Buddhist tradition holds that the path to enlightenment is the ‘Middle Way’; neither sensual indulgence nor self-mortification. To go to one extreme or the other is to ultimately limit oneself, as neither represents the true experience of the human condition.
Football may not be a matter of life and death - although some may say “it’s much more important than that” - but what is the beautiful game if not a microcosm of the trials and tribulations of everyday live? Joy, sorrow, loss, anger - football fans can go through all of these and more in the space of 90 minutes, and in kind the best teams are perfectly balanced between attack and defence, cynicism and beauty, flair and pragmatism.
By any yardstick, Juventus are one of the best teams in Europe. The Bianconeri have won the Scudetto for the past six seasons in a row, the Coppa Italia in three successive years and have reached two of the last three Champions League finals.
While accusations that Juve were defensive, physical or indeed boring were always way off the mark, that success was built on a fearsome defence; ‘the BBC’ of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, backed up by Gianluigi Buffon.
After the 4-1 loss to Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League final though, the Old Lady switched her focus, intent on finally tasting European glory. Bonucci left for Milan and Dani Alves went to Paris Saint-Germain. The summer transfer campaign focused on the attack, with Federico Bernardeschi and Douglas Costa arriving to bolster Max Allegri’s attack.
In a sense it has paid off, with Juventus scoring 37 goals in their first 13 Serie A games. The 19 goals conceded in all competitions could be forgiven if that stellar attack took the Bianconeri closer to Europe’s elite. Unfortunately though, they’ve ignored the middle way, or in this case the midfield.
Tonight’s match with Barcelona saw Allegri deploy close to €200m of attacking talent in the shape of Gonzalo Higuain, Juan Cuadrado, Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa. At the other end of the pitch, Buffon barely had a save to make, even after the introduction of Lionel Messi.
However, Juve were never truly able to get a grip on a must-win game, due to a lack of balance in the midfield.
Allegri’s decision to switch to a 4-2-3-1 midway through last season paid huge dividends, but in Cardiff against Real Madrid and in big matches so far this season his side have looked lightweight in the middle of the park.
Tonight saw Miralem Pjanic partner Sami Khedira, and neither could offer the intensity and pressing to unsettle Barça’s rhythm. Indeed, as the game progressed Allegri brought on three central midfielders: Rodrigo Bentancur, Claudio Marchisio and Blaise Matuidi.
The Bianconeri don’t lack talent in central midfield, but the two games with the Blaugrana - as well as the losses to Sampdoria and Lazio - indicate that three players are needed in the engine room.
Higuain, Dybala et al will see the Old Lady past teams like Benevento and Sassuolo, but they can’t do much against Barcelona if Juventus have just 62 per cent of possession and the ball never reaches them.
The 4-2-3-1 was a fine solution last season, when Allegri had to find a place for Dybala, Cuadrado, Higuain and Mario Mandzukic. The Coach famously called it a “mad idea” but it carried his side to a domestic double and the Champions League final. It may even be enough for a seventh Scudetto in a row - though the Turin giants face a bigger challenge than ever this season - but can it really get them over that Champions League line?
Juve now face a must-win game at Olympiakos, but even if they prevail they don’t currently look like a side capable of going all the way.
How do you add balance to the midfield without moving Dybala out of position? How does Mandzukic fit into the team with Higuain, if not on the left wing? Allegri needs a new “mad idea” if Juventus are to find a balanced approach, the Middle Way, in both Italy and Europe.