Looking at our form over the past few months on paper leads to a very different impression to the perception gleamed from watching the matches. Whilst we have maintained consistency in our results, with the loss to Napoli at the weekend our first league defeat since the débâcle in Florence last October, the form of the side has been often worrisome, at times harrowing.
After the 4-2 reverse away to Montella’s vibrant Fiorentina side, we reacted brilliantly and went on a magnificent run of victories in Serie A. This wave of fine form did not abate until the coppa italia quarter final against Roma. Which we lost. That match proved a turning point with our formerly imperious momentum stopped in its tracks. Our 13 game winning streak in the league ended with the next league fixture in Rome, in which we played well enough, but something seemed different.
That 1-0 loss to Roma came about in no small part due to Conte’s decision to start no less than six second string players.
The results kept coming and injuries began to play a prominent role in our output but our confidence on the field had altered. The comprehensive defeat in Napoli had been coming for many weeks. And I can only hope it serves as both inspiration to add fire to the blood of our first XI, and also, serious suggestion to Agnelli, Marotta and Conte, to improve the quality of our squad.
Transfers and Money – Its time for the three muskateers to step up our game.
An appraisal of our reserves to the first XI is tricky and lengthy…but I must begin and hope to finish.
Clearly our ideal starting team is -
Lichsteiner Barzagli Bonucci Chiellini Asamoah
Vidal Pirlo Pogba
Buffon is no slouch. He remains a legend and continues to confirm his reputation as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time. Storari is a brilliant back-up option, but at 37 years of age, he is likely to be replaced in the Summer. Gianluigi is 36, but with constant selection added to his demi-god talent, I feel he has another year or two at least, at the very top level. The subject to raise in regards to Storari is…Would a young, talented, unproven keeper be a better option??? A keeper desperate to prove himself, desperate to show he is the legitimate heir to Buffon??? I think so. Which is why I expect us to bring in another portiere over the Summer. Leali looked amazing last season in Serie B. Inexperienced, but oozing with natural talent. His current season at Spezia has been solid, yet our plans are too intense to replace Marco with a keeper yet to save a shot in Serie A. Kevin Trapp of Frankfurt seems an interesting option.
Caceres and Ogbonna are fine reserves for our ultra solid (when fit) trio at the back. Whilst I would have liked to have seen more of Caceres as a wingback in our present formation, he has performed at least competently whenever called upon to step into the breach and with a lengthy run of games, I suspect he could prove top drawer. My issue with his game is mainly positional, for whilst he is always gung-ho in the challenge, and loves to move up the field, at times, he is suspect when the ball finds its way into our rear-guard region. Our major talent in the making, recently given his debut in the Italy U21 squad, in a game in which he scored, Daniele Rugani, looks a wonderful prospect. Calm with the ball at his feet, capable in physical battles, and a useful option at set pieces. It may be too soon for the 19 year old to step up to our senior squad. If Empoli gain promotion, I suspect he will remain with them to gain valuable top flight experience next term. Which leaves me pondering that solely Ogbonna is a dependable reserve. However, I suspect we will change formation for next season. And that could lead to a back four. With Bonucci, Chiellini, Barzagli and Ogbonna battling for the two spaces available, I feel we are very well covered.
Lichsteiner – Fullback or Wingback???
Lichsteiner is a natural RB. He has done tremendously well as a marauding RWB but his natural game is as a fullback in a back four. Isla seems to be gaining familiarity with the club and match fitness, but has yet to produce even a semblance of the ultra promising form which persuaded us to invest EU9m for a 50% share of his registration in the Summer of 2012. With such a huge outlay, and taking into account his injury nightmare of last season it is understandable that the club do not yet wish to accept a major loss on the financial front, but also potentially on the playing front, for if we sell him to a rival, and then he returns to his Udinese form, we will have lost millions of EUROS for the privilege of offering a rehabilitation program. Still only 25, and a regular for the Chile national side, I suspect we will give him another season. Which would leave us a little short in the RB/ RWB area if Maurico continues to falter, yet Caceres can do a job there. Perhaps Beppe’s plan is to keep him fit, hope Chile do wonderfully in the World Cup, and watch Isla’s price tag rocket. With the remaining 50% likely to be purchased outright over the off-season later this year, rather than pay the expected EU9m, Juve may be considering inserting into the deal a number of our youngsters, with Udinese showing interest in Daniele Rugani, Simone Zaza and Luca Marrone (most likely these would be co-ownership deals).
