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Midfield must be Juventus’ top priority in January transfer window

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Juve’s decision to go into the season shorthanded in the midfield is already coming around to haunt them.

Juventus FC via Getty Images

Under Beppe Marotta, Juventus traditionally steered clear of the January transfer window. Yes, there was the odd addition or augmentation, notably:

  • Alessandro Matri in 2011, who scored 10 times the rest of that season and was a decent contributor for several more.
  • Marco Boriello in 2012, who didn’t do much but what he did do was very important indeed.
  • Nicolas Anelka, in 2013 who did absolutely nothing.
  • Matri again in 2015, who proceeded to help Juve dig themselves out of a hole in the Coppa Italia semifinal and scored the winner in extra time of the final.
  • Stefano Sturaro, also in 2015, whose intervention on James Rodriguez in a surprise start in the Champions League semifinal may have been the deciding moment of that tie and started a polarizing time in Juve’s midfield.

But, by and large, Marotta reserved the winter window for selling or loaning out bit players, securing future deals like the one for Mattia Caldara — no, I’m still not over it — or hammering out pre-contract agreements with the next big free transfer. He liked to say that the winter window was best for papering over holes in the team due to injury or poor play, but not for the big stuff.

With Marotta’s time with the team now officially over, that maxim is going to have to be put into effect by his lieutenant-turned-successor, Fabio Paratici, thanks to a gamble the two made in his last transfer window that’s already turning south.

It’s quite plain now that Juventus came into the season with too few midfielders on the roster. Had the “Five Star” 4-2-3-1 formation stayed the standard as it had two seasons ago, five might have been enough. But as Massimiliano Allegri began shifting to a three-man midfield last season, it should have been clear to the team’s front office that it wasn’t. Of course, the season officially started with Claudio Marchisio on the roster, but then they tore up his contract by mutual consent when Il Principino saw the writing on the wall about how much playing time he’d get.

Boy, does Allegri miss him right now.

That’s because out of his five midfielders, only three are currently healthy. Emre Can is out until at least December after surgery to remove a thyroid nodule, and Sami Khedira has been on the shelf since late September after injuring his leg against Valencia and then aggravating it upon his return. With the two Germans out, that’s left Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic, and Rodrigo Bentancur as the only mids capable of playing. And play they have. Since the end of the October internationals, the trio started three games in seven days. Bentancur and Matuidi played all 270 minutes of those three games, while Pjanic was only spelled for the last 10 minutes of last Sunday’s game against Empoli.

That simply isn’t sustainable. It was clear the three were tired by the end of the trip to Old Trafford, and on Sunday it was apparent by halftime that they were gassed. Even Matuidi, whose picture you see in the encyclopedia next to the word “endurance,” looked ready to drop, and small wonder, given his participation in France’s World Cup triumph this summer.

Khedira is due to return to action this week against Cagliari, but should probably be treated with kid gloves for a few weeks given how quickly he managed to aggravate his injury when he tried to play against Young Boys early in October. Even once he and Can have returned from their injuries, to assume that they can get through the rest of the season without suffering another injury is irresponsible at best and delusional at worst. Should Juve end up in another injury crunch in the spring — a time when, if all goes well, the team will be playing weeks upon weeks of midweek fixtures — things could go very badly indeed. This is especially true in the case of Pjanic, the key cog of the midfield. If he falls off, it becomes a good deal more difficult for the team to attack. His performance did dip toward the end of the year last season, and that coincided with the almighty wobble that Juve took before they managed to right the ship and seal the scudetto.

It’s no small wonder that Pjanic’s performance fell off. He played 3,303 minutes last year, second on the team only to Gonzalo Higuain — who also looked spent by the end of the season. Over the last two years, one of Allegri’s biggest faults has been his failure to properly rest certain key players. While the lack of rotation in 2016-17 wasn’t totally his fault — the switch to the 4-2-3-1 was a necessary step despite the team not being built for such a formation — last year there wasn’t as much of an excuse for the failure to give players like Pjanic and Higuain adequate rest.

As we’ve seen in the last week, the way the team is currently set up could see a similar problem crop up if the injury bug strikes. Once the transfer window opens in January, it will be imperative for Paratici and the rest of the front office to find another midfielder to ensure viable depth.

Inevitably, that statement will bring about a chorus singing the name Paul Pogba. With UEFA essentially abolishing the cup-tying rule this season, Pogba would be able to play in all competitions immediately were he to return, making a January move a bit more likely. But that’s not necessarily the right move now. Apart from the expense that bringing Il Polpo Paul back to Turin will entail — and after the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, that has to be a concern given the potential for a Financial Fair Play review — it will also involve integrating him back into the team right when the business end of the season, in particular the Champions League knockout rounds, are set to start. Adding a player like him, who will almost have to be in the starting XI, could be somewhat disruptive while everyone gets used to each other again, especially when the incumbent players have become used to each other for half a season.

If Pogba is to come back, a summer move is probably the best. This winter, the focus should be on a depth piece — a solid player that isn’t going to disrupt the lineup but will still be an asset in giving guys like Pjanic a breather against mid- to lower-table opposition to keep them fresh.

One possible move is for Cagliari’s Nicolo Barella, which would serve the multiple purposes: 1) reinforcing the team’s depth, 2) setting the team up for the future when Khedira and Matuidi, both 31, move on, and 3) keeping him away from any other Serie A team that is hovering around the up-and-coming talent. Monaco’s Youri Tielemans is another that can help the team now while also setting it up for the future.

Ultimately, the options are for Paratici and the rest of the front office to decide. But one thing is very clear: Juventus must get another midfielder in January to avoid another situation like the one they found themselves in this week later in the season, when the games mean even more.