One more round of Serie A fixtures remains to be played ahead of the winter break – and technically it’s the first round of the season, with the opening day having previously been postponed on account of the players’ strike – but with this being my last blog for The Score in 2011 now seems the appropriate moment to review the first half of the campaign. As with last year, the questions are: what have we learned, and what are we still waiting to find out?
Three things we have learned so far this season
1) Juventus are back
As Kristian Jack noted on this week’s edition of the Serie A Settimanale podcast – Juventus were hardly in awful shape at this time last year. With 31 points from 17 games going into the winter break they were fourth and very much still being discussed as contenders for the title under Gigi Del Neri. They would go on to finish seventh, collecting just 27 further points from their remaining 21 fixtures.
But this year is different, and not only because they have more points now (33) having played fewer games (15) than at the corresponding point in 2010. Nor even because they are presently top of Serie A, having recorded their longest unbeaten start to a top-flight campaign since 1949.This year is different because, for perhaps the first time since Calciopoli, Juventus look like they know where they are going.
In the mad rush back up from the second tier to the upper reaches of Serie A, too little thought was given to long-term squad planning. Under the leadership of president Giovanni Cobolli Gigli, then Jean-Claude Blanc, a belief seemed to prevail that simply by retaining the ageing core of the squad that had been relegated and adding one or two ‘star’ signings – Diego, Felipe Melo, Milos Krasic – the squad should be able to compete for major honours.
Only with the appointment of Beppe Marotta in 2010 did that change, with the former Sampdoria sporting director launching an overhaul of the squad: clearing out deadwood while bringing in new faces who – while perhaps not as glamorous as some fans had wanted – could form the core of a new team. Players such as Simone Pepe, Andrea Barzagli, Alessandro Matri and Emmanuele Giaccherini were perhaps not cheap but equally their price tags, and (most importantly) their wage demands were certainly very manageable.
Long-term planning can mean short-term pain, and Del Neri was perhaps unfortunate to be made a fall guy in the summer, but in any case Antonio Conte appears the right man to take things forward. His emphasis on the team over individual may have led to certain high-profile players getting less time on the pitch than they would like, but as a consequence Juve are also less reliant on any one player. Last season, when Krasic’s form dipped, so did the whole team. No one player’s absence or loss of form could have such an impact on the present outfit.
That is not necessarily to say they are on course for a Scudetto – much will depend on the comings and goings throughout the league in January. But after several years, they are at least back on the right path.
2) Francesco Guidolin is a miracle worker
It is hard to believe that little more than a year ago Guidolin was being tipped to lose his job. “I don’t feel any pressure from the owner,” he insisted after a 2-1 defeat to Bologna left Udinese with zero points from their first four games of the 2010-11 season. Eight months later his team would finish fourth in Serie A, securing a place in the Champions League preliminaries.
Then in the summer, his team was stripped of several of its greatest assets – Alexis Sánchez moving to Barcelona, Gokhan Inler to Napoli, and Cristián Zapata to Villarreal. The replacements, in keeping with club’s philosophy, were an assortment of largely unproven youngsters from across the globe. And yet as we approach the end of the year, Udinese are just two points behind the league leaders.
Guidolin has, of course, retained the services of Antonio Di Natale – the only Italian to even receive consideration for this year’s Ballon d’Or – and Samir Handanovic – arguably the best keeper in the league. But he has also shown remarkable skill in his handling of young players such as Gabriel Torje and Mehdi Benatia. Udinese’s greatest concern should not be what happens when any of those players eventually, inevitably, moves on – but rather what happens when the manager does.
3) Luis Enrique is his own man
“I was looking for someone outside of Italian football. Uncontaminated.” Those were the words with which Franco Baldini explained his choice of Luis Enrique as Roma’s new manager this summer, and while the jury remains out on the appointment as a whole, the director has certainly got what he wanted. Already this season Enrique has proven himself willing to both drop Francesco Totti and suspend his team’s leading scorer, Daniel Pablo Osvaldo, for hitting a team-mate. His response to criticism of his methods has been utterly consistent: if the team don’t like what I’m doing, I can leave.
