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The Demise of the Old Lady

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Perhaps the best measure of how concerned Juventus is by image — of how central to the club’s identity is the way that identity is projected and perceived — is that it may well be the only team in world soccer to have its own, custom-designed font.

It was commissioned in 2017, presumably after a raft of meetings that featured intense, sincere discussions about what typeface best conveyed the team’s values and mission. The font appears in all of the club’s marketing campaigns. It is deployed on all its social media pronouncements. It adorns the Juventus offices in Turin and Milan.

Using the font is important to Juventus executives: uniformity of iconography, they believe, is crucial in helping build the club’s brand, in expressing to current fans and prospective ones and, where none can be found, putative customers, quite what Juventus stands for. Everything the club publishes has to have that distinctive, recognizable Juventus look. Image comes first.

All of which makes the events of the last few months — perhaps longer — difficult to understand. First, there is the ongoing and now faintly masochistic devotion of Andrea Agnelli, the club’s president, to a Super League project that has not only cost him friendships and positions of power, but that has been met with pretty much universal opprobrium from fans. Continued commitment to it is not, as they say, a good look.

And then, more serious still, there is the investigation by Italy’s financial authorities into six current and former executives — including Agnelli and Pavel Nedved, the club’s vice president — into Juventus’s transfer dealings. The authorities are said to be considering various charges of false accounting and reporting. The police have already raided the club’s training facility and its offices. That is not great for the image, either.

It would be easy, then, to see more than a little hubris in Juventus’s on-field travails this season. There is a scene in the first episode of the club’s edition of the “All Or Nothing” documentary series — which started airing on Amazon Prime late last month, and over which the team’s executives hung like hawks, every step of the way — in which Agnelli gathers the members of the playing squad and lets them know, in no uncertain terms, the expectations.

With an expletive or two thrown in, he tells the players that the previous season was not up to scratch. The year in question was the one before last, the one in which Maurizio Sarri led Juventus to a ninth straight Serie A title. The coach, an unlikely appointment who turned into an unpopular incumbent, had gone; Agnelli would not, he said, tolerate a repeat.

The Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, right, and vice president Pavel Nedved are said be to be under investigation for the club’s transfer dealings.Credit…Massimo Rana/EPA, via Shutterstock

In comparison, of course, that year under Sarri would come to be seen as the last chapter of the golden era. Under his replacement, the novice Andrea Pirlo, Juventus barely scraped into the Champions League — relying on Napoli’s stumbling at home on the final day to make it — and then, over the course of the summer, discovered that Cristiano Ronaldo, the player it had brought in to turn domestic hegemony into continental success, no longer wanted to stick around.

If that seemed like the nadir, it was not. After the failed experiments with Sarri and Pirlo, Juventus restored Massimiliano Allegri as coach this summer. His task was to prioritize “results,” as he has put it, over the pursuit of style that had captivated the club when it decided, a couple of years ago, that it had outgrown Sarri. Juventus had realized, it seemed, that the fact of winning was more central to its identity than the nature of it.

Things are not, though, quite so simple. Allegri’s team has lost five games in Serie A already this season. Relative minnows, like Sassuolo, and actual minnows, like Empoli, have returned from Juventus’s Allianz Stadium with victories. Last weekend, Atalanta won in Turin for the first time in more than 30 years.

Juventus sits seventh in Serie A, 12 points behind Napoli, the early leader. Allegri has already stated his belief that finishing fourth, and securing yet another season in the Champions League, may be the limit of this team’s ambitions. Even that relatively meager target is by no means guaranteed.

Juventus fans are not used to watching a seventh-place team.Credit…Massimo Pinca/Reuters

The cause of that decline can be traced to the same root as the demise in Juventus’s image. There is a tendency, in soccer, to believe nobody is capable of doing two things at once: A player taking an interest in off-field activities — whether that is being on TikTok, running a fashion label, feeding hungry children — will, at some point, invariably be told to concentrate on their performances; a club that takes care of its brand identity will be told to focus, instead, on signing players.

It is a false dichotomy, of course. Players can run a business, campaign or social media account and still remember how to mark opponents on corners. Clubs employ hundreds of people, not all of whom are devoted to tactics, nutrition or being a right back.

Where the two threads of Juventus’s struggles entwine is in the rationale behind them. Agnelli favors a Super League because it solves his club’s immediate financial problems. The plusvalenza system that the team’s executives are accused of manipulating offers the same, short-term hit: It makes sure this year’s books look good, with little or no thought to what happens later.

Manager Massimiliano Allegri is already setting limits on what his team can achieve this season.Credit…Ciro De Luca/Reuters

That is precisely how Juventus has been run, too. In 2017, after a second defeat in the Champions League final in three years, Agnelli became obsessed with winning instantly. The painstaking, intelligent work that had returned the club to the pinnacle in both Italy and Europe was out; signing players to triumph immediately became the order of the day. A year later, the approach reached its apogee when Ronaldo arrived in Turin.

Now Juventus is paying for that impatience. Ronaldo may be gone, but there are countless others — all on hefty contracts, all eating up the club’s pandemic-ravaged finances, all too costly to be easily offloaded — who remain: Aaron Ramsey and Alex Sandro and Adrien Rabiot.

Allegri has at his disposal the sketch outline of a young, competitive team: Matthijs de Ligt, Rodrigo Bentancur, Manuel Locatelli, Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Chiesa. The club’s decision to establish an under-23 team in Italy’s third tier was made with the future in mind, too.

