After losing 4-0 to Chelsea, Juventus’s week only went downhill. Tuesday’s Champions League drubbing was followed up by another loss at home to Atalanta on Saturday. In-between, the club’s offices were raided by police, who seized documents relating to player transfers and financial accounts.
A statement from the Turin prosecutor Anna Maria Loreto explained on Friday that these searches were part of a wide-reaching investigation. The present focus, she explained, was to assess whether Juventus, a publicly listed company, had issued false communications to investors and invoices for non-existent transactions. But Loreto noted that further matters were also under scrutiny, including services offered by agents and intermediaries.
This weekend’s events were foreshadowed in September by Juventus’s annual financial report, which included a note stating that the Italian market regulator, Consob, had opened an investigation into the club’s revenue from player trading. They and the public prosecutor have both been acting in part on information provided by Covisoc, a commission set up by the Italian Football Federation to monitor teams’ finances.
The creative methods deployed by clubs to ensure “plusvalenze” – capital gains – on the balance sheet have been a talking point in Italy’s sporting press for years, with the valuation of players in part-exchange deals often raising eyebrows.
When Juventus signed Arthur from Barcelona last summer, they agreed a fee of €72m, but that was offset by Miralem Pjanic moving in the opposite direction for €60m. Only €12m would change hands (excluding performance-related bonuses) but both clubs could record healthy plusvalenze for the players they had sold.
That transfer was hardly unique in its structure. Juventus were, however, involved in 42 out of 62 deals highlighted by Covisoc in October as worthy of further scrutiny, covering a three-year window from 2019 to 2021. Intercepted phone calls involving members of the club’s senior management opened further avenues of inquiry for the public prosecutor.
Six past and present Juventus directors are reported to be under investigation, including the president, Andrea Agnelli, and Fabio Paratici, now managing director of football at Tottenham. No charges have been issued thus far.
A statement released by Juventus on Friday said that they were cooperating fully with prosecutors and Consob, adding that the club “believes to have acted in compliance with the laws and regulations governing the preparation of financial reports, in accordance with accounting principles and in line with the international practice in the football industry and market conditions.”
If anyone at Juventus hoped that a football match might provide a welcome distraction from such matters, then they would be disappointed. Juventus had not lost at home to Atalanta since 1989, but they were sunk on Saturday by a well-taken goal from Duván Zapata.
In some senses you could say that they had shown improvement on Tuesday’s mauling by Chelsea. To analyse the game in bland terms, we can observe that they had seven shots on target to their opponents’ one, had a higher xG and held a greater share of possession.
Going deeper, you might reflect that Massimiliano Allegri’s initial tactic of inviting Atalanta forward down the flanks and exploiting the spaces behind their wing-backs was at times quite successful. Federico Chiesa ought to have scored when Weston McKennie released him with a cross-field ball during the first-half. The American himself could have done better when Leonardo Bonucci played him through in the second.
And, of course, Paulo Dybala did hit the woodwork. Again. The Argentinian has struck the frame as many times as he has the net in this campaign.
Juventus have played worse against Atalanta in the last 32 years and won. But isn’t that just the point? The Old Lady always used to find a way even on her off-days, digging an injury-time goal out of nowhere and slapping a #finoallafine (until the end) hashtag on it to make us believe that such outcomes were inevitable.
Allegri has always been an arch-pragmatist, winning five league titles and going to two Champions League finals during his previous stint at the club without ever imposing a philosophy or ideal as to how the game should be played. But he was, undeniably, creative, adapting his formation year on year to fit a constantly-changing cast of players.
Since returning this summer, he appears at a loss, unable to make sense of a chaotically assembled squad. Observing the midfield muddle of mismatched parts – from Arthur to the former free-agent “bargains” Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey – it is tempting to ask whether there ought not to have been a little bit more thought given to team-building over those blessed plusvalenze.
Nobody should be surprised that Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure left a void – he scored 81 times in three league seasons. The argument that he was holding the club back was not rooted in short-term results but a belief that a team who had got no closer to winning the Champions League with him needed at some point to give up on the hope of a quick fix and get back to coherent long-term planning.
Even so, it is troubling for Juventus that not one of the players who were supposedly being overshadowed by him has been able to shine now in his absence. Dybala’s three goals make him joint-top scorer alongside Leonardo Bonucci, a centre-back. Chiesa, a swaggering presence for Italy at the Euros, has scored once and has now picked up an injury that will keep him out till after Christmas.
Allegri no longer even seems to know what to do with Álvaro Morata, who had played some of the best football of his career during their previous stint together in Turin. His loss of possession in the build-up to Zapata’s strike felt emblematic, a striker whose greatest asset has always been his forward running and ability to stretch the pitch caught on the halfway line with his back to goal.
Defeat opened up a seven-point gap from Juventus to Atalanta in fourth. The Bianconeri are six points worse off than they were at the corresponding point last season. Their opponents have improved by three despite selling their best centre-back, Cristian Romero, in the summer and replacing him with a Juventus reserve, Merih Demiral, on loan.
“There’s a formidable plusvalenza which inflates the value of footballers in a lawful way,” wrote Luigi Garlando in Sunday’s Gazzetta Sportiva. “It’s called playing football.”