But while Enrique has made it clear that he won’t let others influence his thinking, the question that lingers is whether he truly knows his own mind. Certainly he has succeeded in introducing key concepts from his time as coach of Barcelona B – his Roma team achieving impressive ball retention, even if at times they fail to convert that into goalscoring opportunities. But through 15 games he has also failed to name the same line-up for two games in a row, and that is making it hard for his team to settle.
Three questions to answer in the 2012
1) Could Inter have a say in the title race yet?
Just as it is easy to forget that Juventus started strongly last season, so it is easy to underestimate how poorly Inter began that campaign. In fact, their record at the winter break last year was identical to that which they have now – Played: 15, Points 23. In 2010-11, they would go on to finish second, only six points behind Milan.
Of course, emulating the run achieved under Leonardo in the second half of that campaign would be no mean feat. Inter won 17 of their 23 Serie A fixtures under the Brazilian, and in the end still fell short of a Milan team posting the joint-lowest points total (82) of any Scudetto winner since the league expanded back to 20 teams in 2004. But the manager Claudio Ranieri does at least have previous in this department, having famously steered Roma to within two points of a title in 2009-10 – bridging what was at one point a 14-point gap to the leaders Inter.
More importantly, though, he also seems to have finally got a handle on the situation at Inter. Just as at Roma, his priority has been to fix the defence and here he is making inroads – the Nerazzurri conceding just one goal in their last five league games, having previously allowed 17 in their first 10. It is only a start, of course, and Inter’s most significant problems may be beyond the realm of Ranieri’s control. But having already climbed to fifth on the back of three straight wins, the outlook has already brightened considerably.
2) How will Allegri handle Berlusconi’s increased involvement?
Just like Luis Enrique at Roma, Massimiliano Allegri has proven that he can be his own man. When Silvio Berlusconi complained last season that the manager looked too scruffy in post-match interviews, Allegri took action – keeping a comb handy before all such appearances – but when the owner tried to meddle in team selection he refused to acquiesce. Berlusconi’s suggestion that Milan ought to be using Ronaldinho more was flatly ignored, and the Brazilian was subsequently moved on to Flamengo.
Now, though, Berlusconi has a lot more spare time on his hands. After standing down as prime minister, he stated almost immediately that he intended to return to his role as Milan’s president – a position that has formally been vacant since May 2008, with vice-president Adriano Galliani effectively left to run the club. On Monday we got a flavour of what is to come as Berlusconi told Gazzetta dello Sport that he wanted to see all three of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexandre Pato and Robinho deployed together up front.
Complicating the situation is the fact Allegri’s contract is set to expire at the end of the season. A new deal, to 2014, is on the table, but the manager is said to be demanding €500,000 per year more than he has been offered. Already it has the whiff of a power struggle. “You are a teacher, but I am a professor,” Berlusconi informed Allegri when the new manager was first appointed. Yet it was not until said teacher showed up that this team ended its run of seven years without a domestic title.
3) What will come of this latest match-fixing scandal?
This feels a rather downbeat place to leave things, but following the arrest of 17 people on Monday – including the already suspended Atalanta captain Cristiano Doni, who reportedly attempted to flee from officers – it is clear that the match-fixing investigation being conducted by the Cremona legislature has a significant way yet to run. Prosecutors believe they have strong evidence now of an international betting ring, with roots in Singapore but associates worldwide who helped it to influence games.
It is too early to know what the implications for Serie A might be, but what is known is that at least three matches from the Italian top flight last season are under investigation: Napoli 4-0 Sampdoria, Brescia 2-0 Bari and Brescia 2-2 Lecce. So are a further 14 games from Serie B – spread across the last two seasons – as well as two from the Prima Divisione Lega Pro (third tier) and one from the Coppa Italia.
“This is not the end, but a starting point,” said the Cremona prosecutor Roberto Di Martino yesterday. “We hope it will be the start towards cleaning up this beautiful game that is football.” Needless to say, it is a hope everyone can share.