At first glance, the 2019-20 version of Juventus looks a heck of a lot like the Juventus of the past several years: atop the Serie A table, in a good position in Champions League play (though not a prohibitive favorite), with very few cracks threatening any sort of serious damage to the Bianconeri hegemony on the peninsula.
But first glances can, of course, be deceiving, because there are many things that look quite different about this Juventus side.
First and foremost, the Cristiano Ronaldo honeymoon phase is officially over, no matter how you spin the situation. No. 7 is never exactly subtle about what he does, and his time in Turin has been turbulent indeed. The superstar with many hotels and underwear and cologne brands to his name is not in great form for his club, and he’s either a little banged up or totally healthy or maybe actually a little banged up.
Then there’s the fact that the Old Lady has a new coach in Maurizio Sarri whose new ideas could not have been different than the last coach, or the fact that the old guard is slowly but surely fading out of existence in the club, or the new shiny Dutch boy named Matthijs de Ligt.
To distill all of this — actually not “all,” because I’m going to leave the Ronaldo thing alone for the moment — I turn to a tried and true method of yore: the Landmarks of Turin Awards. We’ll check in with the awards periodically going forward, every international break or so.
Egyptian Museum Award
For the best player over 30 years old.
Juan Cuadrado wins this award and, even with Ronaldo on the team and some other pretty good dudes over 30, it wasn’t even that close.
The Colombian has been a menace on the right side of the pitch, and he’s patched an obvious hole that needed filling once João Cancelo left for the interminable grayness (in terms of weather, not the actual sporting) of Manchester City. Juve needed a creative force and someone who could keep the width in the right fullback position, a fact even truer now that Sarri has gravitated toward a 4-3-1-2 more often than not.
Great job, Juan. Keep it up.
Nietzsche’s Horse Award
For the player whose play demonstrated an insanity indicative of a serious decline in form.
Poor, poor Federico Bernardeschi. Like another player I’ll mention in the next section, he’s the victim of tactical circumstance. No. 33 has been in great form for the Italian national team, but on Sarri’s Juventus he looks ... lost. He’s not a No. 10, as hard as he might try and as much as we might want him to be, and we’re not really using right wingers any more at this juncture.
Bernardeschi doesn’t seem to possess the sheer lightning bug-ness of Douglas Costa, who’s another winger Sarri has placed in the No. 10 slot (although, to be fair, DC did play the role earlier in his career), so he’s just found it tough going in the black and white thus far.
The Shroud of Turin Award
For the player who was never really there.
Merih Demiral and Daniele Rugani have one league appearance apiece, as Leonardo Bonucci and de Ligt have shouldered the load to this point. If I were a betting man, I’d say that one of these two probably does become something of a factor in the near future, as Juve have already qualified to the knockout rounds in Champions League play and there are a lot of games to tackle over the next month — eight matches before Christmas, to be exact, including a date with Lazio in ... Saudi Arabia.
There’s another player who used to win this award frequently, but I just can’t seem to remember who it was!
Italian Cuisine Award
For the best collective unit, given different strengths.
The clamor among the pundits has been that the Juventus defense isn’t what it used to be, but I prefer to think that the name of the game this year is “bend but don’t break.”
The Bianconeri have allowed just nine goals in Serie A, a figure that leads the league and is three better than Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan, who have a pretty fearsome threesome of center backs. In European group play, Juventus and Atletico have each allowed four goals.
In other words, it’s not as if the dam is totally porous at the back. Things have actually been generally good, albeit bit shaky. But when you consider the many, many changes the defense has endured, the unit’s performance is all the more impressive.
The following things have threatened to destroy Juve’s defensive solidity:
- The defense’s best player, Giorgio Chiellini, tore his ACL — not great!
- Juve replaced a defensive mastermind of a coach, Max Allegri, with a guy not really known for that side of the pitch in Sarri.
- Juve sold Cancelo and replaced him with the inferior Danilo.
- Mattia De Sciglio has been dealing with injuries, and when he has played he hasn’t looked very good.
- Juve brought in de Ligt for a large sum and a huge salary.
Despite all these changes, they’ve stepped up to the plate (baseball reference, I apologize). Of course, it helps to have Wojciech Szczęsny and Gianluigi Buffon organizing the lines, as well as a midfield very accustomed to tracking back.
Giuseppe Garibaldi Award
For the most valuable man.
On the pitch, Juventus have not had a single standout player who, from my perspective, could be called the MVP to this point. Ronaldo leads the team in scoring but hasn’t been his usual self. Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala have both been excellent lately, but still aren’t wracking up MVP-caliber numbers. Cuadrado is a candidate, but I would get yelled at if I chose him.
So I’m going to go with the boss, Maurizio “I have to suck on a cigarette butt on the sideline” Sarri.
It’s not easy to coach at Juventus. The organization demands a lot in a lot of ways, and Sarri doesn’t exactly fit the normal bill for a Juve boss. He’s inherited a team still transitioning from an old guard to something new, and over the summer he was handed a very good but aging Ronaldo, a pair of out-of-form strikers in Dybala and Higuain, and a team used to playing a very tedious, pragmatic brand of calcio.
All he’s done is win (and tie a few times).
I think that no matter what happens this year, Sarri ought to be given a second year at the helm. OK, maybe if Juventus somehow crash to eighth place in Serie A and miss Champions League qualification we should sack him, but assuming the Old Lady finishes first or second in Serie A and advances at least one round into the Champions League knockout phase, I want Sarri here again next year.
His ideas and methods are so contrary, so at odds with Allegri’s I think it’s going to take at least one full cycle of football — and another transfer window for Sarri to have a little influence into who lands with the club — to really prove his philosophy. But this is Juventus, and the coach still needs to win in the meantime. He’s done it so far, and here’s to hoping he can do it a lot more.