On Saturday, the day we’ve been waiting three months for finally arrives. The World Cup participants have returned. The transfer windows will have closed. The 2018-19 season is about to begin.
And what a season it could end up being. For years, Juventus has devoted as much focus to moves that built for the future as they did to moves that impacted the now. That time, however, is over. The monumental acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo, and the sacrifice of the promising Mattia Caldara to return Leonardo Bonucci to the team, sent a very clear message: Juventus are done building. The focus is now on the club’s white whale — the Champions League. Andrea Agnelli intends to end the 22-year-long wait for the Cup With the Big Ears.
Whether that mission will be successful will depend on the usual things. The peaks and valleys of a season, injuries, the decision of an unprepared referee in a big stadium environment ... all that stuff.
As we head into the opener, there are still some questions about this team—the kind of questions that the season itself will answer. What are some of those questions? What should we be on the look out for? That’s what we’re here to find out.
Here are five major talking points for Juventus going into the season (for realsies this time).
Obviously, the biggest question going into the season is how Ronaldo is going to integrate into the team.
Most conjectural lineups have CR7 slotting in at his normal left-wing spot in a 4-3-3 or, alternatively, a 4-2-3-1, with Mario Mandzukic playing as the prima punta. While this is certainly a viable lineup (and I am certainly in favor of any lineup that puts the Mandzubeast front and center), one wonders whether the team might be better served playing Ronaldo as the No. 9.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First and foremost is Ronaldo’s age. He’ll be 34 by the end of the season, and regardless of how well he maintains his body, time is undefeated. Ronaldo isn’t the flying winger he was at Manchester United and in his early Real Madrid days. His game has evolved into that of a superpowered center-forward — certainly capable of some of his old feats, but far more of a penalty area poacher than he used to be.
It’s worth noting the defensive responsibilities that Massimiliano Allegri’s wingers carry in his system. This is symbolized most by Mandzukic and his tenacity on the left, but Juan Cuadrado, Douglas Costa, and Federico Bernardeschi all make their way back to add their weight to the defense when necessary. This isn’t to say that Ronaldo isn’t capable of taking on these duties when the situation requires, but would the club want him to? That could end up putting a lot of miles on legs that have already been everywhere, man. Keeping Ronaldo fresh throughout the season is going to be a major priority, and the added defensive workload could hamper that. Besides, the idea of Ronaldo getting service from the likes of Cuadrado, Costa, and Bernardeschi is a tantalizing prospect.
Beyond the field, it’s worth watching how the icon integrates into the locker room. Despite the departure of Gianluigi Buffon, there is still a lot of established leadership on this team in the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Claudio Marchisio, and others. If he’s planning on asserting himself as one of the team’s leaders, he’ll have to be in harmony with those men first. His presence will also upset the order of march for free kicks and penalties, and it will be interesting to see how that affects his relationship with the likes of Miralem Pjanic and Paulo Dybala.
How this all boils down will go a long way to determining whether the Bianconeri have a harmonious and successful season. If Ronaldo’s integration is seamless — and there are no indications it will be anything but, regardless of any potential pitfalls — this team will be epically frightening.
How well Leo Bonucci fits back into the locker room — and fits back in with the fans — is going to be a storyline all year.
We’ve all seen the video of him screaming at Allegri against Palermo. We’ve all seen the pictures of him sitting on his stool at the Estadio Dragao in Porto after being benched for a Champions League knockout round game. We’ve all heard the stories of the alleged locker room strife in Cardiff during the Champions League final. We all saw him pull out his trademark celebration when he headed in a corner on what proved to be his only game at the Allianz Stadium as an AC Milan player.
There doesn’t seem to be any outward sign that Bonucci has been rejected by his new (and old) teammates. The fans are a different story. The airport in Turin was a ghost town upon his arrival, and when he got to Continassa he was roundly booed by a large section of fans. He’s stopped short of apologizing for the fiasco of a year ago, but has acknowledged that he’s going to have to earn back the respect and love of the team’s supporters.
If he avoids the defensive mistakes that plagued a good portion of his time at Milan and starts dropping 70-yard passes on a dime for Ronaldo a few times, maybe the raw memories will fade. But he needs to play his way back into the hearts of the fans — and prove that last year was a blip on the radar rather than the beginning of a sustained decline.
Rotation, rotation, rotation
If there’s one thing Max Allegri can legitimately be criticized for over the last several years, it’s his rotation policy — or lack thereof.
