Back in the 1987/88 Serie A season, the champions AC Milan fielded the much-fabled defensive quartet of Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini and Mauro Tassotti. One of the greatest back fours in history, Milan’s mean defence only conceded 14 goals en route to the title (it was a 30 game season).
The only problem, however, was that a team with the likes of Marco Van Basten and Daniel Massaro, being fed by the guile of Ruud Gullit and Roberto Donadoni, could only manage 43 goals. Even if we average that out across a 38-game season like today’s Serie A, you are talking about 54 goals scored, putting the great Milan team on a level with today’s Lecce and Parma in terms of strikes.
Of course, these were the good old days of catenaccio, when Serie A put defence first – despite hosting the world’s greatest attacking players. That Milan side was not alone in being frugal; Roma (For 39, Against 26) and Sampdoria (For 41, Against 30) finished third and fourth respectively with ultra-low goal hauls. Only Diego Maradona’s Napoli could be seen as vaguely prolific, finishing second on 55 goals and 27 conceded.
Goals galore in modern Serie A games
If we compare that top four in the 87/88 season with the top four of the 2019-20 season Juventus (For 76, Against 43), Inter (For 81, Against 36), Atalanta (For 98, Against 48), Lazio (For 79, Against 43); even fifth-placed Roma managed to bang in 77 goals, and Sassuolo – back in 8th – were just one shy off 70. The point is this: In the last few seasons, Serie A has become much more entertaining – if you measure football entertainment in terms of goals per game, that is.
The problem, however, is that it hasn’t been much in the way of excitement in the race for the Scudetto over the last decade. Napoli gave Juventus a fright a couple of seasons ago, and Inter looked like mounting a challenge last season. But let’s face it: After nine consecutive seasons winning the title, Juventus look like a team barely breaking a sweat to do so.
And yet, this season there are signs that Juventus monopoly on titles might be starting to loosen. According to the latest reports at 888sport, Juventus are even money for the title, but Inter Milan are in close pursuit at 2/1. Napoli (7/1), Atalanta (11/1), Lazio (20/1) and Roma (30/1) are also in with a puncher’s chance. In fact, the odds are quite similar to those currently in the Premier League, with the sextet above similar to the Premier League’s Big Six. And, that’s the rub: Serie A now has six very good teams, instead of one excellent team, Juventus.
Milan clubs are on the up
Of course, the Old Lady, especially with the spending power of the club, could once again run away with the title. But in the medium term, there are signs that Serie A will yield healthier competition at the top. For example, the two Milan clubs, for contrasting reasons, both look like they are building something that could offer a sustained challenge to Juventus in the coming seasons. Inter are pouring massive amounts of money into signings, whereas AC Milan are starting to reap the benefit from the Milan Primavera academy. A title for the latter within five years should be the goal.
In terms of quality, Serie A is not yet anywhere near where it was in the 1980s and 1990s. The clubs relegated last season, like Crotone and Lecce, and those promoted from Serie B, like Crotone, would struggle in the English Championship. The gulf in class between the top six clubs mentioned above and the rest of the league is massive, and that makes for a lopsided division. But bit by bit, Serie A is getting better, and the 2020/21 season looks like it could be one of the more entertaining among Europe’s top divisions.