And it is time to acknowledge how far Juventus have fallen…
So Juventus are out of the Champions League. In the Round of 16 stage. Again.
Juve’s extra time away goals loss to FC Porto is the second time in as many years that the Bianconeri were eliminated at the first knockout hurdle in the Champions League, and it is also only the third time that a team containing Cristiano Ronaldo has failed to advance past the Champions League Round of 16 since the Portuguese signed with Real Madrid in 2009. Juventus have not advanced past the Quarterfinals stage since 2017, when they made it to the Final, and on all three occasions they have lost to teams (Ajax, Olympique Lyonnais, FC Porto) that, at least on paper, they should be beating quite easily. And every year, the defeats seem to be getting worse and more embarrassing.
Away from the Champions League, Juventus now finds themselves 10 points behind league leaders Inter after making hard work of winning the title last season. Their dominance of the Scudetto in Italy looks like it is coming to an end. While they are in the Final of the Coppa Italia, they have failed to win the competition, a competition that Juventus have dominated since 2014, the last two seasons, losing in the Final to Napoli last season and in the Quarterfinals to Atalanta in 2018-19.
It is quite simple; Juventus have fallen behind over the last three years, and the rest of Italy’s traditional powers have begun to catch up and overtake the Old Lady. It is incredibly damning to say that a club that signed Cristiano Ronaldo has gotten worse since his arrival, but this is where we are at with Juventus. They signed Ronaldo in 2018 to finally win the Champions League, but not only have they gotten further away from their ultimate goal, but their decade-long dominance of domestic Italian football is also seemingly coming to an end.
The Ronaldo project has colossally failed. And Juventus has no one but themselves to blame for its failure.
Now this failure is not directly because of Ronaldo’s performances. Ronaldo has been scoring goals at a hilariously absurd rate since moving to Turin. Despite having yet to win the Capocannoniere, awarded to the league’s top scorer, since moving to Juve, he has still scored an incredible 92 goals in 121 total appearances in all competitions, which is absurd for a player who is 36 with the amount of miles on the proverbial odometer as Ronaldo has. He is still incredibly good, and in there lies a problem.
You might be looking at me like I am insane right now. Ronaldo being too good is the problem? Sort of. Ronaldo’s talent is clear, but it has created a scenario where Juventus have become over-reliant on the Portuguese to save them. He is responsible for nearly half of his team’s league goals this season. He is the only one that can really do anything when a big moment is needed, and when teams effectively deal with the threat he provides, as Napoli did in the Coppa Italia Final last season, for example, then Juventus quite often struggle to score. They have runs where other players in the team can pick up some slack, with Paulo Dybala and Federico Chiesa probably being their main non-Ronaldo attacking threats, but quite often it is clear that Juventus has invested so heavily into Ronaldo that they are forcing him to carry the club on his back. None of this is Ronaldo’s fault, obviously, but it shows how Juventus have fallen as a team, and it shows the level of complacency the club has reached when it comes to investing in talent to bring into the team.
On that thread of investment, we are beginning to see the most serious problem with building a team around someone like Ronaldo and generally beginning to see the issues with Juventus’ investment over the last few years. Ronaldo was a very serious financial investment, as his €88 million transfer fee is piled on top of his alleged €31 million yearly net wage (net wage means that is his wage after taxes, so Juventus are actually paying him more than that). In the age of Financial Fair Play, that is an insane amount of money to put into just one player. Juve’s annual revenue pales in comparison to the Manchester City’s or PSG’s or Manchester United’s of the world, only being listed as the 10th richest club in the world in Deloitte’s 2021 Money League table, narrowly ahead of Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, and Atlético Madrid. When you do not have colossal revenue and invest so much of that money into one player, it is hard to build a capable team and stay within FFP regulations.
That is not to say they have not tried, and it is worth critiquing their efforts to build around their newly-acquired superstar. They did make some good moves, with Matthijs de Ligt, Dejan Kulusevski, and Weston McKennie looking like future stars, but there are so many poor decisions that have only made an already bad financial situation even worse. The club was weighed down by several very costly contracts, and Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey remain as the peak examples of players costing the club significant wages while not consistently producing at the level they need to be. They needed to cut their losses in order to get Sami Khedira, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Blaise Matuidi off of the wage bill, letting all three players leave the club for free so they can stop paying their exuberant wages. They were unable to make major permanent moves in this last summer window due to this financial difficulty, as well as the financial difficulty caused by the COVID Pandemic. They were only able to bring in Álvaro Morata, Weston McKennie, and Federico Chiesa on loan deals, and they failed to bring in their main transfer target, Lyon’s Houssem Aouar, when they could not convince OL to accept a loan for the midfielder. They had to manufacture some wild swap deal with equally desperate Barcelona just to get Miralem Pjanić’s wages off of the books. Yes, this mainly reflects poorly on the sporting staff at Juventus and the poor long-term planning that has taken place since signing Ronaldo, but they are clearly hamstrung by the financial investment that Ronaldo requires, and it seems to be nearly impossible to effectively build a team around a colossal superstar of Ronaldo’s level in the era of Financial Fair Play.
