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Manu’s Grab Bag: Good Times

We talk poor showings, square pegs in round holes and a start to the season to forget.

Juventus v Empoli FC - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

As the final whistle blew Saturday night and it was confirmed that Empoli had beaten Juventus 1-0 at the Allianz Stadium — for the first time ever! — I’d bet that Andrea Pirlo took a long sip of some nice wine and had a pretty nice evening.

And as Maurizio Sarri and his Lazio squad were busy putting on a bow on a 6-1 thrashing of Spezia, I have to assume that once he found the result of his former employer he had himself a celebratory smoke.

Turns out that the streak of bad results for the Bianconeri has not magically stopped because it's technically a new season and under a new manager. Perhaps the badness was inside them the whole time! They only needed to believe!

I’ve always been of the idea that an international break right after the season starts is dumb, counterproductive and should be done away with. However, given that Juventus has now all of one point in two games and is already looking up at the top of the table in Serie A, perhaps a break is not all that bad.

Let’s cook.

LVP: Danilo

He played really bad, don’t get me wrong, but the Brazilian gets this nod not just because of his poor play but also because he was the clearest example of everything that was wrong with the team against the recently-promoted (!!!) side from Tuscany.

Last year, Danilo was one of the few pleasant surprises for Juventus. He was durable and adaptable as he saw time in his natural spot as a fullback, defending as a center back and even a few appearances in midfield in Andrea Pirlo’s position-less system. He was never a world beater, but he was consistently above average wherever he was deployed. In a season in which you couldn't say that about a lot of players, he did his job.

On the surface, Max Allegri trying him out as a defensive midfielder is not the worst idea. With Aaron Ramsey out and Manuel Locatelli apparently still not ready to go from the start, the concept wasn’t completely meritless. With that being said, it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to work.

Danilo was consistently in the wrong spot defensively and very rarely if ever helped with the play build up as the Juventus attack was completely disjointed and resorted to hoping that either Paulo Dybala or Federico Chiesa had a spark of brilliance to score.

This was one of the many, many baffling squad decisions that Allegri made in his first home game as a manager — we’ll get to the rest of them in a second — but Danilo gets the nod because he was the one player that did not get subbed out despite clearly being over his head, flailing around for 90 minutes plus of sheer incompetence.

MVP Season Leader: Paulo Dybala (1 Point)

A Position to Fail

In the closing scene of the 2010 film “The Social Network,” the fictionalized version of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — played by Jesse Eisenberg — is having a conversation with one of the lawyers handling his case, played by Rashida Jones.

The lawyer has been hearing for hours on end that all the evidence pointing to Zuckerberg maybe not being the most upstanding guy ever and as their conversation draws to an end, she makes a brutal, yet fairly objective remark about the character:

I’m going to paraphrase a bit here, but: Juve? You’re not a bad team, you're just trying so hard to be one.

When Allegri was appointed as manager a few months back, the one thing that most people pointed at as one of his best skills was his ability to put guys in the best position to succeed. It was an ability that he showed time and time again during his first stint with the Bianconeri. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from his indefensible team management during Saturday night’s game. Weston McKennie started as an attacking midfielder and was completely anonymous before being subbed out at the half. McKennie has a lot of positive attributes, but you are not going to confuse him with a trequartista any time soon, so trying him out as the link between the midfield and the attack took everything he does poorly and accentuated it.

Paulo Dybala showed out last week when paired with a natural striker. This has been the case for pretty much his entire career, yet Allegri fielded him with no support and he looked lost for most of the game without a point of reference. Federico Chiesa — more on him later — and Juan Cuadrado sent cross after cross to the box, despite the fact that the team had no players that could be an aerial threat. Once Alvaro Morata came in for McKennie to start the second half, the attack and Dybala slightly improved, and for a second it looked like the team might turn a corner.

Ten minutes after the restart, however, Allegri subbed out Adrien Rabiot — who had a lackluster game, to be fair — for Federico Bernardeschi, who continues to be completely ineffective as a midfielder but could theoretically pack a bigger offensive punch. That was the last half defensible move that Allegri would make, as his next moves were to bring in Manuel Locatelli for Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski for Chiesa.

Chiesa was far and a way the best player on the team, to sub him out down a goal was unexplainable and while Locatelli — the marquee signing of the summer — was deeply needed he would have been more useful in Danilo’s role not Bentancur’s.

To put the cherry in the sundae of hilariously ill-conceived moves, with less than 10 minutes to go in the game and still very much down a goal, Allegri subbed in the notoriously inept Mattia De Sciglio for Juan Cuadrado. Even at his best, De Sciglio is more known for his defensive chops, so why did Allegri think that he was the better bet over the man who led the team in assists last year is beyond comprehension.

