Juventus experienced unprecedented highs in the summer of 2018. The Bianconeri collected 95 points in Serie A to win their seventh consecutive championship and destroyed Milan 4-0 to win their fourth consecutive Coppa Italia.
Paulo Dybala, 24, was becoming one of the best young strikers in the world, with 22 goals and five assists in the league. Veteran Gonzalo Higuain added 16 and 6. Creativity came from everywhere – new winger Douglas Costa provided 12 assists and six other players notched at least four – and the defence remained a Juve prototype, conceding no more than 24 league goals in 38 games.
Still, the nervousness was overwhelming. Despite all their successes at home, Juve have always missed out on a place in the Champions League, a tournament they have not won in over 20 years. They beat Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid in 2015, but lost to Leo Messi of Barca in the final. They beat Barca in 2017, but lost 4-1 to Real Madrid in the final. In 2018, they finished second to Barca in the group stage, before losing to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals.
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It was an albatross, even at a time of extraordinary success, and in a valiant attempt to solve the problem, the club used a fairly simple logic: If Ronaldo or Messi are needed to win the Champions League – one of them has won five consecutive titles and seven of the last ten – then it’s time to take one. In terms of transfer fee and salary, Real Madrid wanted to spend almost $400 million for the then 33-year-old Ronaldo.
In almost three years:
– Your A-series will continue… …for now. Having scored 90 points in the 2018/19 season and 83 points in last season’s narrow victory, they are currently 79th and in third place.
– Their Coppa Italia run ended with a loss in the quarterfinals in 2019, and in 2020 they lost in the final.
– They were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2019, and in the round of 16 in 2020 and 2021. No luck with the draw? No. Instead of losing to Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich, they failed to beat Ajax (2019), Lyon (2020) and now Porto (2021).
We can say that it did not go as planned. Instead of building on the glory of the past, Juve have only gotten older, more expensive and a little worse. They’re stuck between a win-now mode and rebuilding, and their biggest problem is something that might be hard to solve if their best player remains on the team.
Ronaldo does what he was signed for, he contributes many goals and is a role model. But what he doesn’t do is leave problems behind that his teammates can’t solve. Getty
Ronaldo does what he is paid to do.
Since Ronaldo signed for Juve, here’s a list of players who have scored more goals than him (86) in Big Five league games and UEFA competitions: Bayern – Robert Lewandowski and Messi. Here’s how. If you look at goals and assists combined, it’s Messi, Lewandowski and Kylian Mbappé of PSG.
Ronaldo is no longer just one of the world’s top scorers, and while his Ballon d’Or award may be behind him, at 36 he is still one of the world’s best entertainers.
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This year is definitely the best for Torino. He’s on his way to 30 league goals and five assists a year. Last season he scored 31 and five, but 12 of his goals came from inside the penalty area. That number is down to four this year; he’s scored 24 goals per penalty, the most since 2016 in Madrid, and his 0.136 xG per penalty is the highest average ever.
Ronaldo is more capable than ever of scoring and getting the ball into the net. Overall, Juve averaged 2.04 goals per game, the second highest in the last seven seasons. Sure, Inter is the best in the league with an average of 2.42, but maybe attack isn’t Juve’s biggest problem.
Pressure is needed for positional play
Despite the arrival of Ronaldo, Juve have also modernised their football philosophy in recent years. Maurizio Sarri replaced Massimiliano Allegri for the 2019-20 season, but he did not perform well in all parameters, so the club hired budding manager and former Juve midfielder Andrea Pirlo to implement his beautiful possession-based vision.
As Gab Marcotti pointed out, you shouldn’t appoint a manager for the first time if you’re only thinking about the short term, and it’s not immediately obvious that Pirlo will be fired because of his team’s failure in the Champions League or the impending end of Juve’s Scudetto run.
