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ReJUVEnated: 10 Key Reasons Why Juventus Have Changed

This post was guest-blogged by Nick Barbieri. Follow him on Twitter (@probablybarbs).
Contributions by Marco Pantanella (editing, image research) and Mike DG (ReJUVEnate artwork).


 

Juventus fans have had it hard in the last few years. Calciopoli, at the time it erupted, was thought to have crippled the team beyond repair: champions departed, the team was relegated, the club took a massive hit in the domains of its finances and its reputation. Simply put, the Old Lady endured a colossal blow many thought would take her years upon years to recuperate from.

Six Springs after those somber times, I will cautiously make the claim the situation has been rectified. I cannot affirm this with any additional assurance, as my hopes (and yours, surely) as a Juventino have been raised far too many times already since 2006. For this reason, I’ll believe we have reached our goal only when I spot the checkered flag and the finish line upon the horizon. Yet, present day circumstances are such that Corso Galileo Ferraris and Vinovo have returned to be a proud and happy place again, an environment where the proverbial tools to build success are present once more.

Indeed, a new Stadium with a new coach and subsequently a new attitude, has revolutionized the face of Italian football as well as the most successful team within it. Donning historically nostalgic pink-colored shirts and building its new home over the memorable grounds of the old Stadio delle Alpi (whose metal has served to build the modernized temple now standing in its place), the Bianconeri celebrate history. And with the recalling of glories past come the prospects of a bright future: a stadium to become the model for Serie A teams to follow, an extremely tight race for the Scudetto, the first chance in many years to bring silverware home. The NEW Juventus is all that and more.

Without further ado and in no particular order, here is an in-depth analysis of Juve’s new-found success.
 

Artwork by Sposato Al Nemico
 

#1 – An Iron-Tight Defense

With only 18 goals conceded in 32 matches, Juventus have the best defensive record not only in the Serie A but also in Europe. The addition of Lichtsteiner, the resurgence of De Ceglie, the stellar form of Barzagli (probably the best defender in Serie A at the moment), the return of Cáceres… these are just a few of the elements giving rise to a nearly impenetrable Juventus backline.

Towering above the rest is Giorgio Chiellini, who has done impressively well this season: not only does he have the highest tackling percentage in Serie A (more than AC Milan’s Thiago Silva) and clears the ball at least 6 times per game, his accurate passes and occasional forward runs have earned him an even stronger reputation. Yet it is the fact Keyser Giorgio narrowed his focus to a strict center-back role that speaks volumes to the Juve’s newly-developed defensive reliability.

The fact of the matter is that with each and every individual doing their job in what has become an extremely well-oiled defensive machine, Chiellini has been liberated of his involuntarily-gargantuan role of covering for his backline’s deficiencies. Often a time, Giorgione would had to have strayed to either sides of the pitch in order to make up for the defensive ineptness of Marco Motta, Jonathan Zebina, and Zdenek Grygera (or even Leonardo Bonucci’s destructive lapses of concentration). All that is no more.

Speaking of incompetent right-backs, interrupting a seemingly never-ending streak of them in Turin is Stephan Lichtsteiner, a case which fully merits its own section as the workhorse attitude of the Swiss Forrest Gump, with his blistering pace and unyielding running capacity, is one that simply cannot be ignored. Scoring two goals and garnishing as many assists thus far, Lichtsteiner has maintained an impressive 86.9% passing percentage justifying Conte’s decision to play him as a side-midfielder in a 3-5-2.

Specifically, it is Lichtsteiner’s willingness to act as part of the midfield with no cost or sacrifice to his primary defensive role (as we have often seen with e.g. Fabio Grosso) that must be lauded. Committing himself to relentless marking (sometimes too much so, typified by an explosive attitude and occasionally reckless challenges), the player’s concentration, dribbling, and passes have made him one of the best wing-backs in Serie A this year.

#2 – Movement of Midfield

Largely due to the brilliant transfer of a certain ex-Milan playmaker, Juve’s movements on the pitch has been a focal feature of the newly-invigorated side. The conducting element is naturally Andrea Pirlo, but the replacement of Felipe Melo with Arturo Vidal has also been a decisive breath of fresh air. Equally defensive yet more level-headed, the Chilean has stuck himself into many a tackle (on average 4 per game) that resulted in vital ball recuperation, not shying away from important offensive contributions as well.

