Lost in the latter part of Juventus’ record-setting nine-year title run was the fact that the roster was on the downswing. Yes, a lot of fans noticed something — the decline in the midfield was so glaring it was impossible to ignore — but the streak’s veneer of invincibility and the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo still left a lot of fans with a sense of entitlement.
That is, until the last year and a half, when the Leaning Tower of Juve finally took on too much of a list and, unlike its heavily-restored real-life cousin in Pisa, toppled to the ground.
The problems that have been developing at Juventus were very similar to the ones that plagued the Pisan campanile. It was built on a foundation that proved shaky, and the initial attempts to shore it up turned out to be inefficient. The dynasty eventually finally collapsed, and so far the results of the 2021-22 season have shown a team with a distinct difficulty in picking themselves up again.
A turnaround is needed — and with the only way that’s happening is with some real change.
The good news is that some of the changes that are needed are readily apparent, and if they’re made in short order Juventus can, I think, bounce back rather quickly. We’ll touch on three changes that, if implemented quickly, can have a quickening effect on Juve’s efforts to build back to the way they were at the height of the streak. Will it create a similar run? Probably not. For one thing, Serie A has improved over the last few years. For another, that kind of streak is insanely hard to pull off — there’s a reason it was unprecedented in the Big Five leagues.
But if Juve are to get back to playing at a consistently high level, they would, I think, do well to do some of the things we’re going to touch on here.
Find a tactical identity — and stick to it
The game of musical managers Juventus has played in the last three seasons has done little to help matters as the team’s decline worsened. The beginning of it was perhaps the clearest of the earliest signs of what was going on. One of the things that prompted Massimiliano Allegri’s exit was his belief that the team was in urgent need of rebuilding—something that Andrea Agnelli was loathe to hear one year after breaking Juve’s financial system to sign Cristiano Ronaldo.
(Don’t worry, we’ll get to both of those latter men in a bit)
That wasn’t the only reason Allegri left. In truth his team had become a bit stale, and while he could still pull out the occasional masterpiece like the second leg against Atletico Madrid, for the most part he looked out of ideas with this group—perhaps another reason he wanted to renew the roster.
The two men that followed him, Maurizio Sarri and Andrea Pirlo, were as different from Allegri as could be. Rather than Allegri’s eternal pragmatism, both of those men had ideas as to how to control the game and take it to the opposition. Their systems were complex and, in the latter’s case, perhaps not even fully formed.
But the fact of the matter is they have systems. One of my biggest pet peeves about Allegri is that for all of his accomplishments, he is tactically amorphous, at times to a fault. In his first five years, he only finished a season using the same tactical shape he started it with in his final season. That made team building difficult, to say nothing of depriving the players that are there of a foundation on which to build. At the end of his first tenure, it felt a little like he was sending a bunch of professionals to play sandlot football, and that feeling has continued into this year.
Tactical flexibility is good. Very good, in fact. But when flexibility crosses the line into a complete lack of identity, it hurts the team, which is why in general I like the approaches of Sarri and Pirlo more than Allegri’s.
The best squads of the last 10-15 years, whether those be the Barcelonas of Pep Guardiola and his immediate successors, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, or every Bayern Munich team ever, had and have those core identities. For the last few years, Juve have been flapping in the wind in this regard. Part of that comes from the impatience shown by the front office, cycling through three coaches in as many seasons without giving them the opportunity to see out their projects. But angling back toward Allegri was, in my opinion, a step in the wrong direction — unless Allegri has a come-to-Jesus moment or is pressed from above to find that kind of identity and sticks to it.
I’m not agitating for another coaching change. There’s been enough turnover in the manager’s office already, and given Allegri’s monster contract the team can’t afford the dead money that would be on their books unless he were to find another gig. This has to come through Allegri himself, and hopefully the team will manage to find its feet and begin to discover just who they are.
Juventus’ record in utilizing young players has been appalling, and not just in the short term.
The list of players that have come up from the youth sector and made major contributions to the first team in recent memory is two lines long: Claudio Marchisio and Moise Kean — and even Kean had his two-year sojourn at Everton (and through them Paris Saint-Germain) before the team had to pay to get him back. Players that they didn’t completely develop themselves but had their hooks in from an early age have similarly been poorly utilized. Leonardo Spinazzola was loaned to what seems like the entirety of the lower divisions before finally being given a chance in Allegri’s final season — only to be dumped to Roma in a swap for Luca Pellegrini. The result has seen Spinazzola blossom into the best left-back in Serie A and a vital part of the national team, while Pellegrini has only played two games in a black-and-white shirt in two seasons and change. The argument between myself and Sergio as to whether or not Daniele Rugani was never good enough or had his growth stunted by repeatedly being blocked off the depth chart instead of given the chance to play and grow will likely be eternal.
Juventus has to be better in this area. For all Agnelli’s dreams to the contrary, Juventus isn’t going to be on the financial level of Europe’s top tier anytime soon. Finding useful pieces, either out of the academy at no cost or a young player poached from elsewhere for low cost, is going to be vital in order to be able to compete with those teams on a sporting level.
Obviously not every player that comes out of the academy is going to turn into Kylian Mbappe, nor will every team have a once-in-a-lifetime bumper crop like the La Masia graduates that fueled Guardiola’s Barca. But giving young players a chance to at least carve out a place as a solid contributor is going to be vital as Juve begin the long process of digging themselves out of the financial hole that has developed in the last two years.
