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The Left Wing Debate: Is Mario Mandzukic the right man for the job?

Using the Croatian as an unorthodox winger has caused debate amongst fans. (Not just here on BWRAO.)

FC Crotone v Juventus FC - Serie A Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

The decision made by Massimiliano Allegri to move Juventus from the 3-5-2 that has characterized the team’s rise since 2011, and the 4-3-1-2 that got the team to the UEFA Champions League final in his first year in charge, to a 4-2-3-1 has changed the season.

Nicknamed the “Five Star” system because it puts Juve’s five best attacking and creative players on the field at the same time, the change was initially considered a big risk. But fears of imbalance were quickly dispelled, and since the change the bianconeri have only dropped two points out of a possible 30 in Serie A and are unbeaten in both the Coppa Italia and Champions League.

But even after all the success of the last two months, there is still some debate over how the team is set up. I first really noticed this last week, when I wrote a post-match piece for Juve’s win over Sampdoria and a large-scale argument broke out in the comment section over one particular position: Juventus’ left wing.

Juventus FC v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Since the switch, which officially happened on Jan. 22 against Lazio, that position has been manned by Mario Mandzukic. The Croatian has played all but two games there since the change, and is one of the five stars that gives the formation its nickname.

It was he that was the subject of the comment-section showdown here on BWRAO last week. A sizable portion of the debaters advocated for his immediate replacement with Marko Pjaca, while the rest defended his play in all phases over the last two months. Frankly, I align with the latter group. To use a chess analogy, Mandzukic’s detractors tend to only look at one move, rather than the whole board. When you do, you realize how important he is to the system as a whole.

It’s certainly true that Mandzukic looked an awkward fit when Allegri made the switch. At first glance, it looked like he was only on the left wing because that was the only place left to put him. Gonzalo Higuain was always going to play the primary striker role when he was on the field, Paulo Dybala was going to play in the hole behind him and Juan Cuadrado wouldn’t be playing anywhere but the right wing.

The biggest issue people seem to have with his placement on the left is his style of play. At 6-foot-3 and weighing almost 200 points, Mandzukic is the archetypal battering-ram center-forward. His detractors point to his lack of pace and the fact that he doesn’t put many crosses into the box as evidence that he shouldn’t be on that side.

His tendency to track back and defend is also, for some reason, considered a deficit. In ranking Juve’s players in the Sampdoria game, ESPNFC’s Mina Rzouki even went so far as to say “Not sure if he can even be considered an offensive player anymore,” and said that he had to “perhaps sacrifice a little less for the sake of attacking brilliance.”

With respect to Mina’s opinion, I think that’s daft. Goals win games but defense wins trophies, and to criticize a player for doing the extra work to track back and help his team defend is borderline absurd. Heck, last month Allegri criticized Pjaca for not doing it more. Mandzukic has made several important defensive interventions in his time at the club, and to put down this quality of his game is puzzling at best.

FC Crotone v Juventus FC - Serie A Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

Now to the other major argument against him: That he doesn’t bring what is expected to the wing position. That, on its face, is true. But the unorthodox nature of his play on the left is one of the things that makes the “Five Star” system so dangerous.

Mandzukic is a physical mismatch for almost every fullback who could play against him. In the second leg against Porto, the broadcasters pointed out that his opposite number in Porto’s defense, Maxi Pereira, was the smallest man on the field. That enhances his already-formidable abilities in the air and forces opposing managers into a decision. Do they allow the physical mismatch, use a center back as a makeshift right back, or try to bring the fullback help from other areas of the field?

If they chose the first option, Mandzukic becomes a magnet for high balls to set up Juve’s attack on that side. The second creates yet another mismatch with the makeshift defender and Alex Sandro, who will likely be too quick for him. The third pulls the opponent all over the place, opening spaces for the rest of the attackers to exploit.

Mandzukic’s presence on the left wing and the mismatches he creates have a cascade effect on the entire team. He makes Sandro more dangerous by sucking in defenders and opening space on the overlap, as he did for Kwadwo Asamoah last Sunday against Sampdoria, when the Ghanaian deputized for Sandro and burst into the space created after a defender collapsed on Mandzukic, who fed in a simple pass for Asamoah to deliver the assist for Cuadrado’s goal.

He also enhances one of the most underrated weapons on the team: Leonardo Bonucci’s ability to play the ball long. Bonucci is one of the best long-ball artists in the world today, and Mandzukic’s size advantage over most fullbacks offers one hell of a target.

If you look again at the second leg match with Porto, you can see just how productive that connection can be. Twice within the first nine minutes of the game Bonucci found Mandzukic with long, cross-field passes that the Croatian headed on to his teammates. Neither move ended in a goal — the first saw Dybala fire wide on the half-volley and the second saw him just miss picking out Sami Khedira with a cross. But the danger that Mandzukic’s simple headers off these passes create is undeniable.

When citing his style of play many compare Mandzukic to the man across the field from him, Cuadrado. While Cuadrado may be far quicker than his teammate, he plays so fast that he goes beyond the point of control, and his decision making can range from questionable to abysmal. And while he may be the more traditional winger, his counting statistics since the 4-2-3-1 was adopted (two goals, one assist, 16 key passes), are only fractionally better than Mandzukic’s (one goal, one assist, 13 key passes).

At the end of the day, the unorthodox style Mandzukic must employ on the wing doesn’t make all that much of a difference than the more traditional one from someone like Cuadrado. He creates just as much danger, just in a different way. The fact that it doesn’t look like it does at Barcelona doesn’t mean it isn’t effective.

If the 4-2-3-1 ends up Juve’s default formation in future seasons there will be a point where replacing Mandzukic will be necessary. He’ll be 31 years old by season’s end, and the squad and its tactics will evolve as transfer windows pass. But that time is not now. Mandzukic’s interpretation of wing play may not be the sexiest in the world, but has some unique qualities that are integral to the effectiveness of the system as it currently runs. There’s no urgent need to replace him.