What should particularly be noted is Juve’s new-found passing ability. At the time of this writing, Pirlo stands out from his ‘M-V-P’ partners with 84.1 passes per game, though Vidal and Marchisio complement the trio nicely with 58.5 and 52 respectively. To put this into perspective, the three midfielders passing success rate are more or less equivalent (86.4, 85.4, and 85.2% for Pirlo, Vidal, and Marchisio respectively). Added to the fact all of them have the ability to score goals (albeit some have proven do so more others i.e. Marchisio), Juve’s midfield has been Barcelona-esque at times.

[video_lightbox_youtube video_id=Wwfd6NSp794 width=640 height=360 anchor="★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Juventus
JOGA BONITO

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★"]

As you can see in the ‘JOGA BONITO’ video above, the build-up to the Bianconeri’s first goal in Juventus v. Cagliari – well-finished by Mirko Vucinic – is indeed a most perfect example.

#3 – New Stadium, New Atmosphere

Revolutionizing the face of Italian football. The new Juventus Stadium, built on the site of the demolished Stadio delle Alpi and inaugurated with a historic game against Notts County, has certainly turned heads. Not only aesthetically, but even more so because it is the only venue in Serie A to be fully owned by the club (as opposed by the city council) which allows Juve to keep 100% of matchday revenue. It has certainly become a model to follow, with many similar projects lying in the works (and awaiting clearance to begin construction, as they navigate through the bogs of Italian bureaucracy).

To keep on topic, Juventus have acquired what has been coined a ‘twelfth man’, i.e. the overwhelming support from the home side crowd. While the Old Lady are not the dominantly-supported team in the city of Turin, the Stadium (which features 41,000 seats) has been fully sold-out for nearly every game this year. The fact Juve’s home ground capacity has been reduced (from its previous number of 69,000 that was the Stadio Delle Alpi) is clearly paying off, given the club very rarely played with more than a half-filled stadium in the past two decades. The fact the Bianconeri have won 11% more home than away games epitomizes the effect of the crowd’s ability, which has often tipped the balance to Juve’s favor during close encounters.

#4 – Antonio Conte

Gone are the times of those who lacked squad control, enter the times of the enforcers. Fans will nostalgically remember Antonio Conte‘s playing days, back when he was the strong-willed captain of one the brightest squads in the club’s history, a style he has equally applied to his managing career. After Ciro Ferrara’s unsuccessful run, Conte’s nomination raised some doubts in Juventini worldwide as these did not like having another ex-player put in charge of the dugout. They were cast away rather quickly however. The fluid passing style, strong mentality, everlasting desire to taste victory and raw work-rate Conte has re-instilled in the squad are timeless qualities Juventus have enjoyed in the past, and will continue to enjoy in the future it would appear.

To tag Antonio Conte as a mere ‘ex-player’, to simply say that he featured for Juventus is an understatement however: he did much more than that. Former Juventus midfielder Raffaele Ametrano explained that as team captain, “Antonio Conte was already a manager during his playing days”. One need only look at the man’s range of expressions to place faith in this: hand signals powerfully instructing players to move about, full-blown excitement when the ball hits the back of the net, post-match celebrations that include galloping about and embracing his troops. Those are the marks of a true LEADER.

The current Juventus side boasts two players who often started in the same side as Conte during the latter’s playing days: goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and squad Captain and legend Alessandro Del Piero. The on-field impact of Conte upon Buffon is probably less so as prevalent as it was for Del Piero, simply because Buffon plies his trade between the posts. Alessandro Del Piero on the other hand was the heir of Antonio Conte, receiving the prestigious armband denoting Captaincy from Conte himself in 2001. Indeed, Conte shares a special bond with the two of them, recently stating that in his view, “Del Piero and Buffon are [Juve’s] extra weapons”. These words were said after the match versus Internazionale, following a string of breathtaking stops by the veteran goalkeeper and a simple yet elegant finish to clinch the game by the Captain himself.

