The arms race

Arms raceIn my last post, I was commenting on the fact that spending €50m on right backs is the “new normal”.

Things are different in Italy, of course, where clubs do not have the same financial might as their English counterparts, with the notable exceptions of free-spending AC Milan and consciously wealthy Juventus.

With one month on the clock before the transfer window closes, it’s the right time to make a little evaluation of the activity so far. Below is how I see the top teams perform at the end of the season.

1. Juventus

Yes they have lost Leonardo Bonucci, which is annoying – there’s no way to deny it. But in the Serie A, the Bianconeri are still head and shoulders above the rest. The signing of Douglas Costa from Bayern is shrewd, while Bernardeschi may struggle a little bit. If they can get Keita from Lazio, they will have the power to clinch a 7th successive Scudetto.

2. AC Milan

They’ve recruited top talent such as Bonucci, Biglia, Kessie and Conte but they’re still looking to bolster their frontline. If they sign a superstar like Aubameyang, they’ll become a force to be reckoned with.

3. Napoli

Continuity is the Biancazzurri’s by-word and it may work as they produced the best football in Serie A and perhaps in all of Europe last season. It is unclear whether they will add a big name or two in the last days of the mercato after they qualify (/ if they qualify) for the CL’s group stages. Italian teams notoriously do not spend before those crucial playoffs – probably a mistake. A big signing in defense would do no harm.

4. Inter

Clearly last season’s underachievers, Inter are poised to challenge for the 4th spot – nothing more. Icardi should enjoy more support from the flanks after Perisic departs. New faces would be welcome – at least to placate the fans, jealous of their Milanese neighbours. Perhaps Cristiano Ronaldo, 20 years after signing the “other” Ronaldo, would be a coup to consider.

5. Roma

I must be honest here and say that the post-Totti era, peppered with the combined losses of Salah, Rüdiger and Szecszny, is probably going to be tough for Roma. New arrivals such as Gonalons and Defrel are far from exciting for a demanding “piazza” like Roma (neither are established internationals, it should be noted). Mahrez would be a perfect replacement for Salah but what will be missed, first and foremost, is that certain Totti spirit…

And then, there’s the rest…

Outside this top five group of teams, the undoing of slick Fiorentina has contributed to further imbalance the Serie A.

Lazio and, if they unearth more gems, Atalanta, should lead the pack, just as Torino – if Belotti stays put – could be the surprise package of next season.

On the Riviera, Genoa is rebuilding but will change hands in September (annoyingly) while Sampdoria has lost key players and could still see starlet Schick leave before the end of August.

Bologna and Sassuolo could also enjoy mini-revivals but won’t challenge for honours.

The paucity of the rest is such that the 2017/18 season’s need to win as many games as possible (a bit like in Spain) will be key.

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Can you buy your way to the top?

Milan Fassone

AC Milan have recently started an ambitious (and expensive) offensive to find its place back among the European elite.

After spending more than €200m on new players, they are making a big claim to mount a serious title challenge. In fact, any place outside the top three would be seen as a huge disappointment.

But I am straying.

Today’s question is: can you, like AC Milan, buy your way to the top?

This is of course nothing new and history is rife with past examples of super-rich owners like Bernard Tapie, Silvio Berlusconi, Roman Abramovich, Moratti-father and Moratti-son, etc etc etc.

Milan’s Chinese owners must think they are doing what’s right, guided by expert operators Fassone and Mirabelli, to claw their way back to the top.

Bad news is that they’re not exactly the only ones with deep pockets, in today’s world where paying 50 million pounds on a right-back almost looks like an afterthought.

Going one step beyond (putting Madness on Spotify), today’s hierarchy of football is restricted to 16 clubs.

The Gods of Olympus

Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, Chelsea, Juventus, PSG, Man City, Man Utd

The Up-and-Coming (but not there yet)

Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, Tottenham, Milan

The Watching from Afar

Dortmund, Arsenal, Napoli, Roma, (Monaco)

And that’s it, really.

