After the Bianconeri dropped two points to Benevento over the weekend, I think it’s safe to say that the honeymoon between Juventus and Andrea Pirlo is officially over.
The Old Lady has taken 17 points from nine games, but three of those points came from the Napoli forfeit debacle. Pirlo’s side has now managed to draw traditional Serie A punching bags Crotone, Hellas Verona, and Benevento. Although most of us here realize how much more difficult Italy is domestically than it is given credit for abroad, the top-to-bottom talent on Pirlo’s side leaves no room for excuses; the starting lineup had the likes of Paulo Dybala, Matthijs de Ligt, Federico Chiesa, and every other high-salary earner while Benevento were forced to call on 38-year-old Christian Maggio when Luca Caldirola went down with an injury.
I feel like I’m watching the same movie I was a year ago: a step or two forward, a few steps back. There are promises of progress and plans coalescing, even a complete performance now and then, but everything good seems to be followed up by something worse.
So what is happening exactly? Is this a Maurizio Sarri redux? Here are two things that have me worried and one that (sort of) gives me hope.
1. With the old guard sidelined, where does the grinta come from?
I know this is the age of analytics and advanced statistics, so it’s sometimes difficult to make statements about intuition, reactions, and feel, but right now this team feels like it doesn’t care too much. Where is the urgency? Where is the desire? There’s very little to no killer instinct when Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci — even with all his defensive woes — and Cristiano Ronaldo are sitting on the bench. And I’m not sure where it’s supposed to come from. I hope de Ligt is able to become the player who drives this team when the veterans are sidelined, but whoever it is needs to step up sooner rather than later.
Juventus have won nine Scudettos (Scudetti, I guess) in a row because they’ve always had a fire at their backs. It didn’t matter that they had won and won and won — they only wanted to win more. But those scrappy, methodical, sometimes laborious victories we fans grew used to seeing aren’t victories anymore; they’re draws, losses, slogs. Juve came close to putting a second goal away against Benevento but it never happened, and once the opposition equalized there didn’t seem like any real spark.
That’s maybe the most concerning part for me right now: the Bianconeri don’t look filled with grinta from the start, and they also don’t look filled with grinta when their backs are against the wall.
2. The Paulo Dybala situation has no resolution in sight
Juve had at least two very solid chances to put away Benevento: the Morata header from a lovely Chiesa pass — which would’ve given the youngster two assists on the day — and La Joya’s miss from the top of the box, a somewhat simple (relatively speaking for the Argentinian) finish that needed just a bit of curl to tuck in perfectly at the bottom of the net. But the shot was flat, flubbed wide.
I wrote not too long ago that an angry Dybala would be a good thing for Juve; we’ve seen Dybala hit poor runs of form, and we’ve seen him come out of those poor runs. Right now, though, not only is there no end in sight, but every minute you have Dybala on the field is a minute you’re robbing from someone who’s playing better and contributing more. Morata’s divine streak continues; Dejan Kulusevski has cooled a little bit but still seems more dangerous every time he touches the ball; Chiesa is coming alive; Ronaldo remains the center that holds the team together.
I’m not sure what the actual “solution” is with No. 10. I wrote about this question nearly a month ago and was told by many that I was being “premature.” That we just needed to wait and see. But with every passing game I’m not entirely sure there is a solution that doesn’t involve a breakup; don’t forget the allegedly ongoing contract negotiations from Dybala’s camp as he supposedly seeks a substantial raise.
If Fabio Paratici found a suitable buyer at a reasonable price for Dybala in January, maybe that’s the right way to go barring some sort of massive turnaround. A significant addition to the midfield would go a long way.
I love Dybala. I have two of his jerseys, one of them signed. He’s been my favorite player for some time. But this situation is not good.
3. Adrien Rabiot’s evolution continues
For all the lingering wonky midfield issues — formation, personnel, distribution, pecking order, pairing, Sami Khedira — one thing has stayed true over the last six or so months: Rabiot continues to grow and grow. The Frenchman is far and away the most complete midfielder in Pirlo’s side right now, the sort of driving force who probably would’ve shined under Max Allegri. Nobody in the Juve midfield holds the ball like Rabiot, nobody covers ground like Rabiot, nobody makes runs like Rabiot, nobody lacks a discernable weakness like Rabiot. He’s still just 25 years old and will surely continue to get better.
The issue, of course, is finding Rabiot’s partner. Weston McKennie is almost a Rabiot-lite — a box-to-box midfielder who finds intelligent spaces to run into. But everything McKennie does well Rabiot does better, and Rabiot’s technical abilities and decision-making are at least a couple levels above the American. Arthur has been Pirlo’s choice as of late, and the two certainly compliment each other well on paper, but the Brazilian bungled a clearance yesterday that led to Benevento’s equalizer and has struggled to be anything more than a waypoint to Juan Cuadrado. And Rodrigo Bentancur simply hasn’t seen many minutes under Pirlo.
All you have to do is look around at the league to see that Juve aren’t the only heavy hitter having problems. Atalanta’s recent results are absolutely confounding. Lazio just dropped a 3-1 result to Udinese. Inter are playing well domestically but are nose-diving in the Champions League. The Juventus difference in years past, though, has been that no matter who prowls the sidelines, no matter who trots out onto the field for the opening whistle, this has been a club of winners and champions.
Right now there aren’t a lot of wins, and the days of crowns might soon be over.