Juve problems drawing attention
Antonio Conte has been called many things by Juventus fans since his arrival as a wide-eyed young player back in 1992. Dedicated. Hard-working. Inspirational. Leader. Captain. One thing he has never been, either as coach or as lynchpin midfielder of those dominant Marcello Lippi sides of the mid-to-late-'90s, is a cause of concern.
Yet now, after seeing his team stutter against Chievo to what was their 12th draw of the campaign, that is precisely what he is in danger of becoming. Such is the reverence with which he is regarded by those who hold the club dear, the doubts are - for now at least - only being voiced quietly, whispered carefully in hushed tones even among the more vocal of the club's tifosi, not wishing to upset nor undermine their man.
Even Sky Italia analyst and former Juve player Massimo Mauro, normally quick to chastise his former club, held back on Sunday night but did finally question the coach's decisions, something he has been previously loathed to do. "I'm not convinced by the management of the team either and I think Antonio Conte has probably made some mistakes in his team selection," he said. "It's embarrassing that Alessandro Matri isn't being given any sort of service. I had never seen a Juventus side in such difficulty."
From the outside, it seems a petty criticism given that Juve are the only unbeaten side anywhere in Europe's top five leagues. After two dire seventh-place finishes in the seasons preceding his return, the Bianconeri are still in the midst of their first genuine title challenge in years, sitting just three points behind leaders Milan but having played one game fewer than last season's Champions.
They are also in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia, holding a 2-1 advantage over their Scudetto rivals Milan as they await the second leg - in which they will be at home - later this month. With league wins over the Rossoneri and their city cousins Inter as well as Lazio, Udinese and Roma, Juventus seem to be in rude health and much improved from their post-Calciopoli woes.
However, upon closer inspection, the problems quickly become apparent and never more so than when analysing those draws. Despite enjoying an average of over 60% possession and creating in excess of 18 shots per game - both league highs - Juve have scored just 38 goals in their 25 games thus far, a total only good enough to rank as the sixth best attack in Serie A. Those figures look even worse when considering that, in the 12 games that have ended in a stalemate, Juve have found the net just ten times, a poor return from a team who have often looked capable of becoming the peninsula's most dominant side.
Though difficult to quantify, the quality of those chances have been far below the standard demanded from a team with such high expectations. Many have been from long range and wide angles as, with the exception of Matri, the attacking players have been only too happy to accept the first opportunity presented to them rather than press home their advantage by beating a defender or making an extra pass. That eagerness to shoot has seen just 6.4 of those attempts find the target, a huge drop off that the coach should not be seeming to tolerate the way he has.
The continued exclusion of both Milos Krasic and Eljero Elia - two players who possess the qualities so sorely absent in the regular starting line-up - has almost become a side issue in recent weeks as Conte has all but abandoned the 4-3-3 formation that facilitated Juve's bright start to the season. Instead he has persevered with a 3-5-2 system in which wingers of their ilk would have no natural role to play in any case.
That same tactical set-up - while being ideal against such pacey counter-attacking sides as Napoli and Roma - also appears to have nullified the impact of Stephan Lichtsteiner, whose relentless energy and tireless, selfless running were so useful but who is now struggleing after being asked to play as a wing-back rather than an orthodox right-back. In addition to the almost constant but incomprehensible selection of Mirko Vucinic - easily the side's most profligate, not to mention frustrating, player - this formation has also seen extended the playing time given to Marcelo Estigarribia, a man far whose ability should see him play only a minor role in a squad such as this.
Clearly things are far from perfect, but the turn-around inspired by Conte since his arrival from Siena last May cannot be understated. The defence is massively improved - comfortably Serie A's best this season - and, unlike his predecessor Luigi Del Neri, the coach knows his iconic status with the club's fanbase gives him the time he needs to find solutions to these problems, as he told La Repubblica recently. "I think the fans appreciate my ways both on and off the field," he said. "With me they have always been fantastic. In the hardest times they keep me close, showing me warmth, friendliness and belief."
He will need that warmth now more than ever as he looks to rally his side for a final push towards the title everyone connected with the club so deeply craves.