We’re fast approaching a quarter-century since Juventus last won the Champions League. The latest failure coming from a young, bold and at times a simply irrepressible Ajax side that thoroughly dominated The Old Lady over two legs. To put the wait into some sort of perspective, when Gianluca Vialli hoisted ‘Ol Big Ears high into the Roman sky in May 1996, five of the Ajax starting XI from the second leg weren’t even born.
The Juve post-mortem has already started, and will continue in the weeks and months ahead. Where does this team go from here? In the moments following their elimination, Max Allegri announced he’ll remain at the club, also confirmed by President Andrea Agnelli.
Yet the two games against Ajax demonstrated – quite clearly - that having Cristiano Ronaldo, as clutch a player as there is in the modern game, simply isn’t enough. Ronaldo needs a supporting cast, and this season’s cast of players has fallen remarkably short as the business end came into focus. Ajax’s victory was a stark reminder that the collective usually triumphs over the individual.
Furthermore, the Ajax games laid bare the brutal truth about the dearth of genuine quality in Juve’s midfield. Repeatedly torn to shreds by the Dutch side’s incisive, crisp, quick passing and movement, Blaise Matuidi, Emre Can and Miralem Pjanic were made to look the living representation of the club’s nickname: they were the old in the Old Lady.
The glaring deficiencies in the middle of the pitch have been palpable to most since the departure of Paul Pogba in 2016. For a management team that’s so widely lauded for its ability to sniff out bargains and astute signings, they’re now paying the price for continually neglecting, or rather papering over the seismic cracks, in that most crucial area of the pitch.
Their run to the 2015 Champions League Final was built on the brilliance of their midfield: the languid genius of Andrea Pirlo, the dynamism of Arturo Vidal and Pogba, and the quiet versatility of Claudio Marchisio. A case could be made that at the time it was the finest in Europe, four players who complemented each other and as a collective unit possessed everything. Four years on, and none of that quartet have been adequately replaced. One could make half-baked arguments for Matuidi and Pjanic, but you’d be grasping at very thin straws.
Just two years after that, the run to Cardiff was built on the supremely-marshaled defence that conceded a miserly three goals en route to the Final. And now, that same defence has all but lost its reputation for goal-thriftiness. A once water-tight ship that now springs leaks at every opportunity, Wojciech Szczesny was the only player standing between Juventus and a comprehensive drubbing by Ajax.
A reliable replacement for 34-year-old Giorgio Chiellini has yet to be found, whilst Daniele Rugani continually fails to impress and Leo Bonucci, ludicrously brought back at the expense of the highly-valued Mattia Caldara, is a shell of the player who left for Milan two summers ago. Notwithstanding that he’s also a walking PR disaster.
What Juve have is a squad that’s considerably top-heavy, to such an extent that they’ve spent over €420m on attackers since the summer of 2015. Compare this to what has been invested in the other areas of the pitch over the same period, a ‘mere’ €245m, and you begin to see the real lack of understanding in the needs of the squad.
A mini revolution is in order to reinstate the balance this summer. Aaron Ramsey is sealed and delivered, yet he alone is not enough. A player with Vidal and Pogba’s dynamism is a must. Matthijs De Ligt, he of the winning goal on Tuesday night, has been on the club’s priority list for months, but it’s likely he will join Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona.
Alex Sandro, Sami Khedira, Juan Cuadrado, Douglas Costa and Paulo Dybala were all reported to be on the chopping block at various times. Alex Sandro never recovered from being taken apart by Dani Carvajal in Cardiff. Cuadrado and Costa have contributed little to this campaign due to a slew of injuries. Khedira, a favourite of Allegri, plays in slow motion.
This brings us to the problem of Dybala. The Argentine, whose departure would recoup the most money, has undoubtedly suffered most in the new Ronaldo-dominated landscape. Not suited to a 4-3-3, Allegri has, to his credit, attempted to accommodate Dybala in numerous systems, but it’s evident little appears to be working. A potential departure might be best for all concerned.
Fabio Paratici, now in full control of Juve’s transfer market following Beppe Marotta’s hasty exit in October, will want to rectify the problems Marotta created. Otherwise, you suspect there could be a similar article trotted out next April, outlining the same issues.
It promises to be a major summer ahead for Juventus. It’s time to give Ronaldo the supporting cast he warrants.