I had the misfortune over the festive period of finding no good reason to avoid watching our beloved Juve live on Russian sopcast link. Which is not to say that I have not kept abreast of our games, in fact I have seen a fair few in their entirety and not missed highlights of all our matches to date. The reason I use the word misfortune is that I already had a steady barometer of our form and I knew I would suffer more than rejoice for the experience.
Still, with enough vodka in my belly to eek out any hint of passion and excitement I considered it my duty to watch us face Sampdoria; a side I was probably more excited to see live than the home team…for I have long enjoyed Quagliarella, know Saponara as a sometimes delightful caresser of a football and have been mightily impressed with Audero every time I have seen him this season…I would go so far as to state that the most joy gleaned of my reaching out to consume highlights of all the other serie A fixtures has been the fierce young buck of Indonesian birth and paternal descent…born of an Italian mother, moved to Italy aged 1 and joined the Juve ranks soon after turning 11. It was apparently none other than Rampulla who noticed him and brought him to the club.
Emil has represented Italy at every level from U15 upwards and presently features for the U21 side. This, his debut season in Serie A, is proving quite special. And already there is talk of extending the loan for another year, for whilst there is a purchase option in the current deal, Juve have a counter-option, all part of the modern replacement of the previous co-ownership routine which I have covered previously…somewhere.
Essentially the intensity in the lad’s glare appears aligned with impressive reflexes and reading of the game. Recognition for his progress was confirmed in the New Year through his inclusion in the Uefa.com top 50 youngsters to watch in 2019.
The match also seemed a decent chance to run the rule over Praet despite our tentative interest cooling over the Summer. And former Juve owned midfielder Albin Ekdal. Suffice to say, I had more interest in the tie than simply dutiful allegiance (and endurance).
I didn’t learn anything new about the side from the game. I rarely if ever get that sensation, only when a new player comes in and is both unable to fully accept the shackles and naturally liable to excite. Cancelo instantly comes to mind, though nobody else. Which I guess is part of the problem.
I did however, come to a conclusion which had not fully crystallised previously, just been blossoming on the ugly truth tree. Namely that this now long term stodge served up by Allegri is never far off precisely what the chef aspires towards. What I see as machine like, telegraphed, anaemic, dour…pleases Max, for it achieves results. And his focus is embalmed in results. Not entertainment, not development, not offensive cavalier football, not even tactical versatility. Just results. Which is understandable, given his measure to most at the club is results, not performances.
Much of this comes down to the huge increase in the commercial aspect of the modern game, for the riches on offer at the top are now what we require as our staple diet. And the club hierarchy cannot afford a more frugal diet of results, which essentially are counted in EUROS as much as points and silverware.
Understanding and accepting this does not help much in terms of a head and heart so accustomed for so many years to seeing not just a powerful Juve on a technical basis, but a passionate Juve, one which plays football in the right way.
Other than the period after we returned to the top flight when the squad was hideously mis-assembled with Secco at the helm we had generally provided entertaining football. Until the Allegri era. Which has brought such consistent success and two great champions league runs, and yet really only one period where I was so excited and inspired to watch every minute, after he shoe-horned five attacking players into the line-up en-route to the CL final. That proved however, merely a flash in the pan, a cruel distant memory of what could have been, when the new season began.
I suspect that we will see an upturn in our excitement value when Cancelo returns to the squad, but he is the one major highlight of this season for me, with Cristiano settling into a workmanlike match winner and nowhere near the explosive force brimming with flair and raising the level of those around him as many more than just myself hoped and dreamed, if not assumed.
Only Max could stifle Ronaldo. Only Max could consistently push Dybala further and further away from goal. Only Max could see the increasingly exquisite potency of Little Doug Costa last term then shelve him for a bench role this season. Only Max would have the vision to see Pjanic as a deep lying regista, as a screen in front of a shaky defence to stand proud and strong to face the onslaught from our enemies often alone in the middle.
Many decisions he has made do not perplex me any longer. His methods are now proven beyond any doubt and require no further explanation. (Other than the fetish for Khedira…though I have often suspected the droll idea that its his way of trying to make Pjanic ‘develop his skill set’ by giving him a massive hole in front of him and to the right to ever remind him of his defensive duties and to try channel Pirlo combined with Vidal in one little Bosnian. Poor chap. Its never going to happen.)
