For the first time in a decade, Juventus are not going to be crowned champions of Italy.
The inauspicious ending to the calendar year against Fiorentina was far from an aberration — it was, it seems, par for the course for a side that could be described as “erratic” at best and “practically dysfunctional” at worst.
There are too many issues for this team to overcome en route to a historic 10th Scudetto. The roster remains a mess, a slipshod composition with glaring holes in every unit, and even past the squad and tactical concerns, nearly everything that could go wrong for Juventus outside their control is going wrong.
Andrea Pirlo’s first season in management is going to end with history — and not the good kind.
A roster with more holes than Swiss cheese
Everybody knows I love Weston McKennie. As an American and as a Texan, I have loved every single minute of watching him decimate build-up play, make incisive runs timer to perfection, and flick passes as tasty as Christmas dinner into the paths of his teammates.
In a way, though, there’s something disheartening about McKennie’s success, not for what it means for him but because of what it means about the continued development (or lack thereof) of guys like Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot, as well as the suitability of the Arthur acquisition. The midfield, alas, still has problems. I’m not going to write the 300th column diagnosing those problems, but we all know they’re there.
But as the season goes on, it feels like the midfield is no longer the only (or even the main?) unit with question marks.
Think about, if you dare face the darkest imaginable fears, Matthijs de Ligt going down with an injury. With Leonardo Bonucci’s current form, Giorgio Chiellini’s age and brittleness, and Merih Demiral’s inexperience (and he’s also dealt with multiple significant injuries), the center backs unit is hanging on by a thread. Once again, the Fiorentina game was an exhibit of the obvious.
Juan Cuadrado has been right wingback No. 1, playing a big minutes load and consistently on the team sheet, but he and Alex Sandro — who has also been used in that hybrid left center back spot with some freedom to move forward — are really the only actual fullbacks on the team, and Johnny Square is a converted winger, after all. As much as Pirlo wants them to be, Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Chiesa are not wingbacks.
As far as attackers go, Cristiano Ronaldo has been scoring goals but up and down in form and fit as far as this tactical setup goes. Alvaro Morata has looked great but can’t play 90 minutes every single time out; we are in desperate need of a backup striker. And Paulo Dybala is all kind of out of sorts, and I’m not sure if it’s something going on with him, or if Pirlo’s system is to blame, or if La Joya is still struggling with fitness, or what.
I feel good in net, and that’s about it.
The real kicker: everything else
In some ways, the issues above, which are probably the most “serious” issues facing the club right now, would appear surmountable in a normal year. We’ve seen Juventus time and time again overcome bad starts and weird roster combinations to still come out victorious at the end of the day. Just last year, in fact, Maurizio Sarri was clunkily implementing his system with largely the same roster and managed to lift the trophy. The element that was missing was an opponent who truly seized the day; although Sarri’s side only finished one point above Inter, the Scudetto had been fairly secure for some time before that.
In the first half of this campaign, though, almost literally everything has gone wrong for Juventus in addition to the team makeup concerns.
First, on the pitch, the Bianconeri are catching very few lucky breaks themselves, and are watching their opponents get luckier than high school Brad Pitt after prom night. Take the Fiorentina game, for instance, when Borja Valero should’ve been issued a yellow card in the second half, when the game was still tied, a single decision that very well could’ve meant the difference between three points and zero (not even to mention the non-call on the Ronaldo penalty).
Second, this team repeatedly shoots itself in the foot. Whether defensive gaffes against the run of play or red cards (or both), it feels like there’s always something the Old Lady does to herself that stands in the way of victory.
Third, injuries. They happen to everybody, but Juve have been hit particularly bad on defense with de Ligt at the beginning of the season followed by Chiellini, Sandro, and Demiral; Aaron Ramsey spends more time in J-Medical than I do at the Weston McKennie fan store and even Arthur has decided to get in on the fun.
Fourth, dealing with all of these problems is a brand-new manager. As much as Pirlo looks and feels the part, as natural as he is on the sideline observing the game, as not-weird as this all feels with Mr. Beardy, he’s still new and he’s still going to make newbie mistakes. In a season unlike any other for a variety of reasons, that’s kind of frightening.
For the first time in what seems like a long time, maybe besides Sarri’s Napoli, there are real-life challengers. Milan have a combination of youth and talent and something magical about them as they tear through their opponents. Inter have a gritty Antonio Conte at the helm and a lot of talent themselves. Neither side is as deep as Juventus, but Milan only have the Europa League and Inter are already done with European football. Both sides are going to prioritize the Scudetto.
I might be wrong; I hope I’m wrong; in five months I very well could be wrong. But those worries we all started experiencing back in September and October — when the Bianconeri drew Crotone and Verona and then were blanked by Barcelona — have not, for me at least, subsided. Every time I start to feel like Juve are getting better, they hopscotch backward five or seven steps.
January is going to be brutal. With eight games in less than 30 days including league fixtures against AC Milan and Inter Milan, the first month of the New Year won’t be the month Pirlo’s side could regain control of the Scudetto — even if they nearly run the table — but it might very well be the month they lose it.