Maurizio Sarri was supposed to bring about a culture change at Juventus.
The Bianconeri had won eight Scudetti in a row under Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri playing largely functional and safety-first football. But the trophy Juventus fans really craved - the Champions League – had continued to evade them.
The theory was that appointing a coach with an attacking and aesthetically-pleasing style of play would increase their chances of ending their 24-year wait for European glory.
However, eight months into Sarri’s reign and the dour and disjointed football that characterised Allegri’s last two years in Turin has not improved. If anything, it has regressed.
That Juventus still find themselves joint-top of Serie A with 54 points from 23 rounds is somewhat miraculous given their general level of performance.
Juve’s Expected Points (xPTS) for the season is only 41.95 points. This puts them fifth in a hypothetical Serie A table based on xPTS.
The reason Juventus are overperforming their xPTS projection by such a margin is mainly thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese superstar is enjoying an incredible season and set a club record during Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Hellas Verona by scoring for the tenth game in a row.
Ronaldo has contributed 20 of Juve’s 44 league goals (the club’s next highest scorer has five goals) – with nine of these goals proving decisive in turning a draw into a win or a loss into a draw. He is outperforming his xG for the season by 4.57 goals and has a perfect FC Player Ranking of 99.
For the majority of the campaign, Juventus have toiled but managed to win games thanks to individual moments of genius from Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala. Cristiano’s Michael Jordan-esque leap against Sampdoria and Dybala’s trademark free kick versus Atletico Madrid are just two examples of this.
As a team, there has been little evidence of the beautiful, free-flowing ‘Sarriball’ that Italy fell in love with during the coach’s time at Napoli.
While Sarri is deploying a higher defensive line and his team’s share of possession has gradually increased, Juve’s interplay and ability to put together passing moves has been abject at times.
Sarri, who has been pilloried by the Italian press in recent days, should not shoulder too much of the blame for this. The reality is that his midfield is just not good enough.
Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi are past their best, Bosman signings Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot have made little impact, while Miralem Pjanic is becoming an increasing liability in the Regista role.
Rodrigo Bentancur is gifted but has scored three goals in three seasons. Between them, Juve’s midfielders have contributed just four Serie A goals this campaign.
Since the departures of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba between 2015 and 2016, Juventus have had a clear weakness in midfield that has never been addressed. A major overhaul is needed in this department this summer. A return to Turin for Pogba is definitely a possibility.
Juventus’ sporting director Fabio Paratici is under pressure from fans after a chaotic transfer market last summer. Not only did Paratici repeatedly try to sell Dybala, but none of his new signings have improved the first XI.
This includes €75 million purchase Matthijs De Ligt, who will surely go on to have a distinguished career but has somewhat underwhelmed thus far. With 23 Serie A goals already conceded, Juventus are certain to endure their worst season defensively since 2010-11.
There are gaping holes in a squad that was constructed without a clear vision of how the team would play. Sarri has alternated between two systems; the 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-3. But Dybala, for instance, is only capable of playing in the first formation while another key player, Douglas Costa, can only feature in the latter.
Federico Bernardeschi, who Paratici tried to sell to Barcelona in January, is the only alternative winger for the 4-3-3. Meanwhile, there are just three senior forwards in Ronaldo, Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain jostling for two forward spots in the 4-3-1-2. With no natural trequartista (the attacking midfielder behind the front two) in the squad, Sarri has occasionally unleashed all three attackers together - leaving him with no strikers on the bench to bring on. If one of this trio were to suffer a serious injury, Juve would be in huge trouble.
Considering the above, the chances of Juventus finally winning the Champions League look slim – even if nothing can be ruled out with Ronaldo in such record-breaking form.
And after eight years of domestic dominance, Juve also now face a real fight just to hang on to their Scudetto. Unlike during the first half of the season, their poor performances are now being translated into poor results. They have lost four of their last seven games away from Turin in all competitions, including their last two Serie A matches on the road.
This has allowed Inter to join them at the Serie A summit following Sunday’s epic comeback in the Milan derby. This weekend the Nerazzurri travel to Rome to take on Lazio, who are themselves just one point behind the top two.
Juventus may remain the Scudetto favourites but they are undeniably an ageing and vulnerable side that many feel are there for the taking. Talk about a culture change!