If, like this writer, you enjoy listening to podcasts during your free time, you’ll occasionally have hit the “2x” button by accident. You know the one — you’re sitting there listening to Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo dissecting James Harden’s latest playoff failure and then they suddenly sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks, talking so fast you’re not sure if the conversation is about the Houston Rockets star baiting an official or baking one.
Any Juventus supporter who watched either of last week’s Champions League semifinals would’ve endured a similar issue, unable to believe the pace at which Ajax, Barcelona, Liverpool, or Tottenham were playing. But, no matter how many different buttons they pressed on their TV remotes, it would have made no difference because the games were not being played at the wrong speed, it’s just 2019.
That is the ultimate and painful reality of this past year for fans of the Turin giants, the season when their beloved team went from being the “Old Lady” to simply being old fashioned. The sad truth is that, even as the Bianconeri waltzed comfortably to an eighth-consecutive Serie A title, the football served up by Max Allegri’s men was outdated, out of touch, and, frankly, no longer a viable way to win in Europe.
For years, the old maxim that “defense wins championships” has held true, and nowhere more so than in Italy. Home of Catenaccio, this is the country that not only gave the world many of the greatest man-markers of all time, but also the tactical intelligence and awareness to continually grind out narrow victories.
Yet those results are now the exception, with Liverpool’s stunning comeback against Barcelona and Tottenham overcoming Ajax this week merely the latest example of how much the game has changed. The very best teams no longer sit deep and soak up pressure because attacking schemes and players have become simply too good to contain, pushing schemes which nullify such talent to the fore.
Counter-pressing has become the order of the day, with no coach more synonymous with the approach than Jurgen Klopp. “The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it,” the German boss once said. “The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”
The Liverpool boss went even further on a Sky Sports appearance back in 2016, insisting his tactical style plays a major role in the success of the team. “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation,” Klopp told Monday Night Football. “It's all about timing, giving the opportunity. If you play really high, they can't play!”
Those are not empty words, nor are they a man seeking validation or touting his own importance, Klopp only too happy to praise his players after wins as he did relentlessly this week. However, this is not an isolated case either, with sides around Europe utilizing a similar model and many enjoying success by doing so.
According to WhoScored.com, Ajax, Liverpool, and Spurs rank 11th, 12th, and 13th respectively in terms of possession in this season’s Champions League, yet the trio all reached the semifinals. Atalanta are perhaps the only Italian team to follow suit, and — sitting in fourth place and in the Coppa Italia final — they have certainly reaped the benefits.
That brings us neatly back to Juve, who were eliminated from both the Champions League and Coppa Italia in similar fashion. Their European exit came at the hands of Ajax, the Bianconeri losing the second leg 2-1 in Turin despite enjoying 51 percent of the possession. That they had fewer shots (14-13) is a far more telling statistic, but no figure shows the differing approaches more than the fact Ajax were dispossessed just four times over 90+ minutes but took the ball away from their opponents on no fewer than 15 occasions.
Indeed, in the other seven games they have lost this term in all competitions, Juve dominated possession, including a frankly ridiculous 63.1 percent in the 2-0 defeat away to Atletico Madrid and 53 percent in that aforementioned Coppa Italia loss to Atalanta. Statistics show that the Bianconeri totaled 25 minutes and 11 seconds of time on the ball, more than their opponents (22:28) and (laughably) even more than Fiorentina (20:58) managed against Roma in the same round despite the Viola winning 7-1. Talk about sterile possession!
They have still strolled to another Serie A title, however, and the ease at which they have done so should never diminish the accomplishment of winning eight consecutive Scudetti. Nineteen other teams would kill to lift that trophy just once but, while the great John Madden once said that “winning is the greatest deodorant,” Juventus fans have clearly begun to smell something foul.
No amount of domestic success is going to mask the stench of yet another European failure, and as the now 23-year wait for Champions League glory continues, the hunt for scapegoats is fully underway. Recently, FloFC’s own Hunter Sharpless discussed the merits of retaining Max Allegri (you can read his column here), concluding that there is “absolutely no way of knowing who the right man is for the job.”
