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Notes for a new Old Lady

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It’s time for Juve to pick a path and stay on it.

Juventus v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Leg One Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

It’s a strange time to be a Juventus fan.

With six consecutive Serie A titles and the very real prospect of a seventh next month, Juve have consolidated their power in Italy. And on a corporate level, the club is doing everything possible to join the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United in the top tier of global brands.

Juve’s reach has expanded considerably over the past few years thanks to some canny social outreach and merchandising strategies. Nowadays, you actually see A-List celebrities and millennial idols like Drake, Rihanna and Zayn Malik pimping Juve gear. (Kendall Jenner even tracked down one of those old Kappa jackets, which won’t please Adidas or fans of vertical integration.) And to top it off, Juve have their own Netflix series, a charming mix of candid, personal moments and humorless propaganda.

But then we witness something like Tuesday’s humiliating 3-0 loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League — where our world-class veterans make amateur mistakes, our top players shrink from the big European stage and Cristiano Ronaldo proves that there’s a difference between quality and quality — and we get a painful but necessary sense of perspective.

On nights like this, Juventus are exposed as a second-tier international club. In this light, it’s easy to see the fact that they’ve made the Champions League final twice in three years as a quirk of fate, a lucky break. Which would be respectable enough, if the organization weren’t so publicly trying to become a modern-day European giant.

So who are the Bianconeri now? Are they David or Goliath, and which do they want to be? Is this the best of times, or the worst?

The truth — and the problem — is that they are a little of both. Juve are big and small, strong and weak, smugly self-satisfied while nursing an inferiority complex, inspired by the past and shackled by it, on the right and wrong paths simultaneously. This Tale of Two Cities nonsense has to stop.

Juventus’ real battle is one of image and self-perception. At some point in the chain of command, a provincial, “lesser than” attitude is poisoning Juve’s belief of crossing the final threshold to soccer supremacy. Until the problem is fixed, we will relive these European nightmares in some form, over and over.

If Juve want to be one of the biggest clubs in the world, they have to consistently think and act like they are, from the top down, and handle all setbacks accordingly.

Juventus v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Leg One Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Seeing is (for better or worse) believing

Why was Paul Pogba so easily convinced by his evil agent to leave for an inferior Manchester United — the very club that mishandled him badly enough to make him leave for Juve in the first place?

Why did Arturo Vidal leave for Bayern Munich in the hopes of winning the Champions League, even though Juve have since made it further in that competition since his departure?

Why on earth would Leonardo Bonucci leave the best team in Italy for the sixth-best team in Italy, regardless of any problems he had with the club or the coach?

I believe that in all three cases, the player in question saw or was made to see a limit to what Juve could achieve or do for him in the immediate future.

Which is ridiculous, when you think about it.

Juve have had more overall success over the last five Champions League campaigns than both Man United and Milan, and although Bayern Munich won in 2013 (partly by destroying Juve), Juve have since outperformed them in the knockout stages. That still didn’t stop all three players from departing for what they surely believed were better situations. Why would they have felt limited at a club with arguably better odds at long-term, sustainable success?

Money played a huge part, as it always does, but money is not the only factor, and at the highest levels of soccer, the notion of “financially successful” is relative. On some deep level, conscious or not, Pogba, Vidal and Bonucci were convinced not just that they could do better somewhere else, but that they couldn’t do better at Juve.

You don’t have to Google too hard to understand why.

Negative Culture

After a heavy defeat like Tuesday’s, Juve can fault everything from preparation, skill and player availability to more abstract concepts like economics, mental strength and belief. But behind their struggles is something more complicated and much deadlier: a sort of cultural complacency that allows them to rest on their domestic achievements while downplaying or outright excusing their high-profile failures.

We’ve seen or felt this negative emphasis all year long, and it has to end. It’s one thing to fight an exterior menace like the effects of Calciopoli, quite another to combat a self-generated bogeyman (see: English national team, penalties).

In Juve’s Netflix series, it is clearly stated that the Champions League is the primary target this season; the show’s very existence speaks to Juve’s global ambitions. But you would never get that feeling from all the noncommittal sound bites Juve’s players and coaches have given on a week-to-week, even season-to-season basis.

For every well-deserved statement of pride in Juve’s Scudetto streak, there’s been one lowering expectations when it comes to the Champions League. As soon as president Andrea Agnelli or director general Giuseppe Marotta announce their bold objective of winning the big prize in August, the same duo start hedging their bets by walking back the competition’s importance.

