Antonio Conte resigned his post suddenly last month, leaving Juventus seemingly in disarray as they abruptly lost the manager who had lead them to three straight dominating league titles. His replacement, Max Allegri, has a fair history of success behind him, but doesn’t inspire much confidence in the Juve fanbase; Allegri’s sides have never been as good as they should have been based on talent, and he’s forever finding creative ways to lose matches. It doesn’t help that Conte was Juve through and through, having served as a leading star of the club as a player before guiding them to new heights as a manager. Allegri has a lot of proving to do before the fanbase trusts him.
One of the most delightful aspects of watching Juventus march to three straight Scudettos has been watching the timeless Andrea Pirlo keep doing his thing. Perhaps the finest regista the world has ever known, watching Pirlo sit back and ping around pinpoint-accurate long passes and scinitllating free kicks is a guilt-free pressure even for the biggest haters of Juventus. Sadly, though, the 35-year-old has finally been showing signs of fading, leading many to wonder how much the bearded genius has left in the tank. This might be the last season we see him at least close to the height of his powers; he supposedly wants to represent Italy in Euro 2016, but it’s not clear whether he’ll makes it that far or not.
Pirlo isn’t the only aging superstar that Juventus fans are worried about; Gianluigi Buffon is still captain of both club and country but, at 36, time is rearing its ugly head. Goalkeepers often manage to hang on to this age and beyond, but we’ve already started to see Buffon’s reactions slow, his ability to move in the box to adjust to changing threats diminish, and see him struggle in the air on corners far more often. Like Pirlo, he wants to make the next Euros at least, but with Salvatore Sirigu seemingly ready to take over for Italy and Juve staring down the barrel of a potential rebuild in the next couple of years, this could easily be San Gigi’s last season.
Not only do Juventus’ top three center backs make up the defensive core of the Italian national side, the combination of that trio and the rest of their defense gives Juve a significant level of quality at the back that the rest of Serie A can only dream of. The combination of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and Andrea Barzagli gives Juve a fearsome starting trio at the back. The trio are each capable of playing straight-up against the most physical strikers around, and both Bonucci and Chiellini do well against trickier, more nimble attackers as well. Their significant experience playing together also lends them the ability to easily shift and adjust to changing conditions ahead of them, making it harder to pull them out of position or otherwise disrupt the back line. To make things worse for the opponents being able to rotate in the likes of Martin Caceres and Alex Ogbonna, who would start for most teams in Italy, is practically luxurious compared to the reserves most teams have at the position. Their wingbacks, Stephen Licthsteiner and Romulo on the right and Kwadwo Asamoah and Patrice Evra on the left, are equally good and deep. This is a defense that isn’t just the best in Italy, it stacks up well with the best in all of Europe.
Want a versatile and effective midfield trio? Look no further. With Andrea Pirlo pinging passes around from deep in midfield, and the insanely talented duo of Arutro Vidal and Paul Pogba shielding him when out of possession and crashing the box when Juve have the ball, they make for a potent combination that the slower-paced teams in the league can’t seem to find a way to easily contain. Making it harder is that both Vidal and Pogba have a good feel for creative passes around the box and the ability to threaten with good longer-range shots to pull defenders out of the box and make room for Juve’s other attackers. Their second unit midfielders operate a bit differently than the starters, but that mostly serves to give Juventus more tactical options to use for specific matchups if needed. Claudio Marchisio gives them something of a lesser version of Vidal to bring off the bench, Luca Marrone gives them a more straightforward defensive midfielder if needed, and Roberto Pereyra gives them a creative player to use further up the pitch. Juventus just need to make sure Pogba and Vidal are still playing for Juventus after the transfer window closes.
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After a sometimes rough first season in Italy, fans love to hate Juve’s big Spanish striker. Despite his early scuffles, Llorente quietly scored 16 goals last campaign and added five assists, numbers well in line with his career norms. He also served as an excellent foil for Carlos Tevez, using his size and strength to open up space for the Argentine striker to operate in, and using his deft passing touch to link balls through from the midfield to Tevez. While many are already looking forward to the day that Llorente is replaced in Turin, Juve fans shouldn’t be nearly so eager to throw away one of their most effective players.
Juventus have been amazing in Serie A play the last three years, but when it comes to European competition they’ve stunk up the joint. They’ve lacked the cutting edge against the best sides on the continent and haven’t taken lesser sides seriously enough, and as a result they’ve only helped fuel the downward spiral of Italy’s standing in not just the eyes of fans around the world, but in the all-important UEFA rankings that determine how many Champions League places each nation gets. Italy now only has three total spots, having lost one of their automatic passes to the group stage to Germany after the 2010-11 season, and have fallen farther behind since then. If Juve, Roma, and Napoli don’t do a damn sight better this year, Italy risks losing even more precious ground before people stop taking Italian football seriously altogether.
This is maybe an odd point after the last two, but bear with me: the way this squad is currently constructed, the depth and rotational type guys that director of football Beppe Marotta has been going after are fine. They have the best back line in Italy, a dominating midfield trio, and Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente are an excellent forward pairing. Where Juve need to get better is on their bench, as they’ve lacked impact subs and quality reserves when a starter has gone down. That’s where Juve’s focus has been this summer despite the fanbase’s demand for flashy, big money signings, and with the likes of Romulo, Roberto Pereyra, and Patrice Evra, they’ve done a lot to work on that problem. Alvaro Morata should satiate that pricey desire of the fanbase to some extent, but even he’s more of a reserve buy for now with a look at a whole lot more in the future. Of course, that all changes if Juve sell Vidal and Pogba, but hopefully they won’t be near so rash as that.
Not only are Juventus shaken after the loss of their idol Antonio Conte, they might have their first real title chase in years on their hands. Roma and Napoli will both be better sides next year, and both Fiorentina and Inter Milan are gearing up to try and make some noise. Since Conte showed up, Juve have never really been pressed that hard in the title chase; even the four-point gap between the Old Lady and AC Milan at the end of the 2011/12 season was much more comfortable than it looked on the surface, as Milan had been effectively out of the race for almost two months thanks to a long Juve winning streak. Now, their competition is better than it’s been in years, their good luck charm is gone, and things are looking much tighter. How Juve respond over the first two months will be very telling as to how their season will go.
So far in preseason, new manager Max Allegri has stuck with Antonio Conte’s preferred 3-5-2, but he’s generally used more of a 4-3-3 look in the past, which has some fans worried that he’ll revert to the more traditional formation at some point. While the 4-3-3 is a perfectly fine formation, Juventus’ roster is really not built for it at all, with central defenders who work better on a three-man back line, wing backs who face severe limitations as more traditional fullbacks, and a dearth of players who can effectively operate as wingers or wide forwards. Amusingly, their midfield trio of Vidal, Pogba, and Pirlo can work just as well in either formation, but Juve fans are definitely right to hope that Allegri takes the smart route for once and sticks with what works for the roster he has at hand.