We all knew it was coming. Maurizio Sarri lamented after last month’s friendly against Atletico Madrid that the squad was too big, and that without any sales Juventus would have to leave up to six players off the 23-man roster for the UEFA Champions League group stage.
No sales came. Daniele Rugani was probably on his way out the door before Giorgio Chiellini tore his ACL in training last Friday, but that unfortunate injury turned him into required depth. Other players rejected the team’s attempts to move them on, notably Paulo Dybala, Blaise Matuidi, and Sami Khedira.
At the beginning of preseason training, Khedira was considered by many to be a spent force, while Matuidi, though possessed of a remarkable engine, was thought to lack the finesse required to be an effective element in Sarrismo. But those two players have rather improbably worked their way into Sarri’s plans, much to the detriment of Emre Can, who was one of two high-profile, non-injury omissions from Juventus’ Champions League group stage squad that was released on Tuesday (Mario Mandzukic was the other). The midfielder, who is currently on international duty with the German national team, told Bild that he was “angry and upset” and that he had rejected an approach from PSG understanding that he would play in the Champions League. Cooler heads prevailed a few hours later and he posted an apology on social media, but the incident brought a lot of issues to the fore.
Out of respect to Juventus and my team mates, whose success has always been my first priority, I won’t say anything more and will continue fighting on the pitch.— Emre Can (@emrecan_) September 4, 2019
The first concerns the recently-closed transfer window as a whole, and what it might mean moving forward. The second is a bit more existential, and concerns the culture of the club as a whole.
The practical matter is that, for all the upgrades Juventus have made this summer — injecting much-needed youth into the defense and much-needed quality in midfield — sporting director Fabio Paratici, in his first summer transfer window since taking over for Beppe Marotta, utterly failed to combine that with the reciprocal sales that would trim both the squad and the wage bill. The contrast with his old boss, now at arch-rival Inter, is pretty stark. Marotta managed to offload Joao Mario, who had been surplus to requirements for two years, on a loan to Zenit with an option to buy for €18 million. Then he managed to finally push Mauro Icardi out the door on a similar arrangement with a €70 million option — half what he was probably worth two years ago, but more than any of the figures in the rumors connecting him to Juventus this summer and more than you would think they would get given Inter’s lack of leverage in the situation.
Sometimes, the student doesn’t manage to surpass the master. One transfer window is too small a sample size to say that about Paratici for sure, but after a bright start to the window, things stagnated after the deal for Matthijs de Ligt was sealed, and Paratici wasn’t able to seal the transfers out he needed to to cut the extra weight. That’s something he’ll have to do better in future windows.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily a problem that is exclusive to Juve. When you start playing at the financial levels that Juve are beginning to hit, salaries sometimes become too big to effectively move. Just look at Real Madrid, who I’m sure would have liked to have seen the back of both James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale this summer, but ended up starting the season with both of them on their roster. While it’s not the kind of thing we’re used to, it could, in a really weird way, be a sign that Andrea Agnelli’s dream — to punch at the weight of the financial giants of Europe rather than just below them — might actually be coming to fruition.
That leads us neatly into the second issue. As Agnelli has maneuvered the club toward dreamed-of parity with the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid, steps have been taken to expand the club’s brand. That has included measures such as the revamping of the badge, raising ticket prices, the departure of promising young players like Moise Kean, and an approach toward players that has been somewhat callus in cases. Last year’s unceremonious departure of Claudio Marchisio was one such instance, as was this year’s incredibly public attempt to force Dybala to Manchester United or Tottenham Hotspur before the English transfer deadline, which certainly didn’t match up with Marotta’s old philosophy of “a player only leaves if he wants to.”
This has all led to many fans to subscribe to the opinion that the club’s ethos, what makes Juventinita what it is, has been eroded in favor of the bottom line. Can’s initial claim that he was blindsided by his Champions League exclusion seemed at first to underscore this notion, though some reporting now says that that wasn’t the case and that he and his agent have known about this possibility for a while now.
But Can’s outburst — something that hasn’t been common amongst Juve players—seems to me to show that Juve’s identity hasn’t changed as much as some people think.
Take, for instance, Dybala. He has more reason to be angry with this club than any player in recent memory for the way he was treated in July and early August. And yet, he never stated any displeasure publicly, and then when he scored his first goal of preseason against Triestina he eschewed his traditional goal celebration and patted the badge instead.
While annoying, the fact is that the majority of the failures to sell players came from the fact that they didn’t want to leave. While the size of their salaries would certainly factor into that attitude, there does also seem to be a genuine desire to remain in a lot of the players. It’s hard to forget how obviously devastated Gonzalo Higuain was to be forced out on loan in an effort to reduce the wage bill after Cristiano Ronaldo was signed last year. The effort he put in to force his way back into the team’s plans this year is obvious. The same goes for Matuidi, who during warmups for the Napoli game over the weekend was spotted off to the side working on one-touch passing while the rest of the team was doing other drills. Matuidi is 32 years old and has won a World Cup, but he is putting in extra training to address his biggest weakness in order to keep himself in the team’s plans. That usually doesn’t happen if you’re not invested in the club you play for.
I’m not saying that everything Juve has done as the Agnelli brand-building blitz has been 100-percent good — especially in some fan-relations matters. But the idea that Juventinita is dead or dying is, at least from how I read many of these players, not as true as some doomsayers make it out to be. Call me an idealist, but I firmly believe that however different the club might look by the end of Agnelli’s quest to become the best, it will still, at its core, be the Juventus we know it to be.