If you can’t beat them, join them. But what if they can’t beat you? Leonardo Bonucci turned the old adage on its head this summer, swapping the Juventus team where he had won six consecutive Serie A titles for a Milan side that haven’t finished higher than sixth for four years.
Can one transfer transform a division? Just ask Juventus, whose signing of Andrea Pirlo after he was discarded by Milan in 2011 was arguably the most crucial factor in launching them back to the pinnacle of Italian football after their post-Calciopoli wilderness years. Bonucci is a different player, in a different role, though he did learn a thing or two from his former team-mate when it comes to ball distribution.
Milan are not asking him to turn things around single-handed. The club has splashed close to €200m on transfers this summer and may not be done yet. We could see as many as eight new faces in the starting XI when they line up against Crotone on the opening weekend, including André Silva, Franck Kessié, Hakan Calhanoglu, Ricardo Rodríguez and Andrea Conti.
Even in that context, though, Bonucci stands apart. This is no emerging talent but one of the best in the world at his position. A centre-back who has been capped 70 times by Italy and started two of the last three Champions League finals. No wonder Milan handed him the club captaincy.
How could Juventus, who up until recently seemed more interested in signing stars away from their domestic rivals, let it come to this? Bonucci’s departure was foreshadowed by a falling out with Massimiliano Allegri, who banished him to the stands for the Champions League visit to Porto in February as a punishment for talking back during their win over Palermo. The player has since indicated that “there were other incidents before that, if perhaps a little less obvious”.
Even so, would it not have made more sense to sell Bonucci to one of the many foreign clubs who had shown an interest? In a nation that has a specific word – “dietrologia” – to denote the common habit of seeking out ulterior motives behind public actions, it’s almost surprising that more has not been made of Andrea Agnelli’s remark in early July that he “hope[d] to see the Milanese clubs back on our heels” in the standings before long.
The Juventus chairman has suggested more than once that a higher standard of competition at the top of Serie A would benefit the league as a whole, bringing more fans – and hence more advertising revenue. This consideration alone could hardly provoke such a sale but it is a strain of thinking that may just have made his club more open to the concept.
One way or another, Bonucci’s move – and Milan’s lavish spending in general – certainly has ramped up the sense of anticipation for this new season. An astonishing 65,000 fans showed up at San Siro for the Rossoneri’s Europa League third-round qualifier against Craiova. Bonucci, who did not play but was introduced to the crowd along with fellow new signing Lucas Biglia, described it as “one of the few times I’ve ever felt nervous entering a stadium”.
Can Milan compete for a title right away? For a club spending so liberally, a return to the Champions League must be a minimum ambition. The fact there will be four places available to Serie A sides again from this season can hardly have been lost on the club’s new owner, Li Yonghong (nor, indeed, his financial backers at Elliott Management).
There are those who also believe that Juventus are vulnerable. The champions looked limp in their Supercoppa defeat by Lazio, with only their newly anointed No10, Paulo Dybala, displaying the spirit and sharpness we have come to expect.
Beyond the obvious question of how Juventus will be impacted by losing Bonucci and Dani Alves, there have been concerns about their depth in midfield. Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi will lend Allegri fresh options at the top of his formation but it will not be easy for either man to shine as long as their team are getting swamped in the centre of the park, as they were against Lazio.
Perhaps Blaise Matuidi, newly signed from Paris Saint-Germain, can provide the combativeness the Old Lady lacked at the Stadio Olimpico. In any case, we should guard against reading too much into a single performance. Juventus remain the favourites to claim a seventh consecutive Scudetto. It is worth remembering this team have said goodbye to Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Carlos Tevez, Álvaro Morata and Paul Pogba in the past two years and always kept moving forwards.
Milan are not the only club chasing them. Napoli have had a low-key transfer window but avoided losing any key elements of a team that have already proven themselves capable of competing with the champions. Two of the Partenopei’s four Serie A defeats last season arrived in the space of one October fortnight, after Arkadiusz Milik had torn his knee ligaments on international duty. Exclude this brief, awkward period – as the manager, Maurizio Sarri, sought to remodel his team without the only true target man on his books – and they essentially matched Juventus stride for stride. Indeed, they came to look even deadlier with Dries Mertens leading the line.
Roma finished one point above Napoli in the table but theirs has been a more challenging summer. Mohamed Salah and Antonio Rüdiger have departed and the club has thus far failed to land a big-name signing. Their new director of football, Monchi, has a well-earned reputation for finding value in the market, and it is possible that players such as Lorenzo Pellegrini, Rick Karsdorp and Cengiz Under will flourish under the manager, Eusebio Di Francesco. He too, though, must prove he belongs at a club of this stature after five years of overachieving with Sassuolo.
His Roma predecessor, Luciano Spalletti, now presides over another fascinating project at Inter. The Nerazzurri have not spent quite as lavishly as their neighbours – though the more than €70m invested on Milan Skriniar, Matías Vecino, Dalbert Henrique and Borja Valero is hardly small change – but they already had a major splurge last summer.
There are gains to be made simply from getting the best out of players yet to meet their full potential – from the intermittent Ivan Perisic through to João Mário and Roberto Gagliardini. And while it is wise not to read too much into pre-season results, the contrast between last summer’s thrashings by Tottenham (6-1), Bayern Munich (4-1) and Paris Saint-Germain (3-1), and this year’s wins over Chelsea (2-1), Villarreal (3-1), Lyon (1-0) and Bayern (2-0) is hard to ignore.
Lazio, too, will hope to have their say in the Champions League chase, while Fiorentina have landed a few steals – Valentin Eysseric intrigues after a strong season with Nice – but may struggle to replace the likes of Bernardeschi, Vecino and Valero. Torino, with a remodelled defence, may fancy themselves as a dark horse for the top four as long as they can keep a hold of Andrea Belotti.
Last season’s surprise fourth-place finishers, Atalanta, may struggle to replicate such form if Leonardo Spinazzola succeeds in his efforts to bring forward a return to Juventus – from whom he was supposed to remain on loan until the end of this season. Atalanta have already lost fellow wing-back Conti to Milan, along with Kessié. But if nothing else, fans should continue to enjoy the irrepressible Papu Gómez (not to mention his “teddy bear” Andrea Petagna.)
At the other end of the table, this is likely to be a long slog of a season for the newly promoted SPAL and Benevento – although they can draw inspiration from Crotone’s escape last time out. Verona look better equipped for their return to the top flight, with Alessio Cerci joining Giampaolo Pazzini in the forward line.
Antonio Cassano was supposed to be part of that picture, too, joining the club this summer, only to retire, return and then call it a day for a second time – all in the space of two weeks. Italian football fans are already used to life without Fantantonio, though, after he effectively sat out all of last season. The absence of his old Roma team-mate Francesco Totti will be more keenly felt in Italy.
Every player reaches the end of the road eventually. So, too, do great teams. Juventus start once again as frontrunners. Time will tell whether they relish the fresh competition they have invited at their heels.