No Money And Dysfunctional, But Europe’s Most Balanced League Is Back

And just like that, Europe’s most dysfunctional-yet-balanced league is back.

Mere months after Napoli claimed a first Scudetto since the days of Diego Armando Maradona, the reigning Italian champions now have to try and retain their crown, an experience missing since 1990/91.

There are big questions over whether Napoli can retain their title, whether they can surpass Roma on the all-time list of Scudetti. Not even Maradona could bring successive titles to Napoli, will they do it at the third attempt?

Life has been made more complex with the departures of key personnel. Luciano Spalletti left almost as soon as the trophy was lifted high into the Neapolitan sky on June 4. Spalletti had been at odds with tetchy club president Aurelio De Laurentiis and walked away, feeling he could no longer give 100% to the Napoli cause. Sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli followed him out the door soon thereafter, who took the treacherous path by joining Juventus. South Korean defender Kim-Min Jae, who had been one of the revelations of last season, also left, departing for Bayern Munich. Bayern resumed their annual feat of picking one star player each summer from the Italian game to bring north, and the pressure is on new signing Natan to continue the Korean’s work in defence.

While Napoli haven’t bought anyone of note, the biggest victory has been in keeping star striker Victor Osimhen for another summer. The Nigerian, winner of the Capocannoniere last season with 26 goals, was the subject of a mega offer from Saudi Arabia, but thankfully for Napoli and Serie A, Osimhen turned down the offer, thought to be in the region of €50m ($54m) per-season in wages. Yet for the most part, Napoli will go into the new season under Rudi Garcia – an underwhelming choice to replace Spalletti – pretty much as is.

Selling has been the theme of the summer for the rest of the chasing pack. Serie A has often struggled to find its place in the new world order over the last 15 years, as the Premier
League surged ahead and then entered a different stratosphere, at least in terms of global appeal and financial strength. This summer has seen the league contend with a new powerbroker in Saudi Arabia. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who would’ve been earmarked for a move to one of the traditional big three 25 years ago, finally left Lazio. But the Serb didn’t go to Juventus, Inter or Milan, nor even a Premier League club, he joined Al Hilal. Serie A lost more big names this summer: Sandro Tonali, Andre Onana, Rasmus Hojlund, Milan Skrinriar and Marcelo Brozovic all departed as Serie A’s top dogs needed the cash to either replenish their squads or more depressingly, keep the balance sheets in order. You wouldn’t rule out more big departures before the end of the window.

And while we’re using dog metaphors, what about the rest of the chasing pack? Inter look weaker than the side that pushed Manchester City hard in the Champions League final in Istanbul in early June. Simone Inzaghi lost both Edin Dzeko and Romelu Lukaku in attack, and while Marcus Thuram could be a shrewd signing in time, Inter look a little lightweight in attack. The Lukaku saga that played out over the summer is worthy of a book; with it pretty much guaranteed that he won’t play for the club ever again. Midfield still looks where Inter are most complete, with Davide Frattesi coming in for Brozovic, but it could be another campaign of cup runs under the king of cups.

Juventus, the underperforming behemoth of the Italian game this decade, are once again an odd mix of unfulfilled talent and experienced pros. Max Allegri is now going into his third season in his second stint, and the pressure is growing to deliver a trophy this time around. Juve, like everyone else, has had very little money to play with in the market and the only signing of note has been Timothy Weah – son of the legendary George – at just €10m ($10m).

With debts high, Juve have had to undergo austerity measures and there likely won’t be any big noises made on the market between now and the close of the window. Despite the ridiculousness of last season, with the club being docked points, having them reinstated, and then ultimately losing them again – not to mention two investigations – Allegri steered them to second place, on the pitch at least. They aren’t pretty to watch, and sitting through 90 minutes of Juve isn’t for the weak-hearted, but Allegri is a safe pair of hands who should guide Juve into the top four again this season, especially with the club not involved in European competition and due to play only one game per-week. They are likely to be Napoli’s main contenders.

Milan are perhaps the biggest mystery of all. The selling of Tonali to Newcastle was painful; an indictment of where the Italian game is in the financial pecking order, but that painful sacrifice could become viewed as one that was necessary. New sporting director Geoffrey Moncada and Giorgio Furlani appear – at first glance – to have used the Tonali money wisely; no less than eight players have been signed, most of them young and with resale value. The oldest of them, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, is 27. Milan’s entire attacking department, which cost them dearly last season as they struggled creatively, has been rebuilt. Christian Pulisic, Samuel Chukwueze and Noah Okafor have been signed and could be considered major upgrades on Alexis Saelemaekers, Junior Messias and Ante Rebic.

Just like last season, the fight for Europa League places will be fierce. Roma, Lazio, Atalanta and Fiorentina will likely feature for two places. While Roma have kept all of their main players, they’ve again been the most frugal of Serie A sides in the transfer market this summer, spending less than even newly-promoted Genoa. The Friedkin Group, who have put in close to a $1bn since buying the club in 2020, intend to run a tight ship in order to meet UEFA
FFP regulations, and Jose Mourinho’s hands have been handcuffed for two consecutive summers. Looking at the Giallorossi’s squad, even with the late arrivals of Renato Sanches and Leandro Paredes, it’s difficult to see them cracking the top four without signing a reliable goalscorer before the end of the window.

There are subplots all across the league heading into the new campaign: can Genoa, Cagliari and Frosinone survive? How will Monza fare in their second season in Serie A and their first in the post-Silvio Berlusconi era? Will Allegri manage to get the most out of Federico Chiesa and Dusan Vlahovic? How many times will Mourinho get sent off by next May? Can Claudio Lotito and Maurizio Sarri continue to co-exist? Can Khvicha Kvaratskhelia replicate last season’s form?

Beyond the subplots and league standings, the future for the Italian game is grim. Despite somehow coming second to the Premier League in spending this summer, the league continues to haemorrhage money and club debt rises year-on-year. A new domestic TV deal for the next cycle has been postponed time and again due to lowball offers from broadcasters, and clubs continue to battle with various councils over stadium proposals. The league continues to shoot itself in the foot on a PR front and racism is still evident in stadiums across the country.

Yet despite all these depressing factors, it doesn’t make Serie A even less compelling on the pitch. The quality isn’t what it was, but there’s little doubt that it’s now Europe’s most-balanced league, and it’s good to have it back.

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