But perhaps the most important thing Antonio Conte brings to the table is that he is representative of the end in sight for the newly-revived Juventus. Since 2010, Andrea Agnelli has taken reigns of the club and in so doing attempted to bring Juventus back to the level that his father Umberto (and many other Agnelli) have done years before. As Claudio Marchisio claimed in an interview, “The boss knows what winning means and he brings that winning mindset to the club every day based on his own hard-working, committed character”. Indeed, Conte’s ambition and dedication to Juventus sometimes has us wonder if he’d ever suit on a classic Bianconeri kit at halftime, slot back into that midfield once more, just like in the golden days.

Reportedly being courted by Tottenham and Chelsea, it is only a matter of time before the praise of consequences begin to be showered upon the former midfielder, and for a good reason. Conte has not only revived the 3-5-2 formation – which has seen Juventus boast the best defensive record in the world – but I will make the claim that he has revolutionized Calcio, bringing back the stylistic gameplay of his generation.

#5 – Tactics & Tactical Flexibility

Conte’s philosophy is simple: attack is the best form of defense. “If the opponent does not have the ball then they cannot score on you” is a mantra that has become the modern-day driving force of FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team. Aggressive pressuring & covering – often in numbers – has thus been embraced as a very efficient defensive style at Juventus. With the Bianconeri mostly holding the ball in the middle of the pitch, the ball is in their home half no more than 20-25 minutes per game.

Physical play – particularly in the center – has thus been strengthened, and it is well-complemented by the wingers’ agility and the fullbacks’ improved crossing accuracy (to the benefit of strong, muscular finishers like Matri, or able-bodied midfielders like Vidal or Marchisio to drive in a shot). Indeed, the fact that 64% of the team’s shots are fired through the middle is a clear indication of the tendency the squad has to revert play towards its strengths.

Through most of their games this season, Juve’s accurate passing (84%) held for an overwhelming majority of the game (>60%) is complemented with a balanced movement forward, as possession is equally spread out into thirds along the right, middle, and left areas of the pitch. With over half of all total shots fired in from within the 18-yard box (almost always as a result of crosses), Conte has brought back beautiful and entertaining football that typified the Italian football of his generation.

In addition, from a rigidly ‘multipurpose’ formation and tactical arrangement applied to almost every opponent and every situation (under Delneri or previous managers of recent years), Juventus have evolved toward a set of formations that gives them a vast array of viable tactical options. In this Antonio Conte has shown that underneath his full head of hair lies the brain of a pure tactician.

Taking over at Juve and carrying his 4-2-4 formation from his coaching tenure at Siena, the manager was quickly faced with the problem of having three accomplished midfielders in Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, and Arturo Vidal at his disposal. It shall be noted that being able to choose between one of the most talented Primavera products of the current Bianconeri generation and two of the world’s best center-mids constitutes a “problem” most managers would take in a heartbeat, yet Conte was nonetheless faced with a dilemma: which two players to receive a starting berth? Which to criminally relegate to the bench?

Rather than doing the latter, Conte changed his line-up to include all three players at the same time: enter the 4-1-4-1, the 4-3-3, and the 3-5-2. Particularly praiseworthy is the fact the manager experimented with formations never once hiding behind the excuse of inheriting a new squad, or building a “work in progress”. Rather Conte used this as a focal point, assuming all responsibility should things go wrong. Fortunately, it was quite the opposite.

On top of selecting players fitting his system of versatility best (also exemplified by some of transfers – more on that later), part of the reason Conte has been able to have the luxury of a wide array of formations is down to being tactically aware of his opponents. His tactical responses to clubs ooze preparation and understanding, while his decision to revert to a variety of formations is inherent of the learning curve of a master tactician.

Case Study: Juventus 3-0 Napoli

I will analyze a particular case to better display this, that of the Napoli game earlier this April. Behind the aesthetically-pleasing goals, compact defense, and fluid movement that highlighted Juve’s 3-0 triumph was Conte’s anticipation of the employed formation & tactics of Walter Mazzarri. The Napoli coach employed a typical 3-4-3 formation to which Conte responded with a mirrored 3-5-2, a familiar sight for the Bianconeri as they had followed the same gameplan twice against Udinese and vs. Napoli themselves once before. The standout statistic to the consistently dominant amount of possession that day however, was the amount of shots Juventus had (26) to Napoli’s measly 7 – none of which hit the target.

