Serie A September Review: Have Juventus lost their identity?
The opening exchanges of the new Serie A season have thrown up an abundance of intriguing narratives. The presence of Torino and Sassuolo in the top four will draw confused looks from those not intimately familiar with Italian football, as did a superb streak of results earned by early table toppers Chievo. Roberto Mancini’s Inter, who finished outside even the Europa League places at the end of a torrid 2014/15 campaign, completed their first five games without dropping a point and sat proudly in poll position – until they were dealt a 4-1 thrashing on Sunday night by highly impressive league leaders Fiorentina. Mario Balotelli’s resurgence on loan at Milan, meanwhile, would probably be attracting even more hyperbole were it not for his side’s spluttering start, coming despite a lavish summer spending spree. All of these stories, however, pale in comparison to that of the catastrophic position currently occupied by Champions League finalists and winners of the last four Scudetti, Juventus, who have endured their worst opening to a domestic campaign for over a century.
Though a worrying result, the Bianconeri’s opening day defeat at home to Udinese came despite a dominant performance, and was largely dismissed as an anomaly with their thirty-point winning margin last term considered. However, failures to secure victories over either Hellas Verona or the aforementioned Chievo, as well as handing new boys Frosinone their first ever Serie A point, drew much harsher criticism. Against more cultivated opposition, coming in the form of Roma and Napoli, they were comprehensively outplayed in 2-1 losses to the both of them. Many suggested that Juve would take some time to adapt to life without the talismanic figures of Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo and Artura Vidal, but only one win from their opening six encounters is a predicament few could have predicted. Unsurprisingly voted both Italy’s most widely supported and most hated team in a recent poll, it has been a start that has had rivals salivating at the possibility of the Old Lady’s undisputed reign coming to an abrupt end.
It would be very premature, however, to begin writing Juventus’s obituaries as a European powerhouse at this stage. First of all, while a fifth consecutive Scudetto may be out of reach, all is not lost in the current season. Juventus are still awaiting the return to action of two valuable midfield commanders in Claudio Marchisio and new acquisition Sami Khedira, both of whom are capable of providing the grit, steel and experience that the team seems to be lacking. Deadline day signing Hernanes – the enigmatic Brazillian who shone at Lazio before somewhat losing his way at Inter –has been forced by coach Max Allegri to adapt to the deeper roll left vacant by Pirlo’s departure and Khedira’s injury. Despite his talent, ‘Il Profeta’ has neither the tackling tenacity nor the range of passing necessary for this position (at least not without some more experienced heads surrounding him in the middle of the park), and looked particularly inept in the recent loss at Napoli. A full strength Juve should see Hernanes freed up to link midfield to attack, or even relegated to a bench option with Frenchman Mario Lemina pushed further forward.
Missing too, rather importantly, is the presence of an obvious successor to Juve’s crown. Hotly-tipped Roma, boasting ample attacking talent in a frontline of Dzeko, Totti, Salah and Iturbe (or Gervinho) have also struggled early on, with a string of draws leading up to a 2-0 defeat to Sampdoria. Inter, as previously touched upon, did well to ground out five successive wins before a humiliating 4-1 loss to Fiorentina at the San Siro over the weekend, a game which revealed the fragility of the Nerazurri’s recently patched-together defence as well as the unmistakable lack of creative attacking quality in midfield. Few would suggest that La Viola themselves have the squad strength to be considered genuine title contenders, while the hapless Milan languish down in tenth place – precisely where they finished last season.
Even more ominous for Juventus’s competitors is the wealth of future potential their squad possesses. Highly gifted Argentinian 21-year-old Paolo Dybala, whose transfer from Palermo was secured ahead of strong interest from Inter, has been the clearest bright spot in an otherwise miserly string of results. Only one year his senior is strike partner Alvaro Morata, who has proved his ability and taste for the big occasion in a number of high-profile European and domestic displays. While Simone Zaza has struggled up front since joining from Sassuolo, Juventus hold an €18 million buy-back clause on his younger former teammate Dominico Berardi, a price which will seem a snip if his rich vein of recent form continues. And in Paul Pogba, also still only 22, Juve have not only a player who can drive them to victory at present but also a prime piece of footballing real estate. Though looking somewhat lost in the league so far this season, his dazzling display in the shock 2-1 victory away to Manchester City in the Champions League confirmed him as one of world football’s most prized assets. His potential sale would arm the club, should they decide that their current team is inadequate, with ample transfer market weaponry with which to raid Europe for a new one. Their relative financial stability, made possible largely due to their sole ownership of a newly built stadium (something which both Milanese clubs have thus far failed to obtain), further solidifies this fearsome spending power.
To be sure, obstacles as well as opportunities certainly await the team from Turin in the near future. Gigi Buffon’s error for Napoli’s second at the San Paolo on Saturday was a timely reminder that the great Italian shot-stopper is not, in fact, immortal; nor indeed are the back four who sit in front of him – three of whom are over 30. But Juve’s prolonged spell of Italian dominance, hard-won over the intervening years since 2006’s Calciopoli scandal and their resulting relegation to Serie B, will not disappear overnight. Would-be pretenders to their crown are instead advised to concentrate on building their own well-ran teams and business models before they dare to dance on the Old Lady’s grave.