While the season ended on a sour note with Del Piero’s last game with the team and the loss to Napoli in the Coppa Italia Final, the 2011/12 campaign will go down as one of the greatest ever for Juve. The team remained undefeated in Serie A, and other than during a tough stretch in the end of winter, the team dominated most games. Conte joined Lippi and Trapattoni as a first year Juve coach to win the scudetto, hopefully he can continue to follow in their footsteps and also win the Champions League in the foreseeable future. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look back at how each player contributed to Juve’s historic season.
The most glaring improvement from last season was on the defense, which went from giving up 47 total goals to 20. The vastly enhanced midfield certainly insured the defense was better protected, but a full season of Barzagli, the return to form of Chiellini, the development of De Ceglie and Bonucci as well as the strong additions of Lichsteiner and Caceres gave Juve its best defense since the Calciopoli scandal. Historically all of the great Juve teams of the last 25 years were built on strong backlines. The 1986 team that won the Champions Cup (the equivalent of today’s Champions League) featured legendary defenders such as Cabrini and Scirea. Lippi’s first tenure at Juve which netted another Champions Cup in 1996 featured Ferrara, Vierchowod, Torricelli and eventually Montero, finally the Capello era featured Thuram, Zambrotta and Cannavarro. So it is not surprising that in the past 6 years Juve has seen very mediocre results when it featured players like Motta, Grygera, Legrottaglie, a washed up Grosso and an injured Andrade. Juve’s current defense has a nice mix of youth and experienced players, and should be a very strong asset to the team for years to come since Barzagli, who recently turned 31 and signed a well deserved extension, is the oldest core player. While the club features one of the best backups in all of Europe in Storari, it will have to find a long term replacement for Buffon (Leali and Branescu are intriguing possibilities) since both of its goalkeepers are in their mid 30s.
Let’s look at each defensive player contributed to the scudetto and reaching the Coppa Italia final , grades are from 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest.
Buffon 7.5- the best evidence for the vast improvement of Juve’s defense, was the fact that Buffon was bored for many games in the second half of the season. He did however have strong performances versus Inter and Milan in the scudetto stretch run; he also had a monster save at the beginning of the game versus Genoa when Juve’s defense was decimated. Buffon finally got over his back issues and should be Juve’s captain for the next few seasons. Buffon recently surpassed Dino Zoff in games played for Italy and is about to do the same for appearances with Juve, the only throphy left him for to win is the Champions League. Buffon did have an embarrassing mistake in a key game versus Lecce, the same week that Adam Yauch, AKA MCA, of the Beastie Boys passed away. Luckily the team picked him up by winning its last two Serie A games, so I am glad to say Buffon did not “Sabotage” Juve’s dream season.
Storari 6.5- I was fairly surprised Storari decided to extend his contract with Juve at the beginning of the season. He is certainly better than numerous starting goalkeepers in Serie A, and after a strong string of games with Juve during the 2010/11 season he had an outside chance of being a backup for Italy in the upcoming Euros. During this season Storari played well in the Coppa Italia but made a key mistake by causing the penalty in the final game versus Napoli. Other than Del Piero’s awesome goal versus Lazio, my favorite moment of the season was when Storari injured 3 of his teammates celebrating a goal in the home game versus Catania, I would have made his grade for the season a 7 had Borriello been one of them.
Lichsteiner 7- Marotta purchased Lichsteiner from Lazio for 11 million last summer, this move finally gave Juve a strong right back after the disastrous tenures of Grygera, Zebina and Motta with the club. Lichsteiner was one of the best players on the team during the fall/winter of 2011, but appeared to wear down as the season went along, he also did not appear to adapt well to the 3-5-2 formation Conte used in 2012. Lichsteiner got to score the first Serie A goal in Juve’s new stadium and showed feistiness and strong pace in his debut season at Juve.
De Ceglie 7- Juve has not had an elite left back since the Capello era. In recent years the team tried to address this deficiancy by bringing in young prospects (Molinaro and Traore’) and then a veteran option (Grosso) with awful results. Last summer, Marotta seemed to have finally found a good option in Ziegler who had played well at Sampdoria. Surprisingly Ziegler was sent out on loan shortly afterwards to Turkey giving De Ceglie the starting job, who would go on to become Juve’s most improved player of the year. He always showed good offensive ability and was arguably the team’s best crosser, but as the season went along he also started to show vast improvements defensively. De Ceglie is finally making Juve fans forget about Criscito, had he not gotten injured at the end of the season he would have deserved a spot on Italy’s squad for the upcoming Euro. Just like Antonio Cabrini (Juve’s greatest left back ever) De Ceglie has movie star looks, if he continues to improve and becomes less injury prone it is possible that in upcoming years people will say that Ashton Kutcher (picture below) looks like De Ceglie and not the other way around.
