The Ronaldo Show

The summer of 2018 was an exciting time for Juventus. An ambitious rebranding project, a six-part documentary on Netflix and an unprecedented fourth consecutive domestic double ensured the season was an unqualified success. However, one dark cloud remained for the Bianconeri: their failure to win the Champions League.

The previous season, the Old Lady had looked sharp in Europe’s premier club competition, losing just once in the group stage before overcoming an impressive Tottenham side in the round of 16. Unfortunately for the Juventus, the quarter-final draw saw them face a Real Madrid team that had won the previous two Champions Leagues. Massimiliano Allegri lost 4-3 on aggregate with a certain Cristiano Ronaldo putting on a masterclass at the Allianz Stadium, scoring a brace that included a flawless bicycle kick.

Looking to change their fortunes and secure their first European cup since the 1995-96 season, Andrea Agnelli made an ambitious bid to sign their vanquisher. Over the past three seasons Ronaldo had become known as Mr. Champions League. With their No 7 leading the charge, Real Madrid had done something never-before seen and won the competition three times in a row. Winning for the fifth time overall in 2018 made Ronaldo the most decorated player in history, and in doing so he finished as top scorer for the sixth consecutive season. If there was any such thing as a Champions League guarantee, the Portuguese forward seemed to be it.

The CR7 show took more time than expected to get going in Turin, but, after netting a brace in his fourth game Ronaldo looked back at his best. Juventus added yet another Scudetto to their collection and their star man won the inaugural Serie A Most Valuable Player award.

However, things were not all positive. In December Juventus ad lost the service of Beppe Marotta, as their famed transfer guru moved to rivals Inter after a rumoured bust up with Agnelli. Once again, the Bianconeri failed to progress past the quarter-finals of the Champions League, losing to surprise package Ajax, and after a subsequent failure to lift the Coppa Italia for the first time in five years, coach Massimiliano Allegri moved on.

Agnelli was undeterred and looked to further re-enforce his Champions League project. Maurizio Sarri, who had won the Europa League with Chelsea, was brought in as manager and Matthijs de Ligt, who so impressed for Ajax in the Champions League, was subject of a £75m transfer swoop. Yet again Juventus won the Scudetto with Ronaldo finishing second-top scorer. However, the murmurs of discontent were growing.

Under Sarri Juventus won the fewest points of their nine consecutive league wins, with fans particularly concerned about a perceived lack of attacking ambition. Yet again the Old Lady failed to win the Coppa Italia but perhaps most damagingly, their progress in the Champions League regressed. 

After finishing top of a tough group Bianconeri fans were pleased with a draw against Lyon in the Round of 16. Juventus’ short trip across the Alps ended in a surprise defeat, with the French side notching the only goal of the game. The reverse fixture was delayed by five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and, with no fans to encourage them Maurizio Sarri’s side failed to overturn the result, winning 2-1 but losing on away goals.

Once again, this failure cost the manager his job and Andrea Agnelli returned to the transfer market looking for solutions. Federico Chiesa was the big-name signing of the summer whilst Weston McKennie, Alvaro Morata, Dejan Kulusevski and Arthur were all brought in to replace outgoings. Following the Zinedine Zidane model seen at Real Madrid, Juventus appointed former player Andrea Pirlo as manager – looking to emulate Madrid’s success.

If the previous two seasons were disappointing for Juventus, this campaign could be considered a complete disaster. Since kicking off in September Pirlo’s side rarely looked capable of lifting their 10th consecutive Scudetto. To make matters worse Juventus yet again failed to progress past the Champions League Round of 16. In previous seasons excuses could be made: the Ajax they lost to also beat Real Madrid and defeat to Lyon came either side of a severely disrupted campaign. However, this season’s failure to beat Porto over two matches has been considered near inexcusable for many.

Failure in both Serie A and the Champions League has seen questions raised on Pirlo’s appointment, with Juventus likely to change manager for the third consecutive summer. However, unlike in previous seasons, attention has turned to the squad itself, and more specifically to their record signing as fans and management alike seek explanations.

