In the five years since Germany overtook Italy in Uefa’s rankings, stealing a Champions League berth away from clubs on the peninsula, pundits have pontificated at length on the lessons that Serie A might learn from the Bundesliga. Many have called for a greater focus on youth and homegrown talent, as well as the construction of stadiums.
Juventus were ahead on both fronts, and have reaped the rewards as they romped to five consecutive Scudetti but 2016 may go down as the year when they took the Teutonic template a step further. Instead of drawing inspiration from Germany’s top division, the Bianconeri now appear to simply be imitating Germany’s top club.
In a move straight from the Bayern Munich playbook, Juventus entrenched their domestic dominance this summer by prising star players away from their two closest rivals. From Napoli, they took Gonzalo Higuaín – fresh from the most prolific season in Serie A history. From Roma, they took Miralem Pjanic – whose 12 assists were joint-most in the league last season.
Perhaps Juventus overpaid for Higuaín. The decision to invest €90m in a player who will turn 29 before Christmas already looked a little reckless before he showed up for pre-season looking decidedly doughy around his midsection.
Even when he does get up to full speed, awkward questions will remain about where Higuaín fits into Massimiliano Allegri’s tactics. The Argentinian has done his best work as the central striker in a 4-3-3 but to accommodate him there would require shifting Paulo Dybala – coming off a brilliant first season as the deeper-lying forward in Juventus’s two-man attack – out to the wing.
Pjanic, by contrast, was a steal at €32m and should go a long way toward filling the creative void left by Paul Pogba’s departure. Juventus will miss the Frenchman’s ball-winning talents and may yet add another midfielder to compensate but in the meantime have strengthened elsewhere with the additions of Dani Alves, Mehdi Benatia and Marko Pjaca.
Overall the team who finished nine points clear at the top of Serie A have added yet more depth and variation to their squad but before we give up hope altogether of a title race in 2016-17, perhaps we should pause to listen to the new Internazionale manager, Frank de Boer.
“[Juventus’s] squad is exceptional …” he told Gazzetta dello Sport. “But at the same time Pogba has left. We need to understand how they are going to play now in midfield, and it’s not a given that they will be stronger than last year. They have great names, but we don’t know yet if the great names will know how to be a team.”
Even if not, though, who will challenge them? Are Napoli still capable of fighting for a title without Higuaín? An optimist may point out the man who gets the first shot at replacing him, Manolo Gabbiadini, has had a quietly impressive strike rate since joining the club in January 2015 – averaging one goal for every 107.7 minutes played in league matches. Napoli’s newly acquired alternative, the 22-year-old Poland striker Arkadiusz Milik, is not too shabby either.
The Partenopei are expected to make further additions but their prospects of challenging Juventus will rest more heavily on their ability to keep hold of the players they already have. Kalidou Koulibaly and Lorenzo Insigne were key figures in the run to second place last season but both are said to be disgruntled over the club’s failure to offer them improved contracts, and each has plenty of admirers at home and abroad.
Roma, third last season, have needed to run just to stand still this summer, using a large chunk of their transfer budget to convert loanees such as Mohamed Salah and Stephan El Shaarawy into permanent signings. Unfortunately, they were not able to work the same magic on Lucas Digne, who returned to Paris Saint-Germain before signing for Barcelona.
It is not entirely clear how the left-back will be replaced. The summer arrivals Juan Jesus and Thomas Vermaelen have each played the position but lack the pace to get forward and overlap with Roma’s flying wingers as Digne did. Bruno Peres, an astute addition from Torino, can bring an equivalent energy to the opposite flank but where does that leave Alessandro Florenzi?
If nothing else, Roma have options. And although they have lost one world-class midfielder in Pjanic, the hope is they may be about to rediscover another one – with Kevin Strootman back at last from the knee injury and complications that kept him off the pitch for the best part of two years.
Are there any other teams capable of competing for the title? What about De Boer’s Inter? This has been an eventful summer for the Nerazzurri, who were taken over by the Chinese retail giant Suning in June but only parted ways with Roberto Mancini on 8 August.
How to explain this late change of direction? The Italian press have noted the owners’ close relationship with Kia Joorabchian – the agent to Carlos Tevez – with whom Mancini did not exactly see eye-to-eye in his Manchester City days. It has not escaped the attention that both De Boer and Inter’s top remaining transfer target, João Mário, is also represented by Joorabchian.
Whatever the circumstances, the Dutchman has inherited a squad of significant potential. It is easy to forget Inter were top of the table last Christmas and had room for growth this season even before any signings were made. Geoffrey Kondogbia is 23 and should improve with a year of Serie A experience under his belt. Ivan Perisic, too, can kick on after an impressive Euro 2016 showing.
De Boer has some welcome dilemmas ahead as he seeks to incorporate those two into his starting XI along with the newly acquired Éver Banega, Antonio Candreva and, perhaps, João Mário. Even the manager, though, doubts he can make it all work right away. Asked by Gazzetta how long it would take him to make his mark on the team, he replied with a specific: “Four months”.
A slow start from any of the frontrunners could favour Fiorentina, who have undergone no such major upheaval. The biggest question facing Paulo Sousa is how to incorporate Giuseppe Rossi into his side after the forward returned from a moderately productive six-month spell at Levante. Well, that and how to break it to Cristian Tello that he is not in Florence for a stag do.
And what of Milan, as they prepare to move into the post-Berlusconi era? The slow progress of the Rossoneri’s own Chinese takeover has prevented them from making significant forays into the transfer market and left the new manager, Vincenzo Montella, to instead build something from the ashes of a miserable end to last season. At least, with no European competition to distract them, Milan can put all of their energies into improving on their seventh place.
Sassuolo, who pipped them to Italy’s final Europa League berth, may find it tricky to repeat such an achievement with Sime Vrsaljko and Nicola Sansone having departed. At least they have held on to Domenico Berardi.
Elsewhere fascinating sub-plots abound. Can tiny Crotone succeed where Carpi and Frosinone failed by extending their first top-flight jaunt beyond one season? Will Mario Balotelli return to Serie A, perhaps with Bologna or Chievo? And what indignity will next befall Lazio, following a summer in which Marcelo Bielsa resigned after two days as the manager, and the owner, Claudio Lotito, was reported to have very nearly scared off a signing by smashing a plate of rocket and bresaola?
We may not see a compelling title race in Serie A this season. For better or for worse, however, such as Lotito guarantee there will always be drama.
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