There are some stories as old as time: good vs. evil, whether or not pineapple belongs on pizza, France vs. England, et cetera, et cetera. But there’s one transcendent story that dwarfs each of these both in breadth and import, and that is the state of the Juventus midfield.
When Maurizio Sarri released the starting XI for Tuesday’s matchup against Lokomotiv Moscow, the same midfield trio we’ve grown accustomed to seeing — Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic, and good ol’ Sami Khedira — appeared on the team sheet, the one wrinkle in the lineup being Rodrigo Bentancur occupying the attacking midfield role.
But when the final whistle blew, when Sarri had finished pulling the strings to his side, you were looking at the midfield of the future for Juventus.
Why Mautidi and Khedira are untenable in some situations
For the first 75 minutes of this game, a group of 2,000 Russians made more noise than all the Italians at Allianz Stadium put together. For the first 75 minutes, Lokomotiv defended with incredible precision and discipline, and their work paid off with a stroke of luck after 30 minutes.
In a game in which Juventus finished with 78 percent of the possession and the opponent is fielding almost their entire team behind the ball, it’s extremely difficult to justify fielding Matuidi, whose first touch is poor and who can’t really use his right foot in any significant way. Time and time again an attack that started on the left with Alex Sandro found its dying breath at the feet of the Frenchman, whether that was an errant touch or his inability to quickly send the ball along to the appropriate teammate.
Khedira does some things well now and them, and he avoids making fatal mistakes or finding himself in the wrong spot. But his penchant for disappearing makes him, as I’ve noted in the past, a sort of Casper the Friendly Ghost on the pitch. He’s not athletic enough these days to have a big defensive presence. What he does offer is intelligent movement and some good long passing now and then; we’ve seen him lift more than a couple nice assists to Cristiano Ronaldo.
But in a game against a stalwart defense, neither of these players makes a ton of sense. You need the quick, technical passing. You need the involvement. And Sarri recognized pretty quickly into the second half, just a couple minutes into it, in fact, that the midfield needed a change.
I want to sidebar here and say that I think Matuidi is going to remain an extremely important player for Juventus against a number of opponents. His work rate and motor have obviously been noted, but what impresses me most about Matuidi are his runs, the timing and intelligence of them. He knows exactly when to move forward, which space to fill. I think that’s what Adrien Rabiot must continue to learn. He also obviously offers a bit more defensive solidity behind Ronaldo, especially in a 4-3-3.
The revamped midfield didn’t spark the goals, but it made Juve’s possession much more fluid
I’m not trying to advance some gnostic argument here saying that the changed midfield completely changed the game — the midfield really didn’t contribute to the build-up of either goal in a significant way, unless you count Bentancur launching a ball skyward from the right corner of the field back, luckily, into Juve possession — but I am saying as soon as Sarri made those changes, the possession and link-up play looked much better.
So much of the play was going through the right flank for most of the game, in part because Juan Cuadrado continues to resurrect his career as a right back and in part because everything that moved forward on the left inevitably landed at the feet of Matuidi.
Once Rabiot found his way into the game, suddenly the left flank opened up as a viable attack route. And once Bentancur was switched to the right midfielder position — with Gonzalo Higuain replacing Khedira — the Uruguayan looked infinitely more comfortable. Things clicked. Juventus were more balanced just as Lokomotiv were growing wearier.
The potential of a Rabiot-Pjanic-Bentancur midfield
Juventus have not wielded a complete midfield for some years, a midfield capable of expansive distribution, defensive solidity, and technical prowess. Pjanic has been the lone
If Rabiot, Pjanic, and Bentancur gel and grow together, this is that midfield.
All three of those players can carry the ball forward. None of them is quite a Casemiro, but Pjanic’s defensive abilities have greatly improved since he dropped deeper into the midfield with Max Allegri, Rabiot is an imposing physical character in the midfield, and Bentancur has a pit bull inside of him. Rabiot and Bentancur are both rangy, too, able to cover a lot of ground. We’ve already seen Pjanic add a few goals the season, and I think Rabiot has the same potential.
If Sarri can generate the same grinta in Rabiot that Matuidi has, and get similar work rate, then I think the potential here is really off the charts. Although Pjanic is going to start declining physically soon given his age (29), but his game doesn’t require a ton of athleticism, and Rabiot (24) and Bentancur (22) have years and years ahead of them.
Over the course of 90 minutes we saw the Juventus midfield of old and, just maybe, the Juventus midfield of the future.
It’s good to be back, gang. I was really hoping for a Khedira hat trick, but I guess a Dybala brace will do just fine. Happy birthday to Danny as well!