Why All Eyes Should be on Serie A

Art by Onkar Shirsekar
Illicit Activities, Champagne Football, and a Three-Way Title Race – let us convince you that Serie A is the place to be, especially this season.

To attempt to quantify what makes a league more exciting, captivating, or somehow superior to other leagues is a pointless endeavor. While stylistic differences, age-old rivalries, and the general traditional assumptions guide our perception of Europe’s top leagues – the reality is much more complex. Within each season, each table, and each statistical comparison, there is a story yearning to be told of the history which has led to the very moment analysed. The nuanced cocktail of bitter rivalry, financial discrepancy, and internal turmoil makes it hard to define the alluring nature of every league.

With that in mind, it is still hard to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room. While the title of “Most Competitive League” should be delegated by far more informed minds, it doesn’t take a football scholar to recognize that Serie A is a notable contender. To avoid this realization would mean complete abstinence from European competition. Just last year, Atalanta’s impressive run in the Champions League stunned and delighted fans and neutrals alike. Despite their best efforts, they were shut out in the end by Paris Saint-Germain, a team with roughly 4 times their budget, but the Cinderella-run was admittedly captivating, and further shed light on Serie A’s dynamism.

Having placed in the Top 4 only three times since their most recent rise to Serie A after a 2010/11 Serie B victory, the team wowed spectators with a magnetic style of play. Led by captain Papu Gomez and manager Gian Piero Gasperini, the side played a captivating, free scoring brand of football not typically associated with Calcio. In this David and Goliath story, Atalanta were seemingly through to the finals, losing out only in the dying throes of the game. The end of their run came as somewhat of a disappointment to neutral parties, for they seemed to defy all odds in even making it to the semifinals. One can’t help but imagine how things would have shaken out had Atalanta come face to face with Bayern Munich. 

While pondering what-ifs leads only to disappointment, the beauty of Serie A demonstrated by Atalanta in the 2019/20 season is but a small footnote in the magnificent tale that is unfolding in Italy currently. While the scudetto has been Juve’s for the taking for almost a decade, tactical turbulence and an identity crisis in Turin has unbalanced the scales of power into a free-for-all, leading to an epic emergence of several Italian contenders. Though Juventus are a mighty force that one would be remiss to underestimate, it appears as though their dynasty is threatened.

Now, to contextualize modern Italian football, one must understand the incredibly potent undercurrent that drives each team’s desire to lift the scudetto at the end of the season. Aside from representing extreme resilience in the face of mounting competition, it holds larger significance in recent historical context. This, of course, is the mark on Italian football known as Calciopoli.

In 2006, it came to light that several Italian clubs were in alleged telephone communications with officials, supposedly working to assign particular officials to certain matches with the hopes of gaining an advantage. The alleged crimes took place between 2004-2006 and saw a number of prominent and minor Italian clubs- Juventus, Milan, Lazio, Fiorentina, and Reggina- face severe punishment. While initially many were threatened with relegation, through appeals a number of clubs were able to reduce their penalties.

While Milan, Lazio, Fiorentina, and Reggina were simply docked points, then champions Juventus were stripped of two titles and relegated to Serie B, Calcio’s second flight (the first and only time the bianconeri have stepped out of Italy’s top tier). The 2006 title was subsequently given to Juve’s rivals, Inter Milan – a move which has been criticized extensively throughout the years. Juventus fans have since dubbed this title the scudetto di cartone, or “cardboard shield,” in reference to the belief that it was falsely awarded. 

