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The quiet vanishing of Mario Mandzukic…and can Sarri prosper?

June 5, 2020

Prior to the Corona issue I had started writing this piece in early March, which still seems timely enough to continue with thoughts of the now, for the break has not changed, just dulled, my despondency which was happily tempered by the Derby d’Italia, but not enough to swing me 180…

Mandzukic could leave Juventus. Next stop, Man United ...

Mario Mandzukic enjoyed a solid 4th campaign in the 18/19 season. 10 goals, and 6 assists in 33 appearances confirms a steady role in the title winning final bow of Max’s reign. This continued his top drawer career in black and white, throughout which he has never complained, always fought unwaveringly for the cause, led by example whatever his role, respected the club and his teammates. He was a warrior, a heart of gold with a will of steel. The transformation from a CF to a LM was testament to his versatility and professionalism, for he threw himself into the task and succeeded after playing his whole career previously up top centrally. He somehow managed to become a hybrid LM/LWF also weighing in heavily to support the defence.

This current campaign –  before he was jettisoned to the middle east on a free transfer – Mario was given three bench appearances then a complete exile from the squad in October.

‘In this moment Mario Mandzukic is not training with the group due to an agreement he has with the club,’  – Sarri.

This is hard to understand from a sporting perspective. Though an argument can be made for Sarri’s focus on a 3 man midfield, to some degree. Yet what of our striking options?

The one player who seemed perfect to play as our CF, Ronaldo, apparently decided he would play LWF in a hybrid role to roam and attack the box where he sees fit. To partner him would be Higuain or Dybala (or both). With Dybala also tried and returning of late, on occasion, in closer to a trequartista role. Was this Sarri’s decision solely? He looked at the squad and thought Mario was clearly so dispensable that we need not even give him a single minute of match time?

Sarri must have seen and known well enough of his leadership qualities, his versatility, how he played fine and often well in a side with Ronaldo last term. The front line hasn’t clicked for any more than the odd game and yet still, no Mario. Better to use Freddy who was generally awful. Avoid even having the giant Croat as a weapon from the bench to come on and use his determination and physicality to unsettle, carve out openings and raise the morale of the side.

It seemed a shameful way for his time with the club to end. And I cannot agree with the sporting measure of the decision for he is a player, has always been a player, who through sheer force of fury and physical stature often made things happen on the field and his tenacity, indomitable nature, was assuredly an asset both on and off the pitch.

As a comrade of our flock remarked to me when I mentioned I was writing, partly of his departure…

That man would fight 10 bears on his own and look for 10 more after that.

(@TheOddJamie)

He left the club with no fanfare, no celebration of his pivotal role in sustained success, no dignified opportunity for a man who bled for our cause to enjoy the send-off he deserved.

This saga continued the steady erosion of my pride in the club and further nourished my cynicism of the direction we have taken in recent years. For it is not the first time I have felt disappointed with how we have treated players who have given a huge amount of their heart and soul and lives to the club.

The most obvious example is Del Piero. Whilst I do not share the extreme reverence with which many other juveninti hold him dear to their hearts, I had watched him from when he first came into the side as a scrawny kid with big hair and perhaps more than any other, he symbolised far more of the club ethos than merely as a highly gifted player on the field. He has class. As a man and as a footballer and yet…the manner of his departure seemed as low key as the management could devise.

Many will disagree, but I also felt that we mistreated Lichtsteiner. Certainly Marchisio. And of late, other than Big Mario, also that fiend Emre Can. Who does seem to have a big mouth. Though that doesn’t detract from the substance of his accusations.

“The fact that I am not in the Champions League squad is extremely shocking for me, mainly because I was promised something different last week. There were talks with other clubs [before the transfer window closed] and one of the conditions for me to stay was to be part of the Champions League squad.”

Emre Can, September 2019

This cold hearted, borderline deceitful treatment of players had also been apparent during pre-season with Sarri, apparently our first choice to replace Max who was then given what seems little if any influence in recruitment.

“As I said before, I can talk to Dybala all I like, but the market goes in a certain direction and my opinion counts for zero. We have to cut six players, that’s all there is to it.”

Sarri, August 2019

The coach intimated that a week before the season started proper, he did not know which players he would have at his disposal. This was left to Paratici and Nedved (I assume). And it smacked of very poor management indeed. Not at all the logical method for encouraging synergy between the new coach and the squad.

 

If Sarri was the first choice, he would or should have been consulted on the recruitment. It cannot have been ‘we want your sarri ball style but you have no say on the players we give you or let you keep, okay buddy??’. Or maybe it was.

