Kaushik: (sips tea) Ahh, Chuks my friend! Welcome! Please, make yourself at home and partake of some tea and biscuits. How are you doing?
Chuks: Ciao amico! Well, other than playing videogames too often and wondering if the cold and gloomy Denmark can get any colder and gloomier, I’m doing well. How about you?
Kaushik: Well, between playing and watching videogames too often myself, trying to raise and find homes for a litter of tiny mischievous pups and watching certain world events unfold with my jaw on the floor, I’ve been doing pretty well myself.
I must confess to one thing that brings me really down, though. The dreaded International Break!! Sigh ... Life really does seem to slow down to a snail’s pace when there’s no Juventus matches to look forward to for a while..
Chuks: Oh, I hear you, brother. These breaks remind me of those awkward silences that occur when someone says something absurd at a family reunion dinner, which stand out in stark contrast to the otherwise merry (though sometimes heated) dialogue. How about this: without another match to think about for a while, let’s sit back and think out loud about the season we’ve been having so far.
Here, let me kick off the play to get the juices flowing: Our precious jewel Paolo Dybala. What do you think his injury has revealed about the state of the squad?
Kaushik: WE SUCK. We’re a train wreck! Sack the entire management, dump Allegri and sell all the players! I hear de Boer is currently available..
To answer your question seriously: An over-reliance on him and, most of all, a basic imbalance in the team. Unfortunately, I think certain fingers need to be pointed at the management for this problem. Our midfield has been a revolving door of personnel over the past few years. The signs were clear to see since the 2014-15 season. Pirlo was struggling and we became reliant on Tévez playing between the lines to be our primary source of creativity; at least we always knew that Pirlo could do a rabbit-out-of-the-hat-routine to create a moment of magic though. Now we have acquired Pjanic, but he was obviously going to need time to become fully integrated into the squad. This is even more obvious when considering his past issues with consistency and that, without a stable midfield to support him, it was going to be even tougher for him. So why is Dybala our only other source of creativity? It is clear that in the Argentine’s absence, the 3-5-2 struggles because now the team is worryingly dependent on some ‘samba magic’ coming from Sandro, Alves, and/or Cuadrado who then also need to fulfill their main defensive responsibilities down the wings.
Formation issues aside, we probably all expected Pjanic to integrate into the squad sooner and thus reduce the creativity burden on Dybala's shoulders. Yet Allegri and his tactics have shown that the team finds it very challenging to adapt without him while Pjanic adjusts to life at Juventus.
Chuks: Interesting thoughts, so you’re saying that the management underestimated the team’s problem for creativity when conducting transfers in the summer?
Kaushik: That, and the inadequate attention given to purchasing more center backs for the first team! (crickets chirp)....
Look, we did buy Marko Pjaca — who, in an ideal world, would not have been injured at the same time. But he is an unknown quantity in a more central position and considering his age and inexperience with Italian football, it would be unfair to expect miracles from him. Why then is Dybala the only seconda-punta in the squad? It looks like our alternative to this problem is to either play Pjaca/Cuadrado and switch to a 4-3-3 formation or use one of them as a supporting striker who occasionally drifts wide. But if one or two of them are injured, the system falls apart and we’re back to square one.
Chuks: The fact that we don’t have a backup seconda punta is indeed a glaring oversight. However, I don’t consider Cuadrado a viable option centrally because he has just looked totally lost in that position every time that Allegri has played him there. Pjaca has stated that his best position is on the wing, so shoehorning him centrally would likely result in another Kingsley Coman affair (and look at how that ended up).
Let me make a comment on your thoughts about the creativity problem. I think that it’s important to distinguish between the different types of creativity. I believe that on one hand we have passing creativity: Pirlo and Pjanic are obviously in this category as they dazzle us with their unpredictable, inch-perfect passes to the forward line and connect the midfield with the attack in this manner. In a way this is a more ‘cerebral’ form of creativity and that’s why, interestingly, I think Dybala is part of this group as well. On the other hand, we have “take-on” or dribbling creativity. Here, we have the likes of Tévez, Pogba, and (probably) Pjaca who are more creative by dribbling and taking on players in one-on-one situations. So now then, we have switched from a passing and a dribbling creator (Dybala and Pogba) to two passing creators (Pjanic and Dybala). Pjaca is then the wildcard dribbler who provides tactical flexibility and unpredictability while Cuadrado… basically runs and hopes for the best. There is some diversity here though and, when it does work with these two passing creators at the nucleus, it’s more coherent as a whole. But when it doesn’t work, it becomes very, very stale and predictable – CH Ho alluded to this a little in his Pjanic vs. Pogba analysis.
So looking at it that way, I think that the true imbalance lies with the fact that we have too many ‘functional’ midfielders in the side or, to say it differently, that too many of our midfielders are defensively-oriented. Lemina and Sturaro have basically the same set of (defensive) skills, while Marchisio makes sure that the midfield is defensively secure from deep. Hernanes seems to be Marchisio’s understudy, so that leaves us with Khedira and Asamoah. The German has the role of facilitating offensive moves through self-sacrifice while Asamoah, well, I honestly don’t really know…
Kaushik: I actually disagree with your assessment of Dybala.
Chuks: Blasphemy! How dare you disagree with an opinion on the internet?
Chuks: Just kidding. Do explain.
Kaushik: Whew ... Well, while he is certainly a smart and intelligent player, I think he’s a hybrid who fits into the mold of a dribbling creator like Pogba. Both use their quick feet and technical ability (plus the fact that they're constantly double-teamed) to create pockets of space for their teammates to exploit. They also have a mean ability to pick out the killer pass.
