5 Reasons Why Juventus Will Be a Champions League Power Next Season
Juventus entered the 2013-14 season as dark-horse picks for the Champions League. Such was their status that ESPN FC's Gabriele Marcotti and Michael Cox both picked them as winners of the competition in September, with James Horncastle picking them as runners-up.
Of course, it didn't turn out that way. Juve struggled to put away both Copenhagen in Denmark and Galatasaray at home and were ultimately knocked out of the competition after a controversial 1-0 loss to Gala on a pitch that was practically unplayable.
The Bianconeri had several critical weaknesses in European competition that ended up being killers for them this season. That, however, is no reason to demote them to the status of an also-ran when next year's competition begins.
The club has more than a few things going for it, and with a few tweaks Juve could become a mighty force to be reckoned with when the Continent's premier competition begins anew in September.
What gives Juve such promise? Let's take a closer look.
The midfield is the obvious strength of this team. The Bianconeri can call upon four players who can legitimately be placed in the top 20 of the world's central midfielders.
It obviously revolves around Andrea Pirlo. The ageless wonder has been the engine behind two Champions League winners at Milan and propelled Italy to the World Cup title in 2006. His passing ability and skill at set pieces are second to none.
He hasn't yet signed a contract extension, but "L'Architetto" told La Gazzetta dello Sport in March (h/t Sky Sports) that he is in no mood to leave and that an official extension is only a matter of time.
Flanking Pirlo are three of the best attacking midfielders in the game: Claudio Marchisio, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal.
While the first of the three has been pipped by the younger Frenchman this season, he gives Conte valuable depth to rotate his midfield three whenever he so chooses, keeping Pirlo fresh and making sure Pogba and Vidal don't get ground down.
Pogba is one of the most sought-after players in the game, but sporting director Giuseppe Marotta has assured his fans that the phenom is not going anywhere.
Vidal has garnered his share of attention from big clubs and is gathering acclaim in some circles as the best center-mid in the world—and in the case of this writer as the best player in the world, period. Despite interest from the likes of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona, the Chilean has pledged his loyalty to the club repeatedly.
"I've repeated it several times: I'm happy here," he recently told FourFourTwo (h/t Goal.com). "I'm staying at Juventus because president Andrea Agnelli has asked me for the Champions League."
With a quartet of midfielders like this, any team on earth would be deeply concerned as to how to contain them.
Juventus have had one of the best defensive records in Europe since Antonio Conte arrived in the manger's office. What's incredible is that unlike the midfield, where only Claudio Marchisio stood in place from previous regimes, all three of Juve's top center-backs were on the roster when Luigi Del Neri was at the helm for the team's hellish 2010-11 campaign.
The biggest change has come from Leonardo Bonucci, who has gone from being the scapegoat for that nightmarish season to one of the world's best defenders—and without question the best ball-playing center-back in the world. He still makes the occasional knuckle-headed mistake, but his quality now more than makes up for them.
Alongside him are the team's true defensive jewels. Call them the Brains and the Brawn.
The Brains: Andrea Barzagli. Bought for a mere €500,000 in the 2011 winter transfer window after being considered an absolute washout at Wolfsburg, Barzagli rather suddenly transformed into the best defender in Italy. Using his positional sense and tactical awareness, he has become the unit's on-field organizer. And in spite of his being increasingly vulnerable one-on-one to speedier players in the open field, he very often snuffs out attacking moves before they begin.
The Brawn: Giorgio Chiellini. An old-school back-line destroyer, Chiellini is a three-time Serie A Defender of the Year. His combination of bone-crunching physicality and tactical sense make for a potent package, and he is a mainstay in the national team setup. His off-field contribution is just as impressive: He has the complete respect of the locker room and is almost a lock to claim the captain's armband when Gianluigi Buffon retires.
The depth behind the three is impressive as well. The presence of Uruguay's Martin Caceres puts four regular international starters on the Juve depth chart, while Angelo Ogbonna is also a regular call-up for the Azzurri.
Even the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid will have a difficult time beating a defense so talented and cohesive.
Gianluigi Buffon may be 36 years old, but that in no way should diminish his status as one of the very best goalkeepers in the world.
The captain of Juventus, Buffon is still one of the best men between the sticks. He can still make the most spectacular of saves, and his ability to marshal a defense is second to none. He's the rock on which Juve's stellar defense rests.
Every once in a while, a goalkeeper takes a Champions League knockout tie—or even several—by the scruff of the neck and forces his team through. Petr Cech did so in 2012 for Chelsea. Against some of the best offensive systems the game has ever seen, Buffon will likely be required to do the same at least once next season.
In spite of his age, he is more than capable of doing just that.
No one could know that when hiring former captain Antonio Conte to helm the side after successive seventh-place finishes that the Bianconeri were bringing in the best coach in Italy.
Contrary to the recent claims that Conte is too set in one tactical system, he is actually extraordinarily adaptive. He arrived at Juve a proponent of the unconventional 4-2-4 formation but abandoned that for a 4-3-3 system that would make better use of Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal. As the 2011-12 season wore on, that formation morphed into the now-familiar 3-5-2 in order to make better use of the players he had on hand.
With three high-quality center-backs and a dearth of left-backs and wingers, the 3-5-2 just made sense. In Italy, it has been dominant. In Europe, its weaknesses on the wings has been exposed, and Juve hasn't been able to come up with an adequate response thus far.
The reason Conte has not moved away from it is that it's still the best formation for the players currently available to him. Juve don't have the personnel to play another setup—ideally a 4-3-3—at an optimal level on a regular basis. That's something that won't change until the summer—and so Conte continues to use his players in the way that will get the best out of them.
Conte did experiment with a 4-3-3 in both games of the group stage against Real Madrid this year—a clear show of his willingness to vary his tactics. If he is given the players to utilize a 4-3-3 effectively, watch out.
Apart from his ability to get the best out of his team on a tactical level, he is an inspirational leader who commands the love of his players and excels at making in-game tactical adjustments. Even in Sunday's 2-0 loss to Napoli the tactical tweaks he made at halftime got Juve back into the game somewhat before the Partenopei put the game away.
Conte is by far the best coach in Italy right now. Only Vincenzo Montella comes close. When he's given the players, it's a good bet he'll be able to finally translate that domestic success to the European level.
If Antonio Conte wields the sword for Juve, Beppe Marotta forged it.
Since Marotta took over in 2010 after a successful stint at Sampdoria, he has made a series of fantastic moves. His mastery of the free "Bosman" transfer has seen the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba and Fernando Llorente arrive at the squad, all of whom have made huge contributions to the team.
Equally impressive are the incredible bargains he's found in the transfer market. The biggest, of course, is likely Arturo Vidal, who was purchased for a €12.5 million and is now the most integral part of the team. The arrival of Carlos Tevez this season for a mere €9 million was an absolute steal and finally filled the team's last major hole: an elite goalscorer.
This summer, Marotta's challenge will be taking Juve's squad and remolding it to make it equally effective in the 3-5-2 and the 4-3-3. Only then will the team really be able to challenge in Europe.
With the most secure financial base in Italy and decent money to spend, most Juve fans have confidence that he will do just that.