The last couple of weeks have certainly been a rocky patch of form for Juventus. January has often been a time where the team has taken a bit of a bump. Heck, even during the Delneri year January was when Fabio Quagliarella got hurt and the season derailed.
But this season’s January struggles have been all the more jarring given the way the transfer window affected the fanbase’s expectations of the team. When Cristiano Ronaldo arrived many, if not most, fans expected Juve to sweep through the league and utterly annihilate most domestic opposition, only seeing serious challenges from the likes of Napoli, maybe Inter, and the Champions League. The team’s recent struggles only accentuate the fact that in spite of the fact that Juve have a nine-point league lead and currently hold the tiebreaker over Napoli, that expectation hasn’t been met all season long.
It feels like it’s been quite a while since the team’s been in a hole close to this bad, and a lot of people are wondering just how they’re going to get out of it. Massimiliano Allegri’s efforts to find a tactical solution will be important for sure, but the team’s inspiration will be just as important. And knowing that brings me back a few years.
It was Oct. 28, 2015. Juventus had just put in one of, if not the worst performance of what was then a four-year title run. A 20th-minute free kick from Nicola Sansone proved enough for Sassuolo to hand Juve their fourth loss in the season’s first 10 games. Giorgio Chiellini had been sent off in the 39th minute for a second bookable offense, and Mario Lemina had been very lucky to avoid a similar fate. The Bianconeri never seriously looked like they were going to equalize. The team had a record of 3-3-4, and sat in 12th place.
After the game, then-captain Gianluigi Buffon lit into his team: “Our first half display was unacceptable. If we’d been a provincial side, I might have been satisfied with the way we played over 50 minutes with 10 men. But given our objectives here at Juventus, we return home extremely disappointed ... It’s very simple, if you don’t win any of your 50/50s or aerial battles and you can’t string together three passes, then that’s no recipe for success.”
That speech, along with whatever else Buffon said and did over the next few days in training, had an effect. It didn’t look so at first in the team’s next game, a home derby against Torino three days later on Halloween. Paul Pogba had opened the scoring with a wondershot, but Cesare Bovo equalized in the second half and the game had settled into a drab cycle of Juve trying to get the ball into the box and Torino hitting it back out again. Then, with seconds left in stoppage time, Alex Sandro’s cross bounced off of Juan Cuadrado’s rear end and into the Torino net.
It was a moment that came to be known to my supporters club in New York as the Miracle Ass Goal (trademark pending), and it kicked off a run of form never before seen in Italian soccer. Over 26 games, including the Torino game, Juve won 25, including 15 straight. The last of those 15, a February tilt against Napoli at the J Stadium, saw Juve pass their rivals from the south for the league lead. The only blemish was a goalless draw in Bologna. By the time they finally lost another domestic game, they had already clinched the title.
For my money that interview, which also has its own name in my supporter’s club — the Sassuolo Address — was the standout moment of Buffon’s legendary tenure at the club, and certainly of his captaincy. It’s ironic that Juve are traveling to the Mapei Stadium at the moment when Buffon’s successor to the armband is confronting the first big test of his own captaincy.
There were no questions when Chiellini was elevated to the captaincy following Buffon’s emotional departure in May. Of the players on the roster, there is no one that symbolizes Juventus more. He has been part of the team’s leadership structure since 2010, and he’s still at the top of his game even at age 34. He is the unquestioned leader of this team, and it is now his responsibility to use that position to correct Juve’s form after what might be the worst stretch of their entire seven-year title run.
Juve’s form has been uneven all season, but since the international break ... whoo boy. In the space of a week Juve turned in their two worst performances in years against Lazio (the luckiest win ever) and Atalanta (an absolute whupping), then blew two two-goal leads in a 3-3 draw against Parma at home.
It’s times like this that the leadership of the captain is critical. It’s his job to inspire the team, the way Buffon did three years ago. So far, we haven’t seen him take the overt steps that Gigi did after that game against Sassuolo. He did call the team out for its first half performance against Lazio, but that interview wasn’t as stark as Buffon’s years ago, most likely due to the fact that Juve ended up winning the match. We haven’t heard anything from him after subsequent games. Perhaps that’s simply because he’s been injured, or maybe he’s decided to do his work behind closed doors. And he may have a reason to do just that.
Any captain needs other strong leaders to help spread his message, and that’s where Chiellini may have an even bigger challenge than Buffon did. Juve’s leadership structure has changed drastically in just the last 12 months. Buffon is gone. So is Claudio Marchisio. Leonardo Bonucci’s influence as a leader has waned after his sojourn to AC Milan. Andrea Barzagli barely played before an injury ruled him out long-term in December.
That leaves a lot of new blood in the captain’s hierarchy. Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic have worn the armband for the first time this year. Ronaldo’s name will certainly be bandied about here, but he’s still settling into his first year with the team. It’s probably best for him to lead by example in training and on the field before taking a more active locker room role in years to come. It’s guys like Dybala, Mandzukic or Miralem Pjanic — whose performance is still instrumental to the cohesiveness of the midfield — that must now step up and take their places as the additional leaders that Chiellini, Marchisio and Barzagli were when Buffon was captain. Nurturing that new generation of leaders had to have been on Chiellini’s mind when he became captain. Now, he needs their help more than ever to get the team back on track.
Chiellini’s abilities as a leader aren’t in doubt. His style may turn out different than Buffon’s in the past, but most fans will probably say they’re confident in him. What may make the difference in this difficult period as opposed to three years ago will be the leadership structure around him. It is down to the next generation of Bianconeri to step up and take their places at his side. The degree to which they do may determine how quickly Juventus can pull themselves out of the well as the Champions League looms.