An hour before Juventus’ first game in Turin, Massimiliano Allegri released his starting 11: a clunky composition of experience, physicality, and brute force. The lineup was as lackluster as last week’s 4-2-3-1 was glamorous, with Paulo Dybala, Douglas Costa, and Juan Cuadrado in the reserves. And there was a most compelling surprise: 24-year-old Federico Bernardeschi on the right wing.
The Bianconeri’s No. 33, according to Allegri, wields the ability to “connect the lines” — as does Dybala. Ever since the young Italian’s transfer from Fiorentina, Juventus fans have noted the similarities between Bernardeschi and Dybala, differences though there are, and perhaps have even imagined him replacing Dybala should the Argentine go exploring new pastures in Spain, England, or Germany. For all their noted similarities, they’re wildly different players, and the fact that Allegri chose Bernardeschi over Dybala (and Cuadrado, and Costa) speaks volumes to the young Italian’s forecasted role this season.
Bernardeschi essentially offers elements of both Cuadrado and Dybala; he can “connect the lines” and also contribute defensively. Dybala does the former extremely well, but — even when deployed as a right winger — essentially doesn’t do the latter at all, not even in terms of tracking back and defending positionally (not even to mention recorded tackles, clearances, and clearances). Bernardeschi, who played almost everywhere on the pitch during his days in Florence, was only attributed a single tackle against Lazio, but in his 60 minutes of playing time you could find him on either end line. Surely Allegri didn’t fail to notice No. 33 retreating 100 meters to help out Joao Cancelo. Obviously Bernardeschi isn’t a regular Giorgio Chiellini or anything, but he looks like one if you’re comparing him to Dybala’s defensive contributions.
This spread of influence on the right flank is something that Cuadrado famously offers, but the Colombian doesn’t “connect the lines.” He’s not a player who cuts in on his left foot, who can meander freely into the center of the pitch; he’s not a player, frankly, with the creativity and flair of Bernardeschi.
Bernardeschi, then, offers some of what Dybala does (connecting the midfield and the forwards) and some of what Cuadrado does (defensive effort and positioning). Although perhaps each South American is somewhat more effective at their speciality, Bernardeschi is the more holistic player. Allegri’s guiding principle for this season, as it has always been, really, will probably be a game-by-game approach to a starting lineup rather than a set group of starters. Allegri likes to mask one formation and slip into another. Against Lazio, for instance, long stretches of the first half looked almost like a 4-4-2, sometimes a 4-4-1 with Mario Mandzukic popping up (almost) quite literally everywhere on the field. (The Croatian’s heat map is absurd — influence in both boxes, on both flanks, and in the midfield.)
The game against Lazio, Allegri thought — and thought correctly, it must be said — required physicality. Juve’s two most finesse players in Dybala and Costa were left on the bench, and he elected to start Benardeschi, probably fearing a lineup almost completely devoid of creativity had Cuadrado started. (Although, as a sidebar, Leonardo Bonucci showed against the Biancocelesti why he’s so valuable in distribution, completing 10 of 15 long balls.)
But Bernardeschi must have shown something in training, must have shown something last year, and certainly showed something against Lazio that surely Juventus fans will grow more accustomed to seeing more and more this year: furious grinta. There is something extremely admirable about a Swiss Army Knife-type player who displays the kind of balanced skill that he possesses, and there is something even more admirable about a player that evenly skilled who, as he has stated on numerous occasions, is willing to do whatever it takes to get on the pitch and help his team. There is something of Mandzukic, in fact, in Bernardeschi — the perpetual motor. There is, again like Mandzukic (and unlike, frankly, Dybala and Cuadrado) something in Bernardeschi that seems to refuse to slouch, to refuse to adhere to poor and lethargic body language.
All that said, Bernardeschi does remain, at times, a somewhat predictable player. He fired one shot just wide that glanced off the fingertips of Thomas Strakosha (as well as Cristiano Ronaldo’s), but at the end of his 59 minutes he’d only touched the ball 26 times, and on numerous occasions you could see why: Lazio forced him to his right as much as possible.
