JUVENTUS clinched their ninth consecutive Serie A title with two games to go, beating Sampdoria 2-0, but not many people seem convinced about the club’s latest success. As in London, when Maurizio Sarri led Chelsea to the Champions League and picked up the Europa League trophy on route, the fans, media and pundits are all predicting the self-effacing Neopolitan will soon be packing his bags again.
Juventus, by their usual standards, have not impressed much in 2019-20. Inter Milan have run them pretty close all season and if Antonio Conte’s side had not slipped up, they may well have been champions. Inter lost fewer games than any team in Serie A, but they failed to beat Juve, who completed the double over the Nerrazzurri. Lazio, too, looked like possible champions, but they faded and were knocked out of contention when Juve beat them 2-1 recently.
Juve have had an age problem creeping up on them for a few years and their regular squad has seven players over the age of 30, including Leo Bonucci (33), Cristiano Ronaldo (35), Blase Matuidi (33) and Gonzalo Higuain (32). On top of that, they have another four who are approaching the big three-zero in Aaron Ramsey, Alex Sandro and Douglas Costa. At some point, Juve are going to have to seek-out some fresher talent to replace players who, while still excellent at Serie A level, no longer have the legs to keep the club at the top. Juve’s average age (29.2) is one of the highest in Serie A and there is a lack of home-grown talent in the squad. Indeed, of their most-used players, only Bonucci and Federico Bernardeschi are Italian.
If the club was to replace its long-toothed collection in one foul swoop, Juve may have to endure a transitional period that could compromise their position at the top, especially if their nearest rivals reinforce their capabilities for 2020-21.
It was Sarri’s first season, so a certain level of bedding-in was surely expected, although clubs like Juve do not allow any margin for error. What more did they expect of Sarri? The scudetto has been won, the Coppa Italia lost on penalties and they’re still in the UEFA Champions League. Since losing in the final of 2017, Juve have gone out at the quarter-final stage in 2018 and 2019. They’re a goal down from the round of 16 first leg to Lyon, but will probably still be favourites to reach the last eight. They came through the group unbeaten, drawing just one of their six games, including two clashes with Atlético Madrid.
Juventus demonstrated their ambition in the summer of 2019 by securing Ajax skipper Matthijs de Ligt for € 75 million. This not only underlined Juve’s financial muscle, it also suggested the club was firmly part of the elite by acquiring one of the hottest talents in European football. But midfield has been the real problem for Juve all season and they’ve already started to address this by swapping Pjanic (30) for Barcelona’s Arthur (23). There’s also growing rumours that Juve will go after Wolves’ 24 year-old winger Adama Traoré.
It’s vital that Juve get some younger blood. Their key striker is 35 years-old and although that player is Cristiano Ronaldo, how much longer can he go on being so effective? He’s robustly fit, has as keener eye for goal than ever, but he’s five years off 40. Dybala and CR7 linked-up well in 2019-20 after a summer in which the club appeared to be on the verge of selling the 26 year-old to Tottenham, but he’s now looking to extend his contract with Juve as far out as 2025. Ronaldo and Dybala have netted 42 goals between them in Serie A, no wonder Sarri has credited the duo with being the key element in the title race.
In recent weeks, Juve have looked tired, both mentally and physically, and have had trouble holding onto leads, but they had just enough to get over the finishing line. Will that be enough to keep Sarri in a job? Expectations about the mythical “Sarriball” have not quite worked out. New systems take time but today’s football culture is all about instant gratification. Those fans that berate Sarri for struggling to win Serie A with a team that knows all about being champions should factor-in that the current Juve is not the team of five years ago.
Is it merely that he lacks the charisma of some of the more high profile and vocal coaches in European football? Is he an easy target for the critics because of his personality and appearance? Juve is one of those clubs that is forensically dissected after each result – as one former official recently said, after every draw or defeat and even solemn victory, the club appeared to be having a nervous breakdown. Sarri didn’t fit Chelsea even though he won a trophy, but he knew where he was not welcome and took the chance to return to Italy. Sarri’s not stupid, he will be aware of the rumours and media speculation about his role, so he could jump ship again. The question is, you can possibly understand Chelsea not knowing enough about the man they hired (although that is also debatable given the global nature of the game), but Juve must have known Sarri only too well?
Juventus have definitely known for a while they need to rebuild and that needs to happen soon if the club is to remain competitive in Europe. At home, they may also come under pressure as Inter Milan are breathing down their necks. Juve’s era of dominance may not be coming to an end, but they might have to fight a lot harder for the privilege of being champions in 2021.