Coach Max Allegri and his players seem to have been conditioned to do the same. At a pregame presser, Allegri and whoever is sitting next to him will always downplay the importance of the competition, claiming that Serie A is an equal priority. They’ll also mention that clubs like Real Madrid or Barcelona are significantly superior in quality.

That may be true on most days — but what good does it do to repeat it like a mantra? Juve let that negative perception hang in the air around the players and organization year after year, and it has a cumulatively devastating psychological effect. It’s becoming a perpetual, death-and-taxes sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

After Tuesday’s game, Gigi Buffon, one of the few truly world-class players on this current Juve squad and its beloved captain, claimed that Real Madrid are “objectively stronger,” despite the fact that the first two (and most damaging) goals were more the result of errors than Real’s superior quality. Even Cristiano Ronaldo’s fantastic bicycle kick was the end result of a glaring defensive gaffe.

When Buffon, who knows what it takes to win on the biggest of stages, makes a statement like that, what effect does that have on his teammates? It can’t be positive. Likewise, when Allegri says that he can’t “reproach” his squad for their performance, it not only avoids confronting problems but resigns the squad to a sort of noble failure — and conditions them to expect more of it.

Even in the two seasons in which Juve made it to the final, the game itself was treated as almost a foregone conclusion — an inevitable loss. Especially in Cardiff, the team’s demeanor reeked of “it’s nice just to be nominated,” despite the fact that for the bulk of both finals, Juve were capable of winning and had previously beaten either Real Madrid or Barcelona over 180 minutes to get to the final itself.

As people who have been nominated will you tell you, the game changes with the nomination. It was nice to be nominated, but now it would be really nice to win. Your expectations rise as you do.

Juve are definitely rising in the footballing world. Someone should let them know.

Fake it till you make it (or just keep faking it)

You only need to look at Paris Saint-Germain to see how perception rules belief.

In many ways, PSG are the negative image of Juve. Higher-ups from both clubs stress the importance of competing in and eventually winning the Champions League, but both have flawed plans for doing so.

PSG throws a staggering amount of money at a few superstars while neglecting tactical, personal or cultural cohesion, while Juve emphasize a team-first philosophy but either can’t afford the Neymars of the world or are hell-bent on getting steals on anyone else. Ultimately, you need a balance of both approaches to succeed at the highest level. Even so, Juve have made it further than PSG in the Champions League while playing in a much more competitive domestic league.

And yet at the beginning of each Champions League campaign, you’ll always hear PSG mentioned before Juve when pundits predict winners. Why is that? Maybe PSG’s spending on Neymar automatically put them at the head of the table at the beginning of this season — except that they were also characterized as contenders the year before they bought him, after another big transfer market. The prevailing impression is that every year can be PSG’s year, despite the nagging problem of reality and their fabulous flameouts.

It’s more likely that it’s the big spending itself that signals their intentions to win big, and it’s convincing enough to get others on board. Where Juve temper expectations by admitting inferiority or leaning on their domestic accomplishments, even as they’re clearly aiming for more, PSG don’t profess to be happy with just making the Round of 16 or merely winning the Ligue 1 every year. It’s cold comfort for them.

Juve should rightfully be proud of their accomplishments in recent years, but they should never project a knee-jerk satisfaction with those achievements whenever they lose a big match, whether they feel it or not. And they definitely shouldn’t project the possibility that there’s always a cap on their potential.

Sure, no club can win the Champions League every year, and some seasons are worse than others, but shouldn’t you devote yourself physically and mentally to the possibility that you can win it each year? Shouldn’t you believe until you’ve been disproven, then believe again next year? Otherwise, what’s the point of competing?

We can only imagine the toll these repetitive negative thoughts take on a club whose famous motto states that winning is the only thing that counts. It makes me wonder if that’s really true, and if so, what winning means to Juventus. Is it quantity or quality?

The way out is through

In the aftermath of the Real Madrid debacle, you will hear all kinds of practical solutions. Improve the midfield by buying Milinkovic-Savic! Steal Isco from Madrid! Sell Player X! Ban all rain in Turin within 48 hours of a match!

All of these solutions have their merits (maybe not the last one), but the bigger point is being missed. Whether it’s with Allegri or a new coach, the same players or different ones, Juve have to push forward, not inch their way tentatively — they know by now where the latter approach will get them.

In addition to avoid negative statements on the record or off, there are things Juve can do to break through the final barrier keeping them from the upper echelon of European clubs. All of them involve confronting their current reality, then either correcting a problem or risking their current level of success for greater rewards.

