Can this Juventus challenge for a title?
This is the biggest question being asked by Juventus faithful everywhere right now.
On paper, the answer has to be yes. While they don’t have the lead at the top of the table heading into the international break, Juve’s just two points off the top with the same number of defeats as title favorites and current league leaders Inter Milan. They’ve notched wins over AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio, boast one of the stoutest defenses in Serie A and they are the only team in the mix to not have any European games this season.
Considering that Juventus started the previous few seasons in a form that alternated between disappointing to straight up catastrophic, to be one third of the way into the season and have a shot to lead Serie A outright with a win against Inter is pretty exciting.
Then again, there is a nagging feeling in the back of everyone’s mind that despite the positive start of the season, the Bianconeri are still a notch below the top clubs that will be fighting for the Scudetto.
While I don’t subscribe to the theory that Juventus simply cannot win playing defensive football, I’d be lying if I said I don’t think their lackluster offensive numbers are not a reason for concern. Juventus has scored only 19 goals this season, good for seventh overall and far from what you would expect from a team with title ambitions.
I don’t expect this current iteration of Juve to suddenly become a high-flying, offensive showcase in the near future, but they are going to have to be a lot more effective in front of goal in what remains of the 2023-24 season. They’ve showed flashes of being a good counterattacking team in recent matches, and that’s where I believe their best shot is in terms of increasing their offensive output.
While the trio of Daniele Rugani, Federico Gatti and Bremer have been marvelous at stopping the opposing side, they don’t offer much in terms of distribution from the back. And while Manuel Locatelli continues to improve as a defensive center midfielder, he’s still not quite the guy that is going to singlehandedly dictate the tempo and make the necessary passes to start dangerous counter attacks.
This is where Juventus has missed their injured captain Danilo the most and to a much lesser extent Leo Bonucci. While Bonucci, specifically, had lost a step — or several of them — it was his passing that was always a notch above and was huge in terms of building up play from the back.
Without this fluidity in transition, Juventus have found themselves in a familiar position more often than not when defending in a low block this year — Invite pressure, win the defensive matchup, boot it up to midfield, lose possession, rinse and repeat. In and of itself, this is not a bad formula — once again I’m forced to say that they have 9 wins in 12 matches — but they do leave you vulnerable to slip-ups. And this is all without acknowledging the elephant in the room. They still haven’t faced a true high flying offense that can break that low block consistently so far.
(Also, they might go into the Inter game without Locatelli — which, hey, Hans ready for your first start, kid?)
The additions in the offseason of Andrea Cambiaso and Timothy Weah seemed that were going to tailor-made to suit this counterattacking style, but while they both have shown flashes, Cambiasso hasn’t been able to fully unseat veteran Filip Kostic, Weah is dealing with an injury and neither has been able to consistently produce quick transitions.
Adrien Rabiot — excuse me, Captain Rabiot — is good with the ball at his feet and can produce sustained runs with some pace and Weston McKennie has found his second act as he’s shining in the system and making his very best impression of the Energizer bunny with his recent performances. But, again, without consistent outlet passes, those runs are more often than not done chasing the stray football or going back into the defensive phase.
Other than McKennie, Moise Kean is the other player who has shone the brightest in Max Allegri’s system. His speed and verticality have been on display and despite still — somehow — not scoring a goal yet this season, his double move to provoke a red card in the AC Milan game probably won them that match.
There’s a lot of things that are still to be determined and while the counter attacking system is in my opinion the best way moving forward its not a perfect idea by any means. Yes, Kean has shone, but Dusan Vlahovic is definitely not best suited for a style in which he’s mostly tasked with running and pressing. Federico Chiesa is another man that can definitely do a good job as a quasi second striker roaming for chances but there’s an argument to be made that a system that’s not making the most out of your two most talented offensive players is probably not ideal.
The losses of Nicolo Fagioli and Paul Pogba have also hamstrung the team and limited the type of style they can play. The same goes for the general lack of reliable fullbacks and the fact that a three-man backline is the best way to be solid defensively, which is Allegri’s bread and butter.
Considering the objective for this team was a comfortable top four finish, the lesson from this first third of the season is that they will most likely achieve that. Whether or not they can actually challenge for silverware will depend on their ability to continue doing what they are doing well and making this system all around more sustainable.
The first big proof of concept of Juventus as a side with title winning potential is scheduled for the 26th of November. Should be a good one.