I remember the 2017 Champions League final like it was yesterday.
Packed like sweltering sardines in a downtown Austin bar, the significantly fewer Juventus fans in the crowd hoped that our club would defy expectations. The opening 20 minutes of play were promising, with a couple of decent chances from Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic, but then Cristiano Ronaldo struck against the early run of play to send Real Madrid to a 1-0 lead.
For the remaining 70 minutes, outside of a miraculous goal from Mario Mandzukic, the Bianconeri looked outmatched, outmuscled, and outmanned. Indeed, Zinedine Zidane was able to deploy Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, and Alvaro Morata from the bench while Massimiliano Allegri brought on Juan Cuadrado, Claudio Marchisio, and, really, Mario Lemina, a player who’s struggling to find a spot on lower-table Premier League teams.
The Old Lady’s reign is over, and her downfall is not Andrea Pirlo’s fault, nor is it Ronaldo’s fault, nor Maurizio Sarri’s, nor Allegri’s, and it has not occurred merely in the last 12 months. The club has been managed poorly, haphazardly, and inconsistently.
With the Scudetto already lost, Pirlo’s Juventus are on the verge of not only relinquishing the Serie A title, but realizing relegation to the Europa League in what would be an enormous blow to the bank account in addition to some unplanned roster reconstruction (on a severely limited budget) over the summer.
This downfall has been years in the making.
Where it started is where we remain
The other day I remarked on one of the comment threads that I’ve been writing midfield columns for years, and it’s true. In 2018, back when I was writing more recap pieces than columns, I noted in a piece about Miralem Pjanic that the midfield was “the unit with problems,” and it was probably true before that. I didn’t look up every midfield-focused piece since then, but there have been more than a handful. Looking back once again to the 2017 Champions League final, a Pjanic-Sami Khedira double pivot was tasked with confronting the Real Madrid trio of Casemiro, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos.
The following season, Pjanic remained the best player in the center of the park. The Khedira jokes began in earnest, and it was obvious even then that his best days were behind him — pretty far behind him. Blaise Matuidi brought some reliability to the unit, but Stefano Sturaro, a young Rodrigo Bentancur, and an aging, injury-plagued Claudio Marchisio didn’t really combine to make one of the world’s best midfields, or even a solid midfield against top competition.
In the summer of 2018, the midfield was in a precarious state but not yet broken — precisely the time to address it. Instead, the club bought Cristiano Ronaldo.
Let’s talk about the CR7 transfer
The club added an iconic attacker when the attack was humming along just fine. In 2017-18, the Old Lady scored 86 goals; a year later with CR7, that number dropped to 70 — a pretty substantial difference. The number dropped to 70 at the same time that goals allowed rose from 24 to 30.
Was Ronaldo the sole reason for this? No. Was Ronaldo the main reason for this? No.
But, looking back, I struggle to understand how it’s not crystal clear that Andrea Agnelli and Fabio Paratici engineered a move for Ronaldo not out of any coherent tactical sense of what was going on with the club, or where the club was headed, but because they wanted to get one of the world’s best-ever players in black and white.
Although I personally think it was a mistake, a rather big one, to acquire Ronaldo, I’m also somewhat more amenable to the argument that maybe, for a business like Juventus, the move was a longer-time investment that didn’t actually have much to do with sporting in the first place. In other words, even if the club struggled on the pitch because (or in spite) of the transfer, the long-term effect of having Ronaldo don the jersey, results be damned, might expand the commercial reach — and the revenues — of the club to such a degree that the greater financial powers might yield, eventually, a better roster.
That’s the line of thinking, anyway.
But when Juventus brought in Ronaldo, whether or not you think it was a good move (tactically or commercially), what is unequivocally true in my opinion — and if you disagree, I’d be interested to hear a different perspective — is that the attacking unit was the unit with the least problems and worries besides the goalkeepers.
After the CR7 investment, there was really not a lot that could be done about the midfield. The 2018-19 rendition of that unit was the one with a million question marks and about three answers. Emre Can was horribly inconsistent, Bentancur had moments but struggled with inconsistency as well, and Matuidi did the things he did but not much else. At the end of the day, the club hasn’t had a great midfield since the 2014-15 season, one with Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Marchisio, and Arturo Vidal.
But the midfield wasn’t the only one that suffered. In 2017-18, the center backs were aging fast and the fullbacks had one (at the time) world-class player in Alex Sandro; Cuadrado hadn’t yet spent a lot of time on the back line. Both of these units needed a lot more investment than the attack, yet that’s not the route the club took.
None of this is to say that these units would all be respectively resolved if Ronaldo had not arrived — although I’m sure this is what a lot of people might hear. The club could’ve made some sort of alternative mistaken investment, or it could’ve just neglected things or gambled on the wrong players as occasionally for every club at some point or other.
The fact remains, though, that the same cracks that existed in the 2017 Champions League final — an iffy midfield, an aging roster — are true of this team today. The heavy investment into Cristiano Ronaldo, the subsequent struggles in the Champions League, and the managerial merry-go-round have all contributed to the reality of the current situation.
The worst news of all might be that, even if Juve somehow reclaim a Champions League spot, there are about 10 questions for every answer right now.