On a rainy night in Cardiff, the look on his face said it all. Having just conceded Casemiro’s deflected long-range effort, the cameras caught Gianluigi Buffon in a moment of contemplation. Hunched over with his arms resting on his knees, Gigi stared vacantly into the distance. In that moment, his long list of achievements at club and national level were irrelevant. The absence of a Champions League Winner’s medal in his collection was the only thing on his mind. Casemiro’s strike, the second of two luckily-defected goals for Madrid, compounded the feeling that perhaps the Champions League trophy was destined to evade Buffon once again. Real Madrid went on to win 4-1. Will Buffon and his fellow Juve veterans ever get another shot at winning the world’s most prestigious club competition?
The decorated Italian is not getting any younger. At 39 years of age, this may well have been his last opportunity to clinch the trophy that has cruelly been snatched from him twice before. But Buffon is not the only Juventus player in this situation. The defensive heart of Juve, the foundations of their recent dominance in Italy and improved European performance, is ageing. Their three centre-backs – Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli – are all the wrong side of 30, their age showing against the pace and trickery of Ronaldo and company.
This not only damages these individuals’ hopes of European glory, but also Juventus as a club. Despite their young attacking talents, such as potential superstar Paulo Dybala, Juve can’t progress in their quest for dominance with a defence, though famously solid, that is losing energy and pace. Even the excellent Dani Alves, who seems to have bettered with age, has recently left the club. It’s likely that fresh legs will be required in the near future. But will significant personnel changes impede the Old Lady’s progress?
It should be noted that up until the final, Juventus’ ageing defence has been an advantage not a hindrance. The vast experience of Chiellini, Bonnuci and Barzagli has seen Juve become a formidably organised unit. Their organisation and collective understanding of team roles allowed Juve to alternate between the 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations throughout the 2016/17 season, depending on the opponent.
Without the ball, they are probably the most defensively organised side in Europe, defending from front to back. This was particularly apparent during the 2-0 win in Monaco in the Champions League Semi Final. As brilliant as they were in attack, Juventus excelled in defence, shutting out a ruthless Monaco attack that had scored 12 goals in their previous two knockout ties. They did this by relentlessly pressing and chasing Monaco down, allowing them little time on the ball. This season saw Juventus concede just 3 goals in the twelve Champions League matches before the final. At home they dominated too; Maximiliano Allegri’s men keeping 20 clean sheets during a Scudetto and Coppa Italia double.
It wasn’t until the last (and most important) game of the season that they got found out. A dominating opening 30 minutes saw Juventus fall behind against the run of play. But they responded brilliantly seven minutes later, the ball not touching the turf in a breath-taking move that finished with Mario Mandzukic’s audacious overhead kick. The goal can be hailed as one of the greatest Champions League Final goals, along with Zinedine Zidane’s volley against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002.
But Juventus failed to kick on from there, their relentless pressing subsiding as the organised unit ran out of steam. Coach Allegri admitted as much, explaining that “you can’t play finals at 100mph from start to finish”. Casemiro’s strike was followed by Cristiano Ronaldo’s damning close-range finish just 180 seconds later, before Marco Asensio sealed the Italian champions’ fate. The defeat means that Juventus have now lost seven of their nine European Cup Finals, losing their last five in a row. This does give the impression that perhaps Juventus are just cursed in this competition.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for the Turin based club. Allegri and the club’s hierarchy have recognised the need to plan for a future without their defensive stalwarts. Opting for a proactive approach rather than a reactive one will help the club maintain their dominance, as new younger recruits will be slowly integrated into the Juventus system. A reactive approach of ringing wholesale changes to the squad would help neither the player or the club. Allegri himself has dismissed a summer clear-out. “This is not the end of a cycle”, he said.
Long-term defensive replacements have been found in the form of Daniele Rugani and Mattia Caldara, who in Chiellini and Barzagli will have the best defensive mentors in Europe. Promising 19-year-old midfielder Rodrigo Bentacur will join from Boca Juniors this summer and will learn from the likes of veterans Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira. Perhaps Juve’s most exciting prospect is academy product Moise Kean. The 17-year-old became the first player born in the 2000s to score a goal in one of Europe’s top five leagues. Other transfers are rumoured to be in the pipeline with Milan fullback Mattia De Sciglio, Sevilla midfielder Steven N’Zonzi and Liverpool’s Emre Can all believed to be on Juventus’ radar.
And history suggests that the fans can be confident the new signings will continue to bring success to Turin. After the 3-1 loss to Barcelona in the 2015 Champions League Final, several first team players departed and were succeeded by more than ample replacements. Over the two summers since defeat in Berlin, the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Carlos Tevez and most noticeably Paul Pogba have left. They were replaced by the youth of Dybala and Alex Sandro and the experience of Mandzukic, Dani Alves and Miralem Pjanic. The addition of £76 million-man Gonzalo Higuain as a star striker was the cherry on top of a successful rejuvenation.
It’s remarkable that Juventus made the 2017 final, given that they had to replace many of the players that got them there two years earlier. The feat is testament to the work of Sporting Director Giuseppe Marotta. Appointed in 2010 with Juventus languishing in seventh place, Marotta has made many astute signings as well as inspired managerial appointments in Antonio Conte and Allegri. With a proven track record of unearthing hot prospects and securing undervalued veterans alike, there isn’t a better person to oversee a future personnel shake-up.
The new additions will mean that Juve’s strength in depth over the coming years will only be bettered by Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. That is some achievement, as despite Juventus’ recent rebranding and increased global marketing, both Bayern and Real have significantly greater financial power. The future looks bright for The Old Lady. It will take time for a younger defensive core to settle down and gel. However, there’s no reason why Juventus can’t be challenging for Champions League titles for years to come, even after the likes of Buffon and Chiellini have retired.
The day after defeat in the final, Gianluigi Buffon made a defiant statement. Having moved on from the tears and heartbreak of Saturday night, he dismissed immediate retirement. “I still have one more year on my contract”, he told reporters. “That means I have one more chance of winning the Champions League”. It seems that Juve’s old guard aren’t quite ready to hang up their boots just yet. Can you teach an old dog new tricks?
Alex Brotherton: @alex_brotherton