Juventus’ defensive manoeuvres to impact Italy and Old Lady future
Holly Thackeray | April 29, 2016
It was business as usual for domestically dominant Juventus as the lauded Old Lady lifted a fifth successive Serie A title, thus becoming only the second club ever to do so on the peninsula.
Easily the current jewel in Italian club football’s crown, what works for Juve is often mirrored by the Azzurri’s own highs and lows on the international stage.
So, it stands to reason that the moves Massimiliano Allegri makes in the transfer market, and the make-up of his Scudetto-winning squad, should interest the entire nation.
And the ex-AC Milan tactician will certainly have to instigate some smart deals – lest he face the kind of trials and tribulations he endured with the Rossoneri – as a bright start followed by a rocky transition after title success put paid to his shaky San Siro stay.
Do Juventus really need to rebuild? If Allegri can retain the star-studded services of Paul Pogba, Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic and co, then there is a spine sprinkled with enough experience and exuberance that another Champions League tilt is certainly possible. The only way to progress is to keep pace with peers in Europe.
Allegri charged with rearguard restoration
Questions remain over whether the coach, accused by critics of failing to replace Rossoneri lynchpins such as Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and consequently contributing to the slump that continues today in the red half of Milan, has the vision to be an architect.
Can ‘Mad Max’ take the foundations of what many still believe to be Antonio Conte’s team, and keep Juventus an Alpine winning machine?
Yet, any successful side that wants to remain such should not take the current squad performance levels for granted, or allow complacency to creep in. Serial winners are always in need of a new challenge, with history littered with teams that have stagnated after repeated silverware coups.
After all, it almost happened this season, as Juve’s dismal start to defending their title forced them to claw back an early 11-point deficit, before going on an astounding 25-game unbeaten run, with just one draw during that determined sequence.
It served as a warning shot across the bows and in Piedmont. Along the banks of the Po, there is a potential future chink in the Turin titans’ armour that stands out more than most, with rearguard reinforcements and refreshment a certain requirement for future success.
Defensive stalwarts contract consternation
There are three squad fixtures set to be out of contract at the end of this campaign, with a sizable chunk of a decorated defence – Uruguay international Martin Caceres, erstwhile Italy marshal Andrea Barzagli, France veteran left back Patrice Evra – set to see their stints expire.
Of course, the trio could all still ink new deals, with Evra himself stating: “I have not yet decided. I played two special seasons at Juve. We will meet at the end of the championship and then I will say if I continue or not. I must be honest with Juve and with myself.”
Yet, this in itself raises questions of rearguard reliance on ageing pros. Italy is often regarded as an unofficial pre-retirement home, where the sunshine, slower pace and focus on tactical tweaks can allow an intelligent player to prolong their career while still turning out at the highest level.
This trend continues from club to country in Italy, with now outgoing Azzurri coach Conte facing his own crossroads over whether to rely on his long-time performers or turn to youth for Euro 2016.
Juventus here, are a prime example, as their soon-to-be three free agents are 29 (Caceres) and 34 (Barzagli and Evra) respectively, with still contracted Giorgio Chiellini 31, but all have still proven to be crucial cogs in their own ways across recent success.
Barzagli to make way for Rugani?
Uruguay utility man Caceres may be a squad player more often than not – hence why the South American seems most likely to move on, with Roma rumoured to have snapped up his services already. This underrated if injury-prone defender has contributed 77 Serie A appearances in the black and white stripes, snatching five Scudetti, however, and is a serial winner.
Only six of those came this campaign due mainly to an Achilles tendon rupture, but versatile rearguard option Caceres’ experience on big stages (2014 World Cup semi-finals, a 2011 Copa America triumph, a part in Barcelona’s 2009 treble) and adaptability to also plug full back berths added to Juve’s depth. Fitness allowing, and if reports are correct, he could be a bargain for the Giallorossi.
While Evra is often first pick at left back, registering over 20 league outings each in his two terms in Turin, in both of which the former France captain has lifted the Scudetto. A much greater loss if he is to go, the decorated defender of Manchester United fame is known for his dressing room impact at club level, and has been a calm and steady head in Juventus’ distinguished backline.
The writing looked to be on the wall when the Old Lady lured Brazil outlet Alex Sandro from Porto, with a savvy eye on the future in mind, but minutes have been shared quite evenly between the pair, allowing the younger man crucial time to settle.
This bedding-in process is complete now, however, and at 25 Alex Sandro needs to start, especially with Manchester City supposedly circling for the six-times capped Samba Boy. Simply, Juventus must make the jump and begin relying on their new purchase.
