There was this extraordinarily brief moment sometime in early February when Juventus actually looked on the cusp of being good.
The Bianconeri had soundly defeated Napoli in the Supercoppa Italiana, and after a league loss to Inter in January, Andrea Pirlo’s side won six straight games including a couple clean sheets in Serie A and a tasty game of revenge against the Nerazzurri in the Coppa Italia. Most of us were still at least relatively suspicious of the results, but still: things were looking ... kind of promising.
Then, slowly, not all at once, but very emphatically all the same, the wheels began to fall off.
A league loss to Napoli was followed by a Champions League loss to Porto. From late February through early April the champions started to look like they’d lose that title, one they’d clung to for nearly a decade; there were points dropped Verona, Benevento, and Torino, and finally Pirlo’s side was knocked out of Europe.
Results, of course, are one thing. Sometimes results belie individual players playing well, or even a whole team playing well. This, though, was not one of those times — and it hasn’t been for some time. The team has looked poor to very bad to nearly unwatchable on the pitch, and the season has devolved to such a degree that the Old Lady is needing last-minute heroics (and luck in batches) to save just the hope of a Champions League spot. Yikes.
But as I’ve thought about these results the last few days, the thing that has struck me perhaps the most is the individual regression of a handful of players. So I decided to take stock of the stock of some (but not all) of the players as I see it. Let’s dig in.
Weston McKennie — Man, what happened to Aaron Ramsey 2.0? As will be the case with a lot of these players, there’s no way of knowing to what degree health played a role in the regression, but the American has not played well in quite a while.
How to improve: This year he’s looked most dangerous when playing closer to goal, so maybe the solution is to keep him central and forward instead of in the whole or on the flank. Beats me, but I miss seeing him crash the box as a shadow striker and wreaking havoc.
Arthur — They said he could hold onto the ball, but the tiny Brazilian isn’t even doing that these days. His distribution is uninspiring. He’s another player who got hit with some health issues along the way that might’ve disrupted his growth.
How to improve: The Brazilian might just need more consistent time on the pitch, or maybe that’s my rose-colored glasses.
Wojciech Szczęsny — The Polish keeper was lights out in the first half of the season, but he’s made some glaring mistakes over the last couple of months. I’m still of the opinion that pursuing Gianluigi Donnarumma is more than a little dumb, but Woj’s mistakes aren’t helping his cause.
How to improve: Just hold on. He’s a good keeper; I think bailing now is short-sighted.
Dejan Kulusevksi — One of the best things you could say about the Swede these days is that he never seems like the worst player out there; he just seems awkward and out of place, like a very talented eighth grader at a varsity practice or something. He still does some stuff that Federico Bernardeschi hasn’t done in a couple years — like the brilliant cross that Ronaldo should’ve converted against Fiorentina.
How to improve: No idea, to be honest. Part of me feels like it’s a system issue with Pirlo’s approach, and part of me feels like it’s natural for the youngster to still be finding his game.
Stock Sharply Down
Aaron Ramsey — Every time the Welshman steps on the field, he looks worse than the time before. And that’s saying something. It’s also somewhat insane to remember that there were a couple vintage Rambo performances in the first half of the season in which it felt like Pirlo might be able to unlock the talents of the former Arsenal man, but those days are long gone.
How to improve: Play Nicolo Fagioli instead; try Radu Drăgușin as an attacking midfielder.
Federico Bernardeschi — Apologies to the Wings of Fede crew, but is there anyone sane left who thinks that No. 33 should stay on this team because he can “play” a number of positions? How to improve: buy him a train ticket to Parma. Is there a world in which it makes any sense for Bernardeschi to stay?
Cristiano Ronaldo — One of my favorite things about this site is the belief among some members that there’s a widespread anti-CR7 conspiracy theory going on with the writers and moderators, which of course there isn’t, but the sensitivity to such a possibility seems telling and is certainly, if nothing else, amusing.
The postmortems will be written ad infinitum this summer or next, so I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole here, but I think for most of us who’ve been critical of Ronaldo there are many, many factors involved, and the bulk of the criticism, for me at least, has less to do with Ronaldo’s play as an individual — which to me has been good in his time here, no better and no worse — and more to do with his fit at the club and the way his entrance forced the club’s hand in other tactical and roster instances.
All that said, Ronaldo’s two goals against Udinese were huge. One came thanks to a monumental gaffe (c’mon, lighten up and take a joke!) thanks to Rodrigo de Paul sticking his elbow out, and one came courtesy of ...whatever happened at the far post with Simone Scuffet. Call it a goalie gaffe or a great goal from CR7, but you’d expect him to finish that, right? The best part of that sequence was Adrien Rabiot’s pass coupled with Ronaldo’s intelligent run. You’d certainly expect him to convert the PK.
In Serie A, Juventus have two very difficult games against Inter and Milan, one fairly difficult game against Sassuolo, and a game against Bologna which Pirlo’s team will probably make difficult. If Ronaldo is who he’s supposed to be, then he’ll do stuff that makes us all go, “Wow, nobody else in the world can do that.”
Over the course of the entire year, the only players who seem like they’ve improved and remained consistently good to great have been Federico Chiesa, Juan Cuadrado, and Danilo. CR7 leads the league in goals and that’s great, but attempting to define his season as up to his former standards or anything close to “consistent” feels like a stretch; some of that may not be his “fault” — however you want to define that — but it remains true, from my imperfect perspective at least. Obviously Chiesa, Cuadrado, and Danilo each have the occasional off game, but the vast majority of the time any one of those guys is playing he’s playing very well.
The results alone damn Pirlo’s brief tenure as a manager, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that the individual regression or non-incorporation of so many of these promising players is another. Sure, this is not a vintage set of players, and Max Allegri might struggle in his own right if he had such a group, but I struggle to imagine Mad Max or any top-level coaches failing to cultivate a group so much.
The one hope is somehow secure a Champions League spot and simply move on — preferably with someone who can help his players grow.