But none of it can come to fruition while the squad, and the balance sheet, is filled by the underperforming and the overpaid. Juventus has thought for too long about the now, and too little about what comes next. And it is that, ultimately, which will do the damage to its image, to how it is perceived, and how it perceives itself. What matters, after all, is the story a club tells, not how it is written.


Not Such a Walk in the Parc

Lionel Messi’s brilliance has not translated directly into French quite yet.Credit…Thibault Camus/Associated Press

There have been years when it has felt at least a little like either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or by default, that they were awarded the most prestigious individual prize in soccer not so much for what they had achieved recently but because it seemed inconceivable to suggest one of the two of them was not the finest player in the world.

This year was not one of them. Of course, Robert Lewandowski offered a compelling alternative case. Even discounting the emotional appeal of honoring a player who so richly deserved the award 12 months ago, Lewandowski, the Bayern Munich striker, had done enough — more than enough — to win it based on his 2021 alone. It is not every season, after all, that a player breaks a 50-year-old goal-scoring record.

But it hardly requires some great suspension of disbelief to understand why, eventually, France Football’s jurors chose Messi: It was this year, after all, that he finally ended his — and his country’s — long wait for an international trophy. The Copa América was Argentina’s first senior triumph since 1993. Delivering international glory was the one hole on Messi’s résumé. Now he has filled it. That was, as it should have been, enough.

The complication is that Messi won his seventh Ballon d’Or as his domestic form is — how to put this delicately? — stuttering. His final season at Barcelona brought 38 goals in 47 games, even in a bitterly disappointing campaign, but he has struggled to find that form at Paris St.-Germain.

He has three goals in the Champions League — including a wonderful strike against Manchester City — but only one in Ligue 1. A delayed start to the season, a couple of interruptions from minor injuries and being part of a somewhat inchoate team have not helped, but he has certainly not found France’s top flight as easy as anticipated.

That will change, obviously, as P.S.G. hits its stride and as Messi adapts to a league he has acknowledged is more physical to the one to which he was accustomed. He recorded three assists against Saint-Etienne last weekend.

But for now it serves as a reminder, perhaps, that Ligue 1 — widely derided as the weakest of Europe’s major domestic tournaments — is not quite the cakewalk many believe it to be, that any player at all can find a new environment challenging, and that nothing is easy, not really, even for the greats.

Twenty’s Plenty

It is hard to tell which is the more startling statistic: that England scored 20 goals — 20, two zero — in a single game on Tuesday, or that in the process, Sarina Wiegman’s team racked up 64 shots. That works out, math fans, to roughly one every 90 seconds.

The victory, in a World Cup qualifier against Latvia, ranks as the biggest-ever win by an England team. It also represented a European record for a competitive women’s game, though there should be just a small asterisk there: the previous mark was set only a few days earlier, when Belgium beat Armenia, 19-0.

The issue of what to do with overmatched teams is not exclusive to the women’s game, of course — the debate flares up pretty reliably in men’s qualifying, too — but, because of the rapid development of the game across Europe, the scale of the imbalance and the urgency with which it must be addressed feel much greater.

Ellen White and Beth Mead each scored three goals against Latvia this week. Their teammate Lauren Hemp had four.Credit…Tim Goode/Press Association, via Associated Press

It is, certainly, no time to indulge the two nonsensical orthodoxies that infect this debate in the men’s game: that playing the very best helps the smaller nations to improve — even Wiegman quite rightly dispatched that idea — and that changing the format of qualifying, in some way, prevents everyone from having an even chance to reach a tournament.

A two- or even three-tier qualifying system for major competitions exists in North America, Africa and Asia. It does not exist in South America, but only because the likes of Suriname and French Guiana compete (for reasons that are not strictly geographical) in Concacaf. There is absolutely no reason Europe could not do the same.

As Wiegman said, Latvia learned nothing from losing, 20-0, to England, in a game in which it had 14 percent possession and no shots on goal. England, likewise, learned nothing. Streamlining qualification is not a mark of disrespect to developing nations. It is not depriving them of a chance to get better. If anything, the exact opposite is true.

Correspondence

To be honest, I could just copy and paste Nitin Bajaj’s email and leave it there for correspondence this week: “I read the bit on managers’ captivation with condiments with a great deal of … er … relish,” he wrote, clearly very pleased with himself.

Gary Brown, meanwhile, thinks there is some sort of ketchup-based conspiracy at play. “What’s the evidence that Dean Smith had ever allowed ketchup at Villa before his sacking?” he asked. “Steven Gerrard announced that he’d banned it before he’d even seen it on the table at his new club. On the other hand, a suspicious mind might follow Dean Smith to his quick appointment at Norwich, whose majority owner is Delia Smith, cookery writer and TV legend, who is on record as saying she and her husband have ‘Big Mac picnics in the car-park’ at evening games, with fries and loads of ketchup’.”

A clutch of you, meanwhile — James Patch, Martin Maudal and Jim Yoder — all got in touch to suggest the perfect example of how much difference a manager can make: Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea. This is absolutely correct, of course, but once again: I cannot produce a newsletter that just runs to four words.

Thomas Tuchel, the exception that proves the rule.Credit…Frank Augstein/Associated Press

And Thabo Caves sends an email that leads me to another thought. “A team has 11 players on the pitch most of the time,” he wrote. “If one player has roughly the same impact as another, then each player would have roughly a 9 percent influence on their team’s performance. Bringing in a new manager could then be considered as almost as influential as signing a new player in the middle of the season. Single players are consistently lauded for having transformative effects on teams, so why can’t a manager?”

Why not indeed, Thabo, which leaves me to wonder: Should we not limit when teams can change their managers — perhaps to two windows, one before and one during the season — as we do with players? Why the reason for the difference?

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