Juventus are almost certain to claim their ninth straight Serie A title and Maurizio Sarri will win his first as a manager. Following Wednesday’s 3-3 draw against Sassuolo, Juve’s lead over second-place Atalanta is seven points with five matches to go. If Inter win on Thursday at Torino, they move within six, but given Juve have the head-to-head over the nerazzurri, it would still require some sort of cataclysm for them not to win the league.
Juve have historically prided themselves on mental toughness, winning mentality and success “come-what-may.” Their legendary captain and former president Giampiero Boniperti coined his own version of the famed Vince Lombardi “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” quote when he said: “Winning isn’t important, it’s the only thing that matters.”
It is a mantra that continues to resonate, but which, increasingly, is a tougher sell among fans. Because when you have done it — or are about to do it — nine seasons in a row and do not live in a self-contained bubble, you want a bit more.
Fans know Juve’s wage bill is more than twice as high as that of everybody else in Serie A. They know the team will likely finish the season with fewer points — read, less dominance — than in previous seasons. They know that they have not played well with any sort of consistency this season. And they know that, if they aren’t in a mano-a-mano title race, it’s because potential contenders stumbled.
Lazio ran out of gas after a magnificent early sprint, Napoli failed to step up until the last months, Inter shot themselves in the foot more times than manager Antonio Conte cares to remember and Atalanta, perhaps, started to believe a little too late.
Then there’s the trauma of the past three games for Juve — against Milan (2-4), Atalanta (2-2) and Sassuolo (3-3) — to bring this all into focus. Two points in three games is not a catastrophe, especially when rivals continue to stumble, but what hurts is that the draws felt like defeats.
In fact, take away fortuitous penalties awarded for handball against Atalanta — Juve know all about those, given how they have been on the receiving end as well this season — and the Wojciech Szczesny Superman impression against Sassuolo and they could be looking at three straight defeats.
And then there’s the cardinal sin of Italian football — perhaps Juventus especially — which is the inability to hang on to a 2-0 advantage, as happened against both Milan and Sassuolo. Managing a lead, denying space to hit on the counter, being clever and confident without the ball… these are qualities that they see as their birthright. And they were nowhere to be seen in those two games.
The knee-jerk reaction is to blame Sarri. Many, including yours truly, were skeptical when he was appointed, noting that he was neither a cultural nor a footballing fit. You want to move to a more expansive, attacking brand of possession football like the kind he offered at Napoli? Fine. But it’s going to take time and, given Juve are loaded with pricey veterans built to win here and now (more of this later), it seemed like a counterintuitive choice.
Was Sarri really going to persuade then 34-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo to press and track full-backs and run around to open space for midfield runners and do all the things the manager’s wingers did at Napoli? We got our answer early on: Sarri was going to be accommodating; it was going to be Cristiano “and 10 others”.
Now, catering to your superstar is fine and often makes sense, especially when he commands almost a quarter of your wage bill. But getting Sarri — a guy who has always placed the collective ahead of the individual — to do it felt like asking a sushi chef to run the world’s most expensive BBQ pit.
The result is that this is not a Sarri team or, rather, it has all the cons of a Sarri team, with few of the pros. Moreover, it has lost most of the best aspects of the Max Allegri era, while keeping some of the weakness intact, particularly the reliance on individuals to create out of nothing. So, even though you could see it coming, a lot of this is on Sarri and those who appointed him.
But not all of it, because the issue runs deeper and speaks directly to resource-allocation. Think back to last summer. You’re turning over a new leaf, you’re betting heavily on the Sarri revolution and you spend most of August trying to flog one of Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Mario Mandzukic.
Why? In Dybala’s case to get fresh cash, while the motivation with the other two was to get enormous wages off the books. In the end, it was Mandzukic who left — on a free transfer — because nobody wanted Higuain and his nearly $15 million-a-year contract that runs through 2021, and because Dybala refused to leave.
Put yourself in Sarri’s shoes. What sort of planning is that? Higuain and Dybala — not to mention Mandzukic — are radically different players with different qualities. And here he is, new to the job in August, not knowing which system to implement because he doesn’t know who will be around at the end of the month. (Incidentally, you can make the same case for Ronaldo; bet he loved the idea of not having a settled central striker to play off.)
Juventus’ obsession with free transfers has been another characteristic of this regime. Just because it worked like a charm in 2011 when Andrea Pirlo arrived age 32 does not mean it will always pay off. Take Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey, who arrived last year and are the club’s joint sixth-highest earners (after Ronaldo, Matthijs de Ligt, Higuain, Dybala and Miralem Pjanic), as examples.
Leaving aside their quality and durability — Rabiot had a reputation as a problem child, which is why he didn’t play for six months at the end of his Paris Saint-Germain career, while Ramsey had barely started 40% of Arsenal‘s league games in the previous three seasons — Juve committed huge sums to both without knowing that Sarri was going to be in charge.
The upshot? Rabiot has started 17 league games, Ramsey just nine. To be fair to both, settling in was always going to be difficult, given the revolving door nature of Juve’s midfield this season, but the size of their wages means it will be near impossible to shift them.
Sarri will shoulder the blame. Should he not turn around a first-leg deficit in the Champions League round of 16 against Lyon or Juve be badly beaten later in the competition, his time might come to an end. (That would give him the unenviable record of lasting just one season at consecutive clubs despite winning major silverware at each: He guided Chelsea to the 2018-19 Europa League.)
But the issues run deeper. If you are going to do a 180-degree turn, especially with a winning team, there cannot be any half-measures. You need to give the manager the tools he needs and the freedom and time he requires. Otherwise, you end up with this version of Juventus.
Fully committing to a rebuild project under Sarri was never going to be possible, though. Not when you had signed Ronaldo, now 35, with the promise of competing for the Champions League. And not when nearly 75% of your wages are going to players aged 29 or older.
Maybe the goal all along, as some have suggested, was simply to win the Champions League, something Juventus have not done since 1996, since when they have lost in five finals. Serie A was just a vehicle to keep players fit, while focusing on the big prize and, heck, if they win it, domestic silverware is a cherry on top.
Sarri may not be perfect, but he did deliver the second-biggest European knockout trophy last season, so why shouldn’t he win the big one? If that is the case and Juventus do win it all, then this other stuff will not matter… for a while.
But once the euphoria stops, there will still be a new season to play in September. And Sarri will still be in charge of a squad assembled in the most patchwork, haphazard way.