Probably more than any other position group on the team, Juventus’ midfield was under a microscope this season.
When the team went to the Champions League final two years ago, Juve boasted the one of the best midfields in the game. Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba were imperious in the center of the park and fueled much of Juve’s rise.
But that unit has undergone radical changes over the last two years. Pirlo left after Berlin to finish out his career in MLS. Expectations had been mounting about that move for most of the season, but the departure of Vidal to Bayern Munich was a shattering surprise. Pogba helped carry the team as the unit reformed, but left himself this past offseason for Manchester United after a will-he/won’t-he saga that lasted a good chunk of the summer.
Marchisio is the only one from the fabled MVP unit that ruled over Serie A and catapulted Juve back to relevance on the continent — and he was hampered quite a bit this year (we’ll get to that in a bit).
The changes over the last two years have been disruptive. Between personnel changes and tactical shifts, it took a long time for this midfield to finally settle. When they did, the team surged.
Who was up and who was down in the midfield this season? Today we’ll take a look at each midfielder and evaluate their season.
Kwadwo Asamoah — 5.5
Asamoah has been covered by my colleague Johann already, as he spent the majority of the season backing up Alex Sandro at left back after the departure of Patrice Evra. But at the start of the year he was expected to serve as depth in the midfield. He started the season in the starting XI in the opener against Fiorentina and came out like gangbusters, making a pair of key passes, completing 90.7 of his passes, and making a pair of tackles on the defensive end.
He tailed off starting the next week at Lazio, and he started falling down the pecking order before the departure of Evra saw him permanently shifted out wide. As a midfielder he had such a promising start, but the rest of his performances at the position weren’t really up to scratch. As a deputy on the left flank, however, he can still be an important contributor to this team.
Hernanes — 5.5
Remember all those great performances Hernanes produced in a Juventus shirt this year?
Yeah, me neither.
I don’t mean to be too hard on the Brazilian. His season-and-a-half at Juve saw him turn into the butt of quite a few jokes, mostly because he was never really able to fill the trequartista role for which he was a booby prize last year. He’s not capable of that anymore, but he was probably the only player on the roster who could properly deputize in the regista role that was Marchisio’s before the tactical shift, and he wasn’t horrible when called upon to do that this season.
Still, he had some truly baffling moments this year, and there weren’t many tears shed when he left the team for China in the winter transfer window. He was an adequate backup, but no more.
Sami Khedira — 6.5
Khedira started the season like gangbusters, scoring in each of Juve’s first two matches and notching an assist in the third. From then on he was a solid, but somewhat inconsistent performer.
He had his healthiest season in years, playing in 46 competitive games (no, I didn’t do my math wrong, the Supercoppa Italiana was not on WhoScored’s chart) along with five World Cup qualifiers for Germany. Ironically, that may have worked against him — it looked at times like his body wasn’t used to playing so many minutes. Asked to serve as the box-to-box presence that was lost when Pogba left, he couldn’t quite bring the Frenchman’s physicality and certainly didn’t bring the offensive brilliance he brought to the table.
When Allegri moved the team into the 4-2-3-1 “Five Star” system, Khedira became part of a double-pivot and the level of his play rose tremendously. He covered at the back well and allowed Miralem Pjanic to roam further up the field, while his impressive passing produced a key pass per match and an 86.3 percent completion rate and sent the team’s attackers on their way. Since the change he really was a major part of the glue that held the team together. Still, he’s not as physical as a man in his role could be — that’s never been his game — and if he was outmuscled or outgunned in midfield it tended to mean Juve was on the back foot.
When Khedira was on, he was on, but when he wasn’t it was easy to forget he was there. Next season we’ll have to see whether or not his body has adapted to finally playing a full season. If it has, he’s more likely to hold his form and again become the world-class player he was when Real Madrid signed him in 2010. If he’s still off-kilter, it may be time to upgrade things in midfield.
Mario Lemina — 5.5
It’s a shame that Lemina wasn’t really given more opportunity in the middle of the park. The kid has a bundle of potential, and he could turn into a very good box-to-box midfielder given the opportunity to develop.
Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more like that opportunity will come at another club. emina was moved all over the place this year when he did play, and after the winter transfer window didn’t get much chance at all, playing more than 25 minutes only three times — and once Marko Pjaca was lost for the season, he was often used out of position as a reserve winger rather than as a mid.
Even when he did play in midfield he often wasn’t playing his best role. At the beginning of the year he was often deployed in the regista position in the 3-5-2 while Marchisio continued his recovery from knee surgery. While a capable passer and a good tackler, he’s far more effective as a box-to-box player, and he struggled somewhat when asked to play in front of the defense.
When he played his true position, though, he had some of his best games. Playing alongside Hernanes in the regista spot against Cagliari in September he completed 88.6 percent of his passes, put one of two shots on target, made two key passes, three tackles, and touched the ball 92 times. In the group stage finale of the Champions League against Zagreb he was man of the match, making three key passes and putting up a 93.2 percent completion rate to go with four tackles and three interceptions. Against Roma at the end of the season he made an intelligent run for his lone goal of the season and made four tackles even as the Giallorossi started pinning Juve back.
