As tension simmers between Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo and manager Maurizio Sarri, it raises questions about where the Serie A giants go from here.
No translation was required to decipher the sentiment of Cristiano Ronaldo’s words as he walked past Maurizio Sarri on his way to the bench last weekend. With Juventus in desperate need of a late goal to secure victory over rivals AC Milan and keep their place at the top of the Serie A table, the Bianconeri boss decided to withdraw his top scorer. Ronaldo, never one to mask his emotions, let his disgruntlement known.
This wasn’t an isolated incident either. The same thing had happened just days before, with Ronaldo substituted off nine minutes from the end of a Champions League match away to Lokomotiv Moscow as Juve hunted down a winning goal. Notably, in both instances Sarri was vindicated. Juventus won both games with Ronaldo sat on the bench.
Such strife between Ronaldo and Sarri was always likely to bubble to the surface at one stage or another this season. Their personalities as soccer people were always destined to clash.
One is an attacker who has fine-tuned his talent and deliberately tailored his game in order to win, and score, as often as possible. The other is a coach who values more than just the final outcome, also placing an emphasis on the precise method of getting there.
Indeed, Ronaldo and Sarri, in a soccer sense, are diametrically opposed as characters and so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by the friction sparked between them in recent weeks. For Juventus, though, this conflict between their star player and their manager presents them with something of an ideological crossroads.
The symbolism of Ronaldo’s signing in the summer of 2018 was unavoidable. Having made the final twice in three years, Juventus wanted someone who could deliver them the title they wanted most of all, the Champions League. Ronaldo, as a five-time winner of European soccer’s most prestigious prize, was seen as that figure.
It wasn’t just the Portuguese forward’s goals that the Bianconeri desired, but the example he would set in the dressing room. Ronaldo pulls up the levels of everyone around him. This has been a big part of why he has enjoyed success at every stage of his career, both at club and international level. Ronaldo demands more from others. He sets a tone of ambition and excellence at a soccer club.
This was a good fit for Juventus, a club that revels in his status as Italy’s representative at the elite level. Unlike Ajax or Barcelona, Juve lack an ingrained identity as a club. Their identity is winning.
That is what made Juve’s appointment of Sarri, a man who values more than just winning, this past summer so fascinating.
With Sarri now in charge, Juventus are in the midst of an ideological overhaul. Sarri is instilling principles that will, if all goes to plan, outlast him as manager. Often compared to Pep Guardiola, the 60-year-old is changing the core of the Turin club. Many suspect Juventus want Guardiola himself to take over at some point in the near future. Sarri’s work now would give him a platform to build on.
In the space of just a year, Juve have gone from targeting titles and silverware at all costs to taking a wider look at their approach. Where does that leave Ronaldo? Would he have made the move to Turin had he known someone like Sarri would soon be in charge? Is the former Chelsea and Napoli coach, who has a patchy track record of getting the best from out-and-out goalscorers, the man to eke the best out of Ronaldo’s final few years at the top?
Juventus seemingly find themselves between one ideological train of thought and another. This has been illustrated by the simmering tension between Ronaldo and Sarri. Do Juve just want to win or do they want something more?
The problem for Ronaldo is that, going on his last two matches when winners were scored with the 34-year-old on the bench, he may no longer represent the quickest route to victory.