Don’t panic: The story of Juventus and mastering transition

In their journey to reclaim a place amongst Europe’s elite, Juventus have crossed many hurdles without breaking stride, and in that lies a great lesson for clubs across the world.
Paul Pogba leaving Juventus at the peak of his powers defined the club's biggest achilles heel over the last decade. And yet, it didn't put a brake on their progress a team. Art by Revant Dasgupta.
Paul Pogba leaving Juventus at the peak of his powers defined the club’s biggest achilles heel over the last decade. And yet, it didn’t put a brake on their progress as a team. Art by Revant Dasgupta.

Even in the face of players leaving as soon as they touch the first rung of success, Juventus haven’t stalled in their rebuilding process.

When rumours of the manager Juventus had chosen as the Antonio Conte’s replacement first started to emerge, they were written off as ridiculous.  

The fiery former midfielder had brought success back to Juventus, winning three consecutive league titles in as many seasons as managers.  So when he left the club was once again the leading one in Italy, status which allowed it the privilege to choose any top manager they wanted to replace him.

Which is what made the eventual choice of Massimiliano Allegri such an apparently ludicrous appointment.  True, he had led AC Milan to a league title yet eventually he had become a figure of ridicule there. By the time he left, he was criticised for everything from his tactical inflexibility to the way in which he spoke.

His reputation lay in tatters.  And yet, contrary to most, Juventus saw something in him.

Time has proven them right.  In his four years at the club, Allegri has led the club to almost complete dominance of Italian football with four domestic doubles in as many seasons.  More than that, he also led them to two Champions League finals and, even though both of these were lost, the fact that they managed to get so far in a competition in which they had made so little headway under Conte is telling.

Equally as telling is the fact that it had taken Juventus just twenty four hours from Conte’s resignation to make the appointment.  This was not just some lucky punt but rather the result of careful and diligent contingency planning that allows the club to be one step ahead of the rest of the game.

**

Most of Juventus’ football blueprint is drawn up and handled by Giuseppe Marotta.  His has been a long journey that started out as a ball-boy with his local side Varese.  It was there that he got his first opportunities in the engine room of a football club where he went from handling the team’s kit to becoming their general manager by the time he was twenty two.  

Marotta stayed at Varese for five years, getting them to the Serie B in his first season, before embarking on a career that saw him continuously prove his worth at Monza, Como, Ravenna, Venezia, Atalanta and Sampdoria.

At each of these clubs Marotta excelled, showing an impressive ability to spot players and negotiate favourable deals.  It was in Genoa with Sampdoria, however, that this talent began to achieve notoriety. He took the club over after their worst ever season and left them after they qualified for the Champions League.  

In May of 2010 Andrea Agnelli had been elected as Juventus’ club chairman and, having seen the club finish in seventh place – their worst ever finish since the Calciopoli scandal – he recognised the need to make some big changes.  

Marotta’s success at Sampdoria marked him out as the obvious choice to handle Juventus’ transfer strategy and so he became one of Agnelli’s first appointees.  It wasn’t simply his ability to get talented players on the cheap but also the capacity to bring together a team of individuals who were willing to work hard for each other.

He didn’t simply look at footballing ability (although, naturally, this was important) but also at the characters of his players.  If one were to look at a thread throughout his career up till that point, then that would have been it.

At Venezia for instance, he had brought in young players but partnered them with experienced ones.  The latter were still determined to succeed, for one last big achievement, and as such acted as the ideal mentors to the younger players who had the potential but not the experience.  The result was a perfectly balanced side.

It was a formula that he maintained wherever he went and, although financial limitations often forced him to sell the better players as soon as they started to prove their potential, he had always managed to overcome those moments.

It was that ability that Juventus wanted him to bring to their club.

**

Back in 2010 the bulk of Juventus’ efforts were concentrated on the construction of their own stadium; then as now a novel venture in Italy.  The financing of the Juventus Stadium (since renamed into Allianz Stadium) dominated thoughts and budgets which meant that there wasn’t a huge amount to spend on players.

