One Champions League and six league games later, Juventus remain unbeaten at the end of September 2019. With five victories, two draws, 13 goals scored, and seven goals conceded after almost two months of competitive football, life doesn’t look too bad for the Bianconeri.
That said, there remain a few issues for the team to deal with, ranging from a comical lack of fullbacks to signs of defensive frailty.
Let’s talk about the month that was September.
September started with ... nothing. The first week and a half of the month was dedicated to the international break, meaning that the five games that Juventus played in September were crammed into a two-week timeframe.
The first of these games saw Maurizio Sarri’s men travel to Florence to face Fiorentina. The home team thoroughly dominated the Bianconeri but had to settle for a goalless draw after being unlucky not to win. The real bad luck was on Juve though, as Douglas Costa and Danilo had to be substituted after suffering injuries.
Juventus were on the road again (or airplane, to be precise) a mere four days later, this time traveling to Spain to face Atlético Madrid for Matchday 1 of the Champions League group phase. I’ve always considered it best to have the most difficult game on the first Matchday so, while nervous, I was secretly glad to get this game out of the way so early.
Atlético edged what was a cagey first half, with Portuguese wunderkind João Félix failing to convert the biggest chance in the 11th minute. However, the game really came to life in the second half. After making a brilliant run and receiving a trademark inch-perfect long ball from Bonucci on the break, Higuaín patiently waited for support in attack. Using Ronaldo’s run as a distraction, the Argentine then played the ball to Cuadrado arriving at the far post. The Colombian did a few quick stepovers before unleashing an unstoppable left footed shot into the top corner, with goalkeeper Jan Oblak rooted to the spot.
Juventus doubled the lead 20 minutes later through a Blaise Matuidi header (and amusing celebration), again on the counterattack. Just when we thought that victory in the toughest game of the group was guaranteed though, Atlético hit us with an unexpected one-two punch. Two set pieces in the final twenty minutes of the game, two goals for the home side, and immense disappointment for the Bianconeri. Stefan Savic and Héctor Herrera were the goalscorers (and heroes) for Diego Simeone’s team as a fascinating game in Madrid ended 2-2.
Back in the Serie A, Sarri’s team hosted Hellas Verona just a few days later. After falling behind in a calamitous 30-second spell that included a penalty conceded by Juventus, the subsequent penalty struck against the post, a shot against the crossbar from the rebound, and eventually a stunning Miguel Veloso volley to open the scoring, Juventini were wondering whether their unbeaten start to the season was about to come to an end (and how such a comical sequence of events could even happen).
Thankfully, Sarri’s men quickly responded to this adversity. Aaron Ramsey, making his first (home) start for Juventus, scored through a deflected equalizer in the 31st minute. Five minutes after halftime, Cristiano Ronaldo scored what proved to be the winner from the penalty spot in order to complete Juve’s comeback victory.
Juventus completed another comeback victory in the subsequent midweek game against Brescia. After falling behind in the fourth minute due to a rasping Alfredo Donnarumma shot (and poor goalkeeping from Wojciech Szczesny), Juve equalized through Jhon Chancellor’s own goal and then went ahead thanks to Miralem Pjanic’s stunning shot off a rebounded free kick.
Pjanic made it two stunning goals in two matches a few days later as he opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time against SPAL at the Allianz Stadium. Etrit Berisha’s world-class performance in goal for SPAL was not enough to keep out Juve’s second goal, a tidy Cristiano Ronaldo header after a wonderfully lofted Paulo Dybala cross: 2-0 for Juventus and a nice way to close the month.
Who needs fullbacks?
I never thought that I would live to see the day that Juan Cuadrado (right back) and Blaise Matuidi (left back) would be Juventus’ starting fullbacks. But such are the times, as management decided in the summer that having more than three recognized fullbacks on the roster was an unnecessary luxury. And so here we are with ... one fit recognized fullback (Alex Sandro) and a winger and central midfielder doubling as fullbacks. Necessity breeds invention, they say.
In all seriousness, though, Juventus has been forced to do some serious improvisation in defense. Given Sarri’s clear rejection of the idea of playing a back three as a way to solve this defensive challenge, it seems that this unorthodox workaround is here to stay for the time being. While this is all well and good against the likes of SPAL, I think that most of us are not particularly excited about a Matuidi-Cuadrado fullback solution against bigger teams in the future in the event that Sandro picks up an injury and/or suspension.
Exciting times await us!
