With Juventus’ 2-1 win over Sampdoria this past weekend, the first half of the 2018-19 Serie A season is officially a thing of the past. Nineteen games down, 19 more games to go.
In the first half of Juventus’ season, we have seen the following:
- Juve build a nine-point lead atop the Serie A table over Napoli.
- Juve finish atop Group H in the Champions League.
- Sami Khedira still play like crap.
- Cristiano Ronaldo start all but one league game, recording 14 goals and five in the process.
- Mario Mandzukic, not Paulo Dybala, be Juve’s second-leading scorer.
- Leonardo Bonucci still not remember how to consistently mark his man on defense.
- Did I already say something about Sami Khedira?
OK, so just because Juventus are comfortably ahead of its closest competition in Serie A and finished atop their Champions League group, it’s not like everything has been just going along as smooth as can be and there are no problems for Max Allegri to solve come the re-start of games in a couple of weeks.
The task of the BWRAO Roundtable crew was simple this time around. They had one question — and topic — to answer: What were your first-half impressions? What has surprised you? What has frustrated you besides Bonucci’s marking on free kicks?
Thee’s the question(s). Here are their answers.
It’s been a somewhat weird first half of the year, hasn’t it?
On paper, Juventus should be laying waste to most of the teams they come upon this year, but instead we’ve seen a lot of games end 1-0, or only seen Juve get their second goal to salt the game away in the dying minutes. Others have seen the team completely leave this plane and allow their opponents to get the ball back in the game. This season hasn’t been the best on the blood pressure, that’s for sure.
There are certainly some things to be genuinely concerned about. Leonardo Bonucci seems like a shell of the man who two or three years ago was making a case as not only the best ball-playing center-back but center-back, period, and his passing abilities are only partially making up for the fact that he’s frequently been the one responsible for opponents’ goals. The case can be made that key players aren’t being given enough rest, although sometimes that has been unavoidable as the injury bug has bitten the team quite a few times this year, especially in midfield.
But there have been some really good things, too. Wojciech Szczesny has come out and done as well as can possibly be asked in the impossible task of replacing Gianluigi Buffon. Mario Mandzukic is on a rampage and has developed a lot of chemistry with Cristiano Ronaldo, who so far has been pretty much as advertised, although we really won’t know if we’ve gotten the full product until the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Alex Sandro has suddenly started looking like the Sandro of 2016-17 since he signed his contract extension. Mattia De Sciglio has very subtly turned in what might be the season of his career. Joao Cancelo has been a revelation.
I guess the biggest impression of the first half of the year is that this team, for all its quality, is still a bit of a work in progress. But that’s how it always is with Max Allegri, isn’t it? We don’t often see the team in its final form until February or so. If that’s the way it will be this year, it’ll be really fun to see what might happen.
Big Poppa Chuks
Sixteen victories, two draws, and zero losses in Serie A. The most prolific attack in Italy and its meanest defense. Based on the numbers, no matter what I say from this point onwards, it’s going to sound ungrateful, disingenuous, and, simply ridiculous. How could I have anything but praise for Allegri and his marvelous players?
But as we all know, the first five months or so of the 2018-19 season haven’t been as smooth-sailing and imperious as the numbers would have you think. I mean, the first game of the season almost ended in embarrassment! So what do I think of the story so far?
I think it has been typical Juve, with a few key differences. Even though the statistics say that we have the best defense in the country, many games have been heart-in-mouth stuff to watch. From the good of Giorgio Chiellini’s imperious season so far in Juventus’ backline to the bad of our prodigal son Leonardo Bonucci’s up-and-down-and-down form since returning from his exodus to Milan. The relentless and fearless João Cancelo has, without question, been the most surprisingly successful Juventus transfer (relative to his price tag) in recent history.
But Juventus hasn’t controlled many of its games in the defensively-composed manner that Juventus usually does, and that certainly leaves me worried for the rest of the season. And the games that we have won have generally been by one- or two-goal margins (unlike a certain team from Paris in Ligue 1), in typical Juventus fashion.
Going back to the topic of surprises, though, one other player has pleasantly, though sharply, surprised me this season: Paulo Dybala. The young Argentine had reached an evolve-or-die point in his career because it seemed like the only positions he could play were a supporting striker in a two-man strikeforce or trequartista in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival meant that Dybala would be very unlikely to be able to play these positions consistently and so, I feared, this season would spell the end of Dybala’s time as a Bianconero.
