The Serie A campaign of the 2013/2014 Juventus side has been flawless, on the other hand the performance in the Champions League has been disappointing. I think that the run in the Europa League has been decent, but it had an abrupt and bitter end when the final at home was within reach. Let’s try to break down why Juventus struggled in Europe and what can be done to return to be competitive.
Details – These competitions are often decided by the little things. Juventus could have easily advanced, had things gone our way: we had plenty of chances against Copenhagen, but Wyland pulled off a heroic performance. We gifted Galatasary two goals at home (a Bonucci misplaced backward pass and then Isla forgetting we were playing a 4-man defense which caused the two goals) and we know what happened in the last match. Just like Atletico Madrid beat Barcelona with a stunner by a Juve reject or Real Madrid survived in Dortmund because Mkhitaryan missed two or three clear-cut chances, Juventus failed because of some details. In these competitions, you need luck.
However, we can’t deny that in this moment Juventus are not at the same level of the top European teams. Buffon admitted that at this stage Juventus are worthy of a round of 16, maybe the quarter final with a good draw, and he is right. This is dissatisfying for any Juventus fan, but it is the reality. Juventus need to be really really lucky to reach a semi-final and can win only with a miracle.
Perspective – Juventus have partaken in European competitions 45 times and won the title five times. Juve have took part to Champions League 28 times: four times they were eliminated in the group stage, four times they arrived to round of 32, five to the round of 16, five to the quarter final, three to the semi-final, seven times to the final and they won it two times. We can say that in 18 times, Juventus suffered an “early” elimination, failing to reach the semi-finals. We have not reached the semi-finals since 2002/2003.
Juventus are currently 16th in the UEFA ranking, behind Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Manchester United, Benfica, Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Arsenal, Porto, AC Milan, Olympique Lyonnais, Inter, Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund. In the Deloitte Football Money League 2014, which ranks the team per revenues, Juventus are in 9th position, behind Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal.
If we made a comparison pound-for-pound of the squads of the European elite teams, how would Juventus fare? In my opinion, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have a undoubtedly a better squad than Juventus, Chelsea too, because they have more offensive alternatives. We can debate about Arsenal, Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Let’s say that Juventus are barely among the top 10 teams in Europe, roster-wise.
What does all that numbers mean? It is not a given that we will win Champions League, or even reach a semi-final, in the next ten or fifteen years. It can happen, because all in all these competitions are unpredictable and outsiders can win, like Atletico Madrid or Borussia Dortmund in the last two years, but Juventus should not be expected to dominate in Europe. We should not discuss Europe like we are due a semi-final, a final, a title. I know some fans would trade a Scudetto with a good result in Europe, but in ten years nobody is going to remember that in that year you made the semi-finals, while a Scudetto goes right into the résumé.
Inexperience – This group was his second European campaign. This coaching staff was in their second as well as his second European campaign. There are no short-cuts for this, the only way to improve is to keep qualifying, keep competing and give our best; inevitably, we will be burnt sometimes. With deep European runs come big disappointments, like we saw this year. The solace is only for the winners and only two teams out of more than 100 participants win.
Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez, and, Fernando Llorente are the only players that experienced winning or coming very close to a continental trophy. Surely key elements of the team, but only four out of 24. Chiellini, Caceres, Barzagli, Vidal, Marchisio, Vucinic, Lichsteiner, Asamoah and Quagliarella have some European experience, but not at the highest stages.
This often translates into lack of poise and composure in the key moment of the matches. Moreover, Juventus need to have more sense of urgency in the early matches of the group stage.
Tactic – I don’t believe that 3-5-2 is inadequate to European football. Ultimately, a tactic that vouches for success doesn’t exist. Conte doesn’t use 3-5-2 because of philosophical stubbornness, but simply because it is the formation most suitable to his players.
The management needs to give Conte the right men to switch to 4-3-3 when 3-5-2 is not effective or doesn’t match up well with the opponent’s formation. When Conte opted for 4-3-3 this season, it was far-fetched. Marchisio, Tevez and Osvaldo played as right-wingers, Asamoah as left-back. Juventus need a true LB and two wingers to deploy a good 4-3-3.
Playing style – In Serie A, Juventus overpowers opponents with their muscularity. They keep pounding the rock until they wear down the rival and find an opening to score one, two, three goals. In Europe, other teams have often matched Juventus’ physicality.
On the other side of the spectrum, Juventus are not an agile and pacey team at all. They have only one weapon and when it doesn’t work, there is no plan B. The right wingers/strikers can provide it, but Conte needs to tweak his beliefs. Juventus never sit back and counter, which is a very successful game plan is Europe. Rarely, Juventus plays up-tempo, one touch football, preferring a slow-paced, methodical approach.
Personnel – There is a blatant lack of unpredictability in the squad. Pirlo is the only one who can create winning plays out of the blue; Tevez has been able to do that in Serie A, but played most of the time in Champions and Europa League with the burden of his European curse. Pogba has to grow into this kind of player. Vidal has thrived in Europe, but he epitomize the team play rather than creating something on his own. I struggle to find a player that can dribble past his man to create numerical superiority.
Juventus have basically no bench. Only Caceres and Marchisio are the two replacements that have starters caliber. The fact that Giovinco has been Juventus best 12th speaks volume. This leads also to the overuse of some players in Serie A, because sometimes they are the only one who can get the job done. This deficiency needs to be addressed.
The right man for the job – Juventus should stick with Antonio Conte no matter what. Only Pep Guardiola went from the lower leagues to sustained success faster than Conte. Conte is 44, he has been coaching for eight seasons, he has been at Juventus for three years. It took Giovanni Trapattoni 10 years to win Champions League. Marcello Lippi won it in his second year at Juventus, but he had more experience than Conte has right now at that time. Conte is destined for greatness.
In these years, Conte has been a catalyst. He has been a spokesperson when the management went missing, he has been a scout, a sporting director (he convinced Tevez to join in a dinner in May and talked Llorente into accepting Juventus), a shield for everything. Ultimately, he answers to his employers, and not the editorialists and to the fans, and the management asked him to win Scudetto and he achieved in a spectacular fashion. So far, under Conte, Juventus have never openly aimed at winning in Europe.
The future – Juventus will not suddenly become richer and will not be able to afford 40, 50-million dollar players for a very long time. Revenues will raise at the end of the next season, when the Adidas sponsorship and a new sponsorship on the kits as the Jeep on expires will kick in. But the sheiks [editor’s note: NOT the Iron Sheik] , Bayern Munich, the English clubs and the Spanish giants will always have a deeper pocket.
This means that Juventus, like in the last years, will have to be clever. Changing coach would be absurd, it would mean to start over and re-do the squad based on the new coach’s demands without the financial power to do it properly. Moreover, right now Juventus are in the outskirts of the European elite and are not be able to attract the most touted coaches (the fact that they are better than Conte remains to be seen).
Juventus can improve in Europe only by maintaining the core of the current squad, listening to Conte’s requests, giving him a deeper squad and different solutions. Juventus are very distant from their glorious past, when they dominated Europe and reached the UCL final three times in a row, and it will take a lot of time or a lot of luck to win in Europe, but there are no short-cuts and trusting the growing process of this group is the only way to compete soon enough.