Miralem Pjanic has been in sparkling form so far this season and has returned to doing what he does best: creative passing from deep and dictating the pace of Juventus’ build-up play. He capped his great run of form with two of Juve’s best goals so far this season against Brescia and SPAL, respectively.
Is Pjanic simply reaping the benefits of a nice summer vacation or the joys of playing for a new coach in Sarri? Who knows, but given that one of Juve’s key weaknesses is passing out of the back when under pressure, it’s good to see the man who is the solution to that problem in fantastic form.
Then there’s the comeback man himself: Gonzalo Higuaín. Many thought that his torrid 2018-19 season was likely to spell the end of his career, but he has delightfully proven us wrong. It’s almost like he never left the club as he has seamlessly fit in to Sarri’s team and even pushed Paulo Dybala to the bench. What a joy it is to see such a warrior playing so well and receiving the praise he thoroughly deserves.
But it’s not too much enjoyment elsewhere on the pitch. Summer signings Danilo and Matthijs de Ligt seem to be struggling to get used to life at Juventus, as the Brazilian (in particular) has looked uncomfortable playing for his new club. That said, I think we’ve all noticed just how fantastically Leonardo Bonucci has stepped up to fill the Giorgio Chiellini-sized
crater leadership void in defense since the latter’s long-term injury. This has been particularly important given the time that Danilo and de Ligt have needed to get used to their new team(mates).
Meanwhile, Alex Sandro has been quietly turning out excellent performances since the start of the season to unquestionably (re)claim the left back position of Juventus as his own. Then again, there’s not exactly much competition for it given that, you know, we only have three fullbacks...
Three is the magic number(?)
On 25 September 2019 the news officially broke that starting in the 2021-22 season, a third-tier UEFA club competition will be born: the UEFA Europa Conference League.
To avoid rehashing an entire article, I’ll direct you to this piece by ESPN that explains in detail everything you need to know about this new competition. While I haven’t researched it in much detail yet, my initial reaction to the news is one of extreme skepticism.
“The tournament’s stated aim is to broaden the number of nations and clubs represented in Europe’s top-tier competitions. Only 29% of UEFA’s constituent members are represented in the 2019/20 Champions League group stage, with 59.3% of those teams hailing from just five nations.”
First, I’m sure I’m not speaking out of line when I say that there is quite a saturation of football matches these days. Continental cup competitions, domestic leagues, domestic cups, International games and competitions, an expanded Club World Cup, (which, granted, will replace the Confederations Cup), an expanded World Cup, an expanded UEFA Euro competition, and on and on we go. Adding yet another competition to the collection diminishes the value of existing competitions in the same way that participation prizes shatter the value of trophies.
“Matches will be played on Thursdays, with kick-offs at both 5:45pm and 8pm. That means the tournament, as it stands, will clash with Europa League fixtures.”
On a similar note, FIFPro has already sounded the alarm on the excessive workload on and lack of recovery time for professional players between games. Hence, I wonder what this new competition will do to help or worsen this situation.
Of course, there is also the elephant in the room: money. Specifically, I can’t help but ask the most obvious question: Who benefits financially from this new competition?” Unsurprisingly, teams that regularly compete in the Champions League will be just fine and will probably barely bat an eyelid at this new development. Paradoxically though, it seems like the smaller clubs will be the losers in this arrangement:
“The main issue is that all teams from the leagues ranked below 15th in the UEFA coefficient (based on five-year performance in Europe) are now locked out of the Europa League. This season Malmo, Partizan Belgrade and Rangers came through qualifying to reach the group stage, but from 2021-22 teams from Sweden, Serbia and Scotland will have no route into the Europa League (other than dropping into it from Champions League qualifying).” (emphasis added)
Hence, in an attempt to grow the size of the pie so that more people can have a slice, UEFA is actually keeping the size of the slices the same for the big clubs and diminishing it for many other (smaller) clubs. The crucial point here is that the Europa League is being reduced from 48 to 32 teams (which I actually think is good thing; I always preferred the EL to mirror the CL as much as possible. I still don’t understand, for example, why the final is on played on a weekday) to compensate for the creation of the Europa Conference League (not a good thing).
This means that the middle-tier teams that previously had a decent chance of qualifying for the Europa League and getting a reasonable chunk of cash from it, now find it more difficult to qualify for it. While I do admit that this was a very rudimentary analysis of an idea that I’m not intimately familiar with, my gut reaction to UEFA’s latest toy is the following: