For much of the 2019-20 Serie A campaign, it looked as if this would be the year that Juve’s incredible title streak would end. Inter Milan looked poised to make a winter run, but fell 2-0 to the champs in early March and couldn’t make up ground. Lazio was within arm’s reach as the coronavirus stoppage took hold, but face-planted after the restart. Atalanta led Juve twice in Turin on July 11 — if they won, they’d have been within three points — but gave up a pair of shaky handball penalties and settled for a draw.
After fending off a trio of threats, Juve all but clinched its ninth straight title with an 2-1 win over Lazio on Monday. Maurizio Sarri’s squad now leads by eight points with just four to play, and only one remaining opponent is currently higher than 11th in the table. The race technically isn’t over, but it’s pretty clear how this story will end. FiveThirtyEight gives the Old Lady a 99% chance of sealing the deal.
This wasn’t a dominant romp; they’re third in the league in goal differential, and if they drop more than two points in their remaining matches, they’ll fail to hit 90 points in league play for the first time in five years. Still, the end result will end up the same as normal.
Let’s look at how they pulled it off once more.
Again, it’s a good time to be a blue blood
This will be Juve’s 36th top-division title in Italy. Their dominance is not new, but until the 21st century, they had never won more than five titles in a decade or nine over two decades. Winning nine in a row is a new level.
As I wrote a few weeks ago when Bayern won an unprecedented eighth straight Bundesliga title, there’s no question that while the champs most certainly have their acts together, this is the most blue-blood-friendly decade we’ve seen. Eleven clubs stand out from the pack in terms of annual revenue, and as Bayern is the only one in Germany, Juve is the only one in Italy. (PSG is also the only one in France and has won seven of eight Ligue 1 titles.)
In terms of revenue, Europe’s Big Five leagues have separated themselves dramatically from the rest of the continent over the past 10 years, and within those leagues, the haves have stretched their respective advantages over the have-nots. It’s hard to say this is a demonstrably good thing for soccer as a whole, but it is indeed a thing, and it significantly helps Juve’s cause.
Fourteen players logged at least 1,000 minutes for Juve in league play this year, and the club spent more than €25 million in transfer fees for 11 of them within the past six years. Three — forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain and center back Matthijs de Ligt — cost more than €75 million each. Granted, even rich clubs need creative accounting to make ends meet sometimes, but there’s no question that money equals margin for error. Juve proved this year that it’s got more of both than anyone else in Serie A.
This year really could have turned out differently, though.
Atalanta had a sketchy fall (and other challengers fizzled)
In terms of both goal differential (+50 when no one else is above +38) and expected goal differential (+42.4, when no one else is above +28.9), Atalanta has been the league’s best team by a rather wide margin this season. Gian Piero Gasperini’s squad has won matches by scores of 7-0, 7-1, 7-2, 5-0 (twice) and 6-2. They have maybe the most dynamic and enthralling attack in Europe, but they’ve also been playing catch-up from the start.
Atalanta played in the Champions League for the first time this season — they will play PSG in the quarterfinals on Aug. 12 — but while they were finding their UCL form, their league form dropped. In six Serie A matches from Oct. 19 to Nov. 23, they won one, lost two and drew three. On Nov. 24, they were in sixth place, 13 points behind Juve. Since then, they’ve lost only twice and racked up 49 points — most in the league. But while they were nearly able to reel in Juve in early July, they couldn’t quite do it.
Two other clubs appeared more than capable of making a run.
From mid-October until March’s stoppage, Lazio dropped only four points and climbed to within one of Juve in the table. For good measure, they unloaded back-to-back 3-1 wins over Juve in December. Simone Inzaghi’s high-continuity, counter-attacking approach was simple but extraordinarily effective. The “was” is the key there. In eight matches since the restart, they’ve lost five and drawn one. Any sense of momentum that existed for the sky blues expired with the stoppage. They will likely finish fourth.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Ciro Immobile hit the 30-goal mark as Juventus defeat Lazio. Watch Serie A on ESPN+.