Bonucci and Juve’s defense aren’t getting the help they need when they need to pressure teams before they can get near the goal. Jonathan Moscrope/Getty Images
I think it helps Pirlo because you usually see his vision come to life. When we compare their league stats to the other top 20 in FiveThirtyEight’s latest football club rankings – a list of about 16 teams with a professional view of ball possession – we see that they get most of the basics right.
– Property: Of these teams, Juve ranks fourth in average time of possession (28.8 seconds), sixth in average time of passing per possession (6.8 seconds) and sixth in offensive rating of third-down passers (76.0%). They attempt a lot of long passes (8.1% of all passes, fourth), but also complete them (64.0% completion rate, second).
– Defense score: They rank second in average shots per possession (0.19) and fifth in xG per shot (0.14).
– Overall quality: More importantly, they are seventh in this group in goals scored (2.04) and eighth in goals allowed (0.84).
All of this has largely happened without Dybala, who played just 646 minutes in 11 league games due to hip problems before suffering a cruciate ligament injury. After struggling to join Ronaldo in the 2018-19 season, Dybala has improved in his new supporting role, scoring 11 goals and six assists in the 2019-20 season; he has just two goals and two assists in the 2020-21 season. His return will bring some more momentum to an already potent offense.
So what’s the problem? Why are they probably playing the worst performing team in a decade? Probably two things: poor physical condition and low blood pressure.
Over the years, few clubs have been as successful as Juve. Antonio Conte’s team averaged 2.67 points per game in 2013-14 in games with zero or one goal, a figure that eclipsed even last year’s Liverpool team (2.50). It was unbearable, even for a good team, but Juve has averaged at least 1.83 points in those games every year since. Last year they were at 2.14.
This year: 1.11 points per shutout, 12th in Serie A and by far the lowest among the nine best teams in the league. They have played nine games decided by zero or one goal difference – one win, one loss and seven draws. With more luck in the last games (say 2 points per game), they would now be 2 points behind Inter instead of 10.
Too much success is a sign of impending decline and vice versa. Juve’s average will eventually average out, though he’s probably already done too much damage to keep the Scudetto run alive.
But it’s not just bad shape. While their overall defensive performance is not bad, they have only given up eight goals in the league and are on track to score 12 this season. Under Allegri, they managed that 17 times last season, and 22 times in the year before Ronaldo arrived. Six of these matches ended in a 1-1 draw, the seventh in a 2-2 draw. Presumably in previous seasons some of these games would have ended in 1-0 or 2-1.
It will always be difficult to move from a more compact, standard defensive structure to the riskier defensive line used by most teams with a lot of possession. This approach usually results in teams allowing few shots because the ball spends a lot of time outside their own defensive zone – either you have possession of the ball on the opponent’s side, or the opponent gets the ball back and you apply counter pressure. If the enemies break the pressure and launch a massive counterattack, this may occasionally result in a high quality shot (measured in xG per shot), but generally you don’t allow many shots.
Juve, on the other hand, allow more shots per ball possession (0.13) than any other team in FiveThirtyEight’s top 20, with the exception of Tottenham Hotspur. The best teams in the world average 0.10 or less. Manchester City currently allow 0.08, or about five fewer shots per game than Juventus.
Sure, Juve doesn’t allow any scoring chances (0.10 xG per shot is the best result of the 20 teams), but when you combine that with the fact that the opponents only have 34.6 turnovers per game from their own defensive third (second best result of the 20 teams) and 39% of their turnovers are in Juve’s offensive third (third best result), you realize that Juve just doesn’t put pressure on the ball like the best ball-owning teams do.
Of course it’s not Ronaldo’s fault, because you don’t sign Ronaldo to put pressure on the ball. That was never his game. Over the past eight seasons, he averaged no more than 2.2 recovered fumbles or 4.1 total defensive interceptions (recovered fumbles, tackles, interceptions, clearances, blocked kicks, blocked centers, defensive third downs) per 90 minutes. This year’s averages (2.1 and 3.2) are in line with expectations.
