Almost a year ago, after another disappointing result for Juventus, club legend Beppe Furino told Roman newspaper Leggo that "the Scudetto is won in the provinces." The Bianconeri would do well to heed the words of their former captain, a man who knows more than most about winning the league title given that the Sicilian is one of only three players to be an eight-time Serie A champion.
The comment, though much more pointed at the time, aimed as it was at a team floundering under Gigi Delneri, holds perhaps equal relevance this term, despite the Turin side sitting top of the table and undefeated after 22 matches. It is against precisely those teams from outside the major cities however where Antonio Conte's team has struggled to impose itself in the same manner displayed when recording victories over Milan, Inter, Roma, Lazio and Udinese.
Fans, players and the club management alike have been increasingly frustrated after dropping points against Bologna, Catania, Chievo, Cagliari and Siena. All those teams sit in the bottom half of the Serie A table and in almost every case Juventus has put in what can only be described as a tepid performance. Last season saw similar results, with teams in the lower reaches of the division routinely snatching points from Italian soccer's most successful club but, unlike then, the problem appears to lie with team selection rather than a deeper problem.
Under Delneri Juve became a side content to play on the counterattack, a tactic which, while paying dividends against the big sides, failed against the provincial clubs who pack men behind the ball and are difficult to break down. This term Conte has his side dominating possession and often demands his players press the opposition deep in its own half of the pitch, a style far more in keeping with the clubs traditions, and one which has at times been hugely effective.
However, when quick turnovers have not arrived, when that relentless pressure has not forced an error and those smaller teams have had time to set themselves defensively, Juventus has been much less effective. There are a number of factors contributing toward this, all resulting in just 33 goals in 22 matches thus far, giving it only the sixth-best attack in the league.
Dealing with the minor issues first, Paolo De Ceglie's impact at left back in recent games highlights the lack of offensive input when Giorgio Chiellini plays there. While the former has attempted 26 crosses in 539 minutes of playing time, the latter has made one fewer (25) in more than three times as many minutes (1,767). Another stat of note comes in the form of converted chances; where Alessandro Matri has nine goals from just 53 shots, far less than the majority of Serie A strikers around him in the Caponcannoniere chart, Mirko Vu �ini�� has tucked away just three of the 44 shots he has attempted, a poor conversion rate by any standard.
Yet the single biggest issue is not highlighted by any quantifiable stat; a distinct lack of creativity. At first glance the club appears to have no problem in that department, their 377 shots so far this season comfortably the most in the league (Roma sit second, some 33 behind the Bianconeri) but it is the quality of those chances causing concern. The presence of a revitalized Andrea Pirlo in midfield is a welcome boost but, outside of the former Milan regista, Conte has often opted for functionality over creativity.
Where the industry of midfielders such as Simone Pepe and Marcelo Estigarribia is vital in intense head-to-head battles against teams such as Milan and Napoli, more attacking impetus is required against the often tactically perfect teams lower down the table. What is frustrating is the presence of a skillful and unpredictable winger like Eljero Elia in the squad, a player perfect for breaking down well organized sides such as Mimmo Di Carlo's Chievo or Siena, expertly coached by Giuseppe Sannino. With genuine threats as quick and elusive as the Dutchman in wide areas, fans cannot wait to see more of the 24 year old.
Questions about why he has so often been overlooked for selection by Conte have peppered almost every news conference, never more so than those immediately after any of the nine draws this season. Indeed the subject was raised again this past Tuesday and, unlike in many previous pregame interviews, the coach took time to answer at length and praise a player many believe simply incompatible with the demands of the man in charge.
"Elijero has grown since he arrived. He is starting to understand what we want from him and he is close to becoming a more complete player," said Conte to reporters at the club's training ground. "He is entering a new type of mentality and a new way of working and is starting to show in training some of the features that led us to buy him. I expect him when the time is right to become a reliable player in all the points that you say I do not see in him on the field, and it will be when you least expect it."
If that is true then his arrival on the field cannot come soon enough. Juventus might not be losing matches but what matters is the title and, with matches against Bologna, Parma and Catania coming up this month, Beppe Furino's words resonate louder than ever.
Adam Digby is a Turin-based freelance writer covering Italian soccer and is the co-founder of JuventiKnows.com. He can also be followed on Twitter at @adz77.