Don’t look now but the midway point of the 2018-19 Serie A seasons is fast approaching.
By the time the end of December arrives, Juventus will have played just as many league games as they have remaining come the new year. They will have found out who their opponent is in the Champions League’s Round of 16 and we’ll even be ready to talk about a little Coppa Italia action happening within a matter of days.
So, yeah, things are going to get busy.
However, there are still a few days to go before Juventus gets back on the field for the first time following the November international break. And because of that, we figured it would be a good time to put our collective heads together and reconvene for something we haven’t done in a few weeks.
That would be to have a good old-fashioned BWRAO roundtable discussion of the season to date, one that has seen Juventus suffer only one loss through their first 16 games in all competitions.
Our international break roundtable extravaganza is twofold.
What has been your biggest surprise of the season to date?
What has been your biggest concern of the season to date (and potentially going forward)?
Simple enough, right? Let’s roundtable.
My biggest surprise, to be honest, is that Juve’s gotten this far into the season with only one draw and one loss. Juve have been seriously underwhelming this season in a number of games, but have somehow scraped together a number of wins in those.
That is not to say it’s been all bad. Joao Cancelo has been a revelation — especially when little was expected of him — while Alex Sandro has showed signs of regaining his world-class form from two years ago. Rodrigo Bentancur has taken on the mantle of added minutes in important games, and has mostly done well.
My biggest cause for concern is related to my biggest surprise: Who are this season’s Juventus? What is their identity? When are they at their best?
They’ve already shown an inability to kill off games, a disturbing precedent that points to lack of concentration. I worry that as the season grinds on, how will they handle new and greater adversities? This is not a bad team by any means, and certain short spells of fantastic football validate that. Max Allegri still had some work on his hands instilling that winning mentality into this season’s squad, though.
For me, the biggest surprise of the season has been Joao Cancelo — specifically, how quickly he’s learned to defend adequately to compliment his attacking abilities. Going into the season I had expected something similar to Dani Alves — a marauding fullback that doesn’t really pay attention to defending unless absolutely necessary. The season opener, in which he was as bad defending as he was excellent going forward, looked like confirmation of that assumption. Since then, though, he’s made rapid improvement. He still has the odd moment where he’s too preoccupied with attacking or, when actually back defending, fails to stop his man, but they aren’t the everyday events I was expecting them to be, and he currently shares the team lead in tackles per game with Blaise Matuidi. As he improves this aspect of his game, he could turn into one of the very best full-backs in the world.
As for my biggest cause for concern, that’s quite simple — midfield depth. As I said a few weeks ago, going into the season with only five midfielders was an extreme mistake, and the injury bug has hit that unit hard. No one really knows when Emre Can is going to be able to come back after surgery to correct a thyroid issue, Sami Khedira has been out for most of the year with a thigh injury and is now dealing with a sprained ankle suffered in training, and Miralem Pjanic seems to pick up some sort of muscle strain every time he plays for Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the moment, Matuidi and Rodrigo Bentancur are the only midfielders on the team that you can be confident are totally healthy — which is not a good thing for a team whose current system uses three midfielders. This absolutely has to be corrected in the January transfer window, because this team isn’t going to go anywhere if it can’t give its midfielders enough rest to keep them all healthy.
For me, the biggest surprise has been the development of Rodrigo Bentancur. While there was some expectation than Bentancur would develop after his performances in the World Cup he has truly outperformed those expectations, with injuries to Emre Can and Sami Khedira he was given more playing time than expected and delivered. Kind of crazy to think he was perceived as a bit of a throwaway in the Carlos Tevez deal.
Hard to come up with a real concern when the team has lost – checks notes- once? Sure, I guess they could stop playing so passively in second halves and the defense looks shaky at times but it’s tough to be super concerned about those things at this point of the season. Injuries are not ideal, but unless you subscribe to the idea that injuries are somehow related to Max Allegri and the training staff -which I don’t- I can’t see how that would have been solved. In the words of the bard French Montana, ain’t worried bout nuthin.”
My biggest surprise is just how fast everything came together.
With how the last couple seasons have started, I’ve become pretty pessimistic in the early stages. For at least a few months, I never expect a strong start or any player to stand out. But this season Juventus has had stand out players and a strong start. The player I think has stood out most is João Cancelo — he’s been able to prove his worth multiple times and it doesn’t seem like he’ll lose his form any time soon. His success, as well as Juve’s superstars, has given the team one of the best starts to a season I’ve ever seen. I expected way more issues and problematic games early on, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised week after week. So much so to say this team is performing very close to how they’ll be in March. As of recently there’s been a few bumps, but when the team is playing well, they’re playing really well.
Biggest cause for concern? Complacency.
This has been a problem that goes beyond just this season. I can’t count all the times Juventus has taken the lead early on, played possession the rest of the game and taken high pressure until they finally concede. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as if this happens to Juve more than any other team. This is a collective team issue, it can’t be simplified down to blaming Max Allegri or any one player. Hopefully, the most recent slip up against Manchester United has been enough of an awakening for the players and maybe for Allegri to rethink his infamous offense for defense swap in the 84th minute. If Juventus are going to maintain their form this season they’ll need to overcome this complacency as soon as possible.