On the opposite flank the situation is less jolly. Asamoah has produced phenomenal form since finding himelf shor-horned into the LWB role, yet I yearn to see him given more opportunities in his natural dynamic CM position. He is good enough as a LWB for Serie A, but for Europe, I am less convinced, and its Europe where we have failed this season, so it must be brought into the reckoning. Other than Asamoah, Peluso is average defensively but hugely less potent moving up the pitch. I see him as closer to a reserve for Chiellini, for which we already have the stronger and more versatile Ogbonna. I expect to see Peluso move on come the transfer window. Which leads to the opening for a new LB or LWB. A specialist in the position.
Pirlo is ageing, yet remains often incredible and the bearded wonder does not appear to be losing pace and stamina. Regardless of such pondering, we have no natural alternative to his regista role in the squad. Marchisio can play there, and produce an acceptable showing. For Pogba, it demands too big a step away from his wonderful ability to move forward and take up positions high up the field. The young frenchman is already superb at 21 years old and with the finest club sides on the world stage as his suitors, I hope he stays with us for at least next season, hopefully beyond. Vidal has enjoyed a great season. In terms of box to box midfielders, only the monstrous Yaya Toure exceeds his quality. Il Principino has stuck to his task from the shadows, and shown the same impeccable call to duty whenever called upon.
Is Asamoah wasted on the left flank???
Which for me, leaves Asamoah, who I firmly believe could step into either of the Pogba or Vidal roles. Much hinges on our ability to liberate the african from the flank over the Summer. I would be confident with Asamoah and Marchisio not just backing up, but challenging, Pogba and Vidal for a starting spot. Essentially, we desperately require another regista. Marrone has not done enough in a Sassuolo squad lacking character. Which means we must look elsewhere…Alonso would be my ideal choice, but why would he swap sides??? Then there is Verratti…but to bring him into our fold would surely mean the departure of Pogba. For me, that is too high a cost. Daniele Baselli of Atalanta has been talked about, but has yet to show the form required to warrant his purchase.
The integration into our squad of Tevez has done wonders for a front line which lacked creativity as well as top drawer penetration. We are far more threatening with Carlitos in the ranks. And he has proven the difference many times in his maiden campaign for the club, in games which last season we may have drawn or lost. Alongside him, after a slow start to adjusting not just to Serie A but regular football in general (after his odd year at Atletico), Fernando Llorente has been a relative success. His ability in the air and on the turf – especially in terms of holding up the play and bringing others into the final third – has been a useful addition to our attacking repertoire. I strongly believe that he will become even stronger next season.
As for the others…Mirko, whilst injured until recently, was clearly on his way out in January. It must be assumed he will leave. Giovinco has shown true quality solely against weak opposition and I feel his time is up at Juve. Quagliarella has been frozen out of proceedings, and his card seemed marked many moons ago when aiming nasty words towards Alessio. He has not been given the run of games required for any striker to hit full stride, and apart from that incident, his individuality doesn’t fit into Conte’s intense focus upon players who work first and foremost for the team ethic. Out in the Summer.
Which by my reckoning, leaves three gaps in our roster.
Is Berardi ready for Juve???
Berardi is an option. His output has suffered as his side has struggled to confirm their adjustment from the second tier to the first, but in flashes, he has displayed incredibly promising form. My suspicion is that Sassuolo will go down, and we will find another Serie A club to continue his development. Next on the list of possible additions to our strike-force, is Ciro Immobile. 17 goals from 23 Serie A games cannot be ignored. He deserves consideration. Yet deeper analysis beckons the question…Whose place could he take?? I would be intrigued to see an Immobile/Tevez tandem, yet what would provide greater excitement would be to see his partner in the Torino attack join our ranks.
Alessio Cerci is a player I am keen to see us purchase. Even for a discounted price involving selling off our half of Ciro. He has pace, trickery, dribbling and can shoot. He can be deployed in various positions, allowing us to add some presently absent natural width to the final third. Its Cerci I want from Torino, not Ciro. Both would be welcome.
There have been plentiful rumours of the potential acquisition of Jeremy Menez, who is available on a free in the Summer. The french international has the talent. Of that there is little doubt. Its the application of that talent which has been questionable in his career to date. He is a player who can be deployed across the front line, on the flank, driving through the middle from an advanced midfield position, capable of using both feet to sometimes dazzling effect. Breaking down well marshalled quality sides is a problem we now face since returning to the top of the pile domestically. Adding another element to our offensive phalanx who can dribble, beat players and passes beautifully makes Menez perhaps our major target of the mercato.
Recently he told the press that he admires Juventus, and would find no issue in acclimatizing to Italian football once again (after his previous stint at Roma). Promising signs, yet we are certainly not his only suitors, with Arsenal likely to challenge and Monaco another option.
At 26 he still has time to smooth out the rough edges to his game, which in his case appear mainly, if not solely, focused in his mentality. If there is one area where I feel Conte is absolutely superb, it is his man management abilities. It could be a perfect marriage.
