Less than a week has passed since the end of the Serie A season, and already it feels like some distant era. Eight of the league’s top 10 clubs have said farewell to their managers, including the newly-crowned champions and the team they just deposed.
Juventus’s decision to move on from Andrea Pirlo came as no surprise. The winners of the previous nine Scudetti could not content themselves with barely scraping into the top four. Antonio Conte’s separation from Inter was another matter. After Inter raised the Coppa Campioni d’Italia on Sunday, the club president, Steven Zhang, had told reporters that their success was “most of all thanks to him”.
Yet Inter could not escape their financial reality. They posted losses of more than €100m on last season’s accounts and, thanks to Covid, the numbers are expected to look even bleaker next time. Conte wanted Inter to invest and build on their first domestic title in 11 years. He was told instead that the wage bill needs to come down by 20%, and that the club intends to raise close to €100m from player sales.
That was more than he could countenance. It was an unwelcome shock, too, for fans who had celebrated outside San Siro, mobbing Zhang’s car on Sunday and letting him know “there’s only one president”. Ultras from the Curva Nord raised a banner outside Inter’s headquarters on Wednesday with a different message: “Zhang, take hold of your responsibilities or leave our city.”
Uncertainty and intrigue lie ahead, as the managerial merry-go-round spins into overdrive. But before we consign the 2020-21 season to the history books, we should commemorate the best of it as well. This was a remarkable campaign, and not only for the fact that it brought down the curtain on Juventus’s dominant run.
There were times, at the outset, when it seemed unlikely that Serie A could get through a season at all. Napoli were grounded by local health authorities as they prepared to travel for an away game against Juventus in October. In a spectacle that only looks more absurd with the passing of time, their opponents continued to pretend it was business as usual right up to the last moment, even posting a team-sheet on Twitter. Yet football found a way through. For all the challenges and complications off the pitch, this would turn out to be a fascinating season on it.
Juventus’s decision to promote on Pirlo, the man they had appointed to his first professional coaching position, in charge of their under-23 team, just nine days before, was always a gamble, but few would have predicted that it could end with the Bianconeri relying on other clubs to help them qualify for the Champions League by the final weekend. At the outset, there had even been some optimism. Cristiano Ronaldo described the working environment as “better, happier” than it had been under Maurizio Sarri. “We work smiling,” he said in September.
Those were not enough to sustain Juventus as they started to drop points to the likes of Crotone, Benevento and Verona. Ronaldo kept on setting records, finishing as Serie A’s capocannoniere and perhaps the leading scorer of all time (it depends who’s counting) but went missing when his team needed him most in the Champions League against Porto.
At first it seemed as though Milan might dethrone them, a team that lasted 304 days without a league defeat – from March 2020 all the way through to January 2021. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a hungry lion, but his 39-year-old body could not sustain the rigours of a full season. As he went to sing at the Sanremo Music Festival, the young squad he left behind suffered a bout of stage-fright.
Inter overtook them, as was inevitable with a team that never put a foot wrong after finding its stride. From late-January through to mid-May, they dropped four points in 17 games. The title race became a procession, but Serie A still had plenty of drama to offer. Atalanta parted ways with their captain, Papu Gómez, only for others to step forward – Luis Muriel, Ruslan Malinkovskiy and Robin Gosens carrying them into the Champions League for the third consecutive season. Napoli blasted into the top four with 11 goals in a week, only to collapse on the final night.
As always, there were compelling narratives away from the top. Cesare Prandelli returned to Fiorentina after a decade away, only to step down within five months, citing “a dark cloud inside me”. This was not the happy tale anyone had wished for him, yet he had led the Viola to a famous 3-0 win at Juventus and helped unleash the talent of Dusan Vlahovic, the 21-year-old striker who would finish the season with 21 goals.
Benevento faded down the stretch and ultimately were relegated, but not before Roberto Insigne had the chance to score his first Serie A goal while playing against his brother Lorenzo. Crotone, another team heading back down to Serie B, played some wildly entertaining football after the improbable appointment of Serse Cosmi.