Despite the massive implications of the scandal, the process by which it was handled has led to a number of lingering animosities within Italy. There have always been doubts about the fairness of the investigation, yet harsher criticism has fallen on the legal process by which the punishments were dolled out, with various allegations of favoritism and corruption falling on Inter Milan, who seemed to be the sole beneficiaries when their bitter rivals were so harshly punished. In fact, the arbitration of punishment for Juventus, in particular, was poorly handled. UEFA threatened the Italian Football Federation (FGIC) with consequences in European competition, and FIFA threatened them with removal from all European competitions in the event of a Juventus appeal. The resulting expedition of arbitration is believed to have missed evidence of a larger conspiracy involving other Italian sides, allegedly including Inter. By the time pieces of evidence that exposed a potentially larger conspiracy were known, the alleged crimes were beyond the statute of limitation, leaving any wrongdoing by other sides to go unpunished.

In subsequent years, Inter dominated Serie A. After being awarded the title, Inter won a subsequent additional 4 straight scudetti, ending with a treble in the 2009/10 season. Milan were the first to break that streak, winning in the 2010/11 season. But, as the Milanese sides dominated, the seeds of vengeance were planted in Turin, with Juventus immediately climbing their way out of Serie B. After Milan were able to reclaim the title from Inter, Juventus went on an unprecedented streak of sheer dominance, winning every season from 2011/12 until the present. In total, Juventus have managed to secure 36 scudetti, while both Milan and Inter have 18. However impressive the success of Juventus in recent years is, the successes of Milan and Inter are not to be understated – each having double the scudetti as the 4th most successful Italian side, Genoa.  While clearly an outlier, the momentum which has launched Juventus on this run seems to dwindle with each season. As they fight to regain their strength, sides across the country grow stronger with every passing year, raising the question of how long Juventus can remain on top.

As the table continues to ebb and flow with the various issues plaguing Juventus, the security of their dynasty is in clear doubt. With new boss Andrea Pirlo taking the reigns after a lackluster season under former Chelsea man Maurizio Sarri, questions have arisen about the effectiveness of his methods. Pirlo, who is remembered for his working knowledge and prowess as a midfielder, has jumped into the role without a single day of coaching experience behind him.

His first job, in fact, was to manage the U-23 Juventus team; it was only with the sacking of Sarri that he was promoted before actually receiving his coaching license. With Cristiano Ronaldo and a revitalized Alvaro Morata taking the helm, Juventus have proven potent in attack while struggling defensively, and have lingering issues within the midfield which often causes them to be dominated in the middle of the pitch. Pirlo has crafted a Juve that is at times lethal, a truly exciting side, yet battles mightily with consistency. In the group stage of the Champions League, they were able to topple Barcelona and secure first place – yet they seem to struggle with seemingly smaller tasks. For example, just days after defeating Parma 4-0 in their best performance of the season, Juventus crumbled against a much weaker Fiorentina. 

At this point it must be noted that Juventus were without some of their key players earlier this season, with Matthijs de Ligt, Merih Demiral, Giorgio Chiellini, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Aaron Ramsey all having spells on the sideline. Additionally, their second-most vital attacker, Paulo Dybala, has suffered a poor run of form throughout most of the season. All of these factors, combined with Juve’s superior squad depth, make it seem likely that the Turin club will see a rise in the standings. Currently, the champions sit 4th in the league, with a domestic record of 10/6/2 as of January 27, 2021. Juve have the advantage of a game in hand, and are due a rescheduled match with Napoli after a controversial COVID-era snafu in which they were originally awarded three points, only to have them taken away after an appeal by the southerners. With the additional game to be played against Napoli still on the table, Juve are more than capable of gaining back the deducted points.

While several clubs lay ahead of the reigning champions, two notable challengers seemed to have emerged from the pack. There is an argument to be made that the table is entirely wide open, with several suitable parties – but two clubs, in particular, stand as worthy opponents to tackle Juventus’ dynasty.

