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.

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…

 

 

Second place: the new Scudetto

Callejon

Last Summer, Juve did a little shopping.

The quintuple champions snapped up two “bargains”, matching the release clauses of Gonzalo Higuain (€90m, payable in two instalments) and Miralem Pjanic (€38m).

Doing so, they instantly hit two of their biggest rivals, where the two players came from, Napoli and Roma, destabilising them in one single master stroke.

The Neapoltains looked to replace El Pipita with Mauro Icardi of Inter, with no success, despite a final bid in excess of €70m and a lengthy courtship. They had to settle of Ajax’s Arkadiusz Milik who, after a promising start, rutpured his knee ligaments.

Roma, on the other hand, did what all Italian teams who finished in third place, synonymous of late-August Champions League playoffs, did before them: waiting to see if they could make it to the group stages before deciding to invest in a suitable replacement for Pjanic.

The rest of the story was a foregone conclusion: Juventus ran away with the title, much sooner than in previous years, as their rivals floundered, one after the other, for all kinds of different reasons.

In fact, one may argue that Serie A never actually started: the season was over before the first ball was kicked, such Juve’s superiority was evident, right from the start.

The Italian Lega di Serie A should perhaps consider introducing a sort of “2nd Scudetto” from this point onwards and assign the real thing to Juve, automatically, to let them focus  on European biz and tour the world like the Harlem Globetrotters.

More seriously, second place is what really matters these days, as it grants direct access to the group stages of the Champions League, money and more time and resources for planning.

This is why now, with four games to play, Roma and Napoli, currently in 2nd and 3rd place respectively, sweat like it’s Ferragosto.

They both know they can’t afford to finish in 3rd place: both endured an early exit from the CL in the last preliminary stage: in 2014, Napoli were eliminated (that’s the word) by Ahtletic Bilbao; last year, Roma stumbled (apt description) upon a slick Porto side.

And the ones before all met the same fate, almost every single time in recent years: Sampdoria (2010-11, knocked out by Werder Bremen), Udinese (2011-12, by Arsenal and 2012-13, by Braga), Lazio (2015-16, by Bayer Leverkusen). Only Milan in 2014 managed to get through.

Demotion to the Europa League, where nobody actually wants to go because of its meagre returns and disruptive/punitive Thursday evening games off to distant venues, inevitably followed.

However, this year, more than ever, neither Roma nor Napoli can afford to finish in 3rd place, whatever both may claim.

Here’s why: Roma need the cash, Napoli need to mount a serious title challenge, 30 after their first crown.

Cash: Corriere dello Sport valued at €32m the cost of non-qualification alone. That’s before you factor in the comfortable return from points in the group stage and wins in the knock-out phase. Roma need the cash to rebuild a shaken and fragile squad – and build, later, their flashy new stadium by the Tiber River.

Title challenge: Napoli feel their young team will soon be within range of Juve and look to sign less numerous but much bigger players during the Summer to make it happen. Sans CL, they can just forget about it.

Both challengers look from their distant places Juventus fly higher and higher (note: I still maintain I’m no fan of the Bianconeri), soon blessed with more cash reaped from the Champions League. Who knows who they’re going to buy next Summer.

And, oh, they could win the CL, too, in the meantime.

If they do, the Others will be in impossible situations, sandwiched between the Turin giants and Chinese-Milanese teams who, let’s face it, aren’t going to stand idly by forever.

Yeah, definitely, Lega Serie A should introduce the Scudettino…

Juv-st too strong – part two

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Let me first underline that I am not a Juventus fan.

In fact I will, not unlike the legendary 90o minuto presenter, Paolo Valenti, never reveal which team I support.

Thing is, I like a large number of Italian teams, for all kinds of reasons.

Like them or not, it’s hard impossible not to recognize Juventus for what they currently are: a ruthless, perfectly organized team with tons of quality on the pitch, on the bench and in the upper offices of a superbly run football club, in the Genesis-like land of confusion that Italy is these days.

Juve were showered with praise following their ruthless elimination of Barcelona last Wednesday – yes, that Barça everyone wrote off as “disappearing”, “not as good as before”, led by a Leo Messi “not the man he used to be”. That Barça bounced back to win the Clasico in spectacular fashion – nuff said.

Meanwhile, last night in Turin, following a string of surprising, late-season results (Empoli & Crotone’s upsets of Milan and Samp), Sky Italia doomsayers said Juve had to look out for Genoa, the team who beat 3-1 them neatly in the first half of the season.