Meanwhile, Inter Milan looked the part of a contender… against everyone but contenders. Antonio Conte’s Nerazzurri are holding onto second place at the moment, having racked up 72 points in 34 matches. But in five matches against the other three contenders, Italy’s last Champions League winner managed just four points. They pulled only two points off of fifth-place Roma, too. They couldn’t overcome both that and a pair of meek early-July results (a 2-1 loss to Bologna and a 2-2 draw with Hellas Verona).
We were close to a legitimate four-team race, but Juve took points from nearly all the matches that ended up mattering the most and will end up winning rather comfortably.
Most title runs feature moments of clutch play, the ability to score at the most necessary time and the fortitude to gut out results when you’re at less than full form.
Juventus has more than done that this year. They beat Napoli in August, 4-3, thanks to a stoppage-time own goal from Kalidou Koulibaly. Later in the fall, Gonzalo Higuain scored in the 80th minute of a 2-1 win over Inter, Paulo Dybala scored in the 77th to beat AC Milan 1-0, and Juve scored three goals from the 74th minute onward to beat Atalanta. A Ronaldo penalty in the sixth minute of stoppage time beat Genoa, 2-1, in October, and Ronaldo put in two second-half penalties — both thanks to inadvertent handballs — to salvage a point against Atalanta the second time around. The latter was the kind of result that makes you think fate arranged the outcome of the title race far in advance.
– Marcotti: Juve still have issues that go beyond Sarri
In all, 21 of Juve’s Serie A matches this year have been decided by zero or one goals; they’ve lost only two of them. They’ve secured a total of 47 points from these matches, a 2.24-point average. Inter is second-best at 1.81 points per close match, Lazio 1.77, Atalanta 1.68. That advantage makes up almost Juve’s entire margin in the table. It has given them a pathway to a ninth straight title, but it doesn’t necessarily say great things about No. 10.
While the best teams are expected to do better in close matches than everyone else — they are, after all, the best teams — you can sometimes do a little too well. Since 2010-11, only five teams can top Juve’s 2.2-point average in zero- and one-goal matches.
– In 2016-17, Monaco averaged 2.33 during an unexpected title run. They did not lose a single close match. They averaged 1.86 points the next year, however, and their point total fell from 95 to 80.
– That same year, Chelsea averaged 2.29 points in these matches and won the Premier League. The next season, they averaged 1.67 points and fell from 93 points and first to 70 and fifth.
– In 2013-14, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid averaged 2.21 points in such matches — 12 wins, six draws and a single loss. This allowed them to outlast both Barcelona and Real Madrid in an epic La Liga title race and secure their first title since 1996. The next year, they averaged 1.5 points in these matches and barely eked out third place.
Relying this much on close wins is a good way to fly far too close to the sun. Of course, close wins are kind of Juve’s thing.
The best close-game average over the past decade came from Juventus in 2013-14. They played in 18 zero- or one-goal matches, won 15 and drew the other three. This almost impossible 2.67-point average prompted their run to a league-record 102 points and a 17-point romp over an excellent Roma. They won the league comfortably the next year thanks to Roma’s regression, but their close-game average fell to 1.83, and their overall point total fell to 85.
The fifth team to top 2.2 points per zero- or one-goal matches? Last year’s Juve. They averaged 2.29. Death, taxes, Juve scoring late goals to steal points.
The (increasingly) Old Lady
Back in April, I took a look at how some of Europe’s established elite teams were positioned for the future. The main takeaway for Juve: they’re old. Very good, but old.
Those 14 players with 1,000 league minutes? Nine are at least 29 years old. Ronaldo is 35, defender Leonardo Bonucci and midfielder Blaise Matuidi 33, Higuain and defender Juan Cuadrado 32. This was one of the oldest core rosters in the Big Five and while Juve is usually a bit on the mature side, this is pushing it.
There is a small but impressive young core of players like Dybala (26), de Ligt (20) and midfielders Rodrigo Bentancur (23) and Adrien Rabiot (25) in the rotation, and even though there weren’t many homegrown players on the pitch this year, Juve does have star prospects like winger Dejan Kulusevski, forwards Dany Mota and Felix Correia, defenders Merih Demiral, Luca Pellegrini and Cristian Romero, and keeper Leonardo Loria on whom to call at some point.
It will be fascinating to see how Sarri attempts to integrate youth while keeping the title streak alive. It’s easier said than done, and it might open the door to another interesting title race next year.