The last two wins are timely, but the Old Lady’s underwhelming start has left them playing catch-up in the race to end in the Champions League spots
As mixed starts go, Juventus certainly have had a mishmash in terms of performances and results in 2021/22.
When Massimiliano Allegri made the surprising decision to return to his old stomping ground, nobody imagined a scenario where the Old Lady would be fifth in Serie A, seven points adrift of fourth-placed Atalanta at the end of gameweek 15.
Last Tuesday’s 2-0 success over cellar-dwelling Salernitana and Sunday’s dominant triumph over struggling Genoa by the same score offer respite after a poor run of results, although the broader issues persist.
Allegri’s team were tipped to challenge for the Scudetto this term despite ending a staggering 13 points behind Inter Milan last season. However, after 16 matches in 2021/22, pre-season targets are being adjusted: the aim is no longer to reclaim Serie A but to avoid ending outside the top four, thus avoiding an eventuality that last befell the Turin club in 2010/11.
For all the criticism endured by the green Andrea Pirlo last season, Juventus lost only six times in 2020/21. By contrast, the 1-0 defeat by Atalanta in round 14 was Allegri’s fifth since returning to the Allianz Stadium.
In fairness, there is a bit of mitigation for the returning Bianconeri boss.
Indeed, losing Cristiano Ronaldo so late in the summer was a huge blow. The Portugal superstar contributed to 41 percent of the Old Lady’s goals in Allegri’s final season, 47% under Maurizio Sarri and 41.6% under Pirlo.
With only days remaining in the transfer window, losing their most important attacking player was always going to pose difficulties, especially as his late departure for Manchester United in August gave them little time to find a replacement.
Injury problems to Paolo Dybala, whose muscular problems have been a continuing issue, and Federico Chiesa, a player tipped to be the attacking spearhead for the Turin giants’ rebuild, have not helped in finding the necessary consistency up top, with Allegri’s team mostly incoherent in that area.
The Italy international is out until January with a muscle injury, although the last two wins have shown the importance of the fit-again South American, who has netted in both victories over the relegation-threatened sides.
Furthermore, finding the balance and working with a squad that seems unsuited to the five-time Serie A winner was likely going to be tricky.
There was a clear inclination by the Bianconeri to change their modus operandi when they jettisoned the former AC Milan trainer for Maurizio Sarri in 2019, seeking to play more front-foot football.
A process that already had teething problems was continued by Pirlo last term, unfortunately to no avail, and Juventus have now come full circle, appearing to do away with the strategy after going cold feet.
It leaves them lacking an identity, without their talisman in the three previous seasons who somewhat papered over the cracks and with a manager seemingly unsuited to this bunch of players, brought in to play a different style.
Allegri expects observers to lessen expectations, but is the multiple Serie A winner being reasonable?
“We are here to challenge for the top four,” the Juve boss stated recently. “I think we must be realistic. If we are in this position, it means this is what we are worth right now. There’s a long way to go, but in terms of performance, I only saw us get it wrong against Verona, Sassuolo and Empoli.
“Once we are realistic, we can take the pressure off and work better in a calmer environment. All we can do is try to get the best out of ourselves.
“People said at the start that this was the strongest squad that simply had to win the Scudetto and I always noted that was inaccurate. We are Juventus and people seem to think that means we must automatically be Scudetto favourites.”
Neither performances nor results are consistent enough for the Old Lady, whose wider toils are concerning. It remains to be seen if Allegri will get this side into the Champions League places this term, but failure to do so may not be as surprising as people think.
Despite the presence of Cristiano, Pirlo’s team only managed to finish fourth on the final day after Napoli made a hash of their last encounter with Hellas Verona in Naples.
With the Portuguese no longer in Turin, Allegri’s crew have found it difficult to score goals — 22 Serie A goals is the lowest in the top half — while their mid-table expected goals indicate quality chances have so far been at a premium.
Venezia, Bologna and Cagliari are to come in December — sides in the bottom half of the table, except Bologna — and they are expected to secure maximum points to build momentum for the remainder of the year.
The aforementioned are all winnable games and success will put the Old Lady in an encouraging position to tussle for the Champions League spots heading into the New Year.
Whether Allegri’s troops make the most of this opportunity, however, remains to be seen.