The theory, as many hypothesised, was that Cristiano Ronaldo held back Juventus in his three years at the club. While the Old Lady had been on the brink of Champions League glory before the Portuguese’s €100m arrival in the summer of 2018, they regressed with Ronaldo up front, failing to make it past the competition’s quarter-finals.
While Ronaldo was undeniably a success as a goalscorer for Juventus, scoring 101 goals in 134 appearances, ‘Project Ronaldo’ wasn’t a success for the Turin outfit. It’s for this reason that Juve, who didn’t even win the Serie A title in Ronaldo’s final season in Italy, were quietly thankful to see the 36-year-old leave.
However, Juve’s dreadful start to the 2021/22 campaign suggests they needed Ronaldo more than they realised. Defeat to Napoli on Saturday left Max Allegri’s side with just one point from their opening three fixtures, a return that already has Juventus looking upwards at their rivals in the table.
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Now, the theory around Ronaldo’s time at Juventus could be interpreted rather differently. Did the goals he scored mask deep-rooted issues at the Allianz Stadium? And now that Ronaldo is gone, are those issues so fundamental that Juve will fall even further this season?
Allegri has a lot to untangle. His frontline is missing a central piece with neither Paolo Dybala or Alvaro Morata doing enough in the first few matches of the season to suggest they can truly replace Ronaldo as Juventus’ first-choice centre forward. Meanwhile, Moise Kean has played just eight minutes after returning to the club on Deadline Day. There has been a significant drop-off in attacking threat.
Dejan Kulusevski possesses great potential, but has struggled to find a final product, as has Fernando Bernardeschi. Manuel Locatelli could prove to be an influential figure following his summer switch from Sassuolo, but the Italian international has only made one appearance for his new team, dropped straight into a difficult away game against Napoli without much integration.
In time, Allegri might well find a winning formula, but time isn’t something Juventus managers are usually afforded. With the Bianconeri set to start their Champions League campaign this week and AC Milan set to visit the Allianz Stadium this weekend, the margin for error is already minimal.
“Hopefully we can start the Champions League in a better way than the Serie A season,” Allegri admitted after the 2-1 defeat to Napoli which saw Juventus let an early lead slip. “At this moment, we pay a heavy price for every single error, but these moments can happen in football.”
Individual errors have certainly played a part in Juventus’ poor start to the season, but Allegri is surely aware of the regression that has occurred across the board since his first spell at the club. The errors witnessed are a manifestation of structural and personnel problems that can be traced back to last season and even before that.
“It’s a long season, we need to chase the other teams down and there is plenty of time to recover,” Allegri insists. “I’ve had worse moments than this. What matters now is Tuesday, putting in a good performance against Malmo, then we’ve got Milan on Sunday. It’s disappointing, as we had started strong tonight, but of the five goals we’ve conceded this season, quite a few of them were our own fault.”
Ronaldo’s landmark arrival at Juventus in 2018 was billed as the moment that announced the Old Lady as one of European football’s predominant forces. In hindsight, it only masked some insecurities and vulnerabilities that have been allowed to fester for too long. Ronaldo’s exit might help Juve address them, but that process has only just started.
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