On the surface there appears to be a direct link between Ronaldo’s arrival and Juventus’ steep decline. Particularly underwhelming performances in both legs against Porto further increased the argument that the man that Agnelli brought in to win the Champions League has had the complete opposite effect; having reached the finals twice in three years without Ronaldo, they have won just one knock-out match with him.

However, as the phrase goes, correlation does not imply causation, and placing Juventus’ European failures entirely at the feet of Ronaldo would not only be unfair but inaccurate. The forward has been arguably the club’s best player week in, week out over the past three years although has come up against limited opposition.

Whereas the No 7 has scored more than any other player in Serie A since making his debut with 76 goals, no other Juventus player has notched more than 18 in the same period. Indeed, unlike at Real Madrid where Ronaldo benefitted from the likes of Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale to ease the goalscoring burden, neither Federico Chiesa nor Alvaro Morata are likely to hit double digits this season. Likewise, Gonzalo Higuain and Paolo Dybala, who notched 38 goals between them before Ronaldo’s arrival, managed precisely half that last season.

This appears to be the root of the problem at Juventus. There is no doubt that at 36, Ronaldo is not the player he was at his peak, however, where Real Madrid had the quality to manage his decline, Juventus simply do not. The team Zidane built around the Portugual captain had not only the ability to shine elsewhere, but also the defensive structure and resilience to grind out wins if necessary.

It is not only up front that the Bianconeri are lacking. The defence that won Juventus their titles under Conte is a thing of the past with Andrea Barzagli retiring, Giorgio Chiellini nearing the end of his career and Leonardo Bonucci not looking the same since his single season with Milan. Whilst young guns Matthijs de Ligt and Merih Demiral are set for the future, they still look shaky, and the Juan Cuadrado/Alex Sandro full-back pairing is nowhere near the level of Europe’s best.

Clearly Juventus’ issues are at a systemic level, with poor squad building in recent years reflected by inconsistent managerial recruitment. The majority of Juventus fans now acknowledge that allowing Allegri to leave was a mistake but replacing him with a man famous for a possession-centric tactic in a team starring Cristiano Ronaldo appeared a strange decision even at the time.

Giving up on the Sarri-ball experiment after just one year would have made sense had another plan been in the works, with the team undergoing a transitional period. Instead, the club hired a man with no senior managerial experience who had only that summer completed his coaching qualifications.  Over the period of three years Juventus have gone from being the best-run club in Italy, if not Europe, to fighting for Champions League qualification. Rather than the Cristiano Ronaldo project failing, it appears that the Juventus project has failed Ronaldo.

Juve’s best buys

Juventus had made a habit of smart signings – an inspired free transfer here, a novel loan signing there. Greg Murray looks at their hits in the market

Transfer wizards

After taking over as club president in 2010 it took Andrea Agnelli’s Juventus just two seasons to win the Scudetto. However, the club was not the financial powerhouse that it is now, and instead relied on the shrewd market dealings of their new director of sport Giuseppe Marotta.

Under his guidance the Old Lady became known for bringing in world class players for remarkable value, allowing them to build a Serie A dominating team whilst balancing the books.

The most famous of these is arguably Juventus’ current coach, Andrea Pirlo, who was snapped up on a free transfer when Milan decided against renewing the 31-year-old midfielder’s contract. With a point to prove the World Cup winner had arguably the best spell of his career during four years in a Juventus shirt, making the role of the regista famous worldwide.

Clearly Marotta had an eye for a midfielder, bringing Arturo Vidal in for just £11m, but it is the Paul Pogba saga that saw the Juventus transfer guru really make his name. The French midfielder left Manchester United for Turin on another free transfer and turned Serie A into his personal showcase. The Bianconeri only kept hold of him for four years, but in selling him back to United made a profit of over £90m.

Finally, an honourable mention should be given to the Scudetto-winning strike partnership of Fernando Llorene and Carlos Tevez, signed for a total of £9m. The classic target-man/second-striker combination was ruthlessly effective for Antonio Conte’s side, with the Argentine scoring a goal every other game.

Story by Soccer 360 Magazine’s Greg Murray.

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