First, at the top of the table, is the surprise Milan side developed under Stefano Pioli, who has crafted a young and exciting squad. With the lowest average starting age in the top 5 leagues, just over 24 years, and formidable self-proclaimed lion Zlatan Ibrahimović galvanizing the forces, Milan have been on a shocking tear for months now. Towards the end of last season, in the post-lockdown period, Milan far outperformed every club in Italy. With the addition of Ibrahimović, the side seemed to develop a purpose and grit uncharacteristic of its age. This is best exemplified in goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma who at just 21 years old is coming on almost five years as Milan’s starting goalkeeper. Donnarumma is well on his way to becoming one of the best keepers of his generation, and exemplifies the newfound purpose found in a club steeped in history. While Ibrahimović may be leading the side forward with an impressive 14 goals across all competitions so far this season, the young squad are formidable in their own right. Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Theo Hernández, Franck Kessié, and Ismael Bennecar have all impressed this season

In their 20/21 campaign, Milan were undefeated until facing Juventus, with an incredible 11 wins and 4 draws. While they were 10 points clear of the champions and set to widen that gap, they gave Juventus much-needed breathing room with the bianconeri’s dominant 3-1 victory at San Siro. With one match still to play between the two, and a game in hand for Juve, Milan are looking a lot less invincible despite still being 6 points clear of Juve.

The third challenger, though perhaps not as strong as Milan, comes in the form of Juve’s bitter rivals. Headed by former Juventus player-turned boss, Antonio Conte, Inter Milan have made it their mission to end Juve’s scudetto run. While a controversial figure, frequently having outbursts at the mitigating factors of his success, Conte was a wise choice by Inter in their race. With 3 scudetti, 2 Supercoppa Italiana, 1 Premier League title, and 1 FA Cup, alongside a myriad of individual awards- Conte is no stranger to silverware. It is for that reason that Inter have awarded him a hefty salary, rumored to be well north of 10 million euros per year, to restore Inter to their dominance before Juventus’ re-emergence. With most managers in Italy making 2 million euros or below a year, the trust Inter have put in Conte is impressive.

In addition to the lucrative pay, Conte has received immense financial backing in the transfer market, signing Romelu Lukaku, Matteo Politano, Christian Eriksen, Achraf Hakimi, and Nicolò

Barella, among others. These players alone have amassed fees well over 160 million euros, though, in all, they have come with mixed success. Christian Eriksen, in particular, has been viewed as a failed transfer, struggling to replicate his Premier League form. To Conte’s credit, however, several players have flourished in his system, namely Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez. With a combined 21 league goals this season, the duo are a formidable force. To put this in context, Juve’s attacking duo of Ronaldo and Morata have a combined 19 league goals, giving Inter’s pair a slight edge. 

Despite their capabilities, there is a certain catastrophic tendency to Inter, best defined by calcio fans through the term pazza Inter, “crazy Inter.” While often believed to be the most likely contenders, Inter’s most predictable trait seems to be their unpredictability. Despite a number of well-fought campaigns, Inter always seems to lose their grip during the January matchload. While this has historical basis, Inter defied this stereotype in their meeting with Juve on January 17th. The match, known as the Derby d’Italia, is the most anticipated of the Serie A season. Despite being largely Juve’s for the taking in the past decade, Inter comfortably bested their rivals. Beating Juventus 2-0, Inter looked confident and purposeful, while Juve displayed their worst performance of the season. The meeting was of significant meaning to each coach, with Pirlo having played under Conte during his time with Juve.

Inter Milan are perhaps the most puzzling of the three clubs currently vying for the title in Italy. While Juventus appear to have an inevitability around the championship, and Milan have gone on a historic run as very much the underdogs – Inter are neither. With a hefty checkbook backing them up, an elite team, and a decorated vetern at the helm, one would imagine Inter to be perhaps the most likely suitor. Unlike Juventus, Inter have a more stable coaching plan, and unlike Milan, they have a relatively deep bench to draw into. Yet, for some reason, something is failing to click. Antonio Conte has already succeeded at building a squad worthy of winning the scudetto and regaining a foothold in Italy – yet has failed to build a cohesive focus on this goal. In many ways, they have the same mercurial properties of Juventus, without the recent historical ability to simply put their heads down and grind out results week in and week out. Recently, they have been in turbulent form. Winning just 2 of their past 5 games, Inter are currently in second place with a record of 12/5/2, just 2 points off Milan who lead with 43.

