In the summer of 1995, Juventus decided to dispense with a legendary No. 10 as they already had a replacement in mind. Fast forward to 2009, and the very replacement in question is now the talk of being replaced himself. Or is he?
After a strong first-half of the season, all signs pointed to the Old Lady winning some silverware. However, with performances dropping at an alarming rate, not only will the Bianconeri end the season trophyless, but they are in real danger of losing third spot to Fiorentina in Serie A – and automatic entry into next season’s Champions League. Instead of stopping the rot with some incisive play, now axed Tactician Claudio Ranieri chose to drop his most creative player, Alessandro Del Piero, instead opting to bulldoze their way through opposition defences. With Amauri’s form disappearing as fast as his club’s, it was obvious to Ranieri that the partnership with Alex was proving to be too ineffective. To restore Amauri’s confidence while also attempting to score goals in a more pragmatic and direct way, Del Piero made way for Vicenzo Iaquinta in the hope that play would be stretched out for wingers on both flanks to fire aerial balls for both Amauri and Iaquinta to attack. While this approach has been met with relative success with Iaquinta working like a Trojan in recent games, Juve have become far too predictable with the opposition cancelling out balls to both wingers which has led to unnecessary pressure being placed on what is a rather ordinary-looking defence.
While Ranieri cannot be blamed for lapses of concentration in the defence (although he does select the defenders in question), logic tells you that you compensate for those deficiencies by scoring more at the other end. Dropping Del Piero did not help his cause, and while the recent match against Milan cried out for Alex (when Juve were awarded numerous free-kicks outside the Milan penalty area), Ranieri remained unmoved, and when the decision to play him was made, it was too little, too late. The Tinkerman’s belief in a more direct style of football not only lacked a cutting, and more creative edge, it smacked of desperation. His shocking refusal to play arguably his club’s best player from the start not only failed to arrest Juve’s end-of-season collapse – it ultimately cost him his job.
Previous Coaches have dared to drop Del Piero in the past, with relative success. While there was mutual respect between Alex and ex-Coach Fabio Capello, there was no love lost between the two. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Trezeguet the preferred strike force at the time, Pinturicchio found himself either being substituted or a bench-warmer more often than not, which led to an increasingly fractious relationship. Something had to give. Although not accepting his Coach’s decisions, Alex worked like the model professional he still is and worked his way back into the starting XI without being replaced. Other Juve superstars like Gianluigi Buffon, Mauro Camoranesi and David Trezeguet who also did not see eye-to-eye with Don Fabio, were as astonished at Ranieri over his decision-making, however, they recognised the fact that while Capello delivered results, Ranieri did not.
As for next season’s campaign, Juventus are close to securing Werder Bremen star Diego, and admitted they must change their tactics to suit him. “The fact that the player and the other club confirmed the deal is an added satisfaction. His arrival will probably bring about a review of our style of play.” said President Giovanni Cobolli Gigli in a press statement last week. Despite the dreaded vote of confidence in Ranieri, it was common knowledge that the Bianconeri was on the lookout for a Coach for the 2009/10 season. Interim Coach Ciro Ferrara will no doubt wipe the slate clean and will attempt to restore Del Piero and Trezeguet to the starting line-up in a more fluid system.
Ranieri’s more rigid 4-4-2 formation did not allow for any creativity and movement, and so both Ferrara and Juve’s next long-term Coach will need to accommodate both Diego and Del Piero in the same line-up to get the best out of them – not one in lieu of the other. Ex-alienator Marcello Lippi regularly lined Pinturicchio up with French wizard Zinedine Zidane when fielding either a 3-5-2 or 4-3-1-2 formation, with Zidane in the trequartista role and Del Piero playing the role of support striker. There is no reason why Diego could not occupy the same role as Zizou or even replace the retiring Pavel Nedved on the left of midfield (although the latter position would seriously restrict his movement and style of play), with Alex continuing to play his supporting-striker role.
Football purists argue that the team needs to be built around Diego for him to shine, but, while this is true to a certain extent, the most important thing is that the ex-Porto man is in a team that plays a more fluid, passing game, and not direct, long balls. There is no denying that Diego always demands the ball and likes to dictate the tempo, but there is no reason why he cannot exist with other playmakers like Del Piero and/or the exceptional Sebastian Giovinco. If Zidane weaved his magic alongside Del Piero, there’s no reason why Diego couldn’t do the same, given the opportunity.
Del Piero is everything that symbolises Juve – high-profile, a champion, and loyal to those who show it in return. However, his loyalty, not to mention his patience, has been tested in recent weeks with a substitute’s role for both the match with Milan and last weekend’s game against Atalanta. His ire not only centres around his axing from the starting XI, but also from ongoing contract discussions with the board of directors. Rumours suggest that while Juventus plan their future, Del Piero does not seem to be a part of these plans. He has become increasingly disillusioned with life at Juve, however, it is inconceivable to think that both he and his club cannot co-exist – after all, Alex has for some time been earmarked as a future club President. Perhaps this could be the excuse he needs for a final hurrah abroad as he has long-since admired and advocated the English Premier League, its fans and its stadiums.
It remains to be seen whether Diego is indeed a long-term replacement for Del Piero, but either way, it seems Juventus – either coaching staff or management – are playing a very, very dangerous game.