Indeed, Napoli’s man-marking system – who typically does well when confronted by three-attacker formations – was disarmed right off the bat by Conte’s choice of playing only two players (Vucinic & Borriello) up front. The forwards’ movement (ever-so-mobile in nature) did justice: Napoli’s back three was constantly dragged around, and Salvatore Aronica in particular was regularly lured to the centre by the Montenegrin’s lateral movement. Napoli’s back-three looked confused, as their rigid man-marking had not taken into account a situation where opponents were not fixed into their role (which is the case with Juventus). At the same time, Paolo Cannavaro became the spare man as Campagnaro & Aronica covered Vucinic & Borriello, but his movement toward the top of the pitch meant that he constantly left a large gap between the other two centre-backs, who were left helpless as attacks rained in from all angles.

#6 – Player Versatility

Part of the reason Conte’s tactics have been so successful is ultimately down to the players, because they are instrumental in enacting them. The free-flowing football that has become part of the Juventus system is contingent on the players’ ability to move around pitch, comfortably slotting into different positions if the need should arise. With 84% of Juve’s passes being played short (very rarely are players stationary), tireless elements such as Vidal, Pepe, and Lichtsteiner (among others) have found particular success.

Simone Pepe's different positions this year,
archetypical of the ‘Conte Player’

Simone Pepe for example, has alternatively been utilized in a left/right midfielder or mezz’ala (a similar fate reserved to Emanuele Giaccherini). Claudio Marchisio, as he has often shown last year, has the possibility of playing left-sided winger if necessary. Players like Lichtsteiner, De Ceglie, Cáceres have been slotted into full-back or wing-back/winger positions equally well (the Uruguayan also a very capable CB), while Giorgio Chiellini‘s dominance as a center-back has often been sacrificed to produce a more-than-competent makeshift terzino (the original position of his playing career). Lastly in more recent weeks, Arturo Vidal has shown to be an extremely determined and reliable center-back when all of Conte’s other options were unavailable.

All this goes to show that, even during emergencies, Conte has a vast array of choices to pick from. In perfect balance, this versatility is anchored and strengthened by a clear reference point through which all of Juve’s movements flow: Andrea Pirlo.

#7 – Injuries (Or Lack Thereof…)

The time was November of last Season, when a defeated Gigi Delneri admitted “Injuries are so bad I would play myself against Brescia”. From phrases as exemplary as the latter to Simone Pepe being forced to play right-back in a bid to fill the numerous gaps, Juventus were a makeshift team at best and the coach never really possessed a full squad to play with.

Sadly it all started before the season even began, as Gigi Buffon’s back/shoulder injury during the Azzurri’s dismal South African campaign kept the Juve #1 away from the pitch until the latter parts of the 2010-11 season. While Marco Storari did more than an admirable job between the posts, the commanding presence of San Gigi was missing, and it was only the beginning. Juventus would endure an astonishing hecatomb of players all year long, reaching its peak with the gut-wrenching knee injury to Fabio Quagliarella (during the forward’s best moment of form), to the point a full-scale investigation was carried out to determine the causes of such an epidemic (doctors, a too heavy training load, and Vinovo were all successively blamed).

This season, barring a few individual injuries, Juventus have not suffered from ANY major infirmary setbacks. This has enabled Conte to have a full-strength squad for almost the entire year, and the lack of a heavy matchload (due Juve’s complete absence from any European action – see point below) has made the injury situation all the more better. Compare this with what unfolded at Milanello this year, and you will see there is plenty to smile about at Vinovo these days.

#8 – Lack of European Commitments

This area is pretty much self-explanatory. The fact Juventus are currently playing in only two competitions (Serie A & Coppa Italia) gives them a big advantage: fatigue from playing two games a week, traveling to other countries, the risk of injury, and a compromised team selection have all been eliminated from Conte’s worry-list. While it remains a grave reminder of last season’s shortcomings – and in fact, the post-Calciopoli period – the fact Juventus are not hampered by a European competition (for the first time since 1962) would seem beneficial, as they can solely concentrate on getting the team competitive domestically first. Europe will come next as natural evolution.