There is far more to say about this season than I will ever manage here, from the Super League saga to Christian Vieri’s Twitch channel and the 24 penalties required in a shoot-out with Rio Ave just for Milan to reach the Europa League group stage. So without further ado, let’s get down to the important business …
Goal of the season
7) It’s not the most beautiful of the bunch, but for scoring quicker than anybody has before in a Serie A match (and via a pre-rehearsed move) Rafael Leão belongs on this list.
6) Carles Pérez goes for a stroll.
5) “Alexa, show me Roberto De Zerbi’s footballing ideal.”
4) Koffi Djidji pioneering the no-look, over-the-shoulder chip.
3) I can’t pick between these volleys, so have all of them: Henrikh Mkhitaryan from 30 yards, Giacomo Bonaventura teeing himself up, Ciro Immobile somehow scoring from the wrong side of a defender and Federico Dimarco with a strike that feels like it was stolen from a Roy of the Rovers comic.
1) … but Daniele Verde’s effort for Spezia against Lazio, struck first-time and kissing the post on its way into the top corner, was the pick of the bunch.
ASMR goal of the season
I am no fan of empty, quiet, stadiums, but the sound of Borja Mayoral’s shot hitting the top corner against Crotone is just so perfectly satisfying.
Best way to seal your first-ever hat-trick
Best goal that nobody saw
If the TV audience could scarcely make out Vlad Chiriches lining his shot up from 25 yards, what hope did Salvatore Sirigu have?
Lorenzo Insigne, wearing the colours of Argentina and scoring a beautiful free-kick in Napoli’s first game following the death of Diego Maradona, at a stadium renamed to honour the club’s greatest player.
Assist of the season
Insigne again, winning the ball in his own half and beating the same three Fiorentina players twice each before teeing up Hirving Lozano at the back post.
Dishonourable mention: Theo Hernández.
Team of the season
(3-5-2): Gianluigi Donnarumma; Alessandro Bastoni, Stefan De Vrij, Cristian Romero; Lorenzo Insigne, Ruslan Malinovskiy, Rodrigo De Paul, Franck Kessié, Domenico Berardi; Romelu Lukaku, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Manager of the season
Conte would be an obvious pick, and a deserving one. His Inter squad was packed with talent, but also with players who had never won before. None of the group he leaned upon most heavily – Lukaku, De Vrij, Lautaro Martínez, Samir Handanovic, Barella, Bastoni, Milan Skriniar, Marcelo Brozovic or even Achraf Hakimi – had ever conquered one of Europe’s top five leagues.
For all the embarrassing bickering with Fabio Capello, Conte showed he could indeed come up with a plan B, adjusting a team that conceded 23 times in its first 17 games so that it would give up just six in the next 17 – abandoning the use of a No 10 and restoring Skriniar to the back three. When financial constraints stopped Inter investing in the January transfer window, he integrated Christian Eriksen and Ivan Perisic into new roles and got both playing brilliantly.
This is a scudetto, and perhaps an entire season, in his image: the man who launched Juventus’s decade of domination coming back to end it. Even so, I’m struggling to weigh his work against those of others who operating under drastically different circumstances.
Stefano Pioli might not have sustained Milan’s title push, but to steer them back into the Champions League with the youngest starting XIs in all of Serie A, and with his only reliable centre-forward, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, absent for 19 games, is still hugely impressive. So too is Gian Piero Gasperini guiding Atalanta into the top four for a third consecutive season.
And what about Vincenzo Italiano at Spezia, whose three seasons of professional club management have seen him promote Trapani from Serie C, then Spezia from Serie B and now keep the latter club in the top flight?
Any of the above coaches would make a fitting winner for me so I’m not even going to choose. They can squabble among themselves.
Player of the season
There are lots of deserving candidates here, too, but I’m giving the award to Lukaku. Not just for his goals (though 24 is a good number) nor the assists (11 – second-most) but for his presence on the pitch, the way he would drag Inter forward in the fraught moments, imposing himself on defenders so forcefully that his teammates had no choice but to follow.
Lukaku rose to the occasion in defining games, scoring in all three Milan derbies – including the Coppa Italia quarter-final when Ibrahimovic butted him and provoked with comments about his mother. The Belgian built a connection with supporters even in empty stadiums, because they could tell how much he was invested in the objective of becoming a champion for the first time.
