz Rummenigge said to AS (h/t ESPNFC) “We both know what is and is not possible. He [Real president Florentino Perez] knows we will not sell players we do not want to sell.”
See the difference?
Juve have made some significant profits from selling the likes of Vidal and Pogba. That would be a great accomplishment for a provinciale, but not at Juventus. Marotta needs to shut the doors before the horses start leaving the barn. If they don’t, this constant cycle of reloading will eventually be the club’s downfall.
Daniele Rugani’s time must be now
Regardless of whether or not he has a healthy relationship with the locker room, if Allegri plays Medhi Benatia over Daniele Rugani this season as Giorgio Chiellini’s partner this season he should be summarily fired for incompetence.
Rugani has been limited to 32 Serie A games and three Champions League outings since he arrived from Empoli two summers ago. Most of us figured that it would be at least another year before his moment truly came, but Bonucci’s departure has accelerated the timeline.
One of the best defensive prospects in the world, Rugani has had two years to learn at the foot of the BBC and add their knowledge to his already formidable talent. He’s ready. If Benatia, who proved mistake-prone last season, starts ahead of him it will be a huge slap in his face, and an unnecessary delay in bringing the future of Juve’s defense to the fore. It’s time for Rugani to fly.
Don’t make panic buys
With Chiellini, Rugani, Benatia and Andrea Barzagil on board, Juve is plenty deep enough to survive this without making a huge-money buy to replace Bonucci. This is especially true considering the fact that Allegri seems to have settled on the 4-2-3-1 system.
One more player may be a good idea for depth, but in looking for such a player it’s important to look to the future. Juve’s future at center-back is bright. Apart from Rugani, Mattia Caldera is due to arrive from Atalanta next year when his loan expires, and former primavera captain Filippo Romagna is on his way as well. It’s not necessary to make a panic buy of someone like Kostas Manolas, who was linked to Juve by Tuttosport as negotiations for Bonucci began to pick up steam. That will only serve to block the extremely promising youngsters coming through the pipeline.
Juve are still Serie A favorites
Much of the rest of the Italian football landscape are hailing this transfer as a sign of the end of Juve’s stranglehold over calcio. Between the loss of a key player and a significant reduction in their margin of victory in the league, there is a prevailing idea that the rest of the pack is finally catching up to the bianconeri.
They may be getting closer, but they certainly haven’t caught up. Bonucci or no Bonucci, Juventus are going to go into the 2017-18 season as significant favorites.
The gap between first and second may have been smaller last year than in seasons past, but that has more to do with the fact that Juve’s lead as they reached the Champions League semifinal was so great that they could afford to ease off the gas and rest key players for midweek games. Milan has had an insane mercato that could get even more insane, but at this point their starting XI will consist of a minimum of seven players who have just arrived. There will be an adjustment period for them. Transfer rumors around Inter have focused more about the potential sale of Ivan Perisic than any major buys. Roma has lost significant parts of their attack and midfield, and Napoli have largely stood pat.
Apart from having the quality in-house to replace Bonucci, Juve boasts significant offensive firepower that may end up getting even better if Federico Bernardeschi arrives. A boost in the midfield might be nice, but Juve has more than enough to keep hold of the scudetto for a seventh straight year. They won’t be as heavily favored as they have in year’s past, but they will still be favored to be top dogs.
The Champions League on the other hand...
The real impact of Bonucci’s departure will likely be in Europe. Bonucci was one of the best and most experienced players on the team. He’s participated in two Champions League finals. His unique skill set was a huge asset on the continent.
Juve will particularly miss his passing ability. His ability to bypass the midfield with precise long balls was a major asset in European play. It was especially deadly when he returned to the Champions League lineup in the second leg against Porto. The Portuguese giants were totally unable to cope with his long-ball ability.
Defensively he is an excellent blend of destroyer and technician, able to finesse the ball away from an opponent or deliver a blow in equal measure. His role in strangling Barcelona over two legs in this year’s quarterfinal was immense.
Juve is going to miss him the in Champions League for sure. Rugani may soon step in and soften the blow, but he will be a star of a different light. Leo’s departure will seriously affect Juve’s quest to return to the Champions League final and Allegri will probably have to make some tweaks in order to make up for it.