The nut of the matter is that we have become less of a family club, more of an unfeeling business, focused on nothing but the financial side of the sport. Which suits some fans, but for me it represents a move away from what always felt somehow moral, ethical, decent. Perhaps I was always projecting and the last vestiges of a naivety I have kept dear to my heart with the club since the early 90s is fading.

Back to the on field matters…which seem due to recommence albeit in empty stadiums with heavy testing in place for the players, alongside I assume, some paradoxical guidance on social distancing in a contact sport with 22 men constantly in close quarters.

It was interesting to read of Di Livio’s comments recently…

“You can’t be calm, and the players aren’t,” Di Livio told TMW Radio. “You organise a trip without having contact with other people, on the pitch you won’t embrace your teammates, and you can’t celebrate but the physical contact is still there.”

“Last night I watched a game after two months and it was a sign. You could tell, they played at two kilometres per hour, without audience when in other times it would have been sold out. For me, there were few emotions.

“We have to start again, and we’ll do it even without the public, but it’s not football. I also saw many banners against the resumption, the fans are all against it and I understand them. But we try to get through the moment.”

There seems a sense of a second chance for Sarri to get his ideas across, to regroup and have the opportunity to drill his system into the players with renewed vigour and focus. Which has some feeling we will come back stronger than we were. Which is possible, though how likely is another matter entirely. For we can only judge the future on the near past.

Our form has been shaky. The results generally good, but very few decent performances, especially this side of the new year. The insipid shambles in Lyon was no shock, more a continuation of our trajectory. And yet, when the time came to face off against our despised rivals and former coach Antonio Conte, we were fairly dominant and enjoyed a comprehensive, deserved 2-0 victory before the curtain came down.

That game was notable for the empty stadium, yet also for the palpable difference in our momentum and solidity, having Bentancur as the pivot of the side in the DM/ regista position.  And it is this question which now may well dictate where our season leads – Bentancur or Pjanic?

 

Juventus’ Uruguayan midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur applauds during the Italian Serie A football match Juventus vs Atalanta on May 19, 2019 at the Allianz stadium in Turin. (Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)

Also worth pondering from that game was Ramsey. Who was given the role I feel is probably the most suited to his talents. Not a perfect fit, but far more viable than as a trequartista. The Welshman has superb technique, a quick mind and good engine. His injury problems however, alongside Sarri wondering where to use him when he has been fit, have led to a failure of a campaign so far.

Other than natural born leaders, what our side has been shorn of since the heady times of Vidal, Pirlo, Marchisio, Pogba, is goals from midfield. Pjanic was chipping in with free kicks often, before Ronaldo came and took over this duty with an appalling conversion rate in comparison to the Bosnian. As much as it will pain Dar Black, for me to write this – Khedira has for a fair while appeared our greatest goal threat from midfield. I will temper that by adding that this is partly due to his high technical level and awareness, and unfortunately also due to his tendency to linger and loiter around the 18 yard box and leave gaping holes behind him, with nowhere near the legs or enthusiasm to get back into position when we lose possession. I guess that confirms how poor I perceive we have been in this ultra important area. For if all the goals come from the forwards, our play is telegraphed, our system too linear.

Its a lot harder for opponents to bother, frustrate and contain us if we have multiple goal threats deeper than just the front line. Ramsey was intended to change this, and still he might. The big question is whether he can stay fit enough to get a decent run in the side and build momentum, to then truly show his best. (Rabiot is barely worth mentioning other than as proving overrated and an unmitigated disaster)

The two considerations are connected, for whilst Bentancur can play in the RCM role, and has been one of very few players improving this season under Sarri, the side seems tentatively more balanced with him at DM, and our goal threat from midfield is increased with Ramsey at RCM. Yet what of Pjanic? The player earmarked as the one to prosper hugely under Sarri, to become our pivot, to pass more than any other player, to flow through and dictate the tempo, essentially to morph into the Jorginho of his beautiful Napoli era. A player who has been increasingly disappointing. Perhaps worn out or naturally coming to the end of his impressive career in black and white.

I have long been a fan of the Uruguayan, from the time when he was discussed as part of the potential Tevez deal. His Boca form was hugely encouraging. He had elements back then slightly reminiscent of Pogba in regards to his ability to gather the ball deep and stride forward, past players. A more defensive talent, more gritty also, yet obvious intelligence, comfort on the ball and a running style where he seemed languid, yet was gliding past players, covering ground with ease. I don’t feel we have anywhere near found his best role, yet perhaps at DM we may see him blossom. He has the defensive intelligence and passes well, alongside a capacity to fight and hustle and move the ball quickly.

The youngster has plenty of work to do on his final third endeavour, and I believe that Sarri has been encouraging him to do much more than help build the pay from deep, knowing the kid has the talent. The rest of his game seems steadily improving.

