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Juventus’s Grip On Serie A Is Finally Loosening

Juventus' Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo reacts after missing a goal opportunity during the Italian Serie A football match Napoli vs Juventus on February 13, 2021 at the Diego Maradona (San Paolo) stadium in Naples.
Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

The last time that Juventus didn’t lift the Scudetto trophy at the end of a Serie A season, Cristiano Ronaldo was only in his second season at Real Madrid, Paulo Dybala was a 17-year-old still playing in his native Argentina, and current manager Andrea Pirlo was playing in AC Milan’s title-winning side. The Old Lady followed a seventh-place finish in 2010-2011 with an unparalleled run in Italian history: nine straight titles—four more than the previous record of five—with eight of those coming by four or more points. If it felt like the hegemony at the top of Serie A would never end, the last season and a half have proven those feelings premature.

As it stands, Juventus is primed to follow its narrow, one-point title win in 2019-2020 with its first finish outside of the summit in a decade. Following Saturday’s 1-0 defeat away to Napoli, the Turin side sits eight points back of league-leading Inter, albeit with one fewer game played than its black-and-blue rivals. The loss to Napoli pushed Juventus to fourth place in the league, and it also served as a prime example of what has been going wrong for the reigning champions this season.

Despite thoroughly dominating every relevant statistic, Juventus ran into the same problem it has run into all year: it is creating chances but it simply can’t finish them. xG (expected goals) is not a perfect stat, but there are some trends you can’t ignore. For the season, Juventus has had a higher amount of expected goals than its opponents in every league game, minus three (losses to Fiorentina and Inter Milan, and a 2-0 win against Roma that it won despite only notching 0.25 expected goals). That was true again on Saturday, as Napoli was barely able to create any chances, save for Lorenzo Insigne’s 31st minute penalty. Juventus won the xG battle 2.01 to 1.06, per Understat, but it did not matter: 24 shots, 6 on target, and no goals.

For the season, Juventus’s offense has sputtered compared to its counterparts. Its 41 goals are good for just sixth in the league, and a far cry from the seasons when the club would bludgeon everyone in its path. Its defense is still league-best, after slipping to third last season, but there’s only so much you can do when your attack is failing. Part of that is an over-reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo, who is, at age 36, still far and away the club’s best scoring presence; he’s tallied 16 of Juventus’s 41 goals, with the next highest number trailing far behind (Federico Chiesa has five league goals).

Another part of the problem is that Juventus is a team caught between two eras. Its star players from years past, such as Ronaldo, Leonardo Bonucci, or Girgio Chiellini, are all in their mid-to-late 30s, while the influx of new talent, such as Chiesa, USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie, and Swedish wonderkid Dejan Kulusevski, is not quite up to Serie A-winning standards just yet. Paulo Dybala, the Argentine do-it-all attacker meant to be the team’s next megastar, deserves his own mention; between injuries and underwhelming performances, he has not helped the club win as many points as fans likely envisioned.

The elephant in the room here, though, is Pirlo, whose hiring as manager raised eyebrows given the combination of his complete inexperience and the COVID-induced mini-preseason. It’s hard enough to incorporate a new manager onto a world-beating side, doubly so if the manager lacks top flight experience (see how Chelsea went under Frank Lampard). To have Pirlo come in with little preseason time, in a league that mostly has continuity at the top in terms of managers, was as red a flag as you can get. Those seem like excuses, and for a club with as much depth and talent as Juventus, it is unacceptable that it might be out of the title race far sooner than anyone predicted, but that’s the reality.

Not that Pirlo has been all that bad in implementing his system, though. His aim was to play fluid, attacking soccer, one in which the team swaps between a pressing 4-4-2 formation when away from the ball and a hyper-offensive 3-2-5 when in possession. The xG numbers seem to bear out that his style is working, at least in terms of statistics. It’s hard to look at the underlying numbers and think much is wrong with Juventus; taking a look at Inter’s own advanced numbers reveals that the nerazzurri are playing wildly above their expected totals. The bigger problem is that, Ronaldo aside, there is no one to finish the chances created by all the motion and chaos that Pirlo has brought about.

The question, then, is one that will be answered in the next couple of months: Is Juventus a team that just struggles to finish, enough that it will drop its stranglehold on the Scudetto, or is it a team that has gotten unlucky and will therefore turn the corner to claim what it must feel is its rightful spot at the top of the league? Finishing can be streaky, even squad-wide, so it’s certainly possible that Juventus is more like the club that just won six of seven matches in all competitions than the one that looked so impotent against Napoli. But time is running out to close the gap, and the club is at a scheduling disadvantage compared to the current league leaders. Inter is out of both domestic and European competition, and so will be completely focused on Serie A play, while Juventus has both Champions League and the final of the Coppa Italia in its future.

With the grind of this pandemic-tightened season, even the depth that Juventus has might not be enough to help it get back on top, particularly given that its remaining match-up with Inter comes on May 16, when the league might already be wrapped up. All of the factors that helped Juventus win nine straight titles appear to be turning against it, thanks to the sands of time and the reality of its managing situation. The Napoli loss wasn’t enough to claim that the Old Lady is out of title contention, but it was enough to start giving fans of change some hope that the Serie A title will, finally, land somewhere other than Turin this season.