20th July 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
It feels like a distant memory now, with Juventus having lifted their fifth consecutive Serie A title, but during the early months of last season, Massimiliano Allegri's men were struggling. Badly.
After a defeat to Sassuolo on 28 October 2015, the reigning Italian champions found themselves 12th in the Serie A table, with just three wins from their opening 10 matches. Hardly an ideal title defence.
The Bianconeri had won the scudetto in each of the previous four seasons not to mention the fact that they'd also won the Coppa Italia and reached the Champions League final in the last campaign -- but it was looking increasingly likely that new champions would be crowned in May, with Juve needing a remarkable turnaround just to clamber into the European qualification places.
In response to losing Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez during the summer of 2015, Allegri experimented with using a 4-3-3 formation as the new season began, but it wasn't bearing fruit. A reversion to the 3-5-2 upon which the Old Lady's recent success, first under Antonio Conte, then Allegri, had been built proved to be the catalyst for a spectacular return to form.
Juventus put together a run of 26 games without defeat, only dropping two points in the process, to overtake Maurizio Sarri's Napoli at the top of the table. A fifth successive title was in the bag, and Allegri's men thanks to Ãlvaro Morata's extra-time winner against AC Milan in the Coppa Italia final -- also became the first side in Italian football history to win back-to-back league and cup doubles.
In addition to the mid-season tactical switch, another driving factor behind Juve's resurgence was the growing influence of Paulo Dybala. The 22-year-old Argentinian forward was signed from Palermo last summer for €32 million, plus an additional €8 million in conditional add-ons.
Initially, Allegri was cautious with his use of Dybala, and used the youngster sparingly at the beginning of the season. The goalless draw against Internazionale at the San Siro in October was a perfect example of Allegri's reluctance to free Dybala from his shackles.
Morata was partnered with Simone Zaza in attack against the Nerazzurri, with Dybala named on the bench. The drab, lifeless encounter was crying out for the introduction of Dybala, with his energy and creativity, yet Allegri resisted bringing on the young Argentinian until the 78th minute, allowing Dybala little time to affect the outcome.
But a goal and two assists in a man of the match display in the very next fixture, a 2-0 win over Atalanta, showed exactly why Dybala should've been starting on a weekly basis. It became impossible for the manager to keep the €40 million man out of the starting eleven, and in the 15 games stretching from the 3-1 win away at Empoli on 8 November, to a 2-0 victory over Frosinone on 7 February, Dybala scored 11 goals and provided six assists.
Dybala's maiden season in Turin -- in which he finished as the club's top scorer with 22 goals, while also registering nine assists has marked the three-cap Argentina international out as the man that Juventus should build their future success around.
And that's exactly what Allegri plans to do, as the former AC Milan coach has made clear his designs on challenging for the Champions League next season, having come so close in 2015.
The Bianconeri were disappointed to lose Morata this summer, with Real Madrid opting to exercise their buy-back option on the 23-year-old, returning him to the BernabÃ©u two years after he left, with Juve receiving a pre-agreed €30 million fee.
Although Morata wasn't always a fixture in the starting eleven at Juventus Stadium, he had the priceless knack of producing his best form and scoring key goals in the biggest games.
But aside from Morata's departure, Juventus have been active in making some extremely astute acquisitions during the summer transfer window.
Talented Bosnian playmaker Miralem Pjanic has been signed from AS Roma, with Juve having activated his €32 million release clause. Pjanic was the joint highest assist provider in Serie A last season tied with Paul Pogba on 12 and will add an alternative element of creativity to the champions' midfield. The 26-year-old is also one of the deadliest free-kick specialists on the planet, and will contest the taking of set-pieces around the edge of the box with Dybala.
Veteran full-back Dani Alves has been brought in from FC Barcelona on a free transfer. The 33-year-old signed for BarÃ§a in 2008 and was a vital cog in the Blaugrana's era of unprecedented success -- first under Pep Guardiola, then Luis Enrique. Alves will add an attacking potency to the right-wing-back position that current occupant of the role, Stephan Lichtsteiner, will be unable to match; a solid addition for no transfer fee.
In, too, has come Mehdi Benatia from Bayern Munich. The 29-year-old Moroccan was regarded as possibly the finest centre-back in Italy before leaving Roma for the Bundesliga, but he struggled to establish himself in Bavaria under Pep Guardiola. The experienced defender has joined Juventus on an initial season-long loan with an option to buy, and will compete for a starting place with the established "BBC" defensive trio of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini.
With Morata gone, Juve are thought to be in the market for a new striker to partner Dybala, and media reports have recently suggested that a spectacular move for Napoli's Gonzalo HuguaÃn could be in the offing. That move seems unlikely to be completed, however, and the rumours of a possible attempt to sign Santos' Gabriel "Gabigol" Barbosa, would represent a more realistic alternative.
The imminent arrival of 21-year-old Croatian winger Marko Pjaca is especially interesting. The Dinamo Zagreb player is thought to be days away from completing a switch to Turin, and his skill-set would allow Allegri the option of revisiting the 4-3-3 idea on occasions next season, with personnel better equipped to make the formation work.
Juventus could yet lose one of their most important players, however, with French midfielder Paul Pogba being subject to strong interest from Manchester United. The Red Devils are rumoured to be preparing a world record offer of over €100 million for the player who left Old Trafford to join Juve four years ago.
Losing Pogba would be a blow, but the fee they stand to receive could easily be reinvested in improving several areas of the squad, while in Pjanic, they already have an able replacement.
Having monopolised the scudetto for the last five years, Juventus fans will not be content with merely repeating a Serie A triumph again next season.
They want to see their club elevate themselves to the level of genuine Champions League contenders, alongside the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
And Allegri shares that ambition. With the way Juventus have gone about their business this summer, you wouldn't bet against the Bianconeri ending their 20-year Champions League drought.
Juventus Building Toward Champions League Glory
20th July 2016. By Ryan Baldi.