A reminder of what Ramsey could offer…

He is class,

yet made of glass…

Before the season was paused, I had been seriously considering an early exit from the CL, departure from the coppa italia, (for we make bad teams look good) and even the scudetto loss. I was thinking what might happen if all these failures combined and collected, in regards to Sarri. And am too long in the fang to wipe that slate clean and assume a line has been drawn over what was, and now its all fresh and new and enthusiasm and belief and hope for success on all fronts can be somehow justified.

It is possible that replacing Pjanic with Bentancur, and finding Ramsey fit enough to maintain a role at RCM could be enough to click the system into working well. And Sarri will continue where he left off, the players will find a new rhythm, we will start to dominate opponents as our collected talents should do far more often than has been thus far realised. I hope so.

We must be realistic and pragmatic. If the Matuidi- Bentancur – Ramsey midfield does provide a more solid, cohesive unit it is highly unlikely that this will be seen in every game. Pjanic is too deeply embedded into our system and will certainly be playing often, perhaps alternated game to game with the pretender to his crown. We do not have many games left and as much as I dislike it – as I strongly believe that momentum is found through building connections between the same players game to game – rotation is going to prove key. We have potentially Pjanic and Higuain to depart in the close season. Shutting them out the side to bit part roles will be detrimental to both their fortunes and the team. Both still have much to offer.

The major worry remains that we have no identity. No set style which works well consistently. No set first XI. An assorted collection of players who don’t seem to fit well together, with a huge focus on Ronaldo and manager with a very specific style, which he is trying to shoehorn around a striker with a free role, which doesnt fit his established philosophy.

 

PARMA, ITALY – AUGUST 24: Juventus Sports Director Fabio Paratici looks on during the Serie A match between Parma Calcio and Juventus at Stadio Ennio Tardini on August 24, 2019 in Parma, Italy. (Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

Yes, I am a longstanding detractor of the signing of the portuguese superstar. And am convinced that Paratici used the move to corner Beppe Marrotta, had Nedved on side, and persuaded Agnelli that the staggering investment was going to be bountiful to both our business and sporting model. It hasn’t turned out that way. We have won less silverware. We have become more disjointed a side heavily reliant on Ronaldo. We have dispensed with Beppe who was the strategist behind the building of the side and coaching staff which took us back from the shadows into the limelight. And we have also recently dropped out of the top ten clubs on an economic measure.

According to KPMG’s latest soccer club valuation report, ‘The European Elite 2020’, which was released earlier this week, Juventus’ estimated value at the start of 2020 was $1,941 million. That puts them at 11th in KPMG’s rankings of Enterprise Value, meaning that no Serie A team makes the top ten.

I dont believe we are a better team with Ronaldo, than we were without. Which isn’t to say he has not proven a great player and remains a world class weapon, it is more a case of the immense financial investment impacting upon other areas of the squad which are in dire need of improvement and the system focused too much on the frontman.

I suspect Beppe had his reservations about the mega move. Yet so did KPMG soon after the transfer was completed.

Indeed, the club will bear inevitable costs in relation to the signing of Cristiano which will not depend on future circumstances, as revenues do. In fact, as explained in the previous sections of this report, the figures provided are estimations and forecasts of revenues which will highly depend on the management capabilities of Juventus FC and on the on-field performance of the team.

That report from 2018 suggests that we would have to be highly dependent on sporting success and management capabilities to even break even from the deal. Not quite how many others alleged experts reported of the move back then and even now.

We used to have a midfield of leaders, of fierce warriors and I include Pirlo in that, for he had far more tenacity than some perceive. As for Vidal, he was a natural born warrior, a centurion essence most recognise since only in Chiellini (and Mario before he was discarded). Marchisio? A loyal servant of solid technique and mega zeal who would always throw his everything into the cause. Pogba was immense, needed the support of the established senior players when developing, and became a world class threat from midfield.

That war machine of a midfield has been replaced with lesser parts, technically weaker, mentally weaker…Only Bentancur shows any of the loudly beating heart aligned with high level technique they all possessed and expressed with a steady roar of the wilderness.

Added to this midfield I atavistically use as a reference point, was the defensive unit, which was probably the strongest I have ever seen and felt of any side, not just Juve. The chemistry, balance of talents and strengths, was incredible.

We have a poor midfield. Matuidi is the most effective, yet technically poor. Rabiot has proven a mega failure. Ramsey is made of glass, maybe we should give Ventrone a call? Pjanic is even less potent when we expected him to become the metronome.

And yet…hope springs eternal.

The building blocks remain in place to make una favola out of this season. In spite of my reservations, condemnations, wailing and woe…I still believe in magic and dreams.

forza juve

TGP

(Follow me on twitter here)

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