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December’s Monthly Juventus Thoughts: Up, up, and away!

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December has been an extraordinarily fruitful month for our beloved Bianconeri. The year 2017 ended with lots of gifts and brilliant fireworks!

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Hellas Verona FC v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

As Dinah Washington once (almost) said, what a difference, a month makes.

Despite what almost was an embarrassing slip-up in the beautiful city of Verona, December was a near-impeccable month for Juventus. After suffering through a laborious and painful start to the season, the team is finally putting in consistently positive performances that make for happy viewing.

It’s a happy start to the New Year for the men in black (and white) so let’s discuss December’s action!

So Fresh and So Clean ... Sheets?

One of our long-time commenters, Lelouch Vi Britannia (ALL HAIL LELOUCH!), has started the wonderful ritual of posting a picture of clean sheets whenever the team records a defensive shutout. And those defensive shutouts sure were familiar sights in December as Juventus conceded all of just one measly goal over the course of seven games.

“Ain’t nobody dope as me I’m dressed so fresh so clean.”

So Fresh, So Clean; Outkast

As human beings, we’re desperate to ascribe meaning to events, especially the recurring ones that look like patterns. This fantastic run of clean sheets is no different and you must, therefore, already be asking yourself that burning question: What is the meaning or reasoning behind this fantastic run of clean sheets?

I have no idea.

That said, there are some factors that I’m sure contributed to this wonderful phenomenon: Max Allegri’s tactical tinkering in midfield (more on that later), Medhi Benatia’s marked uptick in form, Mattia De Sciglio’s performances at right back (also more on that later), Alex Sandro stabilizing his performances, and so on.

Whatever the reason(s) may be, it’s important to recognize just how many high-stakes games were packed into the shortest period of time. A top-of-the-table clash away at Napoli, a winner-takes-all Champions League game in Greece against Olympiakos, the infamous Derby D’Italia against Inter, and an enticing clash against a very impressive Roma.

Talk about the perfect time for the team to get its (defensive) act together!

All in all, this return to our “this is what we do best” performances restores a massive dose of tranquility, confidence, and belief to all Juventini. As Juventini, defensive solidity gives us far more peace of mind than an equivalent dose of attacking firepower. This is probably why so many of us — especially myself — were so anxious and uncomfortable with the team’s performances in the first two months or so of the season.

Thankfully, we can at least breathe freely again. For now.

On a side note, since I still consider the high-socked Martin Cáceres as one of us, I would kindly argue that his goal for Hellas Verona in that fixture does not count as a goal conceded, meaning that Juventus conceded zero goals in the month of December. So there. Take that.

“Don't you think I'm so sexy I'm dressed so fresh so clean.”

Hellas Verona FC v Juventus - Serie A
You’re still one of us mate.
Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Tactical Tinkering...

In his tactical analysis of the Derby D’Italia, the always-brilliant Michael Cox mentioned something that is often under-appreciated by Juventini:

Chiellini also brought the ball forward from the back effectively, in a Juventus system which appeared as both a three-man and a four-man defence at times, with Asamoah a full-back/wing-back and De Sciglio a centre-back/full-back. Juve’s tactical flexibility has become second nature and is now taken for granted, but no other side in Europe can shift between systems as effectively. (Link)

For a variety of reasons — ranging from Paulo Dybala’s decline in form, the availability of six central midfielders, and, perhaps, the desire to restore defensive solidity to the team — Allegri quietly shifted from our customary 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 formation. The most notable impact of this change is, obviously, reflected in the structure of the midfield. Our current midfield three does not quite have the glamour of the much-revered Marchisio-Vidal-Pirlo midfield of the Antonio Conte era, but the trio of Matuidi-Khedira-Pjanic have put in some very encouraging and commendable performances for the team so far.

I think that Matuidi in particular has reaped the greatest benefits from this switch as it freed up space for him to do what he does best — relentlessly press opposition midfielders/defenders and, if possible, make those dangerous, late third-man runs into the box. He has picked up a tidy two goals since playing in the three-man central midfield, although we all know that correlation does not mean causation.