My biggest surprise has to be the incredible depth that the squad has shown so far. Through the first three months, many key components of the squad have gone down injured, and Juventus have yet to show any loss in quality.
As you look and see who has gone down, the depth of the squad looks even more impressive. Douglas Costa has missed almost a month all told between injuries and suspensions, and the squad has looked to barely miss him. With Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi, the drop-off in talent is astonishingly minimal. Douglas Costa, for my money, is the best Brazilian born player in the world right now when he is on form (yes, including Neymar, who dances and flops more than he drives the ball meaningfully towards goal). For the squad to absorb his injury woes as effectively as they have speaks volumes on the depth of our talent.
The midfield has been ravished by injury, with Khedira and Emre Can both sidelined for lengthy amounts of time. While it has reduced Juventus’ midfield depth, it has not reduced the quality of the on-field talent. Rodrigo Bentancur, the 21-year-old Uruguayan, has picked up where he left off with his national side during this past summer’s World Cup. For the Bianconeri, he has shown grace and maturity in the midfield beyond his years, with a defensive tenacity that would make any traditional Italian defensive midfielder blush.
Injuries are a part of the game, and thankfully Juventus is blessed with a squad able to overcome them. But Juventus has not just overcame their injuries, they have flourished to the best start in Serie A history in spite of them.
The biggest cause for concern is, simply put, Juventus need to cut the lapses in concentration. It is hard to nitpick a team that has only lost one game all season, especially when the circumstances of that very loss were as baffling as they were inconsequential. Losing to Manchester United, despite the toxicity their club is currently shrouded in, is hardly a damning result, let alone the fact that Juventus outplayed Man U. for 170 of the 180 minutes across two legs. The result itself was painful, only because it should have never happened, and did not deserve to happen.
What is actually concerning are the issues that keep arising in games due to a sheer lack of focus. Juventus, historically, will grow in defensive stoutness as the season goes on. That is all well and good. But, the defense during the run of play has been quality. They do, however, switch off from time to time. These moments of carelessness have resulted in goals. In addition, Juventus have at times been very wasteful in front of goal. Being clinical around goal is an essential characteristic of a championship team. Thankfully Juve have been able to rescue all but two results this season, thus rendering any lapses in concentration irrelevant by the final whistle. But how long can anyone really rely on bringing themselves back from the dead (relatively speaking)?
Whether it’s closing out a winger so he can’t whip in an uncontested cross, or making sure you put a body on runners into the box so they are not allowed to crash the penalty area with any sort of forward momentum, it is the little things that grind out results as the season wears on. Sloppy fouls in dangerous locations near your own 18-yard-box result in goals against the run of play (see the second leg of the Manchester United game). Goals against the run of play result in losses that should never happen. Simple arithmetic.
Mistakes are part of sports. Mistakes can be forgiven. But focus and concentration are matters of pride and discipline,and those should never fail. These are qualities this Juventus team should and usually do possess. The Bianconeri have, at many times this season, outclassed their opponent and played them off the field. Most all of the goals that have been scored on Juventus this season have been against the run of play, during a spell in which the team is dominating. It can be difficult to maintain focus during moments where the play is coming so easily, but great teams are able to do so regardless.
My biggest surprise of the season has to be the loss of Beppe Marotta. He was an integral piece of everything that was built from 2010 to 2018. The man was a wizard when dealing with mercato, most noted for his penchant for savvy free transfers — see: Paul Pogba and Andrea Pirlo — as well as bargain buys like Carlos Tevez and Arturo Vidal.
Marotta took over after a seventh-place finish in Serie A and helped return the Old Lady to former glory. He appointed Antonio Conte at the beginning of the current Scudetto run and brought in Max Allegri after his predecessor’s departure. He laid the foundation for seven straight Scudetti, four Coppa Italia titles, and two Champions League final appearances.
Seeing that Beppe is most likely heading to Inter Milan to become their director only adds to the surprise, as well as hurt, that his departure brings. This is obviously a Juventus that is operating much differently than in years past after the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, so it will be very interesting to see how many of Beppe’s ideas and influence stick around. His smarts and business acumen will be sorely missed, and for him to have left the club so abruptly and out of nowhere was, to me, the biggest surprise thus far.
The biggest cause for concern to me is the inability to switch into a higher gear when necessary. Juventus, for all of the winning that has been done this season, has routinely made matches more interesting than they should have been. Parma, Genoa, Chievo, and Sassulo should have been seen off in a much more comfortable fashion. The loss to Manchester United in the Champions League should have been put away before Juan Mata’s free kick and Alex Sandro’s own goal.
This is nothing all that new to Juventus fans, though. Struggling past seemingly much easier competition, or failing to close out matches properly, is something that we’ve seen time and again the past couple of seasons. Juventus seem content to get a goal or two and sit back and hope the opposition doesn’t threaten too much. This needs to change if Juventus are to make a run to the Champions League final in Madrid this season.
Smaller clubs that play Juventus will always give their best effort, but Juve may not return the favor. The bianconeri may get an early lead against a team in the Champions League but holding it and failing to get more goals could lead to a problem with differentials and results. It is the cutting edge and ruthlessness that Juventus lacks that is most concerning to myself, and what I hope to see remedied quickly.