2011… In a lot of ways, not a year to be remembered particularly fondly by Juventini around the globe. Luckily the woes are (to a large extent) behind us, and the year has come to and end with Juventus undefeated and joint leaders of Serie A.
One does very well to remember history though. For us Juventini, this holds true for both the club’s truly glorious past and the, shall we say, less glorious events of recent years. Therefore, before having a look at the promises of 2012 from the comfort of our cozy position, it is incumbent upon us to look at how the old year unfolded. Buckle up folks, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
‘Afterthoughts‘ is a series here on JuventiKnows where we give you our unfiltered, personal, and sometimes idiosyncratic views on the current state of affairs at the club. This space is reserved for more elaborate musings on a given theme and is entirely subjective (so don’t flog anyone but the writer, alright?!)
Five Months of Hell
Back in January 2011, there was a fair share of optimism surrounding Juventus. Under Gigi Delneri’s stewardship an entertaining, yet excessively wobbly start to the 2010-11 campaign had been turned into an impressive run of 17 games without defeat. Six of those unbeaten games occurred in the Europa League, but seeing as all of them were draws, Juve crashed out of the tournament. Not the most impressive of signals, yet given the low status of Europe’s second-tier competition many were pleased, because the club would now be looking to gain some ground on leaders AC Milan (who had a manageable six-point lead atop of the league) and be able to focus entirely on the Serie A.
The notion of Juve as title contenders however, soon turned out to be nigh on ridiculous. From the moment Quagliarella’s knee went bust en route to a 1-4 drubbing to Parma (mere minutes into the first game of 2011), things conspired to make the last part of the campaign unbearable to witness, almost as much as the one the year before. Despite what turned out to be very good Winter mercato purchases of Andrea Barzagli, Alessandro Matri and, to be fair, a so-so signing of Luca Toni (to make up for the growing injury list and the complete loss of all ability of Amauri, shipped out to flourish at Parma), the unaddressed areas (full-backs!) would continue to haunt our side till the bitter end. And a bitter end it was.
Injuries, and the lack of decent solutions in the aforementioned problem area, all played their part of course, but what truly went wrong in those five woeful months of 2011 had little to do with either. The main problem was as serious as it was simple: FEAR.
This hitherto practically unknown quantity in the Juventus camp had crept into the side a year before under Ciro Ferrara, and sadfully seen no improvement with Alberto Zaccheroni. Slowly, it became obvious that Delneri had managed to get the team together only as long as they believed in themselves and their abilities, an almost inconceivable doubt to have at Juventus only a few years prior.
Although results started to improve into the Spring, insecurity and inconsistency were ever-present within the team. Facing adversity (or even success, in cases of attaining a lead first), our players habitually crumbled under the proverbial weight of the shirt. It turned out that Delneri was as unable as his recent predecessors to revive that decisive grinta in a squad that, all things being equal, was far better than the eventual 7th place finish revealed – although such intangible musings matter little in a world of statistics and facts.
After the Rain…
The realization that the most obvious defect was a psychological one made the eventual sacking of Delneri inevitable. In his stead, May 31st, 2011 saw the return at Juventus of ex-captain Antonio Conte, appointed manager to bring back a certain sense of identity to Corso Galileo Ferraris and provide grinta by the bucketload.
At first, most believed Conte would be called in predominantly to re-ignite the fire in the existing team, developing the very wing-based system of Delneri further and stick with the midfield base of Melo and Aquilani, one of few bright spots of the season before. Instead, key acquisitions of Andrea Pirlo from Milan, Arturo Vidal from Leverkusen and Mirko Vucinic from Roma lead to the ostracism of the aforementioned midfield axis, and would soon test the manager’s supposed tactical stubbornness.
After assessing the team thoroughly throughout pre-season, and indeed the first games of the season proper, Conte realised that the talent at his disposal made 4-3-3 the ideal formation. Displaying a great sense of pragmatism however, in many games that ideal line-up was tweaked alla provinciale whenever key players were out, or deemed to be surplus to demands. Although it’s still up for debate whether or not this tactical tinkering has been fruitful consistently, it’s certainly hard to argue with facts such as these:
- Juventus are unbeaten in Serie A and Coppa Italia thus far (a run that includes away games at Inter, Lazio, Napoli, Roma, and Udinese); they are also the only unbeaten team in Italy and the whole of Europe.
