Early April in Boise, Idaho, means this: on the same day, gales of freezing rain and snow blowing from the west and littering the ground with winter’s icons in the morning, and in the afternoon a warm sun bursting through the clouds, melting the vestiges of January and giving you that inexplicable joy, that palpable hope, that comes with the first signs of spring: maybe winter doesn’t last forever.
I’m starting to have the same feelings about Juventus.
There’s a Bianconeri optimism in the air, or at least deep inside my gut, as we face down the final stretch of the season. The feeling, I think, stems not just from the fact that Max Allegri’s men have made an improbable climb up the table, not just from the grinta this team has embodied over the last couple of months since the 15-point penalty was levied, but, for me, from a more mundane thing: the depth coalescing on the squad sheet.
Despite the disappointing end result against Inter Milan in the Coppa Italia, when Juventus named a starting lineup and their options off the bench, for the first time in a long time I felt like we were getting closer to the top-to-bottom depth worthy of the Old Lady.
Experience, whipper-snappers & lightning bolts
All great teams achieve an order of balance in their roster construction: dependable role players, vociferous or stable leaders, wreakers of havoc, center points. The Old Lady does not yet have a satisfactory amount of that balance, but she’s getting there.
The starting lineup against Inter featured two of the team’s three best attackers in Dušan Vlahović and Angel Di Maria, but with Moise Kean, Arkadiusz Milik, and especially Federico Chiesa on the bench there was no shortage of auxiliary firepower. In the midfield, Leandro Paredes’ complete lack of contribution to this team, when coupled with the complete absence of Paul Pogba, might’ve spelled serious trouble for depth, but the continually surprising youth revolution
Think about that for a second. If, last summer, someone had come from the future to tell you that Weston McKennie would leave in January, Pogba basically wouldn’t play a meaningful minute all year, and Paredes would be a nearly useless addition, what kind of midfield panic would you have been in? Nicolo Fagioli is now a reliable performer as a starter, Fabio Miretti has earned Allegri’s trust, and even Enzo Barrenechea has clawed his way to the first team. Manuel Locatelli is playing the most consistent ball of his Bianconeri career and Adrien Rabiot, whether or not it’s the contract year phenomenon, has been legitimately good, even very good at times.
The striker unit has three very different players in Vlahović, Milik, and Kean, and playing a three-man backline gives some flexibility to the wingback positions with a handful of options. Even the center backs had a dose of depth: With Leonardo Bonucci still not fit for the back three and Alex Sandro just barely making the team sheet returning from injury himself, Federico Gatti joined the center back club with Bremer and Danilo with Daniele Rugani on the bench.
Top to bottom, the roster doesn’t look a whole lot different than a year ago, but it feels a whole lot better to me. The semblance of balance, of spread-across-the-toast dynamism, is starting to show.
Even so, this pie is far from ready for a bake-off
Plenty remains to be done.
Whether it’s Allegri or someone new coaching the team next year, there’s no shortage of qualms we could still note about this team. Chief among them is probably the fullback unit. Allegri has been playing three at the back for some time now, which certainly helps mitigate the otherwise glaring issue of high-quality fullbacks, but even if that formational trend continues next year there’s going to be a breaking point very, very soon.
Juan Cuadrado is 34 years old and isn’t even a true fullback. Filip Kostić is not a true fullback. Alex Sandro is 32 years old and has lost a step (or two) at this point in his career. Mattia De Sciglio is, at best, a dependable reserve. Perhaps the only quality fullback is Danilo, who himself is 31 years old and who, at this point, is probably better off as a center back. All this leaves exactly zero true fullbacks.
There are plenty of questions in the midfield, too, despite the youth revolution, and even if Di Maria’s contract gets renewed for another year the lack of playmakers is severely disconcerting.
This team is still not, clearly, where any of us would like it to be. There’s still a laundry list of items wrong with the construction, of things that aren’t working at all or things that aren’t working very well, of units that need shoring up. Even if Juventus had 15 points back, Napoli’s scintillating run would put them a dozen points ahead of the good guys, and nobody wants that. The men from southern Italy boast a Serie A goal differential of plus-44, miles ahead of Juventus, as they close in on their first Scudetto since — checks notes — a long time ago.
I am therefore not sitting here on the cusp of spring saying Juventus are ready to be fully Juventus again; I am instead just saying this: we are getting there, sooner than I would’ve thought. If you had told me a few months ago I would be writing this piece, I would’ve asked you to pass whatever you were smoking.
The real crux of the season, though, will be turning the good feelings into concrete results. Fino alla fine no matter what, but winning a trophy or somehow scraping into the Champions League for next year would be a definitive statement.