It’s two games into the season and while the results have been pretty discouraging for Max Allegri version 2.0, I’m far from thinking his appointment was a mistake. However, there’s a ton of better ways to get the most out of this team and as Allegri tinkers with the squad, I hope that this was a lesson in what not to do going forward.

Winner: Federico Chiesa

Chiesa recorded his first start of the season and continued showing that his form of the current calendar year is here to stay. Easily the best player on the team, he was a constant threat on the ball and was a couple of great saves from Guglielmo Vicario away from scoring his first goal of the season.

His development continues to be one of the most exciting things to watch as a Juve fan, and while I argue that when he’s on Dybala is still the most talented player on this roster, Chiesa is the one with by far the highest ceiling and the one that is showing a lot more consistency.

Juventus v Empoli FC - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Cottini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Parting Shot of the Week

In conclusion, it was a bad game! Poorly planned, poorly executed and poorly deployed. It’s hard to imagine the team playing worse than what we saw today and getting a worse result than losing at home against a team that was just recently promoted from Serie B.

The good thing about hitting bottom is that the only way to go is up and since nothing more notable happened this week, it's a good time to wrap up this edition of the Grab Bag and ... oh, right, something did happen.

CR-Out

It was with a whimper, not a bang, that the Cristiano Ronaldo era ended at Juventus.

After a whirlwind of reports that had Ronaldo signing with Manchester City, then Paris Saint-Germain and finally going back to the team that launched him as a superstar in Manchester United in a matter of hours, Juventus now looks at a future without their biggest star and leading goal scorer of the past three years.

There will be plenty of takes about whether Ronaldo’s stint in Serie A will be looked at as a success or not in the coming weeks, months and years. Economically, the gambit was doomed the moment “Coronavirus” came into the popular lexicon. Sporting-wise, some say that because Juventus never won a Champions League with him on the team it has to be a failure, others that he did everything that he could and the overall failure of the last three years is more about poor squad building and bad management than whatever Ronaldo could have done.

The truth — as always — lies somewhere in the middle. The team was never up to snuff to really compete in Europe and the organization was indeed spectacularly poorly managed. While numbers-wise it is hard to ask more from Ronaldo, it’s also fair to point out that he never quite meshed with the squad, which led to a team that was mostly unbalanced during his stint. It also has to be take into account that his pharaonic wages hindered the financial capabilities of the team to get the reinforcements needed to build a cohesive unit.

(Worth nothing that Ronaldo took a pay cut to join Manchester United, and a pay cut that was very much never on the table when he was a Juve player and the team was bleeding money.)

In the end, it was clear that a divorce was in the best interest of all parties. I wrote a whole piece about why this was the way to go. Ronaldo still has some gas left in the tank — though not nearly as much as himself or his most arduous defenders might think — and Juventus is looking at a younger, more sustainable future.

Manchester United reach deal to sign with Cristiano Ronaldo from Juventus Photo by Giuseppe Cottini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Really, the only thing that bothers me about his exit is the way that it went down. If Ronaldo had signaled his intent to leave early in the transfer window — say, after the Euros were done as it was widely reported — and Juventus had been able to shop him around while preparing for a post-CR7 future, I firmly believe that his tenure would be remembered more fondly.

But that’s not how it went down, because that’s never how things went down with Ronaldo. The guy trained with the team for weeks, played in friendly matches and seemed ready to honor the final year of his contract ... until he didn’t. So, we had to deal with the drama of the first match where he was not part of the starting XI to begin the season and the conflicting reports about whether it was a move to force an exit or a tactical decision. Pavel Nedved had to go out and make a statement about how he was definitely staying and Allegri had to make a face saving statement about how it was a joint decision for him not to start, only for him to leave and make fools out of his former employers as a goodbye gift.

The “Ultimate Competitor” left the team that signed him to much fanfare three years ago in disarray after the worst season they’ve had in a decade to jump ship to a more favorable situation. Because that’s how it went with Ronaldo. It was always CR7 first, second, third and last. And, in the end, the lasting images of his Juve career will be the paparazzi photos of his personal jet leaving Turin incognito after saying his rushed farewells — a far cry from the messianic welcome he received in 2018 — and the last game he wore the Juve jersey.

A towering goal to get a win in the dying minutes with a joyous shirtless — of course — celebration with his teammates to boot ... only for it to not matter in the end.

(Also, and just to bring it up one last time, Ronaldo took 71 free kicks as a Juve player only scoring once for a success rate of 1.4%. Of those 71 attempts, 48 went to the wall and only 14 were on goal. The fact that Ronaldo was never sufficiently self-aware to realize he was actively hindering his team by continuing to take every available free kick and that no coach during his time here ever had the guts to pull him from those duties is a microcosm of why the Juve-Ronaldo marriage was a flawed one.)

See you in a couple of weeks.