Barzagli 8.5- Barzagli did not have one bad game during the season, and despite not possessing one elite skill he became Serie A’s best defender. Scirea may have been Juve’s greatest defender of all time, but he probably never had a better overall season than Barzagli had during this campaign (which is very different than saying Barzaglis is better than Scirea). Just like Scirea, Barzagli is a very tactically sound player who hardly ever has to resort to fouling, as demonstrated by the fact he only received 3 yellow cards during the Serie A campaign. I compare the addition of Barzagli to Juve as when Giancarlo Esposito joined the cast of Breaking Bad, it was an under the radar acquisition that made everyone else considerably better. Here is a clip of Esposito as Gus Frings, one of the greatest TV villains of all time.
Chiellini 7.5- After coming off two subpar seasons, Chiellini had a very strong return to form. He showed good versatility by playing numerous games at left back, but had his best performances in the 3-5-2 formation playing with Bonucci and Barzagli. Chiellini was on the verge of becoming the next great Italian defender back in 2010, but struggled playing alongside average defenders like Mellberg, Legrottaglie and a washed up Cannavaro on Juve. Good to have Giorgio back playing at elite level since he is a well deserved fan favorite.
Bonucci 7- Perseverance is one of my favorite qualities in a person. Bonucci had an absolutely brutal month of March, he got a red card against Bologna when Juve had already lost Chiellini and Barzagli to injuries, and had a terrible game versus Milan 3 weeks later. Leo however responded very well and was a key player in the scudetto stretch run. He scored key goals versus Napoli and Palermo and his passing improved towards the end of the season. While I am not sure he is worth the exorbitant price tag Marotta paid to acquire him (in comparison Caceres cost less than half) Bonucci is one of the most promising center backs in all of Europe and will continue to develop playing with Chiellini and Barzagli.
Caceres 7- Marotta brought back Caceres to Juve in January to add depth to the defense. Caceres rewarded the team shortly afterwards by scoring two goals versus Milan in the Coppa Italia semifinal. Caceres showed good versatility by playing in every role on Juve’s backline and continued to show the “grinta” that endeared him to Juve fans during his first sting with the club. Juventus recently purchased Caceres outright, he should be a great alternative to the team’s starters when it competes on three fronts next season.
While the defense was the most improved area for Juve compared to the previous season, its success was also due to a much improved midfield. Conte was a former key midfielder for Juve in the 90s, and he was able to transmit his trademark “grinta”and versatility to the midfielders during his first season as Juve’s coach. Marotta was able to radically improve the talent in the midfield by bringing in Vidal and Pirlo to replace Felipe Melo and Aquilani, and as a result Juve dominated most opponents with its mix of quality and physical strength. Juve’s current midfield is actually very reminiscent of the one Lippi used in the early 90s featuring Paulo Sosa, Deschamps and Conte and could be the core of Juve’s new dinasty.
Conte wisely decided that in order for Marchisio to fulfill his potential, he would have to play in the middle of the pitch as opposed to on the wing or as a trequartista. Conte also adapted the formation of the team throughout the year, either to fit the strengths of the roster or in some occasions to the counter act the strengths of an opponent. Last summer, the media speculated Juve would employ a 4-2-4 formation to feature two out of Krasic, Elia, Estigarribia and Pepe . Instead Conte decided that a 4-3-3 would ensure Vidal, Pirlo and Marchisio could both protect the defense and support an offensive trio of Matri,Vucinic and Pepe. At times, Conte featured a 4-5-1 and in the second half of the season he typically a employed a 3-5-2 (although you could just as easily describe it as a 5-3-2 considering that Lichsteiner/Caceres/DeCglie are typically listed as defenders) that ended up being the winning formula in the scudetto stretch run. Other than Pepe, Juve’s midfielder did not suffer any major injuries throughout the year with Vidal, Pirlo and Marchisio all playing over 34 of the 38 Serie A games.
Let’s look at how each individual player contributed to Juve’s stellar midfield:
Marchisio 7.5- there was no better player in all of Serie A in the fall of 2011. Just like Chiellini, Marchisio was coming off two subpar seasons; he was on the verge of losing his Principino nickname and new Tardelli destiny. Conte vowed to employ Marchisio only in the middle of the pitch and the move paid immediate dividends, with Marchisio scoring 5 goals in Juve’s first 11 games (2 against Milan) while providing a strong defensive presence in the midfield. Marchisio was not able to maintain his strong form during a stretch of draws versus weaker opponents in the winter, and the team struggled mightily as a result. He ended the season on a high note by scoring goals versus Fiorentina, Lecce and Roma and providing great cover for the defense. Marchisio ended the Serie A campaign with 9 goals, tying him with Vucinic for second most on the team.