I think the bulk of our growing pains is due to the transition from a hybrid creator like Pogba demanding the ball in midfield to a purely cerebral creator like Pjanic. It's not quite the same as playing with a deep-lying playmaker like Pirlo, who is effectively the metronome of the team, or using a pure box-to-box player like Vidal.
Chuks: Fair enough, but it seems like you’re hinting at the much-maligned issue of the midfield then, no?
Kaushik: Well it’s more than that. Let's consider the 4-3-1-2 formation – considering I think that Mandzukic and Higuaín in a 3-5-2 is just too static to work because neither of them solves the issue of the "missing link" between midfield and the attack. If the 4-3-1-2 is the alternative, we're again reliant on Pjanic. The alternative to Pjanic if Dybala is absent then is, again, Pjaca. So Pjaca is a question mark when it comes to his overall position/role in the squad yet he seems to be vital to our ability to have depth in various offensive positions. If Allegri wants to play his favorite midfield diamond, then clearly a more aggressive strategy should have been taken to find another quality (emphasis on quality) midfielder, because we knew since August that Marchisio, Sturaro, and Mandragora were all going to be injured for a long time. At the same time Asamoah’s fitness (and, frankly, his skillset) was always going to be a question mark, Khedira's fitness was a ticking timebomb, and Lemina's potential was a question mark. Why were we even stuck in this position in the first place? Its a little frustrating honestly..
I am harping on about this because I genuinely believe that the plan is to transition away from the 3-5-2 in the near future. Marchisio’s return to fitness, and the woeful streak of luck we’re having with our centerbacks and their fitness should simply accelerate this process. And, I mean.. Looking at names like Alves, Pjanic, Pjaca and Higuain, no one is going to convince me that the 3-5-2 is the best fit for them. So then, what was the end game we were aiming for? Seriously, why are we stuck in this position?
Chuks: Why Mr. Anderson? Why? Why? Sorry, I just couldn’t resist. I’ll just make a quick comment about the formations so that we don’t beat a dead horse too much. I absolutely and whole-heartedly think that we should transition Lemina from regista to the right-side of central midfield (mezzala). Hernanes has shown to be a competent-enough backup (for the time being) for Marchisio until we hopefully offload the Brazilian next summer. Sure Lemina isn’t a world-beater, but I think his skillset is far more effectively utilized there instead of as a regista. Will this solve all the problems of the (un)balanced midfield? Probably not, but it’s a step in the right direction. In terms of your ‘missing-link’ argument then, which is totally valid, you can also look at it in two ways: is the missing link supposed to be a dribbler (Pogba), a creator (Pjanic, Pirlo), or a mixture of both (perhaps like Iniesta, for example)?
The future of the 3-5-2, or lack thereof, that you allude to is interesting though especially in light of the persistent fitness problems of our defenders. It’s definitely possible that the end of this formation is near, but let’s leave that mystery to one side.
Kaushik: In that case, let’s get to the final few points before we we wrap this up. We’re all but done with our tea anyway. First, the Bosnian elephant in the room: Miralem Pjanic. What do you think about his performances so far?
Chuks: To quote the brilliant Dan Benjamin from 5by5: “I have two groups of people: people that I worry about and people I don’t worry about.” Pjanic is a player that I don’t worry about. I only worry about the role he’s playing in the side and this problem stems from Allegri rather than the Bosnian. In the games that I reviewed recently, I was constantly baffled by how extraordinarily deep he drops to pick up the ball. Funny enough, Dybala does the exact same thing but then from attack into midfield. A consistent behavior like this becomes a pattern and such a pattern cannot be on the player, it has to be on Allegri. If he spends almost all his time near the halfway line instead of in the “red zone” between the lines, you’re really making life difficult for one of your best players. So if Allegri can slightly tweak his role, I’ll be fully satisfied. Nevertheless, I’m not worried about Pjanic.
Kaushik: I’ll echo your thoughts on that point, it really is a major concern. However, considering that Dybala had similar problems at the start of the season – where he was just too far away from goal to do what he does best – but now seemingly rediscovered some of last season’s sparkle, I think that Pjanic will find his little niche within the squad too. I really do think that having players like Marchisio and Lemina behind him in a 4-3-1-2 will help him achieve this, because there's less onus on him to do the dirty work and both those players are good at making space for their teammates. Pjanic just needs someone like, for example, Nainggolan next to him to do the dirty work, win the ball, and give it to him so that he can do what he does best (similar to the Gattuso/Vidal-with-Pirlo partnership). Nevertheless, I think it's just a matter of time before Pjanic discovers his true self within the team.
With regards to Lemina, he doesn't have Hernanes' passing range but he is more positive than the Brazilian’s somewhat conservative approach and better defensively. While he may not be tactically as safe in the coach's eyes in the defensive phase as Sturaro (coach's eyes; don't burn me Sampath and MLG), he possesses far better technique, passing, and composure on the ball and is very good at using his physique to drive forward with the ball. This is something the team sorely lacks in Pogba's absence.
Chuks: Well plenty of food for thought then, my friend. I guess it’s time to…
Kaushik: Wait! One last question. Cuadrado and Pjaca: super-subs or will they become more than that?
Chuks: For Cuadrado, I believe that he’s a super-sub and/or rotation player. As for Pjaca, I just cannot say given how little he has played. If I really had to answer though, I would say that he’s an impact sub for now but has the far greater and more realistic possibility than Cuadrado of growing into more than that.
Kaushik: Thanks for the great discussion amico and enjoy the international break!
Chuks: See you, Space Cowboy!
Kaushik: This is Kaushik, well fed after an afternoon high tea party with Beppe Marotta himself at Juventus headquarters, signing out. Have a great week guys!