When he’s put in the right position, this kid can be great. Unfortunately, he rarely had the opportunity to be so, and his play suffered for it.
Rolando Mandragora — s/v
The young product of the Genoa youth system recovered slowly from a broken foot suffered on loan in Serie B last year, but made his Juve debut with a quick four-minute cameo on April 23 during Juve’s 4-0 demolition of the Griffone. That was his only game action this season, but after seeing him perform at the Under-20 World Cup, it may behoove the team to trust him with a few more minutes next year.
Claudio Marchisio — 6
Dealing with ACL injuries are tricky things. Unlike in the NFL, where an ACL is usually a guaranteed 10-12 months on the sidelines, a soccer player can get himself back on the field in six so long as there are no setbacks.
But returning to the field and returning to form are two totally different things, and it usually isn’t until about a year after the injury that a player really achieves the latter. So it was this season with Marchisio.
After rehabbing from the knee injury he suffered last April, Il principino returned to the field at the end of October, playing 73 minutes in Juve’s 4-1 win over Sampdoria. But for much of the season, we didn’t get the Marchisio we were used to. He was still an assured presence in midfield. His passing fell into the normal rates we’ve seen throughout his career, but something seemed to be missing. His defense lagged slightly behind, and his ability to dictate a game, which is more subtle than a player like Pirlo but no less effective, wasn’t quite there. For most of the season something seemed to be missing.
It didn’t help that he wasn’t on the field very much to begin with — he played in only 18 Serie A matches (15 starts), after appearing in an average of 30.4 over the first five years of Juve’s title reign. He also didn’t start back-to-back games until the very end of the season, when he followed up the full 90 in the Coppa Italia final against Lazio with 74 minutes in the title clincher against Crotone that weekend.
This was a bit of a lost year for Marchisio. As the season wore on and his knee fully and truly recovered we started seeing more of the player we all know and love, but we don’t really know how much he’ll play if Juve continue to employ only two in the midfield, although he proved at season’s end that he is just as effective back there as Khedira or Pjanic. Next season will be so big for him.
Miralem Pjanic — 7
It’s impossible to give less to a guy who notched nine assists, just missing the top five in Serie A. He also registered three helpers in the Champions League and scored six goals between the two competitions.
But did the Bosnian actually live up to expectations this year? Given his age at the time of his purchase (26) and the relatively paltry sum Juve had to pay for a player of his caliber, many people, myself included, figured he’d be the steal of the transfer window in Europe.
But Pjanic didn’t get a chance to settle into a role until the season was almost halfway over. Allegri played him all over the midfield — as a box-to-box, as a regista, as a trequartista. He seemed to be most effective in that last spot, but even then he was an inconsistent presence and never took games by the scruff of the neck the way he did when he was at Roma.
The move to the 4-2-3-1 was an boon to him. The industry of teammates like Khedira and Mario Mandzukic allowed him the freedom to distribute and to press further forward. Still, his inconsistency could be a problem. One game he would vanish, another he would command the midfield.
Going forward he certainly has the potential to be one of Europe’s top midfielders — but he needs to be more consistent to truly meet the expectations that came with his transfer.
Tomas Rincon — 5
What did Tomas Rincon really do when he came over from Genoa in January other than take up space?
The Venezuelan played in 13 Serie A games, starting only two. He averaged a shade over 23 minutes per appearance. ight of his appearances over all competitions this year lasted less than 10 minutes. He did manage an assist in one of those two starts — against Crotone — but most times by the time he got onto the field there was nothing to do other than see the game out.
This was the kind of thing that should have been left to younger players who needed the playing time more. I mentioned before how little opportunity Lemina had to get the playing time he needed to develop. Stefano Sturaro was in the same boat. In a medieval siege, Rincon would be a useless mouth, there to take up provisions (or, in this case, minutes) that should be going to people who need them. All he was was a spare part that blocked younger players from getting minutes.
Stefano Sturaro — 5.5
Like Lemina, Sturaro was often played out of position after Pjaca’s injury, backing up Mandzukic on the left wing.
An injury suffered at Euro 2016 meant his season didn’t start until October, and he didn’t start a game until November’s 1-1 draw against Lyon in the Champions League. He played sporadically until the weeks leading up to the Christmas, when he started four of the last five games before the break.
As has been the case for his entire career, regular playing time saw a major uptick in his form. The high point of his season as a midfielder was December’s 1-0 win over Roma, when he made four tackles, an interception and two clearances while finding the target with two of three shots.
The key for Sturaro is consistent playing time. Just like last year, when he played almost every day during a period in October and November and turned in his best performances, that period of consistent minutes this year saw the Stu that could hold down a long-term place in this team’s midfield.
Unfortunately, with the minutes he gets he can’t find that form consistently. Playing more sporadically he did drag the team down at times, although he could also pull out a moment of brilliance, like the feathery pass that led to Lemina’s opener against Roma at the Olimpico last month. He still has a ton of potential, but playing limited minutes in unfamiliar positions he hasn’t been able to fulfill it yet.