Bernardeschi needs to make his game more dynamic in the final third, because he brings so much to the table. The term “all-around” player has a pejorative connotation in some ways — the underlying sense that there’s no single skill commendable enough to note — but Bernardeschi certainly embodies the term, and frankly Juventus seems to have a number of players who don’t fit that mold at all. Bernardeschi, like Mandzukic, does.
The youngster’s start also does buck a little bit at the trend of Allegri’s refusing to play young players. Juve’s starting 11 featured 24-year-old Bernardeschi and 24-year-old Cancelo on the right side of the pitch. Cuadrado, a trusted asset who didn’t start his season well at all last week, rode the pine. When it appeared Bonucci may have been hurt, Daniele Rugani — and not Medhi Benatia or Andrea Barzagli — started warming up. Then the 23-year-old Emre Can switched for Miralem Pjanic (more on that substitution below), and while the only other option was Rodrigo Bentancur (who appeared shortly thereafter), Allegri could’ve thrown in Cuadrado if he didn’t trust Can in that situation.
The trend is certainly one to watch for, Allegri playing younger players, and really relying on them. But I have a feeling the turnover from game to game is going to be extremely high starting in mid-September, and players like Can and Bentancur are going to see their time, especially given the fact Juventus only has five midfielders on the roster.
I was a fan of Bernardeschi before this game, but after 59 minutes against a pretty damn good Lazio side the lad has completely won me over. More importantly, he seems to have won over his manager.
Aperitivo afterthoughts — five of them
1. Emre Can plays the deep-lying midfielder
I know that Pjanic asked for a substitution due to some minor injury or other, but seeing Can play just ahead of the back line was really, really interesting. Like I said (and others have said) at some point or other, the prospect of pushing Pjanic further up the pitch, as in his days in Roma, is compelling, especially to add another player to “connect the lines” and facilitate movement between the midfield to the forwards, and most obviously Ronaldo. Can played well, I thought, despite giving away a semi-dangerous free kick and diving into a, as the announcer put it, “naughty” tackle and earning himself a yellow card.
The German’s brightest moment was a perfectly placed long ball to Ronaldo, sent on a rope to No. 7 who was able to gather well, although the attack fell apart shortly thereafter. If Can can distribute well from just ahead of the back line, Pjanic could be deployed in other ways.
2. Joao Cancelo improves tremendously from Chievo fixture
The young Portuguese fullback, as Sam pointed out, wasn’t perfect, but damn did he show marked improvement in very specific areas. Allegri has to like that, because if Cancelo can be a bit sharper defensively and, offensively, act more like a fullback — i.e., sending crosses in rather than only attacking space on the dribble alone — then he’ll be seeing a lot of time even when Mattia De Sciglio returns.
Against Chievo Cancelo recorded three crosses. Against Lazio it was eight. Against Chievo he completed two long balls on two attempts. Against Lazio he completed four long balls on seven attempts.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo is going to be fine
End of story.
4. Champions League games will bring open competition
I already mentioned this, and it seems like Allegri has mentioned this every time he gets in front of the mic, but once Juventus are playing two times per week the other lads are going to see a lot of time. I really feel for Benatia, who had a great year last year by all accounts, but Bonucci is just a better tactical fit (especially against a high-pressing Lazio). But I have a feeling he’ll pretty much anchor any back line that’s missing Chiellini, so he’ll still be an important player. Guys like Bentancur, Can, and Mattia Perin will have a chance to see the field regularly as well.
5. A 2-0 win is great, but stop with the slop
Alex Sandro, who was an absolute wrecking ball against Chievo, did not have a stellar second showing. He was fine defensively, but he gave the ball away a couple times in precarious places and seemed, generally, to dilly-dally around a bit too much.
Pjanic, too, wasn’t great, despite scoring. The most ridiculous moment came when he gifted Ciro Immobile a ball at the top of the box. Fortunately the gaff didn’t result in a concession.