There are of course scores of fans who really do not understand the game beyond results. They seek to attach themselves to a club who win titles and to boast of their connection to this glory, seek attention through rehashing headlines and when they see a side like Liverpool, they notice no difference between their style and ours. For they don’t feel the game, let alone see the game, as those with older more penetrative eyes cannot help feel as part of themselves gone close to lifeless, become an echo of what drew them originally to the club and kept their hearts beating hard and fast whenever a ball was kicked, tackle crunched, goal scored or conceded.
I do wonder what those who see nothing amiss with Max’s methods make of Klopp’s work at Liverpool. He has assembled a superb squad, brought through some immensely talented youngsters, focused sequentially on every area of the squad in unwavering effort to raise the level throughout. He has also blended youthful and experienced, driven the side towards a club ethos both in spirit and tactics. And now in his third season at the club, it has all come together. They have an identity which marries belief with enthusiasm, defensive steel and a consistently entertaining offensive, winning style. Their current success is built on attacking football and balance throughout the side.
Clearly it can be done. Just not with Max.
Though its unfair to focus solely upon the manager, for he does not have the final say or even the main say (I believe) in the mercato. He is of course always part of the discussions but from what I understand the management of Nedved, Marotta and Paratici are the main players in procurement. With that crowd of overseers, including Allegri, coming together at the end of the season and probably before January to discuss what is needed. Highlighting positions, with the major responsibility for sourcing, targeting and working on availability down to Paratici, not Marrota as many seem to assume, as did I. It seems that Beppe was the money man, the deal-maker or breaker. And part of the reasoning behind his recent departure is that his wheeling, dealing modus operandi does not fit with the ambitions of the club, in terms of bringing truly elite players to the squad to take us to the next level of development and success.
This is not intended as a criticism of Beppe Marrota, for his ability to make a deal has helped immensely in our return to the upper tiers of continental football. It is more to suggest that the man responsible for finding these players, for bringing the potential for the deals to the club, has always been Paratici. The most important work is often forged in the shadows…
I suspect that Beppe fell foul of others in the management structure for his inability to pursue the very best of talents. Who can say? Perhaps he was against the Ronaldo move…which is why we have learned of late that it was his alleged assistant who brought the opportunity direct to Andrea Agnelli, not the bespectacled one working eye for a deal specialist.
We are all well aware of Max’s pragmatism, and also of the issues with the modern midfield which had reached a spectacular pinnacle under Conte. We not only possessed the strongest defence on the planet but also arguably the finest midfield. Yet that has been slowly dismantled, and the reality is that the players who have come in the place of Pirlo, Pogba, Vidal, Marchisio have not been of the required quality, or the right fit.
I would place Matuidi and Khedira in the functional category, with the frenchman often excelling due to his energy, though rarely a pleasure to watch on the ball. I need not say anything of the sloth, for anyone who has read my scrambled transmissions previously is well aware of my scathing opinion of the ‘german world cup winner’.
Pjanic has morphed from beautifully creative central midfielder to largely a dogged solider engaged in an inexorable forced march.
Emre Can looked quite good at Liverpool, mainly as a dynamic defensive midfielder, yet he has rediscovered none of that form in black and white as of yet. Probably because we expect him to suddenly metamorphosize into Vidal, when he is unfortunately very much Emre Can.
Which leaves only Bentancur, who is gifted, but still young and developing.
Five central midfielders for a side aiming for the ultimate glory does not bode well. Especially when only one of them is a natural creative force, and we play him as a defensive midfielder.
I understand Max’s thinking behind tasking Dybala with coming deep to collect the ball and ‘play between the lines’ but the result has been consistently one of a song bird cruelly muzzled.
The Argentine has suffered more than any other player with Ronaldo’s arrival…and its disheartening to often see both him and Pjanic in the central midfield area, admittedly Dybala is higher but still, its the two physically weakest players in our side battling in the toughest area of the field. And always highlights the burning need to have a player of serious physicality in the middle of the park who can not just put his foot on the ball but drive forward to become the fulcrum of the midfield but also dynamically transition to and from a solid moving base of attack.
