As Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala tore the Udinese defence to shreds in the Coppa Italia round of 16, Juventus supporters were given a glimpse of what their side could really achieve in the Maurizio Sarri era.
The man who had helped Napoli play some of the most dynamic and free-flowing football in recent history was finally getting a tune out of the star-studded Old Lady, after months of underwhelming and dogged displays.
The eventual result may not have been surprising given the poor quality of opposition, but the drastic upturn in performance did come as a shock to some. Juve had rarely put in a display of such relentless attacking intent, combined with slick movement on and off the ball from their cohesive forwards.
After the 4-0 drubbing, Sarri told the media that this ‘mustn’t be Sarri’s team, but Cristiano Ronaldo, Higuain and Dybala’s side.’ Ronaldo’s inclusion in his statement may not stand out as peculiar at first – until you realise that he didn’t actually play during Sarri’s finest hour of champagne football as I Bianconeri boss.
The Portuguese forward was rested as a precaution over a possible injury, and his teammates put on a stellar show in his absence. Dybala and Higuain combined to create one of the goals of the season, exchanging six lightning passes before the latter hammered the ball home to open the scoring.
It was a goal of true style, grace and an expression of freedom – a liberty which is ripped from the side when Ronaldo is present.
The ex-Real Madrid man had a tough start to the new season, struggling to put away simple chances and cutting a frustrated figure on the pitch. His anger boiled over in a match against Milan in November, when the 34-year-old stormed down the tunnel upon being substituted. He later confessed to carrying an injury, but the inspiring winner’s mask was beginning to slip.
Ronaldo has silenced his critics in recent months however, scoring in his last seven Serie A matches, and taking his overall tally to 16 in 20 games. Considering his poor start to the campaign, you may be led to believe that “Ronaldo ‘the goal-machine’ is back!” – and he is – but to Juve’s detriment.
Heavy is the crown which CR7 wears, as one of the greatest footballers in history, but even heavier is the responsibility to squeeze him into the team at all costs. Sarri’s swap from the typical narrow 4-4-2 narrow diamond approach – which accommodates Ronaldo as a striker – to a more fluid 4-3-3, demonstrated the flexible and creative nature his team can conjure.
The exclusion of Ronaldo allowed Dybala to play either on the right-wing of the 4-3-3, or more centrally when the team switched in-game to a 4-2-3-1 formation. The Argentine’s ability to drift in from wide positions and link up splendidly with compatriot Higuain proved why this Juve side should be built around ‘La Joya’, and not their ageing superstar.
Sarri demands versatility from his team, and grafters like Federico Bernardeschi can be invaluable to I Bianconeri’s system, as shown against Udinese. The Italian star was able to take up a central role in the midfield, where his industry and artistry helped Juve move through the gears when on the attack.
Bernardeschi is a natural winger however, and he gleefully returned to the right-hand side when Dybala tucked in, meaning Sarri’s men could switch seamlessly from one system to another. This structural fluidity created all sorts of problems for their opponents, who simply couldn’t keep up with the expressive and progressive champions.
Ronaldo doesn’t provide the link between midfield and attack which Higuain can selflessly perform, nor does he possess the creative spark which Dybala carries with every touch of the ball. When either of the Argentines are left on the bench, their absence is painfully obvious.
As is Ronaldo’s – but for much different reasons.
Like diesel in a petrol tank, Ronaldo brings his team to a shuddering halt, and despite all the glitz and glamour, the Ferrari simply won’t ignite. Juve’s stars feel an obligation to feed the forward, who clearly does not share such sentiments, and he wastes countless glorious attacks with his wayward and egotistical tendencies to shoot from just about anywhere.
When one flies in, social media is alight with goat emojis – but they don’t have to sit through the hundreds of ridiculous attempts that accompany the singular ‘sublime’.
So, Ronaldo’s influence on the pitch can have its shortcomings, but surely his winning mentality can only knit this tight group of players even closer together?
Well, having seen his tantrums upon leaving the field, one can forgive Sarri for avoiding such controversies more often. But in doing so, the Italian coach is forced into removing one of his better performers, and Dybala has regularly been the sacrificial lamb – much to his own frustrations.
Juve chiefs must tread carefully over their treatment of Dybala, or they may end up losing the brightest star of all, simply by polishing the dulling star that is Ronaldo.
With CR7 contributing goals – and very little else – the Juventus