What Juventus Must Do to Complete Their Return to Europe's Elite
Despite a disappointing end to the year with a 2-0 loss against Napoli in the final of the Coppa Italia, 2011-12 was a fantastic year for Juventus. Apart from their runner-up cup finish, the Bianconeri went through the 38-game Serie A season without being defeated, reclaiming the scudetto for the first time (officially, anyway) since 2002-03.
While the debate as to whether or not Juve's title count is 28 or 30 will rage on until the Serie A begins anew—and probably beyond—Antonio Conte will begin his second year as the manager of his old team, looking to improve his team as they approach their first trip to the UEFA Champions League since 2009-'10.
The Italian champions have laid the groundwork for a team that can once again be competitive with the world's elite. They boasted the best defense in Europe this past season, an impressive midfield trio and a dominating possession style.
But there are flaws on this team, flaws that will sink the team if they remain issues next season.
So how does Conte prepare his outfit for a title defense and a Champions League challenge? Read on to find out.
Sign a Top-Level Striker
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Juve's biggest weakness throughout the entire year was the lack of a world-class striker.
Juve's goal-scoring was by committee last year, with a whopping 20 players scoring at least one goal in Serie A and five players scoring in the five matches of the Coppa Italia. Alessandro Matri, Claudio Marchisio, and Mirko Vucinic were the year's joint top scorers with 10 goals apiece.
But for all these goalscorers, the Bianconeri lacked a killer instinct in front of goal—something that cost them in matches such as February's goalless draw against Siena or March's 1-1 draw against Chievo.
They took 20 shots in each match and controlled possession but only managed seven and five shots on goal respectively, dropping points to teams that they should have beaten.
Juve were second in the Serie A with 68 goals scored, but their inability to score during the fallow period in February and March that saw them garner only one win and six draws in seven games was the difference between the nervy finish they endured at the end of the season and the possibility of wrapping up the title several games sooner than they did.
The lack of a top-level striker is a weakness that the Champions League will not forgive. Having midfielders occupying three of the top five positions in your list of top scorers is just not a good sign.
Matri, while an immensely talented poacher, completely fell off the map after he equalized Juve's 1-1 draw with AC Milan at the San Siro on February 25, starting only once and not scoring again the rest of the season.
Vucinic is a talented winger but is maddeningly inconsistent and can show an amazing capacity for selfishness. Matri could have put Juve ahead late in the Chievo match, but rather than play him in, Vucinic kept going with the ball himself before being dispossessed by Michael Bradley.
Neither of these players can lead a Champions League-caliber front line.
After Juve gave up on the Robin van Persie sweepstakes after the Dutchman's wage demands proved too high, the two best options seem to be Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain (pictured) and Manchester City's Edin Dzeko.
Higuain's camp has sent mixed signals as to whether he will leave the Bernabeu, and he is also a target of Champions League winners Chelsea. Dzeko seems more certain to leave Eastlands, as his time in the starting XI was limited this year and looks to be even more so next year as City chases van Persie.
Liverpool's Luis Suarez is another possible target, as is highly touted youngster Leandro Damiao of Brazilian side Internacional, who has drawn comparisons to Ronaldo and has said that despite interest from Real, Juventus are his first choice.
There is also the possibility of Sebastian Giovinco—still co-owned by Juve—will return next season after two years at Parma.
My belief is that Damiao, who is expected to lead Brazil's forward line at the World Cup in 2014, will make his way to Turin. It depends on his transfer fee whether either Dzeko or Higuain will follow—Juve is rumored to be allotting at least €30 million for a striker move this summer.
Deal the Wantaways
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Juventus has two very talented wingers on their roster that haven't featured this season. Neither one particularly fit into Antonio Conte's plans, and they both are hoping for moves out of Turin.
Andrea Agnelli and Conte should acquiesce to those wishes, as their sales will be able to fund a few more transfer moves beyond a new striker.
When Milos Krasic arrived last year from CSKA Moscow on a €15 million transfer, he drew comparisons to Juve legend Pavel Nedved, and not just for his hairdo. He picked up three assists in his first three games and scored a hat trick in his fifth. He scored five more times over the course of the season, including a late winner against Lazio.
But as the season wore on, his form got more and more spotty. In October he was suspended for two games for diving and never recovered from it in the eyes of referees, who routinely bottled up their whistles when he hit the ground from then on.
He would often disappear from games completely, and his commitment on defense was less than stellar. The enduring image of Luigi Del Neri's lone season at Juventus was of him consistently shouting "Milos! Milos! Milos!" while frantically gesturing him to get back on defense.
It was that lack of effort on defense that led to him falling out of favor with Conte. Krasic was strongly linked with a move out of Turin during the January transfer window but decided to stay, thinking he could get back into Conte's good graces.
The other wantaway winger in the Juventus fold is Dutch wunderkind Eljero Elia. Arriving from Hamburg for €9 million—after previously commenting that Juventus wasn't big enough for him—Elia was flat in his Juve debut against Catania and was removed at halftime for Simone Pepe, who had an immediate impact on the Juve attack.
Elia simply did not adapt to Italian soccer in time, and by the time he may have been ready, Conte had found a combination of players that fit his system well.
Elia too is linked with a move to the EPL. Liverpool, in desperate need of some midfield firepower after misfiring on transfers for Stuart Downing and Charlie Adam last year, are a definite possibility, as are this year's surprise team, Newcastle United.
Wherever they go, they need to go. They are taking up space and money that could be used elsewhere to upgrade the squad.
Trim the Fat
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I don't care about the two late-season goals that Marco Boriello scored against Cesena and Novara. They may have been important goals—particularly the winner in the 1-0 triumph against Cesena—but make no mistake: Marco Boriello is not as good a striker as the managers of the world's top clubs seem to think he is.