However, La Joya has adapted marvelously to his new quasi right-wing, quasi-trequartista role for the side and proven remarkably indispensable in Allegri’s 3-man attack. I didn’t think he had it in him to adapt to this critical challenge. But so far so good for the handsome man with the #10 shirt.
And so far so good for the men — and women! — in black and white.
Juventus have surprised me with how seamlessly they dealt with injuries in the midfield. Going into season, the triumvirate of Miralem Pjanic, Blaise Matuidi, and Sami Khedira looked solid but not spectacular. Of course, they were backed up by two budding young stars in Rodrigo Bentancur and Emre Can. Within a month, however, the depth of the Bianconeri midfield was tested with both Germans, Can and Khedira, succumbing to lengthy injury spells. This forced Bentancur onto the pitch, not something that scared the Juventus faithful due to his extraordinary performances for Uruguay in this past summer’s World Cup, but nonetheless shed light on the fact the midfield was thin and no longer the strength of the team that it once was. With that being said though, Bentancur has truly come into his own in the Black and White, scoring a couple goals and providing a certain edge to the midfield that Juventus did not project to have going into the season.
Going forward, Bentancur seems to have carved himself out a starting role in Juventus’ starting XI, with Khedira aging and Can still looking to become a consistent performer in manager Max Allegri’s system. The Juventus midfield, unfortunately, is still not the class of Europe that it once was — especially when you hearken back to the days of Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo, and Paul Pogba romping through Serie A alongside one another. The current makeup of this midfield could possibly develop into a unit as imposing as the aforementioned one, but it will not happen this year.
The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not we truly feel like the Juventus midfield, this season, can roll into the Wanda Metropolitano against Atletico Madrid and dictate the tempo of the game against a team that plays like a steel trap in all areas of the pitch.
At this point in the season, the midfield has impressed far more than I expected them to given the adversity they have been forced to deal with. But there is still much to prove. Far too often have lesser opponents enjoyed lengthy spells on the ball against our midfield. For Juventus to take the next step and assert themselves consistently against Europe’s elite teams during this Champions League stretch run, and to live up to their billing as a tournament favorite, the midfield must continue to grow and establish their dominance.
It wasn’t pretty, but…
Beauty isn’t everything. Juventus are getting positive results regardless of their flair or lack thereof. It still doesn’t seem real that Cristiano Ronaldo wears a Juve shirt but it must be since he’s scoring late equalizers against Atalanta and all. Initially, I felt that the team and returning Juve players were obligated to perform well for Cristiano. At times I even felt embarrassed to see Sami Khedira or Leo Bonucci slipping up in key moments, not embarrassed for them but almost ashamed to have poor showings in front of Ronaldo. I realize now, this is ridiculous, Juve has nothing to prove to Cristiano. He chose to sign with Juventus, after all. And Juventus is not Real Madrid and Max Allegri is not Zinedine Zidane. The words “beautiful football” are not in Mister Allegri’s vocabulary. Whether the team is winning by one or four goals, there still winning and if the defense can stay consistent and keep up the clean sheets then there shouldn’t be any problems. Ronaldo must be okay with this, given he’s still here and seems to be happy.
I’ll admit I was never a fan of Cristiano Ronaldo when he was at Real Madrid or Manchester, but I was well aware of his value. The hype surrounding him and the team early in the season was second to none and CR7 fans were expecting instant goals and highlight plays. Most longtime Juve fans were skeptical and practicing patience when it came to Ronaldo’s goals, and thankfully their patience paid off. So, these past few months have definitely been an adjustment period as a Juventus fan, but it seems like every game Ronaldo is doing something to win over my affection, little by little.
As for the rest of the team, there hasn’t been many surprises or disappointments. It’s nice to see Mattia De Sciglio excelling of late and it’s always pleasing to have Super Mario Mandzukic in an extended run of form. Overall, I’ve been pleased and pretty relaxed for the first half of the season, hopefully it stays this way. If things do get a little hairy, and they always do, I’m confident this Juventus team can handle anything thrown at them.
So if there’s a message I have for fans at this point in the season, it’s this: If Cristiano Ronaldo is happy with playing Allegri’s football then you should be just fine with it. And Juve are in first place, so be happy!