Pirlo 8- I was somewhat skeptical when Juve signed Pirlo on a free transfer from Milan. He was coming off two uninspired seasons with his former club, and was showing signs of being prone to injuries. Having him train at Vinovo seemed like the worst idea since Metallica decided to sue its own fans during the Napster era. Pirlo however responded to being on a new club just like a recently divorced middle aged man dating a woman half his age. Pirlo played with passion and led the team in games started. Not only did Pirlo radically improve Juve, his departure also weakened Milan considerably. Pirlo was among Serie A’s leaders in assists with 13 and was very consistent throughout the year. Pirlo is only the 6th player in the history otf Serie A to win back to back scudetti with two different teams, the last player to do so was Roberto Baggio who joined Milan after winning the scudetto with Juve.
Vidal 8- Marotta acquired Vidal from Bayern Leverkusen after a bidding war with Bayern Munich. Vidal cost Juve the same price it spent on Martinez the year before, and half of what it spent on Felipe Melo in 2009- today Vidal is worth considerably more than those two players combined, this fact alone sums up his debut season at Juve. Read the sentence one more time and also imagine how good Bayern Munich would have been had they acquired Vidal. Arturo was often compared to another former Juve midfield warrior Edgar Davids, but he possesses a much better offensive game than the Dutch international. Vidal has the potential to be a new and improved Conte, who had a very distinguished Juve career as a versatile midfielder. Vidal scored 7 goals during the year and had standout performances in key games versus Roma, Napoli and Inter. Vidal also showed great versatility by also playing at CB against Genoa when Bonucci was suspended while Chiellini and Barzagli were injured. Vidal was as devastating to opponents as Dave Lombardo of Slayer is to a drum kit during a live performance
Giaccherini 6.5- prior to his arrival at the club, Juve fans mainly knew Giaccherini because of this incredible miss
Conte went out of his way to praise him when Giaccherini arrived; famously saying that if his last name was Giaccherinio he would be hailed as a great prospect rather than a consolation prize in the transfer market. Giaccherini was one of Juve’s best players during the tough winter stretch; he essentially provided the spark Pepe gave the team during the fall. Giaccherini ended up playing more games than Elia and Krasic combined. On the back of his strong performances at Juve Giaccherini was selected to play for Italy at the upcoming Euro.
Pazienza/Padoin 6- Pazienza joined Juve on a free transfer after a strong season with Napoli. He appeared to be an ideal alternative to Marchisio and Vidal, he however ended up getting his only start at Juve when Pirlo was suspended for a game versus Genoa. Pazienza demanded to be sent to a team where he could have a chance of regular playing time, Marotta obliged by shipping off to Udinese in January where he played 15 games. Pazienza is likely to be included in the deal should Juve be able to land Asamoah. To replace Pazienza Juve purchased Padoin who had played for Conte during his stint coaching Atalanta. Padoin played 6 games for Juve (3 starts) and while he may not be worth the 5 million euros invested for to purchase him, for some reason he reminded me of the singer of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones one of Boston’s best bands from the last 20 years
Krasic 5 - I am feeling lazy and these two pictures sums up Krasic’s season at Juve better than anything I could write.
Pepe 7.5- one of Juve’s best players in the fall, Pepe was slowed down by injuries and Conte’s reliance on a 3-5-2 formation in the second half of the season. Pepe got one last golf swing in (his trademark goal celebration) during a key game versus Lazio in April, and did end up playing 31 games during the Serie A campaign, even though he faced some stiff competition from bigger names on Juve’s roster. Pepe should be a very valuable player when Juve will be playing on 3 fronts next season and remains one of Marotta’s best acquisitions at Juve. Finally, Pepe complained more to referees throughout the year than I did about Del Piero’s treatment so I am giving him an extra half point.
Estigarribia 6- the owner of the worst teeth on Juve since the days of Daniel Fonseca, Estigarribia arrived to the club after a stellar run in the Copa America with Paraguay. I was hoping that Esti would prove to be the best thing out of Paraguay since Larrissa Riquelme but he proved me wrong. While he only started in 9 Serie A games, Conte choose him to play in some of Juve’s biggest games (Milan, Inter and Napoli) of the season because of his versatility on the left wing. I do not see him as anything more than an alternative to DeCeglie should Juve decide to purchase him outright. Estigarribia’s agent should try to get him a role on the show True Blood or in the last Twilight movie.