No such luck. Juve were their usual, cinematic, comic book heroes selves, using their superpowers on hapless opposition.

Fantasized Dybala could have been tired? WHACK! He scored his team’s 2nd goal looking like he was flying above the surface.

Thought Manduzkic had lost his eye for goal after being deployed for so long on the left attacking midfield line? KAPOW! A first touch missile flew past the goalie to make it 3-0.

And how about Bonucci, such a strong defender, scoring from distance after a solo run? BOOM! 4-0 and buonasera.

The race for Serie A is almost over (in fact, it never really started) and so Italian radio phone-ins already have all set their sights on the CL final in Cardiff versus Real Madrid.

It’d be a mistake to underestimate Monaco and Atletico Madrid, a bit like the French media are doing with the Présidentielles and Emmanuel Macron’s apparent shoe-in in two weeks’ time.

But today’s bottom line is Juve are just too strong for the rest. How strong they will be in early June is a question for, well, early June.

 

Juv-st too strong

JuveBarcJuventus proved way too strong for Barcelona in the CL.

Just as they are annoyingly better than the rest in Serie A, now they are slowly but surely making their mark in Europe as well.

Wednesday night’s performance at the Nou Camp had it all – even though it finished 0-0: Fort Knox-like defence, solid yet creative midfield and a powerful and participative attacking line.

Oh, we were also forgetting: a great manager. Massimiliano Allegri said before the game he would field his usual quartet of star attackers: Higuain, Dybala, Mandzukic and Cuadrado.

What a difference it makes compared with Jose Mourinho’s ultra-defensive tactics in 2010 when Inter clinched their qualification to the CL final through gritted teeth. It takes balls to go to the Nou Camp with 4 forwards.

Two things were particularly impressive on Wednesday:

  1. Juve never looked threatened and gave the impression to control the game with Fonzie-like cool. They made defending their 3-goal advantage even easier than it seemed and didn’t burn vast amounts of energy preserving their goal untouched.
  2. The Turin giants have so far conceded just two goals since the start of their European campaign. Bonucci is arguably the best defender in the world these days, but the rest of the defensive back four is not too shabby either.

Now with a little luck they will face Real over two legs in the semis and Monaco in the final… because they’re not only good, but they also enjoy culo! Italians will understand this one.

The calm before the storm

Serie A has rarely seen a season like this.

Four teams are within two points of each other at the top of the table.

Under former City manager Roberto Mancini, Inter are branded as serious title challengers for the first time since José Mourinho left. The nerazzurri don’t score that much (won seven with the same 1-0 scoreline) but they have displayed defensive steel, with the notable bleep in the shape of their 1-4 mauling at the hands of Fiorentina.

The Viola are joint leaders on 27 points, fresh from a rampage at Sampdoria (who then sacked their manager Walter Zenga). Their high-tempo and short passing ways are reminiscent of Barcelona, no less. Sky’s the limit for the Florence outfit.

Down the Autostrada del Sole, AS Roma are enjoying, one year late, a burgeoning title run. They’ve had their share of defensive blunders but since a somewhat bumpy ride in the Champions League, the Giallorossi are back on track, a fact confirmed by the derby triumph over a seemingly depressed Lazio.

In Naples, superstition is such that nobody talks about the scudetto openly but harbour, deep down inside, the secret wish to see Gonzalo Higuain march in the footsteps of Diego Maradona and lead flamboyant Napoli to a third domestic crown, their first since 1990.

Right behind the leading quartet, plucky Sassuolo are standing above big guns like Lazio and Milan, who are showing signs of ripresa. All three teams should stay, well, pretty much where they currently stand because of their shared inconsistency: flashes of greatness followed by abysmal results.

As for reigning champions Juventus, who ran away with the title every season for the past four years, they are nine points adrift of first place after a calamitous start of the season. A last-gasp win over city rivals Torino followed by a 3-1 triumph at Empoli has left them in a more dignified position, but they’re still a long way from the steamroller they used to be.

Enter the international break.

Without Pirlo (and, controversially, without Insigne) Italy will now play friendlies against Belgium and Romania.

Yet all eyes are already on the Juve-Milan clash in Turin on Saturday 20 November.

The run-up to Christmas should provide more answers, especially when Napoli meet Inter, the division’s two best defences, on 30 November (a Monday night posticipo) and then Roma mid-December.

The calm from this mid-November hiatus is poised to leave the way to a fest of stormy clashes…