Squad rotation and the accumulation of fatigue have been high on the agenda of Juve related discussion over the last two months. A comparison between Juve and another top club seems the best way of performing an analysis. I choose the Germans of Bayern Munich.
Does Guardiola rotate more or less than Conte???
Minutes Played (outfield players only)
- Pogba – 2444
- Vidal – 2421
- Bonucci – 2250
- Chiellini – 2234
- Tevez – 2226
- Rafinha – 2024
- Lahm – 2024
- Alaba – 2013
- Dante – 1984
- Boateng – 1900
I could go deeper, but the above clearly demonstrates a major difference between the two squads. Five of our outfield starting XI have played at least 200 minutes more than their Bayern counterparts, with Pogba over-worked to the extreme.
Guardiola is able to use his finest talents more sparingly because the squad depth is considerably stronger. There is not the same obvious division between first XI and second string, whereas with Juve, there is. A fully fit Juve gives a tried and tested selection. The same is not true of our bavarian rivals.
A more simple method of comparison is to look at which of our players would find any minutes at all in the Bayern war machine. Outside of our first XI its fair to assume that the following players could challenge for a second string role at the Allianz stadium – Marchisio and Caceres. It could be argued that Vucinic and Ogbonna might get a sniff of action, but its a stretch.
We have made major progress under Conte. The first team has become capable of dominating Italy, yet has been far from impressive on the continental stage this term. Much of the reason for this failure is our reliance upon a core group of players, with the others not meeting the required mark.
Since I have come this far I will take the final step and suggest who I feel is dragging us down, through no fault of their own or of the club; its more a matter of money as well as the present lack of allure of Serie A. The predominant factor is spending power.
Quagliarella, Peluso, Padoin, Isla make up the first group. After which I would ear-mark Vucinic, Giovinco and Osvaldo are others potentially in need of upgrading.
The other burning question is focused on our formation. Were we to lose the 3-5-2, we could adopt a flat back four allowing greater rotation of our centre-backs. Lichsteiner would be a better player as a fullback, yet we would need to purchase a specialist LB for the opposite flank. Adding in Cerci and Menez would allow us to attack with far greater quality on the flanks, and our reliance upon a regista would be lessened. As would the need to find another Pirlo.
Admittedly our potency up top has been upgraded dramatically. Regardless we remain often one-dimensional. Opponents are well aware how to contain us – through blocking our regular channels of attack – and our ability to dominate and destroy has been reduced. Rather than improve the quality of those deployed in the 3-5-2 which has served us so well over the last three seasons, its high time we evolved tactically. A decision and responsibility which rests solely on Conte’s thick shoulders.
Antonio Conte – You have returned us to the throne of Serie A Kings, but how will you conquer Europe?
The comparison with Munchen was interesting, the results as expected. A similar contrast appears when looking at Man City, although clearly Zabaleta is a certainty to start whenever fit. As is Toure, but Yaya cannot be included in the study because he is half lion/ half devil. Fatigue is not in his blood-line.
Over at Chelsea, the situation is markedly different. With Hazard, Terry and Ivanovic all having played more than Pogba (our outfield player with the most minutes pitch-side this campaign). Which suggests that either the premiership is less energy sapping (which I would contest with vigour) or that Chelsea have acquired players with superior natural stamina or that their training methods and sports science models are more advanced than our own.
Eden Hazard has played 2700+ minutes and yet remains world class. Another freak perhaps??
Real Madrid seem similar to ourselves with a comparable range of numbers for their top five used outfield players.
Other factors are at play. Spain is an easier league for attacking players and possibly for defenders with the onus generally appearing to be more on offence than a balanced game. Premiership football is more hustle and bustle, frenzied, hectic which would sap physical energy more quickly, but perhaps leave mental energy levels less affected. Which is where the italian game, still wily, slower-paced yet intelligent, tricky, could well prove the biggest consumer. Players need to think more to break down teams in Serie A. Not just because of how your opponents are set up, but how your own side is deployed. Whilst times are slowly changing, especially with la nazionale, there remains a sense of catenaccio. Especially when teams play us!
Mourinho’s right-hand man, conditioning and fitness coach Rui Faria. Does Alessio provide the same expertise for Conte???
The issue of fatigue, I feel, is not as confirmed a reason for our slump as some commentators assert. Moreover, its the quality of our squad that is the problem. And possibly, our sports science modelling should be improved. Do any of us have any idea of the scientific elements in place vis-a-vis squad conditioning?? Its something many of the elite clubs incorporate to a high degree, with players monitored and conditioned in ways which to a manager of yesteryear would seem laughable. It would be interesting to find out who we have employed for this clearly important work.