Elia 5- arguably the only big transfer bust of the summer if you do not count Ziegler, Elia appeared to be ill suited for Conte’s style which demands versatility and hard work from the wing players. He was so underwhelming at Juve, that he played less minutes in Serie A’s 38 game schedule than for Holland in the last World Cup, a team that also featured numerous talented offensive players. The only reason I am not giving him a lower grade is the fact he retweeted 3 of my columns during the season.
Marrone 6.5- one of Juve’s best midfield prospects with Giandonato and Fausto Rossi, Marrone showed some strong flashes in the 3 games he played and could be a younger version of Marchisio. He should be loaned out to a Serie A team next season to gain some experience.
While the defense and midfield vastly improved from the previous season, Juve still struggled to get goals from its strikers during the 2011/12 campaign. Juve’s midfielders scored 30 of the team’s total goals compared to 27 from strikers. On paper Juve’s roster featured plenty of firepower up front, considering it featured 7 strikers that had played a combined 216 games for Italy (I was shocked to find out Iaquinta has 40 games played for the Azzurri in his career). Juve’s leading scorer for the season, Alesssandro Matri, ended up losing his starting job in the second half of the season to Quagliarella and eventually Borriello. The only player Conte never lost faith in was Mirko Vucinic, despite a horrific stretch of games from the Montenegro international in February and early March.
Marotta was finally able to move Iaquinta, Toni and Amauri in January by essentially agreeing to pay their wages for their new clubs (Iaquinta was loaned to Cesena and promptly got injured) after he acquired Borriello and Quagliarella finally showed signs of recovering from his knee injury. Despite not having a player in the top 15 of leading Serie A scorers (Giovinco would have led Juve in goals scored), Juve ended up the season with the second most goals scored in the league, mainly due to the fact it scored 12 goals in its last 5 games.
Matri 7- After a strong first half of the season, I was certain Matri was Juve’s best striker since Trezeguet in his prime. He showed the ability to be at the right at the right team, while also showing the willingness to help out the midfield. He mysteriously lost his starting job first to Quagliarella and eventually to Borriello, but still managed to score a key goal versus Milan at the end of February. After an up and down season, I am not sure Matri is worth the 18 million euros Marotta spent to acquire him, and he is now rumored to be a key piece in a potential deal for Cavani. Matri deserves credit for never complaining, always supporting his teammates and for having arguably the hottest girlfriend on Juve (Federica Nargi) which is an impressive feat when you are teammates with Borriello.
Vucinic 7.5- It is very frustrating to have someone like Vucinic on your team, he can have some incredible games like the ones versus Roma and Fiorentina and then he can disappear completely just like Whitey Bulger (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitey_Bulger) for weeks at a time. He is very similar to his fellow countryman Savicevic, as well as former Juve player Boniek whom Umberto Agnelli famously called “bello di note” (handsome at night) because he would only play well during evening games. Vucinic did reward Conte’s faith in him by carrying Juve during the scudetto stretch run. If Marotta can acquire a real top striker Vucinic should be able to almost double his number of assists (he had 8 last season) since his teammates squandered numerous opportunities Vucinic created. Vucinic’s goal versus Novara, and his performance versus his former club Roma remain amongst the best highlights of the season.
Quagliarella 6- it took Quags quite a bit of time to recover from his devastating knee injury from January of 2011. He really did not seem right until the game versus Catania in mid February of this year, and during that game he was viciously attacked by Storari, who was celebrating Juve taking the lead in a key match. Quagliarella scored 4 goals in 23 Serie A games (9 starts) but did not get many chances to play next to Matri which would have been his ideal partner up front. Quagliarella was rather vocal in his desire to get more playing time, and the fact he was not selected to play for Italy in the upcoming Euro makes me uncertain he will stay with Juve even though he recently signed a one year extension with the club.
Borriello 5.5- in recent years, only Amauri has been more vilified by Juve fans than Borriello. He arrived from Roma in January on loan and Juve has an option to purchase him outright during the summer. For some reason Conte started Borriello in numerous key games during the scudetto stretch run, and the coach was rewarded when Borriello scored a key goal versus Cesena when Milan was two points behind Juve in the standings. Unless Borriello is cast as Christian Grey in the movie version of 50 Shades of Gray (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/50_Shades_of_Gray), a role he would absolutely be perfect for, I think it is inevitable Marotta will purchase Borriello outright in the summer.
Del Piero 6.5- I have complained about the treatment Del Piero received from Juve this season enough that I could write a book about it (and I probably will) so I will keep is short and sweet here. Del Piero scored key goals versus Inter and especially Lazio when Juve needed him most, he also not once complained when he was not playing while Juve’s strikers could not score to save their lives (imagine how Totti would have behaved in a similar situation). This past week was the 8th anniversary of the passing of Umberto Agnelli, should he still be alive today there is no doubt in my mind Del Piero would be able to end his career at Juve.