Of the many factors in the 4-1 defeat against Real Madrid in Cardiff two seasons ago, one that is often overlooked is the fact that the team’s forwards were absolutely shot. Marko Pjaca’s injury four months earlier had left a team that started four forwards with only four healthy forwards, forcing the likes of Stefano Sturaro and Mario Lemina to play as emergency wingers on occasion. There were players on the verge of falling on their faces.
Last season we saw a similar situation, but this time it was more the fault of Allegri, and Beppe Marotta, than fate. Gonzalo Higuain didn’t exactly have a direct backup last year, given the fact that Mandzukic so often played on the left wing. As a result, Higuain played 3,649 minutes up front between Serie A and Europe, far and away the most on the team, and he looked exhausted come April and May. Pjanic played 3,123 minutes between the two competitions despite there being plenty of depth in midfield, and his play clearly suffered at the end of the season.
Allegri needs to be far more proactive this year when it comes to resting his key players. Chiellini and Ronaldo will need rest to keep their 34-year-old legs fresh, and influential players like Pjanic can’t be whipped to death in games against the league’s minnows if bigger prizes loom.
Allegri needs to rotate more this season, and he has the talent on his bench to do so. Marchisio exists (and looked pretty good over the summer). Daniele Rugani needs to be given more responsibility to complete his development. It would be wonderful if the team kept a guy like Moise Kean on the team to soak up minutes up front against weaker teams to give the older players a rest. Andrea Favilli would have been great in that capacity. Instead, the team again goes into the season with a good amount of depth in defense, midfield, and on the wings, but without a real backup at the striker position. That could make things weird going forward, and should be addressed, either by keeping a young player on hand or by nabbing an inexpensive reserve striker in the last few days of the transfer window.
Keeping the team’s legs fresh will be a key factor in achieving the club’s goals this season. Allegri has to be attentive to it, or the drop-off in performance could prove decisive.
Competition between the posts
The beginning of the first year AG (After Gigi) was always going to be odd. It’s supremely weird to see Wojciech Szczesny wearing the No. 1 shirt. (Aside: Don’t you think it would have been appropriate for the team to shelve that shirt for a year, they way they did with the No. 10 when Alessandro Del Piero left?)
What makes it even weirder is that Szczesny is no longer the clear-cut successor we all thought he would be in May. That could complicate things. In American football there is a saying: a team that has two starting quarterbacks has none. In short, having two or more starting-caliber players at a key position could end up doing more harm than good, because the minute something goes wrong for one, the clamor for the other to take his place could be the cause of some major distractions.
Szczesny hasn’t helped himself nail down his spot this summer, either. He’s had a couple of Benny Hill moments, both in the International Champions Cup friendlies and playing for Poland in the World Cup. Perin, on the other hand, has largely been impressive in preseason. At the moment the starting job is going to be Szczesny’s, but if some of his Arsenal mistakes start creeping into his game, we could start seeing Perin worm his way into the conversation. After almost 20 years of certainty between the posts, it’s looking like there will be a year-long competition for the goalkeeper’s job this year — and whoever eventually wins it will have huge shoes to fill.
One of the biggest talking points going into the offseason was the need for the roster to get younger.
Between the acquisition of Ronaldo (older by four years than the departed Higuain) and the reacquisition of Bonucci (significantly more than four years older than Caldara) has jacked up the team’s average age. Only one player on the main squad is younger than 24.
But what a player that is.
Rodrigo Bentancur showed a lot of flashes last year. Frankly, he didn’t get nearly as much playing time last year as he really should have. After an impressive performance in the World Cup for Uruguay, Bentancur has hopefully staked a claim in the main midfield rotation this year.
In his limited time last year, Bentancur showed tenacity in defense and great skill in possession. Now that he’s shown he can provide a team a midfield engine in high-level situations, he needs to be trusted with more minutes. Not only will that keep guys like Pjanic and Emere Can fresh, it will help the 21-year-old reach his ceiling, which is quite high indeed.
As cool as it is having Ronaldo now, the fact of the matter is this team in its current form is only going to be competitive for two, maybe three years before it has to retool. There is going to have to be a fulcrum on which that transition turns, and a fully-developed Bentancur can serve that role with aplomb a few years from now. Carlos Tevez’s last gift to Juventus should be treasured, and he should be used. Play him, Max. A lot.