Indeed with the now near-certainty Juve will acquire a Champions League spot, waiting till next year – when the team can be fortified with higher-standard transfers – will ensure the Bianconeri will enter the UCL at a level already capable of holding their own against Europe’s elite. To have put that demand on Antonio Conte as early as this year would have no doubt brought an additional – perhaps too heavy – strain on the squad.

#9 – Transfers

The ‘M-V-P’ midfield of Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal, and Andrea Pirlo was assembled for the minimalistic fee of €10.5m, an astute construction that mirrors the ancient workings of Luciano Moggi, one of the greatest transfer gurus to have graced the footballing world. Admittedly, Marchisio was already at Juve’s disposal prior to this season, but nonetheless he has been employed where he is able to do his job the most effectively, rather than being squarely placed into a circular hole as he was last year under Delneri as a left-midfielder. While Beppe Marotta is naturally the one conducting business Antonio Conte seems to have a heavy and direct influence, hand-selecting players to fit into his system: the aforementioned Vidal, Padoin, Stephan Lichtsteiner, and Martín Cáceres, as well as the decision to exercise the option on Simone Pepe, have all been heralded by the ex-Siena manager.

Particularly Simone Padoin’s arrival shows Conte’s disposition, as having coached the player at Atalanta he was the instigator of a transfer few others would conduct (or even request). Also noteworthy is the case of Manuel Giandonato, who featured at Siena under Conte’s management. “He did well in Tuscany” said the manager about the young midfielder, “I was struck by his great personality. We all believe in him, and he represents the present and the future of Juve“. Though currently on loan to Lecce this term, it seems clear Giandonato’s development is being followed by Conte very closely, much like that of another Juve product who remained in Bianconero this year (Luca Marrone‘s loan transfer was vetoed precisely by Conte).

Lastly, Simone Pepe’s recollection of a conversation he had with the Juve manager is equally striking: “Conte said to me ‘you will not be leaving this club, now let’s get to work’ and from then on I knew he had faith in me. This acted like a great motivation”. All this goes to show Conte is clearly working toward a system, and those who are not a part of it are not a part of Juventus. Period. Just ask Reto Ziegler, Luca Toni, and Vincenzo Iaquinta…

#10 – Newfound Purpose

Two successive 7th-place finishes in Serie A as well as the loss of their fighting power as a European top-side (and even more so, a unit), have been both the result of and the reason for a broken squad at Juventus. Mentally beaten down by criticism, under-performance, and embarrassment, the Bianconeri broke every negative record in the club’s history. Last year a winless streak in the Europa League (against clubs who’ll consider Juve’s faltering a historic episode in their modest run) and a disastrous girone di ritorno in Italy meant the Bianconeri found themselves fighting for essentially nothing.

The page has now been turned, as Juventus enjoy an ongoing 36-game (32 league matches) undefeated streak. By becoming Campioni d’Inverno at the halfway point of the season, the players will no doubt have the taste for trophies impeaching their very core. Grounded by Conte’s humble approach (often shooting down any potential talk of victory), the team has adapted their manager’s mantra that “they still have everything to prove this season” and are driven by the same motivation he exemplified in a recent personal recollection: “I was playing with a broken lip, forced to hold a handkerchief in my mouth to dab the blood. With 15 minutes left I scored, and the goal allowed us to qualify for the next round; I remember celebrating with my handkerchief all soaked in blood.”.

“Spitting blood” is an image Conte alluded to recently, in the now-famous speech to his players recorded by SkySport Italia. This is the man driving the boat ladies & gentlemen…

Artwork by Zafar Khudayberdiev
 

I thoroughly hope you’ve enjoyed my take on Juventus and gained some valuable insight into the workings of La Vecchia Signora. I have tried to provide 10 Key Points why Juventus have changed for the better, but the list is by no means exhaustive: feel free to add whatever I may have forgotten in the Comments below.

The important take-home message here is this: though Juve’s infrastructure has been laid in, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ as the proverbial saying dictates. The Old Lady’s foundations are neither complete nor void of imperfections, yet in nearly all areas significant change has been made and steps taken in the right direction. One need only ask our new signing Martín Cáceres, who enjoyed a loan spell with the club in the past, who remarked: “This is a different Juventus than two seasons ago”. No statement could be more correct.

Where we go from here, time will tell.
 

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