Would a player like Aaron Ramsey help? Probably a little, for he would instantly become our most competent carrier of the ball through the middle. It is this ability to get on the ball and drive forward through the middle that our core so desperately lacks and it explains very clearly as to why we focus most of our attacking play down the flanks, flinging crosses into the box over and over again somewhat hopefully, and why we rarely find anyone in a position centrally playing through balls high up the field. I would say that Bonucci looks almost as useful in this regard as even Pjanic, which is not so much a glowing praise of Big Leo’s form, more so a serious failing in the central area as a whole.
Ramsey is a decent player, capable on the ball with a good engine and eye for a tackle and pass, yet he is not at all (alone at least) the answer to our problems. Pogba could have been, had Mourinho stayed and the problems between manager and player continued to the end of the season, but this is now not the case. Milinkovic Savic remains the most obvious solution. Like Pogba, but to a lesser degree, he is not world class defensively, though he is strong and huge, both of which help especially when aligned with discipline and sound reading of the game. Like the frenchman, he is wonderfully adept at driving forward with the ball and picking out a pass if not shooting from range.
Pjanic is easy to hustle off or force to release the ball, Savic and Pogba are not. This is a pivotal aspect of my analysis.
Briefly on Mourinho…Who shares a definite sense of pragmatism with Allegri…If anyone wishes to learn of the capacity for a manager’s tactics to stifle a side, they need look no further than the immense change in form and entertainment and results which has occurred at United since Jose left and Ole resurfaced in Manchester. Sure enough they have only played weak sides in this period, which they might have won regardless of who was in charge, but it is evident that the tactics have altered as dramatically as the performances. And this is not merely gung-ho football, for the defensive side of United’s form has improved as a result of their offensive game opening and blossoming.
As with any system made up of co-dependent connected parts, such as the human body, its often not the muscle giving the pain that is the cause of the problem. This is often more the symptom of issues with the connective tissue and ligaments between codependent muscles. Tight hips can give pain in the knees. Trapped nerves in the back can give headaches. And the list goes on. Essentially, I am suggesting that our defensive wobbles this season are as much if not mainly, due to problems elsewhere in the side, as the defence itself as a unit.
We focus on our defensive troubles whilst often overlooking the disjointed midfield, poorly functioning connections between midfield and attack and profligacy in front of goal. If we are committing men forward, without balance and strong connections throughout the side, we are unlikely to be able to retain possession and when we lose possession we will be very vulnerable at our core. Which sums up our form from my perspective.
A side with Pjanic, Dybala, Ronaldo, Costa, Bernardeschi, Cancelo and Sandro should be playing beautiful, attacking football and be very comfortable in possession, yet this is rarely apparent other than when sides sit deep and gift us possession, waiting for us to commit players forward then hit us on the break and we look a shambles at the back.
We must sort out the balance of the midfield and attack before the defence has any chance of seriously improving. It was not just some special alignment of the planets of Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini which made our back-line of yesteryear indomitable, it was the midfield and attack, the balance in the side, which allowed them to perform at their very best, a whole side in harmony.
I suppose the greatest example of what I am getting at here is the Barcelona side of the last decade. Admittedly now somewhat on the slide, yet still a sublime side often to watch and one of the finest in the world. The catalan outfit built an empire, a dynasty, on a foundation of fluid, attacking football.
Its of course easier when you have Messi, and Neymar and Suarez and Iniesta, but the point is that they had a definite identity and style to work towards and they purposefully put together a side to reach this goal. Much like Klopp has done at Liverpool.
Regardless of all these observations, if not conclusions, we have a more than decent chance against most sides solely due to our superior technique on an individual basis. Against sides of similar technical level, with a more balanced squad and more canny manager we struggle and will struggle more. There are plenty of games this season to date played against sides which on paper look vastly inferior yet have cut through our defensive structure with ease every time they have attacked with pace and balance and belief…
I have written enough and likely laboured my points like Max smiling contentedly after watching the 18th cross flung into the box, finding nobody, or Ronaldo pouncing on a ricochet for a 1 goal victory. And will leave this snapshot of not just our season but our long term malaise with a conclusion that nothing will change significantly with Max at the helm.