Still results had to improve and, as ever, Marotta started with a new manager.  It might seem like an obvious choice now but at the time Antonio Conte was very much an unproven quantity.  He had led to sides to promotion from the Serie B (Bari and Siena) but his only previous experience in the Serie A had ended in an early dismissal from Atalanta.

Yet Juventus realised that he was the right man for them not only because he had shown the right mastery of tactics but because of his passion.  They knew that there was more ability in the team than results had shown. What was needed was someone who could push the players hard enough to prove that.

Stadio delle Alpi: Juventus' home from 1990-2009
Stadio delle Alpi: Juventus’ home from 1990-2009

Conte could provide that.  “Juventus plays like a regional outfit,” he said during his interview for the job.  “Opponents are allowed to control midfield. Instead, when a team comes to Torino they need to be frightened before even getting on the pitch.  I remember when I came to play here for the first time with Lecce. I was still very young but my legs were trembling!”

“A big club needs to make the most of this and aggressively attack the opposition.  Instead they wait to counter, like smaller clubs do. This is not good, you need to dictate the pace, you have to dominate the game, take control of midfield, you need to put them under pressure and let them understand that there’s little they can do, both at home and away!”

The team also needed strengthening in key areas and here is where Marotta’s value came in.  His biggest investments were reserved for striker Mirko Vucini (€15 million from Roma) and wing-back Stephan Lichtsteiner (€10 million from Lazio) but his biggest hits of that summer were reserved for midfield.

He swept in for Arturo Vidal, then at Bayer Leverkusen, before the rest of Europe had realised just how good he was.  And then he picked up a player that AC Milan had deemed no longer good enough: Andrea Pirlo.

The latter, in particular, proved to be a spectacular decision and not only because they had gotten such a talented player for free.  Conte structured his team around Pirlo who, reinvigorated by Milan’s rejection, went on to confirm himself once more as one of the finest midfielders in Europe.

Those few changes were all that were needed to transform Juventus into the dominant side in the league.  As Conte also told Agnelli before taking the job “Juventus needs players who are hungry to win, who are willing to give everything for this project.  Names are not important.”

**

Results have proven that strategy to be the right one.  Over each of the past three summers, Juventus have sold one of their most prominent players (Vidal to Bayern Munich in 2015, Paul Pogba to Manchester United in 2016 and Leonardo Bonucci in 2017) without needing to spend huge amounts to replacement.  Significantly, they’ve also managed to avoid impacting results.

That they’ve done so is down to how they work; their underlying philosophy.    “I think that money is not the only way to get results,” Marotta has said in an interview.  “In fact I believe that it is necessary that there’s exceptional competence within the organisation, a great management team and above everything a feeling of belonging that is determined by the club.”

What Juventus seem to be able to do better than anyone else is lay down a long term vision.  That of central defence is a case in point. Ever since joining from Fiorentina in 2005, Giorgio Chiellini has been phenomenal; an incredibly talented defender but also a leader and a motivation to those around him.

Yet for all his various abilities, he isn’t going to be around forever.  Most clubs would wait for his level of performance to start dipping before making their move.  Not Juventus, however. In January of 2017, they announced the signing of Mattia Caldara.

The young defender was one of the stars of the Atalanta side that was enjoying an impressive season and which eventually would qualify to the Europa League.  Juventus managed to sign him not because they were willing to pay more money than others but because they offered Atalanta the better package. They knew that they were well covered at that point in the centre of defence so they allowed Atalanta to retain the player for a further eighteen months.

So, starting from next season when Chiellini will be nearing his 34th birthday, Juventus will be able to count on a new defender who has excelled in the Serie A for two seasons displaying good ball playing skills, positional excellence and leadership qualities.  There is no such thing as a guaranteed fit but Caldara has all the abilities to succeed.

