As Fiorentina fans, we generally couldn’t care less about those Notts County/Newcastle wannabees up in Turin. That said, it’s a genuine pleasure to speak with Black and White and Read All Over’s boss man Danny Penza, who is a dang treasure. He was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule and answer our dumb questions.
Viola Nation: Another year, another first place in the table. Does this ever get boring? Even with the new manager and the new names, do the players seem like they might be burning out?
Danny Penza: I’m convinced that winning Scudetto after Scudetto will never get boring, but it’s not exactly like Juventus has been the exciting and offensive powerhouse many envisioned when Maurizio Sarri was hired to replace Max Allegri. We knew coming in that Sarri’s system takes time to fully grasp and that his teams (usually) get better as time goes on. But, the thing is, this Juventus squad is built to win RIGHT NOW. This isn’t a two- or three-year project where you’re waiting on a squad to develop together and then there will be this grand payoff in 2022 or 2023. Sarri has been given his biggest job yet and, so far, the return hasn’t been all that great. That means there’s plenty to write about even if the end product from the squad has been rather crap the last three months.
VN: It’s been a pretty quiet winter transfer window for Juventus; unless I’m mistaken, no players have joined the squad this January. Between the various injuries in defense and the lack of dynamism in the middle, do you expect to see any late moves?
DP: The only acquisition has been Dejan Kulusevski, and even then he’s going to be a delayed arrival since Juventus sent him right back to Parma on loan for the rest of the current season. Juve’s transfer fee was steep for the 19-year-old Swede at €35 million, and that means he will come back to Turin this coming summer with a whole lot of expectations attached to his young shoulders. But other than that, it’s been quiet. And seeing as Juventus never really does much business in January anyways, I’m not expecting much the next couple of days. Do they need help? God yes. Will they actually be signing any kind of help? I highly doubt it.
VN: Cristiano Ronaldo is having another outrageously productive year on the scoresheet; his 17 goals are second in the league. However, the team’s next-highest tally in league play is a relatively paltry 5 goals, shared by Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín. That begs two questions: first, how is Juve wringing so many goals from Ronaldo? Is it just his sheer ability, or have the other players figured out how to consistently find him in his preferred spots? Second, how come nobody else is scoring consistently? Does the current approach cater to Ronaldo at the expense of his fellow forwards, or have they assumed secondary roles, or are they simply not hitting their marks consistently?
DP: One of the things that I want to write but haven’t gotten around to it yet is if Sarri has actually figured out his best starting lineup yet. Ronaldo, especially the last month, has been the cyborg Ronaldo that just scores goals nearly every time he steps onto the field. That switch he flips and suddenly is back in top form again has been flipped on and he’s gone from having a pretty average beginning to the season to now one of Serie A’s top scorers again outside of Ciro Immobile. Sarri has toyed with playing Dybala and Higuain with Ronaldo, but that seems to be more of a game-by-game tactical decision rather than one where he just pushes all his chips in and goes with it. Dybala has been great this season even if the goals don’t show it, so that’s been a very good development. The biggest problem is for Juventus, the supporting cast has been pretty much, and it seems like Sarri is really just trying to find a hot player to slot in as a No. 10 in the 4-3-1-2 since nobody has really clicked there yet.
VN: There was a fair amount of grumbling around Maurizio Sarri’s appointment at the start of the season. Has that mostly quieted down, or are there still some lingering doubts? What has he changed from those Max Allegri sides? What remains constant (you know, besides the place in the table)?
DP: Go ahead and search #SarriOut on Twitter and then get back to me. Juventus grinding out results is not exactly what we all had in mind when Sarri was hired. Yes, that is with the caveat that his teams aren’t all that great to start out the season and get better with time. But even now, as we get ready to play the first game in February, Sarrismo isn’t really all that consistently seen. There may be a half here, a half there, but consistency is this team’s biggest issue right now. They look good for a game or two, then look completely craptastic like they did over the weekend against Napoli. I don’t really know what the potential of this team really is mainly because they haven’t really shown me all that much this season. And that might be the biggest sticking point going right now when it comes to Sarri.
VN: Going back to when these two met back in September, Fiorentina probably looked the better side in a scoreless draw, largely on the strength of Vincenzo Montella’s strikerless system that left the Bianconeri defenders looking deeply confused about whom they were supposed to mark. If you were Giuseppe Iachini, would you try to replicate that previous success? Given that Sarri probably smoked his way through a carton or two trying to figure out what went wrong, what do you think he’ll change against the Viola, who’ll still play in that same 3-5-2 but with a very different set of tactics.
DP: You would do what a lot of teams who have given this Juventus side issues this season — just go right at them. Juve’s defense isn’t great and is no longer the gold standard in Italy. I constantly have to look up when the last time Juve strung a bunch of clean sheets together because it’s so hard to actually remember. Juventus are getting results more often than not, sure, but it’s not like they’re dominating the opponent every time they’re out there. Look at what Napoli did last weekend — they were disciplined, they had a game plan of how to exploit Juventus on the wings and then, even though they were shorthanded, how to keep them quiet until Ronaldo’s 90th-minute goal. Sarri wants possession and he wants tempo, and if you throw either of those things off the rails even a little bit then you’re going to have a chance.
VN: Let’s talk form. Juve had been soaring before getting ambushed at the San Potato by a flailing Napoli outfit. Was that just a blip against a highly-talented yet underachieving side, or was it something a little bit more threatening (please be the latter). Zooming in a bit, which players in the squad have really been tearing it up of late? Which (if any) haven’t been up to snuff?
DP: The Napoli loss was a lot like the two losses to Lazio in December in the fact that Juventus’ weaknesses were clearly exploited and Sarri just didn’t have an answer. Look at it this way: Juventus’ midfield, even with Rodrigo Bentancur developing into one of the best young players in the league and Adrien Rabiot shaking off the rust, isn’t all that great; Juve’s playing a winger at right back and he’s the best option they have there; Sarri has tried just about every option he has at the trequarista spot and nobody has really taken hold of the position. It’s just one of those things where outside of Ronaldo, Higuain and Dybala up front and then probably Wojciech Szczesny in goal, not a lot of Juventus players are having all that great of a season.
VN: Are there any Fiorentina players whom you’re anxious to face? Keep in mind that Gaetano Castrovilli is unlikely to feature following a frighteningly mysterious head injury suffered against Genoa. On the same note, are there any particular battles or areas of the pitch that you think bear watching in this one?
DP: Did I mention Johnny Cuadrado, after an impressive start to the right back experiment, has cooled off a bit? Because when I think of how he played over the weekend against Napoli and then see Federico Chiesa storming down the field at him, I get a little bit of an uneasy feeling in my stomach. With Juve lacking so much width since Sarri went with a 4-3-1-2 full time, if Fiorentina can get any kind of impact from its wide players, then I’m just going to hope and pray that Matthijs de Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci are able to record about 25 clearances each.
VN: Okay, prediction time: What do you think winds up being the final score, who (if anyone) gets the goal(s), and what’s the overall tenor of the match?
DP: Because shutouts are now a somewhat foreign concept in Turin, I’ll go with a 2-1 Juventus win. Ronaldo gets at least one and maybe Dybala gets the other. The overall tenor of the match will be determined a lot by how Juventus starts, I think. They were terrible in the first half against Napoli and looked how that turned out. So, hopefully for my sake, Sarri actually has a high-energy start in the cards.
Again, a huge thank you to Danny, who is really the most sensible person in the calcio ecosystem. I cannot say enough good things about him. If you want to read my dumb answers to his smarter questions, check out BWRAO’s feature here.