- Veteran elements have all blended well with the aforementioned three crucial additions, showing massive improvement en bloc. Players such as Barzagli, Marchisio, and Matri, already vital pieces of the Juve chessboard, have qualitatively exploded into excellence. Concurrently, key area components who were alarmingly fading (Buffon), perennially nervous (Bonucci), or had never truly made themselves useful (Pepe), have been reborn under Conte’s management.
- Swiss recruit Stephan Lichtsteiner has solved Juve’s right-back issues (dating back to Calciopoli, sic) in impressive style and likely for many years to come.
- Our bench has dramatically improved over last year, especially offensively with players such as Quagliarella, Giaccherini, Elia, Estigarribia, and club legend Alessandro Del Piero all ready to make decisive, potentially game-changing contributions when called upon.
Whoa, Reign In That Enthusiasm!
Nevertheless, going into 2012, a couple of concerns linger:
- The defense looks a bit thin, with De Ceglie and Sørensen the only playable alternatives to a starting line-up of Lichtsteiner, Bonucci, Barzagli, and Chiellini. A proper left-back and an experienced alternative on the right would be very useful.
- In midfield, the imperious form of Pirlo, Marchisio and Vidal may have veiled the fact that there is a lack of alternatives for each of their roles. Pazienza and youngster Marrone have been called upon, and both Pepe and Giaccherini may be used centrally (to debatable efficiency), but neither of the aforementioned can act as a like-for-like replacement for any of the ‘MVP’ midfield trio.
- In attack, the problem is very different: over-crowding! NOT counting the “player-in-name-only” trio of Amauri, Iaquinta and Toni, there are currently nine (9!) wingers/attackers for the 4-3-3′s three places up front, ideally occupied by Vucinic, Matri, and Pepe. A wealth of opportunities, but one it seems Conte (and some of the players themselves) could really do without. Guys like Giaccherini, Estigarribia, Del Piero, and recently Quagliarella, have all seen some action, but there are (sadly) huge question marks over Milos Krasic and Eljero Elia, tipped by many as our starting wingers ahead of the season and relegated to a largely marginal role so far.
The balance of the squad would suggest that more central midfielders and less wingers/attackers is what’s needed, and this point must be addressed sooner or later. While the Winter mercato will hopefully aid towards an eventual resolution (clearing out some very dead wood up front and reinforcing Juve’s defence in some way or another), do not expect to see major activity until the Summer. That is when Conte will have a clearer idea of what plan A (and especially plans B, C, etc.) are for the team going forward – hopefully we will need a lot of depth, facing battle on three fronts in the next season. Trimming the squad for exactly that will be crucial.
(after this rant, feel free to scroll back up and enjoy the positives once more)
A Team Transformed
That all being said, the prospects of this Juventus look bright. The ‘problem areas’ sketched out above are all minor concerns compared to what Il Mister and the team has achieved so far. Looking at Juventus as objectively as this writer finds humanly possible, the conclusion of 2011 sees a team that is very competitive, and one with a will and determination unparalleled in recent years. As discussed above, the squad is not complete. But the qualities are plain for all of the world to see.
While it’s impossible for us Juventini to completely shed the doubts and anxieties that linger after previous seasons, one thing is clear. Now more than ever, with a wonderful new Stadium, a good portion of great players, a medical staff that has so far been impeccable, a passionate and skillful tactician and leader of men at the helm and, most important of all, a reclaimed identity, going into 2012 the words of another great leader ring true:
The only thing we have to fear is Fear itself.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
Conte knows this, and the players know it. Recently Claudio Marchisio, Capitan Futuro himself, specifically addressed this point, revealing that the coach had not only revitalized the squad, but taken out the fear that had crept up inside the players. In the new year, if this turns out to be true, it will be the most important coaching achievement at Juventus since the days of Trapattoni and Lippi. And I have a feeling it might.
May 2012 be the year that sees Juventus become her beautiful, ruthless, and fearless self once more!
Before We Go…
Finally, as this year also saw the advent of the website you are currently looking at, we would like to extend our sincere gratitude to you, our readers for being here. From all of us here at JuventiKnows to all of you wonderful, loyal and radiant Juventini out there: thank you for all of your involvement and support in our first ‘half-season’.
We wish you all a…
★ HAPPY NEW YEAR ★
(…Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear!)