Good old-fashioned Italian defender Barzagli, meanwhile, also has a clear successor waiting in the wings in the form of Daniele Rugani, and his eventual replacement for club could also catapult into his country’s future thinking.
Same case for club and country
For a long time now the Juventus back three have oft been the trio of centre halves also chosen for Italy, with Barzagli, another Old Lady regular in Leonardo Bonucci and Chiellini having amassed over 190 caps between them.
When Allegri has played them together, also keen to stick by a back four at times instead to illustrate his tactical diversity, they have been tremendous – a brilliant backbone to Juventus’ era of excellence following a period of re-establishment following the shame of that infamous match-fixing scandal that led to demotion in 2006.
Loyal Barzagli as the elder statesman of his peers but, with five top-tier titles to boast, looks the clear weak link to be supplemented for younger legs, especially in Europe. It could be the same case at international level, with the clock winding down on the former Wolfsburg man’s career.
“I’d like to be a few years younger, so I could stay for a longer time… I wish I’d had this chance earlier,” Barzagli said.
“I was hoping to join a big team after the 2006 World Cup, but it didn’t happen. People didn’t think I was at that level, or there simply wasn’t an opening.
“When Juve came, I was the first to question myself to make sure I could compete at those high levels. I showed that I can. Sometimes I regret my age, because I wish I’d had more time in the heights.”
Risks of renewal
A renewal chance is reported here, and the Italian is definitely a wise option to keep for squad depth and, even more crucially, leadership. The no-nonsense cente back can still teach fledgling rearguard star Rugani a thing or two about command of his area before he takes over both Juve and Azzurri shirts.
It is important that the defensive prodigy is handed more chances if Juventus are to stay relevant, having come agonisingly within inches of the 2015 Champions league trophy, with stalwart Chiellini’s absence one of the main factors the Old Lady rearguard was breached so readily by a brilliant Barcelona.
Then, of course, the risk remains with tinkering with a staunch defence that has won almost everything and kept 27 clean sheets across all competitions this campaign, seeing veteran keeper Gianluigi Buffon break records along the way.
It’s easy to see that these tried and tested veterans’ characters and will to win was a key part in saving this ultimately successful Serie A defence, but to see progress risks must be taken.
With top-class Chiellini no spring chicken either, apprentice Rugani can put himself ahead of AC Milan’s much-touted Alessio Romagnoli in the international pecking order by learning from the master more in Piedmont.
As Chiellini ages, he just appears to get cannier, and the Italian’s intelligence can compliment his younger compatriot’s vigor and verve for at least a few terms more, and it could prove an important partnership in the handing over of batons.
“The BBC [Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini] are three unbelievable defenders, who have the perfect mix of attributes,” Romagnoli said of his elder contemporaries in Turin.
“Barzagli is always highly concentrated, it’s difficult to distract him. Bonucci has a strong personality and is able to lead the team under pressure, while Chiellini brings aggressiveness, physicality and competitiveness.
“I am fortunate to be able to train with them daily and I always try to learn as much from them as I can,” added the 21-year-old, who turned out 38 times for Empoli in Serie A last season while not picking up a single booking.
“Juve in the style of Barcelona”
Having eased his way into Allegri’s good books, Rugani will be hoping he can also fast-track his way into Conte’s ideas in France, where Italy are 16/1 with Coral to win the tournament, although it is more likely he will be on the next Azzurri coach’s radar.
Easily one of the best defensive prospects in Italy, Rugani’s future development in the royal blue shirt directly relates to what trust is handed to him in Turin.
Mehdi Benatia of Bayern Munich and formerly Roma is expected to be drafted into defence this summer with Borussia Dortmund skipper Mats Hummels eyeing a return to the Allianz, but the Agnelli family may want to keep their purses in their pockets with talent already on their doorstep.
“Our objective for the future is to create a Juve in the style of Barcelona,” said Juve director general Beppe Marotta.
“It takes instinct to find the most promising players and bring them to Vinovo, but also courage to given them a debut in the first team.”
In Rugani they have gone down that road and must not ruin it now, as it is not only Juventus – currently the most powerful club and attractive prospect in Italy – whose footballing future depends on Italian youth being given a chance.
Filippo Romagna, Juventus Primavera captain under cult Golden Goal hero Fabio Grosso, is another name being thrown about for the future. Having stormed to feature in age groups above his billing and already included in match day squads but yet to make his bow, the 18-year-old emerges at a well-timed moment of defensive transition.
Will Juventus have the courage to propel themselves, and consequently perhaps Italy, forward? The decision is very much Allegri’s, as he attempts to find what he did not at AC Milan – the right balance between replacements. Rebuilding is a very tenuous project indeed, but if Old Lady is to renew herself and keep winning they must get this cycle right.