At Juventus, a Strange Season Takes Another Turn
The start of Juventus’s season was miserable. A raft of injuries ravaged the club’s squad. The team’s results, in those first few weeks, were flecked with disappointment. Barely a month into the campaign, Manager Massimiliano Allegri was having to smooth over the impact of an interview in which he had suggested “something was missing” from his side, alienating several of his players.
Things did not improve. By early October, with Juventus seemingly adrift in the Serie A title race and on the brink of a humiliating elimination from the Champions League, Allegri received the public backing of Andrea Agnelli, the club’s president. That is rarely a good sign. When it is prefaced by an admission that the team should be “ashamed” of its performance, it is significantly worse.
As it turned out, though, that was not the nadir. Far from it, in fact. At the end of November, Agnelli — together with the rest of the Juventus board — had resigned his position, seemingly as a consequence of an 18-month investigation by Italian prosecutors into financial irregularities related to the team’s activity in the transfer market. (The club denied wrongdoing.)
The next day, UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, announced that it was opening an investigation into whether it had been misled by the club, too, raising the specter of a possible sporting punishment being levied against one of Europe’s grandest teams on top of a possible judicial one.
Then, a couple of weeks later, the European Court of Justice issued a nonbinding ruling that — essentially — declared UEFA’s role as an apparent monopoly did not breach European law. The decision effectively quashed the legal basis for a European Super League, the project that Juventus, which registered a loss of $273 million last year, had identified as its way out of financial crisis.
In the space of four months, almost everything that could have gone wrong for Juventus, on and off the field, had gone wrong. The team was in disarray. The club had been shaken to its core. Its light, for so long the brightest in Italy, was blinking and fading, obscured by despair and disappointment.
On Friday, Allegri’s team travels south to face Napoli, a side that looked at one point like it might run away with the Serie A title this season. Napoli was, until last week, the last unbeaten team in any of Europe’s major leagues. In Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratshkelia, it possesses arguably the most devastating attack in European soccer.
But should Juventus win, it would cut Napoli’s lead at the top to only 4 points. It would be the ninth consecutive victory for Allegri’s team. In the previous eight, Juventus has not conceded a goal. Win in Naples, and the most miserable season Juventus could have imagined would, all of a sudden, glisten with anticipated glory.
Quite how Allegri has effected that upswing is something of a mystery. Juventus has not suddenly started playing well; cautious and obdurate, it remains something of an anomaly in the modern Serie A, now probably the most attack-minded league in Europe.
Of the eight wins that have swept Allegri’s team into Napoli’s slipstream, five have finished 1-0. Juventus required an injury-time goal to beat Cremonese last week; Danilo scored in the 86th minute to secure victory against Udinese on Saturday. Antonio Cassano, the firebrand former striker turned pundit, insisted that Juventus did not “deserve” to win that game.
Nor has Allegri benefited from the sudden return to fitness of a phalanx of major stars. Ángel Di María, now a World Cup champion, has returned to the side, and Federico Chiesa is slowly recovering from long-term injury. But Paul Pogba, Leonardo Bonucci and Dusan Vlahovic are all still missing, and Juventus’s resources are hardly any deeper now than they were three months ago.
In their absence, of course, Allegri has had to trust more in youth than he — like all Italian coaches — would ideally like. That has allowed the midfielder Fabio Miretti, still only 19 but now an Italian international, to blossom into the standard-bearer of the club’s next generation. The sense of freshness, as well as the injection of energy, has helped.
It is tempting, though, to wonder if there is something else at play. It is striking, in modern soccer, when players can count on millions of literal followers and managers are habitually presented as possessors of rare and precious gifts, quite to what extent everyone involved believes the world is aligned against them.
Seeding and curating what is generally known as a siege mentality is almost every manager’s basic play, their immediate reflex. Pep Guardiola does it, at unfathomably wealthy Manchester City. Jürgen Klopp does it, after five years of gushing praise for his Liverpool teams. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona fervently believe they suffer so the other can thrive.
But while the specific content is often laughable, the fact that so many managers — and players and executives and fans — adopt this mentality is significant. There must, in some fashion, be a power in convincing players that it is them against the world, that everyone is out to get them, that they are the underdog, fighting the good fight. They must believe it, at least in part because they want to believe it.
And so, perhaps, Juventus’s many months of weakness have metamorphosed into a strength. All of the criticism, all of the crisis, has helped bond Allegri’s players to one another and to their coach. It has helped them buy into the reactive, gnarled way he wants them to play, to act, to be. It has helped them scrabble and claw their way out of misery and into the light. Things could not, really, have got any worse for Juventus. And it is at that point, perhaps, that you realize they are going to get better.
A Modern Great
A few years ago, at the height of Gareth Bale’s cold war with Real Madrid, someone with a connection to the club and an ax to grind suggested that the Welshman had never really tried to establish a bond with his teammates.
The evidence, beyond an alleged unwillingness to improve his Spanish and the longstanding accusation that he spent all of his spare time on the golf course, was that he had — on more than one occasion — failed to attend a team-building dinner with the rest of the squad. To the rest of Madrid’s players, the story went, it had felt like a deliberate snub.
