For as long as I can remember, Serie A, Italy’s premier soccer league, has been known as a bastion of defensive tactics and grind-it-out 1-0 wins.
Spain’s La Liga is known for its quick passing and flair players, England’s Premier League is the most intense league with non-stop end-to-end action with the most expensive players in the world. Germany is where the tacticians construct the most well-drilled teams to harry and press all over the field, all in hopes to maybe just maybe actually beat Bayern Munich.
Italy has long been defined by the Catenaccio, Italian for “The Chain”, a tactical system where every player is seemingly attached along a string to nullify the opposing team’s attacks.
While Catenaccio tactics in their original form are mostly a thing of the past, teams in Italy have found success by reverting to conservative and simple defensive setups.
The Italian national team, L’Azzuri, have used these tactics to great success in World Cups and European Championships, with four World Cups and one European Championship trophy in their cabinet.
So Serie A became synonymous with this defensive attitude, the reputation of the league being that the best teams teams would grab a goal on a set piece and then sit back for the rest of the game.
After the Calciopoli scandal during the 2005-2006 season, in which some of the most prominent teams in the league were found to be involved in a wide network of rigging and manipulating games through communications between team managers and league officials, Serie A was sent back to square one.
Juventus were stripped of their 2005-2006 title and sent down to Serie B, with other teams including Lazio, Fiorentina, and AC Milan also getting a variety of stern punishments.
To critics of Serie A, Calciopoli confirmed their worst suspicions of the league, that it was a hotbed for corruption, greed… and boring soccer.
This reputation may have been earned in the mid-2000s, but in the past couple years, with a new injection of managers and a new generation of young talent, Serie A has become one of the most exciting leagues in Europe.
Detractors point to the fact that absolute powerhouse Juventus (who used their punishment in the Calciopoli scandal to revamp and redesign their business and soccer structures) have won the league for five straight years, and most likely a sixth this season.
But most European leagues are ruled by the teams at the top. In Germany, Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga 13 out of the last 15 years. Since the 2005-2006 season in Spain it’s been Real Madrid or Barcelona taking home the silverware, besides Atletico Madrid in 2013-2014.
Even in England’s Premier League, the supposed most competitive league in the world, only six different teams have won the title since the English top flight officially became the ‘Premier League’ in 1992, Leicester and Blackburn’s one trophy each make this seem much more competitive than it is.
This is all to say that the whole “Juventus wins every year, Serie A is boring” narrative is just straight up disingenuous. This isn’t a Seria A problem, its a European soccer problem.
Also if you think it’s only Juventus in Serie A, you’re just not paying attention.
Despite the legendary Milanese powerhouses AC Milan and Inter Milan falling off a cliff in recent years, teams like Roma and Napoli have taken their place at the summit of the Serie A table.
Mauricio Sarri’s Napoli squad are just straight up the most entertaining team to watch in Europe.
They play a fast-paced, free-flowing style of soccer, or as the French call it, champagne football. Passing out from the back, creating overloads on one side of the field, and then hitting the openings in the defense with high-paced precision.
Driven by genius Slovakian captain Marek Hamsik in the middle of the field, the budding Italian superstar Lorenzo Insigne on the wing, and sudden 30 goal scorer Dries Mertens, Napoli create whirlwind attacks that completely overwhelm opposing defenses.
Look how easily they open up the best defense in the world (Juventus) with their passing and movement.
— David (@davidfutboI) April 2, 2017
Faouzi Ghoulam, Insigne, Jorginho, Dries Mertens, and Hamsik tool around with the Juve defense, pulling them out of their positions and then Hamsik is able to slip into space and finish an absolutely ridiculous move from Sarri’s team.
Look at how Napoli play out of the back, even with a 3-0 lead.
Welcome to Maurizio Sarri's world. pic.twitter.com/I47ii0B5F9
— Mootaz (@MHChehade) May 8, 2017
That’s just ridiculous. Instead of booting the ball clear and nullifying the threat of a hard-pressing Genoa side that’s trailing 3-0, Napoli pass around them in circles, as if they’re not even there, and then they’re off to launch another attack.
Here’s one last clip of Napoli because they’re so damn fun to watch. Watch how Insigne and Mertens explode towards goal from the halfway line after Senegalese center back Kalidou Koulibaly plays the ball through the lines… that’s just unfair.
World class football. Why do team not want Sarri??? pic.twitter.com/y50rVaIVs7
— ㅤ (@Ozilcentro) May 14, 2017
AS Roma, who are currently in second place in Serie A, 1 point ahead of Napoli and 4 points off Juventus in first, just beat Juventus 3-1 this weekend.
Granted, Juventus are preparing for a massive Champions League final against Real Madrid, but Roma rather easily beating them is a sign that ‘The Old Lady’ as Juve as known, are far from invincible in Serie A.
Roma are led by former Manchester City castoff Edin Dzeko who leads the league with 27 goals and the Belgian Radja Nainggolan, the do-it-all center midfielder, who scores totally ridiculous goals and has a very dope name.
It bodes well for the health of Serie A that Roma and Napoli are right on Juve’s heels, despite the fact that Juventus bought Napoli and Roma’s best players last summer.
Gonzalo Higuain scored 36 goals for Napoli last year, equaling the 87-year-old record for goals in a season in Italy, prompting Juventus to buy him for around $100 million. To complete their business of draining their rivals’ best players, Juve then bought Miralem Pjanic, Roma’s center midfield maestro, for a cool $35 million.
Juventus is the cream of the crop in Italy, there’s no disputing that. Their financial might allows them to essentially control the flow of players in and out of Italy. Their spot in the Champions League Final shows that Juve is truly one of the top 5 teams in all of Europe, not just Italy.
Yet the Serie A title race (Roma 4 points off Juventus, and Napoli 5 points off), although all but over, is much closer than England, Germany, and Spain (beyond Real and Barca).
The fact that Napoli and Roma are keeping relative pace with Juve is a positive sign for the league.
New ownership deals at Inter and AC Milan promise to provide a huge spending spree from those clubs this summer, trying to reach the summit of Italian soccer once again. Young startup teams like Atalanta, Fiorentina, and Lazio are also showing promise heading into a new era of Italian soccer.
As for the Italian national team, after a disastrous 2010 World Cup where the defending champions failed to make it out of the group stages, there is a new crop of young players just entering their primes that will have L’Azzurri primed for a run in 2018.
With players like Andrea Belotti, Marco Verratti, Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Domenico Berardi, and Daniele Rugani all heading into their early and mid 20s, Italy has revamped and reloaded in a similar way to Germany’s infamous “Reboot” after the 2006 World Cup that has seen them win the 2014 World Cup.
In the meantime, watch Serie A, and when Italy is making a deep run in the 2018 World Cup, you won’t be surprised.