There is an early chance to make up for this with three talented midfielders that the team controls. Nicolo Fagioli made a great impression in limited action under Pirlo a year ago, and is now on loan at Cremonese, while his teammate on the Under-23 team last year Filippo Ranocchia similarly impressed in preseason this summer before being shunted to Vicenza. Perhaps most promising of all is Nicolo Rovella, the 19-year-old Genoa product that Juventus signed in January for €18 million and loaned back to the Grifone. The results so far at the Marassi have been dire, but Rovella’s form has been excellent, leading to some questions as to whether or not Juve will recall him from his loan early.
All three midfielders were in the squad for the Italian U-21 national team on Friday when they took on Ireland. Ranocchia and Fagioli were unused subs, but Rovella played all 90 minutes and, according to SofaScore, was the second-best player on the pitch.
Juve have talented players in the ranks, but the way they handle them is often. This was exemplified before the Fiorentina game a week ago, when Allegri defended his plodding approach to youth development, insisting “Some might not agree with me. The players that emerge start in Serie C, go through Serie B and get to Serie A. Like 30 years ago.”
Except it isn’t 30 years ago, and to develop at the highest levels players have to play at the highest levels, as Roberto Mancini insisted in his own press conference that was also quoted in the same Football Italia blurb, saying “You can expect anything from youngsters. One may not be ready at the beginning, but in 6-10 months he can be good enough for the national team...They improve only by playing at a certain level, especially the young players.”
Allegri has made exceptions to his rule from time to time, like the one made for Kean three years ago, and it’s something he has to start doing more of, because finding diamonds for pennies is going to have to be a key part of Juve’s team-building for the foreseeable future. Young players need to be given the chance to flourish.
Change at the top
And here we come to the big one.
Juventus’ front office has lost the plot on this project, and major changes are needed.
But where does that change come from? Clearly a lot of the problems in this roster are the responsibility of Fabio Paratici, whose contract was allowed to expire this summer without being renewed. He was replaced by his deputy, Federico Cherubini, who certainly deserves the time to work on the team before people start clamoring for his job. The same goes with Maurizio Arrivabene, the newly installed team CEO. Vice President Pavel Nedved has come under a lot of criticism lately, but it’s hard to discern what he really actually does on the team other than be a public face and advise the president.
Which brings us to the aforementioned president.
If you happened to monitor my Twitter feed while I was away on paternity leave, you’ll have noticed a few tweets hashtagged #AgnelliOut. If you listen to The Old Lady Speaks regularly, you’ll know that I am firmly in this camp, and I have been for the better part of the year, since not long after the European Super League project went supernova.
It’s been a hard road to get to this point. Agnelli’s appointment as president in 2010 started slow with the dark year of Gigi Del Neri, but suddenly supercharged when he and Beppe Marotta hired Antonio Conte and started the streak. He was a huge factor in that rise.
But he has equally been the chief architect in the team’s decline. Juve was steadily growing over the course of the streak, but Agnelli got impatient. He wanted to punch with the biggest clubs on their level, and he didn’t want to wait anymore. Rather than listen to Marotta, the ultimate architect of the team that had reached such heights, he tried to skip the line with the acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo. The side effect was the departure of Marotta, who, according to most reports, wanted to continue building slowly by bringing in Federico Chiesa that year — and who eventually moved to arch-rivals Inter and built the team that ended the streak within a year and a half of his arrival.
That decision was the first in a series, including the revolving door in the manager’s office and ultimately the ill-fated Super League, that ranged from the impatient to the impulsive to the downright oblivious. The Ronaldo deal stretched the team’s finances to the breaking point, and while it’s impossible to blame him for not anticipating the most devastating global natural disaster in a century laying waste to the economy of the entire sport, COVID-19 proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Rather than put his energies into helping the team rebound, he instead threw himself into the Super League. That, of course, flamed out spectacularly. In the process he turned Juventus into a team at the forefront of the European club scene, whose president was chairman of the European Club Association and a seemingly deep friendship with the president of UEFA, into a pariah with absolutely no influence on how the game will move forward and the undying enmity of that same confederation president, who he had publicly and spectacularly stabbed in the back.
Along the way the Ronaldo experiment ended in an implosion, with Ronaldo waiting until the last days of the transfer window to demand an exit and put Juve in the worst position possible to force a move.
Frankly, Agnelli’s resignation right then and there wouldn’t have been out of line. The fact that he has spent the last six months continually recommitting Juve to the Super League and insisting that the project — which now only consists of three teams — is viable only exacerbates the problem. Had he spent that time actually addressing Juventus’ problems, the team might be in better shape.
Between the Super League, the flameout of the Ronaldo experiment, and the team dropping to lows it hadn’t seen since before his tenure started, Agnelli’s last six months can only be described as an epic fail on an epic scale. In most other business settings, a chief executive wouldn’t have survived this much failure. As much as he deserves his place in the club’s lore for the run he put the team on, he has derailed the project he started, and he needs to be held responsible for that. He should step down, and failing that, Exor chairman John Elkann should remove him. Who should replace him is, frankly, immaterial, although it might behoove those in charge of such a search to move outside the Exor bubble for a fresh perspective. But Agnelli’s performance the last few years has ended up being detrimental to the team, and his tenure as president needs to end.