Three summers ago, when Cristiano Ronaldo’s plane touched down at Caselle Airport in Turin, great dreams were dancing in the heads of Juventini everywhere. Dreams of Ronaldo scoring the decisive goal in a Champions League final, and Giorgio Chiellini raising the Cup With the Big Ears over his head, wrapped in black-and-white ribbons for the first time in a quarter of a century.
Coming up on three seasons since those heady days, the image of reality is very different from the dreams. An image of Ronaldo bailing out of the wall on the decisive play of a stage of the Champions League far earlier than the final, against a team that even a Juventus in the midst of rebuilding themselves should’ve beaten — the third such team to take the Bianconeri down in each of Ronaldo’s three seasons.
Signing Ronaldo was a bold move, a risk that for many at the time seemed worth taking. But taking stock of the last three seasons, it’s clear that that risk never paid off. In fact, it’s left the team far worse off than when this whole exercise began.
Now, before everyone starts reaching for the hilts of their respective swords, let me reiterate that, just as in the last time I addressed this subject, what I am about to say has nothing to do with Ronaldo’s on-field performance. On the whole, that has been pretty well exceptional over the past three years, his two performances against Porto in the past month aside.
But his individual performance is not the only barometer for the success of the experiment as a whole, and now it’s time to admit it: the Ronaldo experiment has failed. Not only that, it has to end — now.
The reasoning for signing Ronaldo was twofold. On the field, he was meant to be the final piece to win the Champions League. Off the field, he was a tool to build the brand and put the team in position to be able to punch financially with Europe’s 1A money powers like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, and anyone who has an oil sheikh or Russian mineral magnate as a backer.
The jury is still out on whether the latter will be accomplished. It’s the type of thing that will take time to figure out — although, as you might remember from the piece I linked above, I’m not particularly bullish about its chances, given the extraordinary nature of Ronaldo’s fan base, which follows him as opposed to any club he plays for.
But it’s the former that takes precedence in the here and now, and that has been a stark failure. It’s clear that the club was not one Ronaldo away from winning the Champions League in 2018. The teams that had made two finals in the four seasons prior to Ronaldo’s arrival were the culmination of several years of development by Beppe Marotta, with well-put-together rosters that worked and fit together as a unit. But the cracks were already beginning to show. The midfield was deteriorating rapidly. The breakup of the MVPP midfield was never adequately addressed. The signing of Sami Khedira — before his body began to betray him — and the tactical nous of Massimiliano Allegri papered over the cracks for a while, but by the time Ronaldo arrived the decline was evident. Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba in particular had not — have not — been adequately replaced.
Despite a few signings over the last few transfer windows that look like long-term pieces of the puzzle — Matthijs de Ligt, Federico Chiesa, and Weston McKennie come to mind — this is still a team with some serious flaws. Serious ... and expensive.
Expensive enough that, unless the team gets out from under Ronaldo financially, it’s hard to imagine that those flaws will be adequately addressed.
Just how much Ronaldo makes varies ever so slightly depending on the source you read, but at the time of his transfer Forbes put it at €30 million after taxes. Factor in the tax rates and his gross salary, that comes out to just north of €54 million. That’s a monstrous number, enough that it outstrips the next three men Juve’s wage list combined. In a pre-pandemic economy, that strained the club’s finances to the limit. In a pandemic economy, one in which Juve posted a loss of €113.7 million in just the first half of the current fiscal year, it’s unsustainable. And it’s not like they’re going to get help from above, either. Juve’s parent company, the giant Agnelli family holding company Exor, lost €1.32 billion over the first half of the 2020 calendar year, with the net value of its assets falling by nearly €5 billion. That’s to say nothing of how the pandemic might affect Juve’s sponsors, and how that in turn will affect their relationship with the club, which Exor noted in its 2020 half-year financial report (that particular tidbit is on page 46 of the report).
The situation is pretty clear: Without their usual revenue streams because of the pandemic, the club is hemorrhaging money. Business Daddy isn’t exactly in a position to increase their allowance, and it’s unclear whether their sponsorship and broadcast deals will end up altered due to the pandemic. In this environment, Ronaldo is a financial millstone around the team’s neck. So long as he’s on the wage bill, the team will have to either resort to the kind of creative accounting that made this summer’s deals for the likes of Chiesa and Alvaro Morata possible, or simply forgo higher-level targets and hope that internal options and a diamond in the rough or two from outside can bring the team to the next level.
The club certainly has other players it can offload to free up money. Aaron Ramsey comes to mind, and unless Federico Bernardeschi’s foray into becoming a fullback becomes part of Andrea Pirlo’s project he’s likely ticketed to leave as well. Paulo Dybala could fetch something, but he’s at a low point in his value after a season lost to injury and illness.
But trying to make moves to free up money around Ronaldo would be like bandaging a hangnail while the patient is bleeding out their jugular vein. Trying to sell around him while keeping him on the books might give Juve the leeway to make one upgrade this summer. But the team needs more than just one thing — to say nothing of the fact that Fabio Paratici has not exactly proven himself when it comes to selling dead weight on the roster.
The situation is similar to when Juve sold Zinedine Zidane to Real Madrid in 2001. While he certainly won’t set a record for transfer fees, the money they do get plus what’s freed up via getting his salary off the books (itself the equivalent of an above average player’s transfer fee) in addition to dead weight like Ramsey and Daniele Rugani will give Juve enough of a war chest to address multiple roster holes in the coming window. While his Instagram following may end up elsewhere — which, let’s be real, is going to happen regardless of when or how he leaves the team — the team as a whole could very well benefit from having the money freed to, for example, make a dual run at the likes of Manuel Locatelli and Houssem Aouar and give the midfield the true upgrade it’s been looking for since Vidal left.
There’s also one further issue, which pertains to tactics. After Juve’s elimination at the hands of Ajax two years ago, Andrea Agnelli made the decision to move on from Allegri and pivot toward a more entertaining, “modern” style of football, first with Maurizio Sarri and now with Pirlo. For all his excellence on the field, Ronaldo is a poor fit to those kinds passing-based of systems. He’s an attacking vortex, and when the ball gets to him it has a tendency not to come back out again. Making him the focal point of such a system would be like putting an isolation player like Carmelo Anthony in his prime into the Golden State Warriors during their peak in the middle of the last decade. It’s simply not a fit, and if Agnelli wants the team to play a certain way, it’s best not to hamstring any coach by forcing him to build around a cog that doesn’t fit into his machine.
Agnelli’s decision to go after Ronaldo three summers ago was a bold gamble, but it was an ill-advised one that has not brought the desired result. Rather than sink even more money into a failed attempt, it’s time to cut bait, use the money to plug other holes, and truly commit to the new style of play with the players required to do it. Otherwise, the club runs the risk of this type of season becoming all too normal.