Mixing misfits is an art, and the Old Lady is ready to show off her collection. She’s been welcoming in the young, the old and the unwanted for years, but she’s now grown a bit more discerning, and the result is a Juventus side set to challenge for the UEFA Champions League trophy.
It’s not a lack of money that’s kept Juventus from splashing out on flashy buys. It’s now one of the 10 richest soccer clubs in the world, valued at $837 million. The club’s ownership of Juventus Stadium, a rarity in Italy, has dramatically increased its matchday takings, and having the biggest share of the Serie A broadcasting pie adds to its revenue. But Juventus still operates as though it’s on the verge of losing money, with a smaller budget than that of even West Ham United.
It’s these constraints that prompted Juventus to put together a team that looks, to the untrained eye, like a bunch of misfits. There’s a handful of players that have been around forever. There’s the talented kids from other Serie A sides that got scooped up as soon as they caught an eye. And then there’s the group that Juventus — or, more accurately, director of football Beppe Marotta — simply decided to take a chance on. The outcasts, the elderly, the ones available at little-to-no-cost.
In the past, taking chances didn’t always work. During Marotta’s first transfer market, he brought Fabio Quagliarella in from Napoli on loan. The forward started well, scoring nine times in 17 appearances, but he picked up a season-ending injury at the start of January. In came Alessandro Matri, also on loan, who went on to score nine goals in the second half of the season. Juventus wound up signing each to permanent deals for a combined sum of over 30 million euros. Neither would ever match their initial Juve production again.
Quagliarella and Matri were strokes of genius, however, compared to some of the other players Juventus has gambled on over the past five years. One part of the plan, such as it was, seemed to be to find experienced players to snap up before their cost skyrocketed. And so $12 million paid for one start from Eljero Elia. Eighteen million dollars, one million for each start, was the fee for Mauricio Isla. The second part entailed testing out players at little to no cost. The loans of Marco Boriello, Nicklas Bendtner, Nicolas Anelka and Pablo Osvaldo produced exactly three Serie A goals. Sometimes, you get what you pay for.
Other sometimes, you get a lot more than that. And you learn. Now Juventus’s approach to the transfer market has drastically improved. It took some luck, some skill, some development, and yes, some tweaks from the manager, but with those chances, Max Allegri was able to inherit the best squad in Italy when he signed on this summer.
Amid its tightly-knit backline, a goalkeeper with the hands of a god, and one of the most talented midfields in the world, the influence of Juve’s infamous bargain buys has been massive. Andrea Pirlo, viewed by Milan (and Allegri himself) as an elderly luxury it could ill-afford, was welcomed into the heart of the Juventus midfield in 2011, knitting the group together while dictating the team’s pace. Paul Pogba came along the next year, courtesy of a short-circuit somewhere in Alex Ferguson’s brain. Then came Carlos Tevez, no longer worth the headache at Manchester City, but certainly worth Juventus risking $12 million on.
All talented, obviously. All certainly successful in Turin, giving Marotta reach keep throwing his cards down. This season, he managed a full house. First, out went the deadwoods, the favorites of former head coach Antonio Conte, players like Federico Peluso and Sebastian Giovinco. In came the bargains: the young Stefano Sturaro from Genoa; the old Patrice Evra from Manchester United. Roberto Pereyra on loan, Kingsley Coman on a free. And the expense, the flash, the $27 million for Álvaro Morata, on whom Real Madrid still hold an option to buy back.
Those inexpensive finds put quality on Juve’s bench, allowed more rotation in the squad and provided cover when the likes of Pogba and Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Barzagli were struck by injury. With the enhanced depth, Allegri was able to take Juventus far further in European competition than Conte managed (to the surprise of some).
But what really propelled this team forward was, well, the forwards. On the surface it might not look like the attack has improved. Fewer goals than last season. Just one more goal for Tevez in the league this year. Yet watching Juventus, you realize this is a side much more willing to get forward, to pressure the opposition. Allegri’s use of Morata and Tevez together has produced terrific results, his favored 4-3-1-2 shifting attention to Tevez’s partner rather than forcing the Argentine to absorb the entirety of the defense’s wrath. The opposition is hassled and harried, and because of this it succumbs more often than not.
At $27 million, Morata presented a far riskier buy than most of Juventus’s latest acquisitions. In total, the squad that lined up at the Bernabéu cost around $150 million – but more than $50 million of that went to fund the transfer of Gianluigi Buffon from Parma way back in 2001, before Calciopoli changed everything. Filter out the cost of San Gigi, eliminate Morata’s “high” price tag from the conversation, and we’re looking at an average of around $12 million spent on those players Juventus wasn’t able to snap up for free.
Compare that to Saturday’s opposition, Barcelona. Lionel Messi didn’t cost a cent, of course, but many in the squad boast intimidating price tags: Neymar’s fee could conservatively come out at $100 million, and that’s before court costs. Luis Suárez cost $90 million. Barça paid more for two players than Juventus did for its entire starting XI. All told, Barcelona paid around $300 million for the 11 players that started in its semifinal’s second leg in Munich, and that’s including the four that came out of its academy.
But Juventus has already faced down pricer competition – faced down Real Madrid, and won. The perception of the club outside Serie A is that of underdogs, a good team but not one of the word’s best. But even without lifting the trophy, to have come this far is an impressive feat. The Chelseas and the Manchester Cities and the PSGs and the Reals are gone, and it’s up to this masterfully mixed assembly of misfits to prove that money isn’t always everything.