Sure, Lewandowski isn’t a great rebounder either, but that’s the role of Alfonso Davis, Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich (combined: 29.4 steals per 90, 4.3 in the offensive third). Mbappe has Idrissa Gueye, Rafinha and Marco Verratti (24.0 and 2.5 respectively). Romelu Lukaku has Arturo Vidal and Nicolo Barella (13.5, 1.9).
There’s not much real turmoil surrounding Ronaldo, though. Rodrigo Betancourt, Danilo and Matthijs de Ligt (combined: 21.6, 0.6) are solid in this regard, but do not play particularly forward. Arthur (7.5, 1.1) can put pressure on the ball at all levels, but he has struggled with injuries in the last three months and has been unable to do anything offensively: Last season he had an average of 0.46 goals and assists in 90 appearances for Barcelona, this season he has an average of 0.10. Whether Ronaldo plays in the black and white next year or not, he still has a year left on his contract and if they were to try and sell him, given the financial circumstances of world football, there aren’t many bakers – it would be great if the club could find an agent of chaos to finish it off.
The boys of Juventus FC are sounding the alarm over the many disappointments that have accompanied Juventus’ elimination from the Champions League round 16.
See! A youth movement is created
In a way, the contracting of Ronaldo can be seen as a supposed end of the cycle. Since about 2014-15, Juve’s team has been on the older side: Of the players who played at least 1,000 minutes in the league between 2014-15 and 2019-20, an average of only 3.3 were 24 years or younger and 6.8 were 30 years or older. Many of those 30-somethings were certainly very good, but giving Ronaldo one last chance at glory before he blows up the team might make sense in a way.
Just as that string of successes never began, Juve didn’t wait for Ronaldo’s departure to start the inevitable youth movement. In the past two years, the club has sent away 30 stars, including Gonzalo Higuain, Blaise Matuidi, Mario Mandzukic, Miralem Pjanic and Douglas Costa (on loan), and brought in the following players:
– Defenders Matthijs de Ligt (21) and Merich Demiral (23) of Ajax and Sassuolo respectively. Midfielders Federico Chiesa (23), Arthur (23), Weston McKenny (22) and Adrian Rabiot (25) from Fiorentina (on loan), Barcelona, Schalke 044 and PSG Striker Dejan Kulusevski (20) from Atalanta.
It’s a lot of fun, young talent in three transfer windows.
Chiesa is one of the young players Juve have recruited in the last two or three seasons who can help rebuild, but a lot is being asked of him now, and perhaps too soon. Getty
You’re watching the balancing act. Juve’s top four players in the league are all 29 or older, not counting Ronaldo and 32-year-old defender Juan Cuadrado, who I thought was the best player on the pitch against Porto on Tuesday.
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In addition, eight players age 24 or younger are on pace to play more than 1,000 minutes. Chiza and Kulusevski led the way in creating chances (McKenney seventh), Betancourt and de Ligt were second and fourth in ball possession respectively (McKenney seventh again), Demiral was key in moving the ball between the defensive lines to midfield (93% to midfield) and Arthur, de Ligt and McKenney excelled in moving the ball from midfield to the attacking third.
(A word about McKenney: the American star was a real jack-of-all-trades in midfield, not only coming forward with the ball and creating a few attacks, but also winning 54% of his duels, 60% of his aerial duels and 65% of his tackles in the middle third).
Dybala is only 27 and has his best years ahead of him if or when he can reach his full potential again, while other key players like striker Alvaro Morata (28) and defender Danilo (29) are not exactly old yet. They still need an agent of chaos to conquer the ball and a striker to make up for Ronaldo’s eventual departure, but they seem to have a lot of what they need if they can stay patient and keep these young players on the right development path.
Patience is a new word that many megaclubs have had to learn over the past year. In recent history Juve had to rely on a positive present and an uncertain future, now it seems to be the exact opposite. That may mean fewer trophies in the near future, but it may help the next glory run bear more fruit.
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