So where does the buck stop? You cannot blame the managers. The three Champions League failures came under three different managers, with Max Allegri losing to Ajax, Maurizio Sarri losing to Lyon, and now Andrea Pirlo losing to Porto. You cannot really blame Ronaldo because, despite his wage clearly holding Juventus back to a certain extent, he is still performing at an incredibly high level. Is this Juventus team good enough to meet the standard that Juventus should be held to? No, but that is not on the players, it should be on the people who brought them to the club. Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli and Chief Football Officer Fabio Paratici took a team that made the Champions League Final twice and were regular Italian champions and made them worse, seemingly out of complacency and arrogance rather than anything else. Signing Ronaldo was an incredible statement showing how far Juventus have come since Calciopoli, but they failed to put the team around him needed to win the Champions League. After Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, and Claudio Marchisio left the club, it was clear Juventus needed a massive investment into their midfield. Not only were the players that were brought in not good enough to fill that void, but they were signed on egregious wages that made them difficult to move on. Matthijs de Ligt is a phenomenal player, but there is a very clear difference in the Bianconeri defense when he is not in the team, as was the case against Porto. They have assembled a team that seemingly struggles to create chances at times, all looking to Ronaldo to save them.
The way the club handled the managerial situation is even more perplexing. Sacking Max Allegri is a fair enough decision. Allegri’s practicality has been a backbone of Juve’s recent success, but I understand a desire to bring in a more attacking manager with the team’s acquisition of a talent like Ronaldo. Sarri was a logical choice, but only giving him a year? What in the world did they think Sarri could do in just one season with a squad that was clearly very flawed? Yes, losing to Lyon was embarrassing, but did Agnelli and Paratici really expect Juve to go much further in the competition? Why would that not dictate a need for Sarri to be given more time to fully implement his vision on the team? Ok, maybe things were going wrong behind the scenes, maybe a change was necessary. There were a few names on the market for managers that would be a very good fit for Juventus, Mauricio Pochettino being the main one. Sacking Sarri was a little perplexing, but they could finally get it right with this next move.
But Andrea Pirlo? Really? Are you actually serious?
Pirlo is probably a wonderful person. He was a phenomenal player and he is undoubtedly a great football mind, but the man has zero years of managerial experience. He was hired as Juve’s U-23 coach, his first job in football management, in late July of 2020 and then hired as their first team manager nine days later. He literally earned his UEFA Pro License two months into the job. You did not have to do this, Juve. There is no reason in my mind that justifies this unless every single remotely qualified candidate turned them down, which would be baffling to me. Were they waiting to see if Pep Guardiola left Manchester City? Why? What is the point of throwing away a year of Ronaldo on the off chance someone leaves their job? None of this makes sense to me.
I also refuse to believe that Pirlo would have been considered for this position if his name was not Andrea Pirlo, if his name did not carry the incredible weight that it does within Juventus and throughout Italian football. Do not get me wrong, Pirlo could still become a great manager, but it is painfully clear that he was not ready for this. The whole movement of clubs hiring former players as managers has always been a bit ridiculous to me, but this is easily the most ridiculous of all of them. Just because they were a great player does not mean they will be a great manager. Pirlo is a brilliant football mind, but there is so much more that is required to be a top level manager than just being a good football mind, and these are skills that will not be met by just hiring a former player with very little experience. He has not shown the necessary game management and squad management skills needed to be successful at the highest level, and he is getting less out of this team than either Sarri or Allegri did. Juventus should also not be the place for a new guy to learn on the job. If Juventus needed a manager that was going to help them win now, as demonstrated by how short of a leash they gave Sarri, then hiring Pirlo is unbelievably insane and irresponsible. You are not only throwing a green manager into the deep end for no reason, but you are ruining his legacy with one of his former clubs for no reason.
Agnelli and Paratici had the golden opportunity of having Cristiano Ronaldo in their team and ruined it with their illogical decisions with player recruitment and managerial hiring. Juventus have not only gotten further away from their goal of winning the Champions League, but their grip on Italian football is now weakening. Yes, the financial implications of building a team around a player like Ronaldo is significant and likely makes the job much harder, but the arrogance of Juventus’ board and staff after years of dominance over Serie A has caused them to slip up at the most crucial moment. They could still end up winning the Scudetto this season, and they are still one of the best teams in Italy, but it is clear that Juventus have gotten worse over the last few years while the other major Italian powers, as well as the big teams around Europe, have gotten better. Juventus’ incredible business sense allowed them to sign a Ferrari-level player, but their complacency led to them putting that Ferrari engine in the body of a 40 year old Ford truck and still expecting it to run perfectly.
Ronaldo’s contract runs out at the end of next season. If things continue on this trajectory, what motivation does he have to stay? Why would he not leave on a free transfer and move to a club where he can win the Champions League again?
Why would he not try to leave the club this summer? What reason does he have to give this failing project one more season?
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