Serie A Gets Serious

This season is going to reignite Italian soccer for a decade to come. I know, to start an article off with such a bold take before the season even begins is just asking to be proven wrong, but the star-studded transfers into Serie A this summer will bring eyes back to a stale Italian product. Juventus, the reigning seven-time champion of Italy just brought in the world’s second-best player, so it would seem that the rich are getting richer. However, I would posit that Serie A is poised to have more quality and equality than we’ve seen over the past seven years.

It would appear that this summer has started the renaissance of Italian domestic soccer. Juventus’ reliance on talent from outside Serie A has let the other top teams of Italy bolster their squads without losing much talent. The signing of Ronaldo has started what could be an interesting domino effect. Juventus are now set to offload Gonzalo Higuain to AC Milan in a deal that perplexes me, to say the least. Juventus are also swapping Mattia Caldara, a promising center-back, for Leonardo Bonucci, who leaves Milan after one subpar season to go back to Turin. AC Milan haven’t done much aside from those moves, but after last summer’s spending spree, they did not have a lot to do: they boast a lot of quality in every area of the pitch, and need to have the right tactics and stability to make use of it.

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Bonucci playing for Juventus in years past. Image:

Inter, meanwhile, have done even more to bolster their squad. Lautaro Martinez, a bright young striker, will join Mauro Icardi up top; Kwadwo Asamoah and Stefan de Vrij, two solid Serie A players, both joined on free transfers; Sime Vrsaljko joins after a great season at Atletico Madrid and in the World Cup for Croatia. Radja Nainggolan, a borderline world-class midfielder, surprisingly left Rome for Milan, while Arturo Vidal, a similar player in terms of ability to Nainggolan, is on the verge of joining as well from giants Bayern Münich.

Roma have taken a Football Manager-like approach to this summer largely thanks to Director of Football Monchi, signing the following players: Ante Coric, Ivan Marcano, Bryan Cristante, Justin Kluivert, Antonio Mirante, Davide Santon, Nicolo Zaniolo, Javier Pastore, William Bianda, Patrik Schick, and Robin Olsson. That is a hell of a lot of young talent. Justin Kluivert is two months older than I am (19). Nicolo Zaniolo and I actually share a birthday. Ante Coric and Patrik Schick are 21 and 22, respectively, and they just missed out on another young talent in Malcom, who chose Barcelona over Roma mid-flight.

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Justin Kluivert playing for Roma. Image:

Napoli have a similar squad to the one that pushed Juventus all the way to the final game of the season last year, putting up an incredible 91 points yet still succumbing to La Signora Vecchia. Despite losing Jorginho to Chelsea along with mastermind manager Maurizio Sarri, they have replaced them with Simone Verdi and renowned coach Carlo Ancelotti. Fabian Ruiz and Alex Meret will also presumably slot into the starting lineup.

The trend is apparent: The five biggest teams in Italy –sorry, Lazio– all got better. And even though Juventus, who have been so dominant over the last decade, did improve their squad, they did it differently. While normally Juventus hoovers up talent, the reigning champions have brought in talent from outside of Italy. Emre Can joins on a free. Joao Cancelo finally takes the step up to a world-class club. Ronaldo obviously joins from Spain. All of these transfers have forced others out of the club: Higuain is the odd player out between Ronaldo, Mario Mandzukic, and Paulo Dybala, while Kwadwo Asamoah left on a free. Juventus even sold Rolando Mandragora, their most promising academy prospect, to Udinese, another Serie A team. We are seeing a trickle-down effect here, and it might just finally be enough to topple Juventus from atop the rankings.

However, while Juventus have certainly improved their squad, every other top side in Italy has improved their own sides, importantly without losing key parts. 42 of the top 50 transfers in Serie A this summer, ranked by value, have resulted in players either staying in or coming to Italy –that is, of the top 50 transfers involving Serie A teams, Italian teams have brought in (or kept in Italy) over 4 times more players than have left the league; this figure even includes transfers like Geoffrey Kondogbia, whose departure of Italy for Spain is tallied in this year’s transfers despite having a loan-to-buy deal from last season. Last year, only 29 of the 50 top transfers in Serie A saw the player in question come to or stay in Italy. 2015/16, the year before, saw 32 of the 50 top transfers come into the league. 2014/15 also saw 32 of 50. 2013/14 saw the top three transfers all be departures from Serie A. The figures speaks for itself: this summer has seen much more consolidation of talent into Serie A than has been customary over the past five years. What this fact should mean is more competition, especially in the upper half of the table. Hopefully, Juventus can be knocked out of their throne, especially as the Bianconeri’s dominance has coincided with Italy’s downfall on the international level.

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Italy’s downward trend, as per FIFA’s official website.

Italy’s FIFA ranking since 2012, the year that Juventus started their reign, has been on a steady downward trend, which arguably culminated in the Italian’s catastrophic elimination at the hands of Sweden that left Italy out of the 2018 World Cup. While FIFA’s rankings are flawed, in this case they are affirmed by UEFA’s league rankings: the Serie A has finished fourth or fifth every year but one since 2012. Admittedly, correlation does not equal causation, and I am not suggesting that Juventus are responsible for Italy’s shortcomings on the international level. However, it is certain that their dominance has weakened Serie A as a whole, which in turn has led to a lack of quality in the national team. Many of the signings made by top sides this summer –Zaniolo, Mandragora, Caldara, Meret, Perin– are going to have crucial roles to fill for the national side. Meret and Perin are the goalkeepers of the future, and Zaniolo and Mandragora will have to replace Claudio Marchisio and Daniele de Rossi. A more competitive domestic league will hopefully lead to a better national team.

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Rolando Mandragora playing for the Italy U-21 side. Image: RomaPress

I, for one, am hopeful that this year will prove to be Serie A’s renaissance and reemergence onto the stage of global football. They should take their rightful place as one of the world’s best leagues, which is somewhat incumbent on having a title change. With Ronaldo playing for Juventus, more casual soccer fans will flock to watch Serie A games, and the product they see will hopefully be much better this year. Yes, it seems like Italian soccer is marred by constant scandal, with bankruptcy and occasional public match-fixing an issue from Serie D up to Serie A. However, this year is the year that Italian soccer gets re-legitimized, mark my words.

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