When Matthijs de Ligt descended out of the back four into the attacking third like Thor leaving Asgard for earth, slamming the ball out of Juan Musso’s reaching and commencing what Juventus fans hoped would be a parade for the club’s ninth-straight Scudetto, I was prepared to sport my rose-colored glasses.
Sure, the season had had its ups and downs. Sure, the Old Lady hadn’t won the Coppa Italia. And sure, the club’s Champions League chances were looking about as slim as the chances I harbored as a teenager to woo and wed Jennifer Garner, but a ninth straight Scudetto with a brand new manager and an in-transition roster was still something to write home about. There were signs of life here and there, even signs of a future, all despite the clunkiness and somewhat lifeless limp to the finish line.
Then Udinese pulled one back.
Then Udinese scored the finisher.
Delay the parade; leave the rose-colored glasses in the case.
What the rose-colored glasses would’ve looked like
The hopeful story went something like this: de Ligt.
As we all know and witnessed, the season began about as inauspiciously as possible for the Dutchman, whose hands flailed about — mostly thanks to repeatedly terrible luck — the penalty box like that giant octopus thing that attacked the fellowship of the ring right outside of the mines of Moria, accruing several hundred handballs last autumn (before COVID-19 ... how long ago does that seem?). He looked tentative in his possession, indecisive in his passing, and questionable in his positioning.
Fast forward to that thunderous strike that opened the scoring against Udinese, and it’s safe to say that de Ligt has not only become the player we thought he was going to become, but he’s also already become the player we hoped he would become two or three years down the line.
De Ligt has been Juve’s best player since the new year. Cristiano Ronaldo has been solid to good overall, but two years in — some of this isn’t his fault, given the managerial changes — he has failed to fluidly integrate into this side. Paulo Dybala has started to sparkle like the jewel he is, but the Argentine, too, has been plagued by inconsistency.
Nobody has been as consistent as de Ligt. Nobody has held together an entire unit the way de Ligt has. Think about this: over the last 10 months, the back four has depended on one of Juan Cuadrado, Danilo, or Mattia De Sciglio always being on the field. The Colombian is fantastic going forward, and he’s certainly been one of the better players this entire season, but as we saw once again vs. Udinese, he’s not the most solid guy defensively. Even old dependable Alex Sandro, one of the steadiest players on the roster, has dealt with an injury and has returned in less-than-optimal form; the Brazilian wasn’t even in the camera frame when Udinese leveled.
Here is my point: Cuadrado can do Cuadrado things in the final third because de Ligt is there. The defense has been more porous than the last few seasons, but it really hasn’t been as bad as exaggerated — only Antonio Conte’s Inter have allowed fewer goals. That’s because of de Ligt.
Hell, on top of it all, de Ligt has the fourth-most goals on this team behind Ronaldo, Dybala, and Gonzalo Higuain.
The 20-year-old is either the next great Bianconero or the sale in the next two to three years that bankrolls the complete rebuild project when this tattered vessel eventually sinks to the bottom of the ocean.
The reality of the situation
A more realistic look at the situation: Juventus have earned five of a possible 15 points against their last five opponents. They’ve blown so many leads I’ve started to lose count. They should’ve lost to Atalanta; they should’ve lost to Sassuolo; they did lose to Udinese. You have to go back years and years and years to find a Juve side that has allowed more goals than this one.
The most generous reading one could give of this game, in particular, was that Juve, secure in their knowledge that they had virtually secured the Scudetto already, came out lethargically against a team scrapping for every last point so as to assure avoiding relegation. The most damning you could give about this game was that it was the microcosm of the season: a vastly more talented, higher-paid Juventus side with CR7 in the starting lineup that had virtually no ideas in the final third.
The most generous reading you could give of the season is that a new manager with a very particular style of football found a way to win enough games and hoist the trophy — one of them, at least. The most damning reading you could give on this season is that the clock is ticking, management has very little idea what to do next, and this roster is a mismatched mishmash.
The parade will nonetheless come to Turin for another Scudetto. But this is a side that hasn’t gotten better over the course of the year, a side with faults outweighing strengths.
The time has come right now for the club to decide what to do about Maurizio Sarri. I have gone on the record all the way back since early February that I believe, Scudetto or not, the club should part ways with Sarri. I would normally insert a qualifying statement saying that if Sarri won the Champions League I would happily sign him on for the rest of his life, but the odds in that tournament are so bleak it’s not even worth mentioning.
Here’s how I ended that piece, and five-plus months later the same principle applies: the club either needs to double down or move on. Doubling down may take much longer than anybody here would like, and that also theoretically wastes the last two years of Ronaldo’s contract.
At the current “growth” rate of Sarriball, it’s going to take at least two additional years, plus a batch of different players, to get anywhere close to true change. This club does not have time for that. And instead of sticking by Sarri out of some strange sense of loyalty, management needs to cut losses when June arrives and they’re watching Liverpool and [insert opponent here] play in the Champions League final from their couch, and hire someone who’s going to truly maximize what the squad has without going to the very foundations.