After Inter finally sealed the Scudetto, Lukaku sang terrace chants out of the window of his apartment before going for a ride around town, standing with his head out of the sunroof so he could join in celebrations with supporters. His season was commemorated in not one but two murals outside San Siro: a fitting recognition of his most prominent role.
Most memorable celebration
“I’m the fucking best! Me! Me! I told you!” – Lukaku’s roar after scoring the final goal in February’s 3-0 rout of Milan might not have been heard under normal circumstances, with a crowd of 80,000 to drown it out. As it was, it felt like the moment when a victory over a rival became something more: a statement about where the title was headed.
Most intimate celebration
“When you’re celebrating, anything can happen,” said Spezia’s Giulio Maggiore, after Ricky Saponara pulled down his shorts and spanked him on live television.
Most haunted by VAR
By November, Álvaro Morata had tallied 13 disallowed goals in the calendar year – and six of those at Juventus. “If I wore a size 43 shoe instead of a 45, it would be a lot fewer,” he lamented. The following week, he had another one chalked off in a Nations League game against Germany.
Honourable mention: Sassuolo’s Ciccio Caputo had three goals disallowed during a match against Spezia in September. The Neroverdi still won 4-1.
“Don’t worry,” shouted Sinisa Mihajlovic as Ibrahimovic lined up to take a penalty against Bologna. “He doesn’t know how to hit them.” The striker’s shot was duly saved by Lukasz Skorupski. Though, Ante Rebic did score the rebound.
Simone Inzaghi, physically pushing Adam Marusic to get him facing the right way for a throw-in that would lead to a 95th-minute equaliser against Juventus.
Antonio Conte v Lautaro Martínez.
Best beauty advice
“You don’t always need to see Brad Pitt when you look in the mirror. Sometimes you need to be Calimero: a little bit ugly and dirty” – Gennaro Gattuso.
Conte, proudly describing Inter’s win over Atalanta in March as a “mature performance, we didn’t even pick up a single yellow card”, right before De Vrij interrupted him to point out: “Actually we did get one, boss. Yours.”
Quote of the season
Marco Giampaolo did not get a lot right, in short time in charge of Torino, but his words when asked to compare the Turin derby with those in Genoa and Milan stayed with me:
I have no means by which to measure it … The derby is something you breathe from the Monday morning right through to the game on Sunday: you perceive it through the interactions you have with people in your daily life. Right now, that is impossible.
Alternative quote of the season
“Football is not made up of objective facts” – Crotone’s Serse Cosmi, who proved as much during three wild months in which their 6ft 6in striker Simy became one of the most prolific players in Europe.
Worst way to watch a game
Sat next to your brother, the Inter manager, while he serves a touchline ban and you wear the only means of communicating with the dugout.
Monica Bastoni, parent of the Inter defender Alessandro, cleaning his face with a tissue as he ate pizza during the team’s title celebration at San Siro.
Conte finally losing patience with Arturo Vidal, whose petulant red card against Real Madrid had contributed to Inter’s early Champions League exit, after the Chilean gave away a similarly needless penalty against Crotone. “Gioca e non rompere il cazzo!” he screamed, twice, after the latter blunder, words picked up loud and clear on the TV feed: “Play football and stop breaking dick.”
The Cagliari ballboy standing right behind the goal when Lukaku’s shot looked like it might burst it.
Most ridiculous warm-up routine
Lifetime achievement award
Farewell again to Gigi Buffon, who has not actually said he’s hanging up his gloves yet but does at least appear to be parting ways with Juventus for the last time. He confirmed his intention immediately before his final league appearance, against Sassuolo, saying he did not want to become a distraction. He then saved a penalty in that game, becoming the oldest player ever to do so in Serie A at 43 years, three months and 14 days.
It was fitting moment for a player who, despite his years, more than played a part. Juventus did not lose a game this season with him between the sticks – racking up 12 wins and two draws, including a 3-0 rout of Barcelona at Camp Nou and every game of a triumphant Coppa Italia run.
“Ending like this makes me proud,” said Buffon after the cup final victory over Atalanta. “I am happy to have done it alongside teammates with whom I have shared many adventures.” Here’s to many more for Gigi, and many more to come for those he leaves behind in Serie A. If the first few days of this summer are anything to go by, we have plenty more wild rides to come.