“Winning is not important, it is the only thing that matters,” we’ve all heard the immortal line before, uttered by Juventus legend Giampero Boniperti. Boniperti’s words, which have been spun by some to suggest a willingness to dabble in the more sinister, darker arts of the game, goes right to the very essence of what The Old Lady are. It’s clichéd beyond belief, but when it pertains to Juventus, it doesn’t make it any less true; they live to win. Style is of little importance.
Juventus are an anomaly in European football; a super heavyweight that’s never had a footballing blueprint, an ethos, or really any inclination to play attractive football. The only constant, the only tangible permanence, is the will to win trophies.
If we take a look at the most successful European sides in the history of the game (Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, Juventus, Man Utd), most of us can recall an iteration of those teams that were breathtaking to watch. Whether it be the early days of the first Galactico era at Real, Johan Cryuff’s Dream Team of the early ‘90s, United’s swashbuckling treble winning side or Pep Guardiola’s dominant Bayern side.
Try as you might, you’d be hard pressed to recall a Juventus side that scored high marks in the aesthetically pleasing department. It’s just simply not part of the club’s DNA. A case could be argued for certain pockets of time within a Coach’s spell; In the 1994-95 title run in and early 1995-96 under Marcello Lippi; for large parts of Antonio Conte’s first season in 2011/12; Last season when Max Allegri fielded all of his ‘cinque stelle’ in a move to make Juve better in Europe. These however are rare instances, and they were fleeting.
The irony in all this of course is that the Bianconeri have had some of the greatest talents to ever play the game, with a past list of No. 10s that is surpassed only by Barcelona. Yet those players tended to be surrounded by hard working grafters, displaying the much-vaunted grinta that many a Juve manager has demanded from his players. Moments of individual magic would then be left up to a Brady, a Platini or a Baggio.
Countless times, we have seen them secure a title whilst seeing off a title challenger that had a superior style. From Lazio in 1995 to Inter in 1998; in more modern times with Napoli last season. They’ve proved time and again that substance does indeed trump style. Sometimes you get the impression the club actually revel in their role as the functional champions par excellence.
The nadir of this functionality was the nightmare-inducing Fabio Capello era of the mid ‘00s. For two seasons, Capello instructed a side containing creative forces like Pavel Nedved, Alex Del Piero, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mauro Camoranesi to essentially suck all joy out of the game by playing the most tediously slow football the Italian game had seen for decades. Capello somehow triumphed over Carlo Ancelotti’s slick and magnificent Milan side, not once but twice. Capello’s mechanical team were torn apart in Europe by Liverpool and Arsenal – two much faster and incisive sides.
Some 8 years after his departure, Antonio Conte felt obliged to channel his inner Capello in 2013-14. In his third and what turned out to be final season, Conte’s restrictive – never mind ridiculously repetitive - patterns of play translated itself into some dire performances.
Chief among them was the Europa league semi final 2nd leg at home to Benfica, needing only a goal to advance to the final on away goals (a final that was also to be played in the Juventus Stadium), the flaws in Conte’s coaching were clear for all to see; his orchestrated patterns failed to pierce a relatively modest Benfica backline and the game ended 0-0. A year later, Max Allegri would take the majority of the same team to within 90 minutes of a treble.
Allegri, by contrast, is much more of a pragmatist and lets his players think for themselves on the pitch. You get the sense that he would like his Juventus to play enterprising football, but has been hamstrung in 3 consecutive summers with key players departing, forcing him to rejig formations and partnerships every season. Yet generally by the business end of the season, he’s figured out his best system – just in time for Juve to open up their trophy cabinet doors once more.
If Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli were to show a steely reserve and bring the title south of Rome for the first time in nearly 30 years, it would be that rare case of the style and substance coming together. Would it change Juve’s philosophical outlook?
History shows the answer would be a resounding no.