Football Sport

Paving the way

Written by Leanne Lu

This article first appeared in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of WGM.

The tremendous success of Juventus this season in domestic and European competition provides some much-needed hope for their Italian counterparts. In 2003, Juventus and AC Milan – two Italian giants – met at Old Trafford in the Champions League final. The match was dominated by Italy’s famous defense, with AC Milan winning 3-2 on penalties after 120 minutes of regular and extra time failed to produce a goal. Now, 12 years later, Juventus have returned with defense again the key as they overcame Borussia Dortmund, Monaco and Real Madrid on the way to the Champions League final. Although they fell at the final hurdle to a mighty Barcelona side, Juventus’ journey proves that money isn’t the only key to success.

Juventus won’t easily forget their remarkable win over defending champions Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals this year. The two teams are polar opposites when it comes to financial power: in the 2015 issue of the annual European Money League published by Deloitte in January, Real Madrid was again ranked in first place with an annual turnover of €549.5 million and 14.4 million followers on Twitter, while Juventus had an annual turnover of around €280 million for the third consecutive year and 1.6 million Twitter followers.

Ironically, while Real continue to pay whatever necessary to lure the best players to the club, Juventus’ lack of investment in playing personnel was one of the key reasons their former coach Antonio Conte decided to leave the club 12 months ago. After three Serie A titles, the offensive-minded Conte expected some big names but owner Andrea Agnelli, who took over the club in 2010, couldn’t satisfy the manager’s ambition.

Massimiliano Allegri was appointed under messy circumstances. When he first arrived at the club’s training ground, fans welcomed him with eggs, spitting and genuine anger. Part of that anger was based around the fact that Allegri used to coach bitter rivals AC Milan, but there were also questions surrounding his ability to manage a club as big as Juventus. Fans couldn’t get beyond the fact that Allegri was once sacked by Milan due to poor results. But the owner wasn’t keen to take any huge financial risks and in Allegri he saw a man renowned for getting the most out of squads put together on a smaller budget.

Andrea Pirlo

Andrea Pirlo

Allegri has proven to be a shrewd operator. Before Conte left the club on 15 July last year, Juventus had only made one Bosman transfer in Kingsley Coman, an 18-year-old prospect from Paris St Germain. Allegri quickly fixed that with three significant signings upon his arrival although none of them attracted a whole lot of interest at the time. Álvaro Morata was the club’s only “marquee signing” – coming from Real Madrid with a €20 million price tag. He would go on to punish his former club when they met in European competition. Patrice Evra moved to Turin from Manchester United for just €1.5 million after losing his place to young talents Luke Shaw and Rojo. The loan deal for Udinese left winger Roberto Pereyra didn’t even raise an eyebrow given his standing at the time as merely a backup player, but a long-term injury to Ghanaian winger Kwadwo Asamoah would make Pereyra a crucial player in Juventus’ campaign.

Of course, we should also acknowledge one key signing by Conte – midfielder Paul Pogba – who left Manchester United in 2012 after they failed to table an acceptable offer. United fans are still seething at that loss and it is no surprise the English giants have been trying to lure him back in recent months. Nevertheless, both Pogba and Juventus have been the winners from his move to Turin. The 22-year-old has established himself as a star and although his long-term future may lay elsewhere given the attention he has attracted, his service has been crucial to Juve’s success. Finally, we can’t forget the contribution from veterans Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez who have rewound the clock in 2015. Shrewd business helped the team rebuild from the ashes with the perfect combination of youth and experience.

Carlos Tevez

Carlos Tevez

Juventus’ rise is particularly notable due to the hell the club has been through since their last Champions League final 12 years ago. In 2006, they were involved in the worst match fixing scandal in Italian football history – the findings seeing them stripped of two Serie A titles and relegated to Serie B. However, their star players including Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluigi Buffon and Pavel Nedvěd stayed – accepting pay-cuts in the process to help the Italian club fight back into the top tier. Del Piero was once quoted as saying “a true gentleman will never leave his lady” in reference to his loyalty towards the Turin club. They were, not surprisingly, promoted back into the top flight the following season although returning to their former glories proved somewhat tougher. Italian football in general has dropped behind its European counterparts in recent times with England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga dominating in Europe since 2007.

The rise of Juventus in Europe provides a model for the not-so-rich to follow in a football world dominated by the “beautiful”, offensive style of clubs like Bayern Munich and Barcelona. The foundation of this Juventus side is its Italian core at the back and in the midfield. The spine is solid, with Buffon in goal and Giorgio Chiellini, Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio combining well behind the attack. They used their compact and intense defense to beat Monaco and Real Madrid in Europe, while Allegri has deployed just enough speed and flair in attack through the likes of Vidal and Tevez to keep their opponents on edge.

Compared with his predecessor Conte, Allegri’s football philosophy is clearly more conservative, more balanced and ultimately more Italian. Yet it is exactly this pragmatic style that has helped Juventus achieve such a milestone. Earlier this season, Allegri adopted the same 3-5-2 used by Conte but over time made small tweaks and eventually returned the team to the 4-3-1-2 formation he often used at AC Milan. This system is very balanced, with a functional midfield to connect defense and attack. Pirlo, as usual, plays as the deep-lying playmaker and Stefano Sturaro protects the back four with ruthless running and tackling, while Vidal or Pogba occupy the attacking midfielder’s position. In fact, this is a system most Italian managers should be familiar with as Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan once had Pirlo, Gennaro Guttuso and Kaká playing very similar roles.

Their organized and compact defense helped Juventus march on in Europe this year. In the group stage, they conceded just four goals and only another three in their six knockout stage games. Allegri’s side may not be as offensive as Conte’s team, which was crowned Italian champions in 2013/14 with a massive 102 points, but Allegri’s pragmatic football ensured they didn’t fade out against cashed-up Monaco and Real Madrid in the latter stages of the year.

The success of Allegri and Juventus brings new hope to Italian football. They may not rank among the wealthiest clubs in Europe or play silky attacking football like Bayern and Barca, but Juve’s example shows that shrewd management and effective tactics can sometimes trump the power of money.