  1. Stop caring so much about Serie A. Loath as I am to use a stale Godfather reference, Juve really did Corleone the rest of the Italian league over the past few years, and it’s hard to dismiss the notion that in one or more cases (Higuain, Pjanic), they jumped at the chance to wipe out their domestic competition — even at the expense of Champions League success. After all, it remains to be seen if any combination of the recent acquisitions will do the trick. Juve should focus transfer activity on competing with all of Europe rather than worry about eliminating their domestic enemies, and by default they’ll be poised for continued Serie A dominance.
  2. Start playing to win, not to avoid losing. Barcelona and Real Madrid are still trying to score goals with a 5-0 lead in the 90th minute. Meanwhile, Allegri’s Juve are set up to win 1-0 while respecting the formidable threat of ... Crotone. Can you blame Juve for being under-confident against big European teams when they’re trained to worry so much about inferior domestic ones? The “everyone plays their best against Juve” excuse is tired. Juve should stop thinking like Italians and go fully international. Which leads to the next point...
  3. Take risks. We know what we get with Sami Khedira: a good performance every third or fourth game. Yet Allegri starts him every single game, even in a fixture-packed month. Meanwhile, he starts Mario Mandzukic whenever the latter is healthy, insisting on using him as a half-effective winger when he has over €100 million in wing talent sitting on his bench. Is he surprised when the first 60 minutes of most games are scoreless, Juve’s attack is predictable and it takes the addition of another winger to break the deadlock? If that’s his plan all along, that’s pretty sadistic. How honorable and satisfying are never-ending slogs to victory? Winning can’t be the only thing that counts if it’s this ugly.
  4. Think quality, not strength. It should be obvious by now that grinta will only get Juve so far in Europe. Real Madrid dominated on Tuesday, but did they seem especially tough? Their midfield was packed with skill players. Even their defenders are clutch scorers. Meanwhile, Allegri fielded one of our slowest defenders (Andrea Barzagli), and in the absence of Pjanic left the only midfielder with any attacking spark on the bench (Claudio Marchisio).
  5. Play Marchisio! Seriously. There’s enough playing time for everyone.
  6. Give the kids a chance. The media and the club itself have perpetuated the idea that only a certain player is “Juve material,” but it’s gotten to the point where the weight of the shirt threatens to crush even the most talented younger players, while prospects on loan or in Juve’s sights are either afraid to prematurely join or skeptical of getting enough playing time if they do. There is enough potential experience to go round, which is why it’s been painful to see Federico Bernadeschi or Douglas Costa or Daniele Rugani sitting on the bench for large stretches while Juve struggle with the same tactical problems each week.
  7. Trust the defense enough to attack. At their sharpest, Juve’s defenders are capable of matching up with those of any side, anywhere. Overcompensating with rugged midfielders or sitting back in support is crucial in certain stretches of the game, but it’s ineffective as a primary strategy from kickoff (not to mention mildly insulting to such great defenders). Risk trouble rather than openly inviting it in over and over (see No. 2).
  8. Play Marchisio! It bears repeating. Plus, the number-name matchup seemed like a nice touch.

Crazy (or stupid) like a fox

So how should Juve approach the second leg in Madrid, down three goals and facing the threat of conceding more?

If Allegri sticks with a cautious approach, seeking to limit Real’s threat while taking advantage of any chances for a counterattack, Juve will either scrape out a draw or lose by a goal — either way, they’ll crash out of the tournament. Even if he makes necessary changes to address Tuesday’s defeat, I would argue that he’ll still only be treading water, trying not to lose too badly in a game where there really isn’t much else to lose.

Why not do something crazy? Real Madrid know Juve’s primary modes of attack, so why not present them with something they’ve never seen? Play a 4-6-0 with no point of reference like Roma used to — even with Dybala suspended. Keep everyone out of their natural position (Buffon as striker!). They should play just the first minute of the match in a 1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1 formation, if only to disorient everyone in Madrid, including themselves.

Joking aside, the best chance to pull off a miracle is to cause a bit of chaos. If chaos leads to a quick opening goal, there’s no telling what can happen. Real’s defense is shaky at the best of times, and Sergio Ramos will be disqualified.

In any case, there’s no point in sticking to tactics that will only half work and hoping for divine intervention. Better to risk more humiliation for the greatest glory club competition has to offer.

Juve are currently in the midst of an unprecedented process of transformation from the tradition-based club they were to the post-globalization one they’re becoming. They’re definitely going to change, so they might as well change for the better.

A new Old Lady deserves a new attitude. If she’s going to claim that winning is the only thing that counts, she might at least show more respect for how she goes about winning.

And for heaven’s sake, let Marchisio play.