Going back to what Cox said in his tactical analysis, we have to recognize just what an embarrassment of tactical riches this team has. How many teams in Europe can say that they are completely comfortable switching between and playing a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, and 3-4-3 without missing a beat? For these blessings, I say an immense and heartfelt thank you to Allegri and Conte for the tremendous work they have done in making this tactical flexibility second-nature to the club and the players.

“I'm a million different people from one day to the next.”

The Verve; Bittersweet Symphony

... And the Dybala Conundrum

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The benefits of the tactical tweaks have not come without a victim which, in this case, happens to be this bloke called Paulo Dybala. We all know that he has struggled for form in the last two months or so, but the move from a formation with a trequartista to one without one makes it significantly more difficult for the Argentine to regain his spark.

Paulo Dybala of Juventus FC look on  sits on the bench...
For the love of God, where’s my damn trequartista position gone to?”
Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

It’s quite the conundrum given that the team is evidently playing very well in the (somewhat) new system, even though it means that Dybala has to play slightly out of position (or not at all). In essence, though, this simply calls for him to reinvent himself, something that he has done reasonably well so far by adapting to a “false nine” position against Genoa in the Coppa Italia and playing as an inverted winger on the right against Hellas Verona. The performances have not necessarily set the world alight, but they have been quite respectable nonetheless.

No change, I can't change, I can't change, I can't change,

but I'm here in my mold, I am here in my mold...

I can't change my mold, no, no, no, no, no, no, no

The Verve; Bittersweet Symphony

The question that will probably define the fate of the vibrant young Argentine is a very simple one. Is he merely a one-trick pony or can he show his versatility by efficiently adapting to different positions/roles on the pitch? Your fate lies in your hands and yours only, Paulo.

“When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.”

Aang; The Legend of Korra

Juventus v Torino FC - TIM Cup Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

The Great Moderation of Mattia De Sciglio

In 2002, Harvard economist James Stock and Princeton economist Mark Watson coined the termThe Great Moderation*’ to describe “the reduction in the macroeconomic volatility of business cycles from the mid-1980s till the early 2000s.” To put it in normal English, there were less economic booms and busts as several major economies all over the world were just... stable. They were rarely in states of economic emergency but at the same time, they rarely experienced periods of extraordinary economic growth.

*Note: this term was later popularized by then-Federal Reserve Governor Ben Bernanke.

The Great Moderation is the one term I always think about when I see Mattia De Sciglio play for Juventus. Here’s a player who rarely, if ever, has catastrophically bad performances. But, at the same time, rarely lifts the crowd off its feet in admiration. The reason that I find this particularly interesting is because, in this day and age, fullbacks are expected to be rampaging bundles of energy that attack as intensely and frequently as they defend.

De Sciglio, however, evidently bucks this trend with much glee. The 25-year-old Italian continues to perform at a commendable level — both offensively and defensively — that puts many Juventini at pleasant, comfortable ease without necessarily earning rave reviews. With Stephan Lichtsteiner nearing the twilight of his brilliant Juventus career, De Sciglio’s form brings some much-needed stability to a relatively uncertain situation at right back.

It seems that with Mattia De Sciglio, you won’t get any booms or busts. All you’ll get is Great Moderation.

And you know what? That’s just the way I like it.

Polish Delight

Last but not least, I extend to give a huge, HUGE, word of appreciation to our Polish deputy between the sticks: Wojciech “I-actually-flippin-bothered-learning-how-to-spell-your-name-because-I’m-that-grateful” Szczesny. Due to a surprisingly persistent calf injury to our No. 1, Gianluigi Buffon, Szczesny has had to protect the Juventus goal full-time since the 5th of December.

And what a phenomenal job he has done.

Although the game-saving stop against Patrik Schick in the dying minutes of the 1-0 victory against Roma stands out in our minds, the Polish goalkeeper has shown fantastic consistency and composure in doing the simple things (like making his defense feel comfortable) in all of his performances, thus continuing Juventus’ record of having the best goalkeeping backups in the league.

We are very lucky indeed, so thank you very much dziękuję Ci bardzo, Wojciech!

Wojciech Szczesny  of Juventus FC celebrate during the Serie... Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images