The two sides have met twice this season, with Milan winning their league match in October and Inter knocking Milan out of the Coppa Italia just this week. While leading men Lukaku and Ibrahimović both found the net, the match was overshadowed by an on-field spat between the two. Within the first half, the match erupted in chaos. Lukaku and Ibrahimavoic nearly came to blows. The row, which was captured in English by mics on the pitch, saw expletive-laden rants from each party. While the true nature of the argument is still developing, it seems Ibrahimović sought reaction from an angered Lukaku, leaning into the rumor that Lukaku left Everton due to a voodoo superstition. Everton’s owner, Farhad Moshiri pushed these rumors despite Lukaku’s representatives denying it and threatening a lawsuit. As Lukaku is Catholic, one can only assume that this rumor was racially motivated. An angered Lukaku threatened Ibrahimović, attempting to get closer to him and remarking what sounded like, “I will shoot you in your head.” The fight was equal parts amusing and distressing. While passions tend to run high in Italy, this moment encapsulates the bitter nature of the title race in a fitting manner. The two most likely contenders made their respective supporters happy, but their tempers certainly got the better of them. 

If anything, this match shows that to write Inter off would be foolish, yet their tendency to drop points in crucial stages of the season has their fans holding their collective breath. An unlikely source of hope for Interisti has come in their recent failures in European competition. Crashing out of the Europa League final last season, and finishing bottom in their group for the Champions League, Inter now find themselves poised to capitalize on a significantly lighter fixture schedule. With Juventus and Milan set to progress in European competition, they may be able to use this time to focus all of their efforts domestically. With their vast resources and impressive squad depth, it is far from a stretch of the imagination to believe that Conte could finally bury pazza Inter. As small pockets of COVID cases plague clubs in addition to the usual list of injuries that arise from a season’s worth of game time, Inter may see themselves in a favorable position. Provided they are fortunate with COVID and injuries, to capitalize on this moment remains solely in the hands of Conte and his men.

Of the three, it is hard to confidently tip one side as the inevitable winner. On one hand, Inter seems best poised to capitalize on Juve’s recent challenges. On the other side of the coin, however, they seem to be too insecure in their own identity to make a viable challenge. Looking at their neighbors, Milan, we see a side that plays a style of football that is confident and dominant. While the side lacks experience, they have demonstrated throughout the season that their run of form is not to be underestimated. Questions arise, however, on the longevity of their success. As their run is built on momentum and desire, one can’t help but envision that at any moment they could drop. Unlike Inter and Juventus, the side lacks the experience and depth to simply show up and grind out games week in and out. 

Finally, the champions, Juventus. Betting against the Old Lady is not something many Serie A fans would do, especially considering the believed inevitability of their dynasty. Last season, for example, Juve were playing inferior football under Sarri, yet managed to endure in typical fashion. Looking objectively, it seems that Juve still is the stubborn, unfallible favorite. When they decide to show up, Juventus are a side worthy of the toughest opponent in all of Europe- yet they struggle to remember this. 

Despite this, the scudetto is frankly wide open for the taking. Each serious title contender has a horse in this race and a convincing strategy to the top. Weaknesses are waiting to be exploited, and there is no certainty to grasp onto. While Juve look for their 10th in a row, Milan and Inter seem poised strike. The only truth in Italy right now is that we are watching a league going through immense growing pains, which has given us entertaining and captivating football. Juve, Milan, and Inter are all capable of claiming the title this year, and anyone who isn’t aware should tune in – there is a long way to go in this season, and plenty of developments waiting around the corner.

Mason Cheek

Mason Cheek is an American writer. More of his work can be found on his website, Vecchia Signora Blog, and in his book, Tom Friedman: Always the Beginning.