Phew, finally some time to breath again and look back on all the happenings of a relentless month. Juventini all around the world were treated to a whopping seven games in 23 days, 16 goals scored, and just two conceded (one of which was completely unnecessary). Despite the remarkable volume of games in such a short period of time, the Bianconeri negotiated them expertly and maintained a spotless 100% win record in February. Without further ado, let’s talk about the who, what, where, and why’s that made for this fantastic month.
No going back?
We’re all loving the swagger and vitality Max Allegri’s new-look 4-2-3-1 formation. I mean, where do I even start? From Mario Mandzukic’s relentless desire to work for the team, Miralem Pjanic flourishing in his (new?) best position on the field, and Gonzalo Higuaín doing what he does best, Juventus definitely treated us to some outstanding football in February.
But… well, there’s always a ‘but,’ isn’t there?
I touched on it briefly last month, but I think it’s worth expanding on this time around. In the summer and winter transfer windows, the side was clearly constructed for a 3-5-2/4-3-1-2 formation. In other words, a side heavy on central midfielders. Allegri obviously could not have foreseen such a surprising change in system at that time as he would have adjusted his transfer demands appropriately otherwise. All this is to say that we’re basically one or two injuries (to the forwards) away from having to ditch the entire system and go back to the original plan. Either that, or we have to exhaust every single ounce of energy from the front four in every game until the end of the season.
You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them everything.
Not everything. Not yet.
Both sound like particularly precarious situations to be in and thus makes me think that the return of the infamous three-man backline is imminent. Granted, all we need is two or three games or so to give some of the forwards a rest — Higuaín, especially — or just switch to a 4-3-whatever formation for a short period of time. With something like 15 games left until the end of the season — assuming we progress in the cup competitions — this would be the worst time for unpleasant surprises on the pitch. Let’s see what Mad Max has in mind for the team.
Times are a’changin
On the other hand, one area of the field that has seen its fair share of rotation is the backline. The central defense has seen many faces fly by as Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele Rugani, Leonardo Bonucci, and even Medhi Benatia (for one game) have seen some share of playing time due to a combination of injuries and disciplinary ‘issues’. Regardless of all the faces passing by in front of Gigi Buffon’s goal, the team still kept a fantastic defensive record in February which was, as mentioned above, only tainted by complacency against Palermo. It is interesting how the team has transitioned from playing almost exclusively the same backline every game (in the last few seasons) to a more fluctuating one recently.
Most of this is clearly due to age as the bodies of Barzagli and especially Chiellini seem to be showing signs of wear and tear. Yet it also begs the question what our best defensive four — or three? — is at the moment and if the answer to that question even matters given the solidity of the system as a whole. I don’t necessarily want to reignite the entire “Is the BBC a thing of the past for Juve?” discussion. Instead, I just want to recognize that it’s fantastic to see that, despite the frequently changing faces in defense, the ship still holds steady.
If there’s one player that I’ve grown a remarkable admiration for, it’s that brilliant man, Higuaín. Sure, I knew he was fantastic after his groundbreaking exploits of last season, but I really hadn’t watched him very much because I didn’t have time to watch Napoli games. When he came to Juve, I thought “How lovely, we’re gonna get a player who scores goals by the bucketload.” I thought that would be all, just goals. But ooh how wrong I was.
You will know what beauty truly is.
Higuaín is a surreal player and one of those strikers that you can only truly appreciate if you love nuances in football. The goals are great, obviously, but the absolute standout feature of El Pipita is his hold-up play. It’s extraordinarily simple, yet so imperative to the flow of a Juventus attack. He’ll oftentimes receive the ball in a pretty congested area of the field and will therefore know that the team needs “oxygen” in order for the attack to keep moving. So what does he do? A simple long-ball switch of the play to the other flank. He knows that that’s where the space is and he knows that the ball needs to go there to allow the team to breathe and progress in attack. But the fluidity, simplicity, and efficiency with which he executes this — how he always knows that the simple “out-ball” is the switch of play — is wonderful to watch.
They say the devil is in the detail. But in this case, the excellence is in the detail.
I think we all remember that our German stalwart Sami Khedira had a rough patch of form a few months ago. His offensive contributions were faltering, he looked uncomfortable during games, and wasn’t his usual imposing self in midfield. However, one of the biggest benefactors of Allegri’s tactical switch has most certainly been Big Daddy Sami. He looks absolutely wonderful sitting in front of the defense in that double pivot with Pjanic. The Bosnian provides the elegance from deep, while Khedira is free to progress forward from midfield to add some surprise to the attack. The Ratchet-and-Clank duo in midfield have really brought the best out of each other and revived the stagnating form of the German midfielder.
To be fair, Khedira had some marvelous days in his career in the exact same formation with Real Madrid. Interestingly, the German had another fantastically-elegant player next to him that also allowed him to thrive: Xabi Alonso. This is not to say that he has only played his best football in this system, but it is interesting to consider his previous exposure to and experience in this formation as a contributing factor to his recent upturn in form. Is this his favorite system? Who knows. As long as he keeps playing the way he is right now, everything will be “veryyy gutttt” to me.
Keepin’ up the heat
As great as February was for Juventus, we do have to recognize the quality of the opponents we faced. Out of the seven games, our opponents included the likes of Crotone, Cagliari, Empoli, and Palermo. Let’s just say that it’s not quite like playing Barcelona on a weekly basis. Nevertheless, these were teams that had, with the pleasantly surprising exception of Empoli, absolutely no intention of trying to score whatsoever. They put all hands on deck, loaded up the defense and midfield, and prayed for a point or more in a grueling 90 minutes. These are deceptively difficult opponents to play against but Juventus negotiated these games expertly. Sure, the first halves of these games were mostly frustrating, but there was never a sense of panic or a lack of control. The team knew that this was going to be “one of those days” and that half the battle was going to be internal. They remained professional, patient, and ruthlessly efficient.
Keep on with the force don't stop
Don't stop 'til you get enough!
Keep on with the force don't stop
We brush away these kinds of victories because, c’mon, it’s Crotone... Empoli... Cagliari. Who cares, right? But I am highly appreciative of the professionalism and maturity that Juventus displayed against these tricky customers. The mentality to treat games against relegation contenders with the same focus as those against the big boys: that’s Lo Stile Juve that I’m talking about.
I promised my cousin to give him a quick shout out after his goal-scoring exploits for Dulwich Hamlet FC! Sign him up Beppe!