“We have few players with strong personality”. As Andrea Pirlo uttered that short but disconcerting statement, the size of the task facing the inexperienced Juve tactician hit home a little harder for supporters of the Italian champions.
It was an honest assessment from Pirlo following a fifth Serie A draw of the season, this time against recently promoted Benevento. The Bianconeri’s latest setback came again in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, adding fuel to the argument that the Turin giants have become over reliant on their number 7. As these types of performances and results continue to pile up, the theory that Juve struggle to win without CR7 becomes increasingly evident.
From the moment he arrived, Juventus were always likely to become heavily Ronaldo dependent. It is natural in any team that their best players become a focal point, but that is especially true for a team like Juve who have been steadily losing their identity over the last few years. From the moment that The Old Lady’s 2015 Champions League final XI began to lose the pieces that made it a success, Juve fell into the trap. One of individuality over team cohesion and the signing of the world’s most decisive player only served to establish that further.
In his later years at Real Madrid, Ronaldo was primarily used as a goal scoring number 9. However, since his move to Italy the Portuguese player has had to become something of a hybrid between his younger self and the serial marksman he transformed into. If there is a Ronaldo cause for concern amongst Juventini then that should be the reason why. In Madrid, Cristiano’s superstar cast meant his almost sole focus was on finding the net, but in Pirlo’s team he is much more influential in overall play, he has more responsibility in the build-up. Ronaldo dictates the attack. Trying to replace his goals is problematic enough but with these extra elements in play, it significantly adds to your dilemma.
This trend started under Max Allegri, was compounded by the appointment of Maurizio Sarri and leaves novice coach Mister Pirlo, who has inherited a squad with many new players without many alternate options other than to follow suit. It will take time for Il Maestro to understand his own philosophy and how best to transmit this to his players. Due to a multitude of factors this experimental appointment by Andrea Agnelli was never going to run smoothly, it can therefore come as no surprise that the Peninsulas’ most successful club are encountering problems.
Pirlo can perhaps take solace from looking around Europe and seeing the struggles of other elite teams. Those with established coaches who have settled squads and are experiencing troubles of their own. In this particular season with unprecedented demand in terms of fixtures it is those with familiarity, understanding and who are having to make fewer adjustments that are coping best. The teams that top the continents top five leagues are confirmation of that.
In these moments leaders are needed, but the characters that have seemingly steered Juve straight over the last decade have slowly slipped way. Without Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and again Ronaldo, the remaining players take to the field with no one to guide them. Matthijs de Ligt has been domineering since his return, attempting to take command from the back but he cannot do this alone.
Do we see the required leadership qualities in any of other the players outside of the Dutchman? The simple answer is no. Look back over the last decade and you will find Juve teams littered with players that could step-up when the team faced adversity, what Pirlo would give to have a Claudio Marchisio, Stephan Lichtsteiner or Mario Mandzukic type figure to aid this period of transition.
It is easy to judge Pirlo, question his selections and his seemingly constant rotation of his starting line-ups. There are certainly instances where he could have brought more stability with his choices but that is no excuse for not beating the likes of Benevento, Crotone and stumbling past Ferencvaros. This group has to develop resilience, serenity and learn to find a way, just as those previous have done on countless occasions in the recent past. In part it is this which has lead La Vecchia Signora to a historic nine consecutive titles but as of now the dream of a tenth looks in serious jeopardy.