There isn’t, but rather than pile the entire blame at the feet of the affable Tuscan, it must also be passed up the chain to the men responsible for building the squad at his disposal. Instead of demanding a complete overhaul and insisting “everything sucks,” let’s attempt to do so with some nuance.
Top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo is fully on board, and being able to flank the Portuguese megastar with some combination of Mario Mandzukic, Federico Bernardeschi, Moise Kean, Douglas Costa, Paulo Dybala, or Juan Cuadrado means there are no shortage of quality attacking options. At the opposite end of the field, Wojciech Szczęsny has been excellent and he has largely been well-protected, especially when Giorgio Chiellini is available.
Defensive depth behind the captain notwithstanding, watching every defeat — and, in truth, many of the victories — endured by Juve this season, it is impossible to not recognize their shortcomings in midfield. That is where a team’s identity is born, it is where chances are created for the attack and protection is provided for the backline, yet for the Bianconeri it has been neither one nor the other.
First, it must be said that Miralem Pjanic, Blaise Matuidi, Emre Can, and Rodrigo Bentancur are all good players. But played together, there is no combination that allows for the kind of up-tempo, high energy style that is rapidly becoming a prerequisite for success in 2019. Instead, they repeatedly serve up slow, sluggish performances, the ball progressing laboriously (if at all) from defense to attack.
That lack of ability and awareness to transition quickly from back to front has caused much frustration, particularly from Ronaldo, who has visibly expressed his concerns during games, including in the clip below from March’s clash with Napoli.
"Mister!" pic.twitter.com/ce6oahWEEB— Davide Rovati (@friedgorgo) March 3, 2019
Repeatedly, Allegri’s men allow even subpar opponents to recover and reset, then rely on individual moments of brilliance to unlock tightly packed defenses. Contrast that with the way Ajax, Spurs, Liverpool, or Atalanta fly forward and you’re once again left wondering if you’re watching a different sport. Is it any wonder then that Juve are playing with such narrow margins in Europe?
Aaron Ramsey has already been signed on a “free” transfer and he will help, but the Bianconeri must also invest heavily in a department that has been allowed to flounder for too long. Four years ago, they could choose from Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio, or Paul Pogba and, while it is easy to say that even Pjanic wouldn’t have broken into the starting XI with that quartet at their best, to see that he is now unquestionably the most talented midfielder at the club shows just how far the standard has dropped.
Millions of Euros have been spent in attack and defense since then, but even as the talent drained away from the middle of the field, the club patched it up with free transfers and low-cost options. After spending €90 million on the Argentina international back in 2016, then director general Beppe Marotta promised, “Next summer we’ll sign a [Gonzalo] Higuain for the midfield,” but since then the club has signed only Matuidi (€20m), Bentancur (€9.5m), and Can (free).
Even setting aside Ronaldo’s €112m fee, the Bianconeri have still spent considerably more in attack (Costa €46m, Bernardeschi €40m) and defense (João Cancelo €40.4m, Leonardo Bonucci €35m) than they have where it is truly needed. There is no shortage of players who fit the bill. Sergej Milinković-Savić of Lazio, Spurs star Christian Eriksen, and even a return for Pogba have all been discussed, as have Tanguy Ndombele, Isco, Nicolò Zaniolo, Sandro Tonali, Enzo Barrenechea, and Adrien Rabiot.
The question of who will be on the sidelines will, of course, be a major factor, but whether it is Allegri, Antonio Conte, or even Pep Guardiola, the real revolution must come in midfield. If not, everyone else will continue playing at 2x speed while the Old Lady of Juventus simply looks even more aged than she has this term.
Adam Digby is an Italian football writer for FourFourTwo, The Independent, and elsewhere. Author of "Juventus: A History In Black & White." Follow Adam on Twitter.