Conte's move to get Boriello was a bit of a puzzler. He and Alessandro Matri are pretty much the same player, although Matri is markedly better.
From the moment he came to Juventus, one of two things would happen when Boriello took the field—either he would be completely invisible, or he would be presented with a gilt-edged scoring chance and waste it.
Juve has the option of making his loan deal permanent, but it would be a complete mistake if they were to do so. Boriello is not the type of striker that will make Juve a better team in the Champions League, and Matri is a younger and better player who plays in the same style.
Add to that the fact that Fabio Quagliarella—one of the most dangerous strikers in Italy when healthy and in form—has extended his contract another year and can finally go full-bore after suffering a hideous knee injury last January, Boriello would be surplus to requirements once Juve adds another striker in the offseason.
To exercise his loan option would be a tremendous waste of money.
Speaking of loan options that shouldn't be exercised, Juve would be smart to allow Paraguay international Marcelo Estigarribia to walk as well.
A strong performance in the 2011 Copa America inspired the Bianconeri brass to take a flier on him with a loan, but despite contributing to the thrilling 3-3 comeback draw against Napoli at the San Paolo in November, the 14 games he saw in the Serie A were far too many.
He's just not a player with the quality to take a prominent role for a team like Juventus and would only take up space were his stay in Turin extended.
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In 2009, Martin Caceres was loaned to Juventus from Barcelona. He scored in his debut the third game of the season at Lazio and began the year as a regular for manager Ciro Ferrara.
However, injuries derailed his season, and the Bianconeri declined the option to make his loan permanent.
Caceres moved from Barca to Sevilla a year later, and this winter he was again acquired on loan by Juventus. Just like his first stint, he scored on his debut, netting a brace in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal against AC Milan. This time, he stayed healthy and provided valuable depth behind starting right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner.
Keeping both Caceres and Lichtsteiner on the roster is a good move for Juve.
Conte's greatest strength this season has been his ability to adapt his tactics, often on the fly. He shifted between a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-3 formation for much of the season, but Lichtsteiner's game—which had been absolutely fantastic until the winter break—suffered a bit as Conte started to prefer the 3-5-2 as the season wore on.
Lichtsteiner is much better as a traditional right-back rather than a wing-back in the 3-5-2, a role that Caceres is better suited for. It's in the team's best interest to keep both on the roster and rotate them as the formation demands.
Besides the tactical reasons, if Caceres isn't kept, it would mean that the only depth behind Lichtsteiner would be Marco Motta. And Marco Motta is a bad, bad man.
Settle on a Formation
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Antonio Conte came in with big expectations and a mixed record. He had won the Serie B title with Bari in 2008-09 and brought Siena up to the Serie A with a runner-up finish last season.
But in 2009-10—his only Serie A experience—he had a disastrous spell with Atalanta that ended with him clashing with the team's fans and resigning midseason in a year Atalanta dropped to Serie B. He came in to a chorus of criticism from the outside. Then-Lazio boss Edy Reja criticized his trademark 4-2-4 formation as unworkable in the top flight.
Juve fans had high expectations that he would restore Juve's grinta and bring them back to competing with the world's giants. But he came in already at a disadvantage—the Juve front office had brought in Andrea Pirlo against his wishes. Conte didn't think that the former World Cup winner fit into his tactics.
In a tribute to him as a manager, rather than try to shoehorn Pirlo into his usual tactics, he changed his tactics to fit Pirlo. He started using a 4-3-3 with Pirlo covered by Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio in the middle, with Alessandro Matri, Mirko Vucinic, and Simone Pepe primarily at the forward and wing spots.
Midway through the season, Conte began mixing in a 3-5-2 formation to compensate for the fact that he didn't have full trust in Paolo De Ceglie at left back and Giorgio Chiellini was having trouble readapting to the position he broke into pro soccer in.
The 3-5-2 was a good formation to use against counterattacking teams like Napoli, Roma, and Udinese, but it clogged the midfield, leading to a drop-off in form for Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio and relegated an in-form Pepe to the bench in favor of Estigarribia on the left and Lichstiener as a wing-back on the right.
The switch to the 3-5-2 coincided with Juve's drop in form in February and March. After a brief return to the 4-3-3, the 3-5-2 returned, but this time was much more fluid. Conte showed an impressive ability to change between the two on the fly, which rescued several matches for the Bianconeri late in the season.
But it will be better for Juve to have one major major base formation rather than a state of flux between the two.
I think the 4-3-3 is actually a better idea going forward. It gives the impressive midfield trio of Pirlo, Marchisio, and Vidal more room to operate.
The Champions League is going to present you with teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid, against whom playing a three-man defense is suicide, no matter how good your wing-backs are. If anything, the 4-3-3 should be deployed almost exclusively in the Champions League, with the 3-5-2 being deployed against select league sides like Napoli and Udinese.
Capitalize on the Juventus Stadium
This is not only something for this coming summer, but for many, many summers to come.
As the only team in Italy to own their stadium outright rather than renting it from a municipal government, Juve is in a unique position. While most Italian teams rely on television fees for their primary income, Juve can now augment that with the full proceeds from game-day revenue—something that teams in other leagues have been doing for years.
No other team in Italy will be in a similar situation until at least 2014—the potential opening date for the proposed stadium that Roma announced in September.
With the only other teams agitating to build their own grounds in the immediate future being relative minnows Palermo and Cagliari, Juve has the opportunity to become the financial titan of Italy, especially with their revenue set to grow even more upon their return to Champions League competition come the fall.
If they use that money—and use it correctly—the Bianconeri can cement their place at the top of Italy for years to come—and put themselves into a position to compete with the oil money funding teams like Manchester City and the lopsided broadcasting contracts funding Barcelona and Real Madrid.