There was, though, an alternative explanation, offered by another Real Madrid player who had made the same call as Bale (though, curiously, did not attract so much censure). The dinner in question, it turned out, had been scheduled on Spanish time: appetizers at 11 p.m., a main course arriving around midnight, thinking about a dessert after one in the morning, that sort of thing. A couple of the club’s northern European players, including Bale, had decided that was far too late for food, and so given the event a miss.
Even now, it is not entirely clear quite why such sourness infused Bale’s last few years in Madrid. The disconnect between player and club always seemed somehow small and petty, as if the problem was not a difference of vision or ambition but, more than anything, a lack of communication and understanding.
Its impact, though, is indisputable. Bale’s sudden retirement this week, six months before the expiration of his contract at Los Angeles F.C., brought a flood of tributes and testaments to what has been, by any measure, a gleaming career.
At the club level, Bale has won five Champions League titles, three Liga championships, a Copa del Rey, and an M.L.S. Cup. His most meaningful legacy, though, may have been with Wales. More than anyone else, he ended the country’s long wait to compete in a major tournament (the 2016 European Championship) and its even longer wait to return to the World Cup.
For all that, though, it has long felt as if Bale receded from the front rank of major stars some time ago. Some of that, of course, can be attributed to age and injury — his powers had waned, no question — but his rumbling ostracism from Real Madrid’s team played a part, too.
Over the years, as we have grown used to Bale’s absence, we have internalized the idea that no true great could ever be so dispensable. The argument has been made, in recent days, that Bale never quite fulfilled his talent. But while the working is sound, the conclusion is wrong. Bale’s career stands up in comparison to (almost) anyone. It is not that he did not give enough to the game. It is that the game did not think enough of him.
Money Can’t Buy Happiness
Both of these things are true: At the start of the summer, Chelsea had a squad that consisted largely of players who had — only a year earlier — been crowned champions of Europe. Since then, the club has spent something in the region of $380 million on reinforcements.
And yet, glancing through its squad, it is hard not to have questions. Two questions, in particular. The first is: “On what?” The second is: “Really?”
It is not that Chelsea has bought bad players. It has, of course, spent a little injudiciously at times: Kalidou Koulibaly may, it turns out, have been past his prime, and Wesley Fofana’s injury record might, harshly, have been seen as a red flag. And it has, occasionally, paid over market value, most notably for fullback Marc Cucurella.
The problem is not just that Chelsea has bought players who are not significant upgrades on what it already had. It is that it has bought them with no apparent strategy beyond the idea that more is better. João Félix, a relatively low-risk loan deal completed this week, embodies the issue: a fine player, but one that does not address any particular shortfall.
Getting the best out of him will entail inhibiting — either in time or space — Kai Havertz, or Raheem Sterling, or Mason Mount, or some combination of the three. Will Félix make Chelsea better? Possibly. Will he assuage the most pressing flaws in Graham Potter’s team? Probably not. And that, really, is the central question: How can a team go through so much (expensive) change, and yet seem to get absolutely nowhere?
Will Clark-Shim has, it could be said, been reading this newsletter for too long. “I believe we have reached that time of year when you muse on the F.A. Cup and whether it has outlived its day,” he noted, immediately forcing me to change what I was going to write about this week. “Isn’t the better question why there is still a second English and Welsh tournament cluttering the schedule?”
This, of course, refers to the venerable Carabao Cup, English soccer’s long-lasting optional extra. There is, certainly, some merit to the idea of abolishing a tournament that was only invented (in the 1960s) so that clubs could make money from newfangled floodlights. The rebuttal, though, is no less valid.
It has two central pillars: the valuable funds the tournament generates for the lower tiers of English domestic soccer, and the opportunity for glory it provides second-tier teams in the Premier League. This week, after all, Newcastle, Southampton and Nottingham Forest have all made the semifinals. At least one will be in the final. It hardly seems the time to diminish the competition’s significance.
And we had a perfect New Year email from Ellen Johnson. “Since the Brooklyn Dodgers went westward, I’ve not been interested in sports,” she wrote. “That changed with the World Cup. At 82, I’m a believer now. So what’s next? Which teams are worth following?”
Well, first of all: Welcome on board. I give it three weeks before you’re railing against the perceived iniquities of V.A.R. There should be plenty, over the next six months, to meet your needs, as Europe’s major domestic competitions wind their way to the finish and the Champions League — home of the biggest game in soccer outside of the World Cup final — coalesces into its annual mayhem.
What’s worth following? Whether Arsenal, without a title in 18 years, can cling on in the Premier League, Freiburg’s unlikely bid for a top-four finish in Germany, and Paris St.-Germain’s star-studded assault on the Champions League.
The best teams to watch, though, are not always the obvious ones. Brighton comes with a guarantee of entertainment in the Premier League. Benfica is a compelling outsider in the Champions League. And it is this newsletter’s avowed belief that the only event that could come close to the frenzy of the World Cup, the story that could yet define this season, would be Napoli winning its first Italian title in 34 years.