One may object that I am leaving aside plenty of big clubs such as Everton, Benfica, Ajax, Inter, Schalke, Marseille, RB Leipzig, the Istanbul Bigs, Zenit and the Moscow clubs.

The fact is that I don’t see any of these anywhere close the 16+1 identified above.

There is even an enormous gap between the Gods and the Up-and-Comings. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in games between Real and Atletico or when Spurs or Liverpool played in the Champions League. The Gods see a semi in the CL as a must (and anything else as an abysmal failure) or feel obliged to win it in the case of Madrid and Barcelona, and increasingly so for PSG and Juve.

Teams in the “Up and Comings” category bring together clubs with two different types of success path: Milan and Liverpool aren’t afraid to spend lavishly, Spurs and Atletico are rich but very cautious with their finances (both will have a brand new stadium, this explains that).

Never mind the teams “Watching from afar”… This is where I have placed Arsenal, whose reluctance to change is risky, and Monaco, between brackets, as we don’t know how they will be after selling all their key players.

Monaco, interestingly, went from a “spending like there’s no tomorrow” policy as recently as 2013 to a youth development u-turn, generating the amounts we read in the press.

This makes me wonder in fact if ASM, for all their brilliance and flair in Europe last year, have been the only ones to understand this was an unfair game and that, instead of trying to become a European giant, making them pay through the nose might instead be a better reason to be in football today…

What happened in Cardiff?

 

Juventus have reportedly agreed to sell Leonardo Bonucci to Milan for €40m.

The decision to let go one of the best, if not the best, defenders in the world, is puzzling.

In the summer of 2016, Chelsea, with Antonio Conte freshly appointed as their manager, tried to sign Bonucci – it failed.

Man City, a team in bad need for strong defenders, also unsuccessfully attempted to buy him from Juventus despite offering a cool €70m.

So why, for a far inferior amount of money than City’s bid last year, have Juventus agreed to sell Leo to a domestic rival?

The answer may be found in the irritation Bonucci seems to have with his manager.

Back in February, Bonucci had a much-documented spat with Massimiliano Allegri.

As Juve cruised to a 4-1 win over hapless Palermo, Allegri made late-game changes which infuriated Bonucci.

Allegri told him to shut up and fuck off, Bonucci told his manager to go to hell. http://www.goal.com/en/news/723/serie-a/2017/02/18/32822502/shut-up-dickhead-juventus-boss-allegri-rants-at-bonucci-in

The defender was left out of the team the following week, with Allegri explaining the matter had been resolved internally and that Bonucci had accepted his sanction.

But these differences re-surfaced when Juventus lost the Champions League final, one pundits – especially in Italy – thought the Bianconeri could win.

Juve was no match for a brutally efficient Real Madrid side, which looked superior in all departments, had more pace and, despite their having won the competition 11 times already, more hunger for victory.

That evening, Juventus’s usually confident and Great Wall-like defence was exposed like a bunch of burros.

Balls were given away, lost, passes were miscued, and the thrust the team normally enjoys when it attacks was not there – because Juve’s defence was so under pressure and, by the end of the game, very low down the pitch.

The Juventus defence lost its protection due to their midfield colleague’s nightmarish second half, overwhelmed by Real Madrid, and the so-far undetected defensive inaptitude of wing players, who never have to deal with players like Cristiano Ronaldo in the Serie A. https://www.thetacticsroom.com/articles/2017/6/5/juventus-1-4-real-madrid-a-tactical-analysis

After the final whistle was blown in Cardiff, tensions flared up in the Juve locker room, with Allegri and Bonucci reportedly trading insults again.

We may know in the coming weeks when Bonucci trots off with his new red-and-black jersey on what exactly happened – yet the question remains: just how much has Juve been damaged by that infamous Welsh evening?

While the Bonucci sale is sure to raise a few eyebrows, the focus should be on Allegri – but it’s not.

Is he the man to steer Juventus to the Champions League? Has he got what it takes? And, perhaps, more importantly, has the current Juve squad the stuff to bring the big-eared cup to Turin?

Benignly, the Italian media has shunned those questions…