Juventus: Weaknesses They Need to Fix to Challenge the Top European Teams
Juventus has run rampant over Serie A for the last three seasons. In seemingly the blink of an eye they have gone from a fallen giant to a team few in Italy can match.
They beat every other team in the league at least once in 2013-14. They won all 19 of their home matches. Starting at the end of October they reeled off a run of 12 consecutive league victories and went 22 games without a loss between their lone league defeats against Fiorentina and Napoli.
Unfortunately, all that domestic form has yet to translate to the European stage. After advancing to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League two years ago—losing to eventual champions Bayern Munich—they shockingly failed to advance past the group stage this year, falling in a do-or-die final game against Galatasaray. They then fell short in their attempt to make amends in the Europa League, failing to score in the second leg of the semifinal against Benfica when a 1-0 victory would have done the job.
Controversy surrounded both eliminations. The Galatasaray game had been suspended due to severe winter weather and was then resumed on field conditions not fit for a schoolyard match. Benfica held them at Juventus Stadium in no small part to their own extraordinarily cynical play which referee Mark Clattenburg seemed disinclined to punish.
But regardless of the controversies, both eliminations were chiefly caused by Juve themselves. Had they won either of their first two Champions League matches—both draws in games that were more than winnable—the Galatasaray game would have been meaningless. Had they kept their focus and not allowed Benfica that crucial second goal in the first leg they would have been in the driver's seat in the Europa semifinal.
Juve has several critical weaknesses that have prevented them from truly challenging Europe's elite teams and making a run at Continental trophies. What are they, and how can they be fixed? That, friends, is what we're here to find out.
Let us take a look at what has prevented Juve from taking the next step in Europe—and what might be done to change things.
Focus is a tricky thing to talk about. It's practically unquantifiable, but when it disappears it's readily apparent. Juventus has been a prime example of that.
Take, for instance, Juve's first loss of the season against Fiorentina. The Bianconeri raced out to a 2-0 lead at halftime and looked to continue their dominance of La Viola.
However, with 25 minutes left, the team switched off entirely. On the back of a Giuseppe Rossi hat-trick, Fiorentina suddenly scored four times in 14 minutes and won the game 4-2.
Juve's second group game in the Champions League at home to Galatasaray is another example. The team had just taken the lead and looked set to enter their back-to-back tilts with Real Madrid in good shape when Mauricio Isla missed an instruction to change formation and allowed a soft goal to give the Turkish side an equalizer. It would prove so costly three months later.
It's simple mistakes like this that have kept Juve back in Europe the past two seasons.
Juve's right-winger Stephan Lichtsteiner put it best in an interview with FIFA.com on Monday: "We perform with more focus and more confidence in the league, while in Europe, small details play a bigger role and we haven't been able to work them in our favor."
Juve has such an easy time with most league opponents that they sometimes get complacent—as they did against Fiorentina.
To their credit, games like the one at the Artemio Franchi in Florence have snapped them out of it almost without fail. Pity poor Sassuolo, who had to play Juve after both of their European eliminations and lost both games by a combined score of 7-1.
But to be true European competitors Juventus cannot have those mental lapses in the first place. When they lost to Fiorentina, Juve had 30 games left to make up ground. There's no such luxury in Europe, especially after the calendar turns. The focus must be there from day one.
At first glance, Juventus is a ridiculously deep team. They have five quality players who can play center-back and four of the top 20 central midfielders in the world.
That depth, however, is a bit misleading, particularly in midfield.
That was never more apparent than in March and April, when injuries and suspensions decimated Juve and led to an extreme selection crisis. With the Europa League knockout stages in full swing, several Bianconeri players had to start in six or seven consecutive matches.
This led to an obvious drop-off in quality. The team struggled to fight off Fiorentina and Lyon in the Europa League. League games against the likes of Genoa, Catania and Parma became razor-close. In Genoa, it took a penalty save from Gianluigi Buffon and a trademark "maledetta" (cursed) free kick from Andrea Pirlo in the dying moments to stave off an embarrassing night.
In the midfield in particular, Juventus need someone who can parachute in for a game or two to give the likes of Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio a rest.
Simone Padoin is not that man.
The team needs someone like Emanuele Giaccherini—now in England at Sunderland—who can come in and be a spark plug for a game to give the biggest guns some rest for bigger matches or to survive an injury scare.
The one thing that Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have in common is that they all have deep squads that can rotate with almost total freedom with little drop-off in play. Juve can come close to that, but they're not there yet. Getting to that point will be crucial.
This is an area that, if the team is constructed the right way, will become less of an issue. But an issue is nevertheless there, and it could be hard to address.
Throughout their history, Juventus have traditionally prioritized the league ahead of European competition.
Indeed, early in the Europa League knockout stages it seemed that Conte was keeping his best players for league games against relatively low-level opponents. Mauricio Isla and Federico Peluso would start on the wings and Dani Osvaldo, Mirko Vucinic and Sebastian Giovinco would play up top.
Riccardo Di Julio of RantSports.com commented on Juve's apparent focus on cracking the 100-point barrier—and archrival Inter's points record—rather than winning their first piece of European silverware in almost 20 years.
By contrast, AC Milan—the most successful Italian club in European Cup/Champions League history with seven wins—have on occasion sacrificed the chance at a Scudetto to achieve European glory. Most notably, Arrigo Sacchi sacrificed the glimmer of glory in Italy when he won consecutive Champions League titles. Milan finished third and second in Serie A in those two seasons.
It is not in Juve's DNA to make such a sacrifice. That may have to change.
The lure of 100 points was strong this year. But had Juve sacrificed a few points in the latter half of the season they may have been able to muscle through Benfica and reach the Europa League final. They would have been heavy favorites to win it.
Whether they will be able to make such sacrifices when the Scudetto is at stake may determine whether they will win the Champions League in the near future.
The biggest problem Juve's fans have with their play in Europe is the team's seemingly maniacal dedication to the 3-5-2 formation.
The formation has often left the team weak to high-level wing play—such as against Bayern Munich—without supplying quality wide play on the attacking end.
Antonio Conte is often blamed for this, but in reality if he were to play another system he'd be hurting the team.
The 3-5-2 is what gets the best out of the squad Conte has on hand. It compensates for the team's lack of a left-back and maximizes the contribution of the excellent center-back trio of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.
Don't mistake Conte's reliance on the 3-5-2 for tactical inflexibility. When he was hired at Juve he was a devotee of the radical 4-2-4 formation but switched to a 4-3-3 to accommodate the acquisitions of Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal. He then transitioned to the 3-5-2 only after he failed in several attempts to cover the left-back position.
If Antonio Conte is given the players to adjust his formation as needed, Juventus will take a giant step forward in Continental competition. Having the option of playing in a 4-3-3—where he can defend and attack on the wings more effectively—or remaining in the 3-5-2—effective against a team like Barcelona who play a very narrow, tiki-taka game—will be a key for Juve's European ambitions moving forward.
Probably, in the end, the master key.