It’s difficult to say really when Juventus were in crisis.
Was it when they won just two of their first six Serie A matches of the season? Was it when they were beaten 2-0 at home by a Barcelona team who were meant to be in an even deeper crisis than theirs? Was it when Fiorentina came to Turin and won 3-0? Or was it when they were battered about the pitch by their former boss Antonio Conte and his Inter Milan side?
The weird thing is that those events spread themselves across the course of the season. A season where at one stage it looked as if Andrea Pirlo, the club legend turned sudden manager, was going to be fired as his team struggled to keep pace in the title race. Yet this is also a season where Juventus have the best defensive record in Serie A (18 goals conceded) as well as the fewest losses (two) and if they win their game in hand they will be within two and four points of the two Milan teams.
In reality the better way of looking at Juventus' system is to not try and work out when there was a crisis. It’s to realise that this is the first time in what feels like forever that they’ve actually had competition.
Andrea Pirlo - Juventus-Roma - Serie A 2020/2021 - Getty Images
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Juventus have won nine Serie A titles in a row but it wasn’t until last season when Inter Milan were a point behind that a team had finished within one win of the champions. Inter were great last year but part of their success indirectly came from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as well as the struggle for Juve under Maurizio Sarri. Their points tally of 83 was the lowest since the 2010-11 season when they finished seventh.
Juve have struggled since reaching the Champions League final in 2017 despite signing Cristiano Ronaldo; the club’s poor management (both on and off the pitch) has largely been covered up by the even greater ineptitude of their rivals. However the resurgence of the Milan teams, combined with general upturns for Roma and Napoli and the stunning rise of Atalanta, makes Serie A one of the most competitive leagues in the world once more, as it always should be.
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So when you consider a new manager, in his first senior role, combined with the shortened off-season due to the pandemic perhaps it isn’t too surprising that Juventus got off to a slow start. In many regards it was to be expected, and in fact it has probably gone better than you might have thought. It seemed as if Juventus fans struggled initially to cope with their team’s inconsistencies and the sudden competency coming out of Milan.
Should Juventus win in Naples on Saturday they will, temporarily at least, close the gap to the Milan teams to a manageable figure. They will host both in May, when the title race could be at its tightest, they are more than in this. AC Milan may have Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Inter may have Conte, but the Juventus set-up is packed with players who know how to get a title win over the line.
Yet such is the job that Pirlo has done, it’s not unrealistic to imagine that both the club’s hierarchy and its supporters would be more than happy to see him continue. It hasn’t always been perfect, at times Pirlo has got things badly wrong, but by and large he has done an excellent job in his first season as a manager.
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His 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid gives Juventus a nice balance, and they have conceded just once in their last eight matches whilst scoring 14. It’s not always flamboyant and free-flowing but it’s effective. Pirlo will learn the tactical side of management as he gets more experience but given his intelligence levels as a player he certainly has an advantage over most. The way his Juventus team reacts and adapts depending on the opponent is an impressive characteristic and it will make them that much more dangerous down the stretch in both the league and Champions League.
However, Pirlo also deserves a lot of credit for the way he has built harmony within the team, something that was missing when Sarri was in charge. He has overseen the incredible ascent of American star Weston McKennie, yet another renaissance for Juan Cuadrado and finally seems to be bringing out something close to the best of Aaron Ramsey. He has moved players about in an effective way; such as using Danilo as a centre-back or Federico Chiesa as a wing-back, and there have been hardly any grumblings leaked to the media.
Being a historic winner doesn’t necessarily save you from the ire of players - just ask Frank Lampard - you have to be able to back it up. And thus far Pirlo has been able to do it.
It will not be lost on him, however, that recently two of his best players have been a pair of 36-year-olds. Cristiano Ronaldo, Serie A’s top scorer, has found the back of the net against Inter, Roma and Saturday’s opponents Napoli in the last month. This might be the happiest he has looked in Turin and, remarkably, he shows no signs of slowing.
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Yet there’s a pretty solid argument that wily veteran Giorgio Chiellini has been even more important than his superstar team-mate. Chiellini has missed a lot of time with injury this season but it is no coincidence that Juventus’ sudden uptick in their defensive showing has come with Chiellini back in the starting line-up. Chiellini brings a level of calm like no other in the Juventus squad, he controls proceedings and makes everyone around him better.
Pirlo knows that the job is only half-done but a little over the midway point in the season he has to be pleased with what they have achieved so far. He said as much after beating Inter in the Coppa Italia semi-finals.
“I hoped to get to this stage of my debut campaign and be in the last 16 of the Champions League, have won the Super Cup and reached the final of the Coppa Italia, but we haven’t done anything yet so we have to keep working away and stay focused.”
We have already discussed Juve’s position in the title race whilst in Europe they were handed a relatively favourable draw against Porto. In the Coppa Italia they will play Atalanta in the final. Bayern Munich and Manchester City are the clear favourites for the Champions League but the two recent occasions that Juve reached the final they did so as ‘underdogs’ so why couldn’t they do it again? With Ronaldo in their team anything is possible.
For the first time in what seems like ages, but in reality is probably just a year or two, there is a clear direction at Juventus. It is clear what the manager wants, and the players are subsequently buying in. There are also obvious succession plans; with Nico Rovella joining the likes of McKennie, Chiesa, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Dejan Kulusevski there is the making of an exciting young core. Since Conte lef,t Juve have been seeking stability. Now it seems as if they might finally have found it.