If he does, it will be another example of Juventus’ ability to monitor the market, identify players who will be able to fill a gap that will emerge down the line and then moving to ensure that they get that player.  It does not always work, but it works often enough and is significantly better than what other sides are doing.

That is how Juventus work.  They spot players early and make bets.  This season they had more than forty players out on loan, most of which will never get close to making it to the Juventus first team squad.  It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that these are good enough to play for smaller teams thus acting as a perfect makeweight when any potential transfer is on the table.

Over recent years, Juventus have also started loaning players across Europe.  This too is part of a longer term strategy where they build semi-official relationships with clubs like Wattens in Austria or Den Bosch in Holland.  These clubs are under no obligation to sell any players to Juventus but if they uncover someone special then the Italians are likely to have a special place ahead of the queue.  

All of this is part of a highly efficient machine that can handle the departure of any players thanks to their ability to anticipate the market.  That way when the value of someone like Vidal or Pogba reaches astronomical revenues, Juventus can cash in.

**

The coming summer will be a big one for Juventus.  Yet again they have won a league and cup double – their fourth in as many years – yet the feeling is that such local dominance is no longer enough.  Rumours are that Allegri will be leaving and the reality is that whilst grateful for what he has achieved many fans will not miss his somewhat conservative tactics.

The most common sentiment is that the time has come for Juventus to go for a modern European coach who is not afraid to attack and press hard when facing the continent’s better teams.  Similarly, if Juventus seriously want to compete against the likes of Real Madrid then they need to start paying the kind of money that the Spanish giants pay in order to get highest quality players.  The argument here is that whilst Juventus did manage to reach two Champions League finals they went to each one as genuine outsiders rather than worthy contenders because they are truly among the European elite.  Spending money would change that.

Whether Marotta and the rest of the Juventus administration share that belief is doubtful.  “When we started working in 2010 we’d have gladly accepted making it to the quarter finals,” he said in 2013 after defeat to Bayern Munich.  “It was an important experience for us and for that we have to thank everyone within the club but particularly Antonio Conte and all the team.  Unfortunately at the moment there is a gap between Italian football and the rest of Europe. You only have to look at Bayern who have double the revenue of all our clubs.  For us, in this moment, it is impossible to buy players who cost €40 million. We know that we need to grow and improve, we will work toward this.”

In the meantime, they have been planning their team in their traditional manner.  Emre Can will be arriving in the summer and his will be the latest signing according to the Juventus blueprint: young yet hugely experienced; technically proficient but also capable of significant improvement.  Best of all, he will be joining on a free.

And yet, that might seem to be the source of the problem.  For years the investment in the new stadium was seen as the main reason for Juventus’ reticence to paying big money but given the financial success of that particular investment it is a reason that no longer convinces.  

The big challenge, then, is for them to marry the strategy that has been successful in the past with one that can convince the fans that the club not only has the ambition to look beyond the Italian borders but is also willing to spend the money to back this up.   

The state of the Italian league is also an issue.  This season Napoli provided Juventus with their sternest challenge yet but apart from the top three teams the league is a very weak one.  The fallout from this is Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup in Russia but, also, the lack of local talent that is available for Juventus to buy.

Juventus traditionally provide the backbone of the Azzurri and it is to them that national team coaches tend to look.  This puts them in something of a bind: do they honour this responsibility by trying to focus on local players even if these do not have the experience that is needed for Juventus to excel in Europe?

For the fans, there is no doubt: they want those players that will allow them to challenge the likes of Real Madrid.  They look at players like Stefano Sturaro and see in him someone who is willing yet not good enough. And yet Sturaro, a regular for Italy, is arguably one of the better defenders in Italy.

Marotta and Juventus’ instincts will always be to look within Italy first.  That is where their name carries most strength and where they can get the best deals.  But if they want to reach the level to which they – and their fans – aspire to, that no longer seems to be enough.  Their strategy so far has resulted in unparallelled local success. Yet it needs to evolve for them to move forward.

Paul Grech

Always curious. Mostly, I think, read and write on football.