Narratives change fast. Days ago, the going story in Serie A was Juventus teetering on the edge of the end of their reign atop the league after losing 1-0 to Napoli at home. But in the space of two minutes in Milan and 90 in Florence, it was turned on its head. The Bianconeri are again sitting four points ahead with three games to go, including eminently winnable home games against Bologna and Hellas Verona.
Only something incredible would allow Napoli back in now — if they even manage to win out, which isn’t a given after their performance against Fiorentina on Sunday, in which it was clear they had spent all of their emotional capital at the Allianz Stadium despite not even gaining the league lead off the game.
This has certainly been a season of ups and downs. When history looks back at this historic streak of scudetti, the 2017-18 season will likely go down as the most difficult title race for the Bianconeri since the first, in 2011-12. Juve went unbeaten that year, but drew a ton of games — 15, to be precise — that prevented the kind of runaway you expect in a season where a team doesn’t lose. They finally took the lead for good in April and eventually won the title by four points.
In the years since, the title has been won at a canter. The margins of victory over the next five seasons were nine, 17, seven, nine, and four points. That last one is deceptive — Juve had a big enough lead through April that Massimiliano Allegri could afford to take his foot off the gas in the league to rest key players as the team went deep into the knockout rounds of the Champions League. The team has been so dominant that twice over the course of the streak Roma finished runner-up while setting a club record for points in a season.
If Napoli win one more game this year, they will have done the same. But this season has been far more difficult than years past and seen a lot more drama. As bad as that’s been for the collective blood pressure of us Juventini, it’s probably not such a bad thing in the end.
It started during the summer transfer window, with the shocking transfer of Leonardo Bonucci to AC Milan. An integral part of the Juventus machine for six years, a conflict with the club and Allegri that had been brewing for months led to Bonucci’s departure. Blame whoever you want for the move — I’m in the minority who think that the club bears more than a bit of responsibility for the breakdown — but one thing was clear: it took a long time for Juve to come to terms with his departure on the field.
It was apparent that the team had lost some of its defensive cohesion. Last season Allegri’s “mad experiment,” the so-called Five Star 4-2-3-1 formation, enhanced the team’s attack without sacrificing its defense. Without Bonucci, that balance vanished, and Juve began giving up goals at a rate that it hasn’t in the last six years. In the Supercoppa against Lazio, Juve was thoroughly outplayed, going down 2-0 before Paulo Dybala scored off a free kick and a penalty to tie the score in stoppages. But two minutes after the equalizer Lazio grabbed a winner at the death. It would be a sign of things to come.
In the second game of the season, Juve had to come back from two goals down to beat Genoa, then got shellacked in their Champions League opener, falling 3-0 to Barcelona at Camp Nou. They looked to have righted the ship a bit before starting October by blowing two consecutive leads. After going up 2-0 in 25 minutes against Atalanta the team folded for a 2-2 draw, then dropped another early lead in a rare home defeat against Lazio.
Rare was the game that saw Juventus take it by the throat and overwhelm an opponent. By the time December rolled around, the team was still leaking goals. The nadir of the season was a 3-2 loss at Sampdoria that wasn’t nearly so close — and there was another problem that needed dealing with.
Through the end of September, Dybala had scored 12 times in all competitions. He looked to finally be taking the final step in realizing his tremendous potential, validating the team’s decision to bestow the No. 10 jersey on him at the beginning of the year. But once the calendar turned to October, the Argentine went ice cold. From October to the end of 2017, he only scored four more times, and eventually ended up getting benched for games against Inter and Bologna. Dybala had already had issues with Allegri last season, and with constant rumors of his departure flying, the added tension can’t have helped.
One thing the benching of Dybala did was trigger an evolution of tactics. Allegri began to go with a 4-3-3 formation, and using a three-man midfield cleared up a number of the team’s defensive issues. After the Sampdoria game Juve reeled off eight consecutive clean sheets in all competitions, including a big 1-0 victory over Napoli at the San Paolo that prevented the Partenopei from opening a seven-point lead at the top of the table. That game was also the last time in two months we saw Gianluigi Buffon after the captain suffered a muscle injury. After Hellas Verona broke the scoreless streak, Wojciech Szczesny helped lead the team to seven more.
But the shift caused another headache: how to incorporate Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain in the same starting XI while maintaining a three-man midfield. An injury to the former in early January alleviated that responsibility somewhat, but when he came back, it was difficult to integrate the two.
That long run of clean sheets was impressive, but it was also masking some serious problems. Juve was having a lot of problems scoring. After struggling to 1-0 wins against Cagliari and Genoa to start the ritorna, they played a quagmire of a game against Chievo, needing to see two opponents sent off before finally scoring.
Through all of this, Juve was playing the unfamiliar role of chaser. Starting in Week 4, Napoli held the league lead for all but two weeks, but they slipped up in March. A crazy last-second victory against Lazio saw Juve take the lead, and they consolidated their advantage by winning a game in hand against Atalanta.
As the league season was raging, the Champions League caused Juve fans everywhere massive coronary problems. They blew a 2-0 lead in the first leg of the round of 16 against Tottenham Hotspur and were being seriously outplayed in the second before pulling two goals out of nowhere in the space of three minutes. That led to a quarterfinal Real Madrid.
There’s no need to go into the details of this one — we’re all still talking about it.
Then it was Juve’s turn to wobble. After beating Sampdoria following the Champions League defeat, Juve dropped points against Crotone before the Napoli game put their rivals just one point behind them. But after losing a lead and going down 2-1 to a 10-man Inter team, the team’s famous will to win shone to the fore with two goals in two minutes to garner a controversial victory. Who knows if that was weighing on the minds of Mauricio Sarri’s men when they lost to Fiorentina this Sunday?
It’s been a long slog, one that’s frayed the nerves of most fans. Apart from the on-field issues, the locker room problems have given a lot of people pause. It wasn’t just Dybala — Stephan Lichtsteiner was again left off the Champions League list for the group stage, and Allegri’s stubborn refusal to play Claudio Marchisio suggests something more than technical concerns are at work.
But as uneasy as the drama we’ve had this season has made us, it could end up being beneficial to the team in the long term. It’s probably been five years since Juve has had such major flaws laid bare. Then it was the lack of a top-line goalscorer, an issue that was eventually solved with the inspired purchase of Carlos Tevez from Manchester City. Now, it’s a combination of the squad’s overall age and a deficiency in midfield. That’s something director general Giuseppe Marotta is going to have to address this summer — but knowing exactly what needs to be done in advance will help build the team for the seasons to come. Young players like Mattia Caldara and Leonardo Spinazzola will come to inject some much-needed energy, and it’s certain that Beppe has his ideas on how to upgrade the midfield.
The fact that Juve has persevered this season and is in line to win yet another title despite their obvious struggles is a testament to their will and individual skill, as well as the ability of Marotta to build a team that can get through adversity. It’s been a slog, but sometimes you need a wakeup call to shake you out of complacency, and the problems faced this season will probably trigger yet another phase in the evolution of this club, one that, if executed properly, can extend this team’s viability for years to come.
As rough as it’s been on our nerves, we should all embrace the adversity the team has been through this season. It could trigger a new phase that can make next year that much more successful. Time will tell what will happen this summer, when (we hope) the celebrations have died down and Marotta and his lieutenant, sporting director Fabio Paratici, get down to business. But if there’s one thing this season has shown them, it’s that even a championship team like this needs an overhaul every now and again.