For years, Juventus have built a reputation on a rock-solid defense, from Antonio Conte’s impenetrable back three of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and Andrea Barzagli to Massimiliano Allegri’s pragmatic but effective schemes. Last year the Bianconeri seemed to reinforce that identity by picking up Portuguese João Cancelo. The trend continued even further with the acquisition of Matthijs de Ligt from Ajax, hailed as a once-in-a-generation talent.
Then, the cornerstone cracked; it showed immediate signs of crumbling.
First, Cancelo was sold to Manchester City and replaced by Danilo, a solid if uninspiring player. Then, Chiellini went down with a torn ACL three weeks later. And the entire ship was under the direction of a manager, Maurizio Sarri, not particularly known for his defensive prowess.
Yet, throughout the beginning of the season, players have individually and collectively stepped up to shoulder the responsibility. Through 12 games, in fact, La Vecchia Signora has allowed multiple goals in only two games, both late meltdowns against top-notch competition (Napoli, Atletico Madrid). Bonucci has transformed his play from a relatively dismal showing last year, and de Ligt has been solid enough even as he pushes through significant struggles in adapting to his new home.
But no single player has been more important to the Juventus defense — and perhaps the club as a whole — as Juan Cuadrado.
‘I am very happy’
Cuadrado is the exact type of player you want on a club like Juventus, a club absolutely spoiled by depth at virtually every position. The Colombian, as far as I can remember, has never caused a scene in complaining about squad selection or playing time. By all accounts, he shows up to training, works hard, and does what his coaches ask of him. More impressive than that, to me at least, is the infectious joy with which he carries himself — especially, of course, when he bangs one in the back of the net, which he certainly does from time to time.
One distinct hallmark of a great player is his ability to reinvent himself at various points in his career. Juventus have the luxury of seeing one of the best players ever at doing this in Cristiano Ronaldo, and Cuadrado seems to have fallen into step.
“I am very happy,” he said earlier in October regarding his play at right back. “From the start when talking to the coach, I tried to change my mentality and be fully concentrated, as I know that I can do better, but Barzagli is on me constantly, so I can’t relax for a second!”
That’s the kind of player you want on your side. And that’s the kind of player Juventus have in Cuadrado.
The timing of the fit is a bit puzzling, because one would’ve thought that if any coach was able to turn a good winger into a good fullback it might be Allegri, but for whatever reason the stars have now aligned for Cuadrado to succeed immensely. And that success is a boon for Juventus, who may only have one of the original BBC left on the pitch, but who have two in the locker room and in the clubhouse ready to groom Cuadrado into an even better defender.
Arguably Juve’s second-most influential player thus far
In Juve’s come-from-behind win against Lokomotiv Moscow in the Champions League last week, Cuadrado touched the ball 151 times. That number is absurd on a number of levels, and even considering the near-80 percent possession the Bianconeri enjoyed the next-closest player was Miralem Pjanic with a paltry (by comparison) 110 touches.
Third-most in terms of touches for that game went to Alex Sandro (105) which shows just exactly what Sarri is trying to get done with the new-look 4-3-1-2 that he’s used for his side in recent fixtures. With the absence of true wingers, the attack can grow dangerously narrow. Sandro probably warrants his own story due to his phenomenally stout play, but the attacking juice from the right back position was an area of fairly grave concern as soon as Cancelo left Turin for Manchester. Mattia De Sciglio and Danilo are both fine to good players, but neither is known for game-changing offensive contributions.
That’s what Cuadrado now offers. Against Inter Milan on Oct. 6, the Colombian successfully completed more dribbles (three) than anyone on the team not named Ronaldo, a number that was tied with Lautaro Martinez for second-most on the pitch for either side. His vision and passing abilities saw him complete 10 of 12 attempted long balls, the most of all 22 players in both categories.
The performance against Inter garnered the attention of StatsBomb, who wrote a great analysis of what Cuadrado has brought to the table so far. These statistics are now dated a bit, but they’re still incredibly telling.
At the time of that article, Cuadrado trailed only Pjanic in completed deep progressions (7.42 per 90 minutes for the Colombian); he was 13th in league play in open play passes per 90 leading Flavio Fusi, the writer for StatsBomb, to assert that Cuadrado could be “as important as the Bosnian to Juventus’ possession game.”
Juventus fans may moan about his occasional decision-making, but his emergence is as important as it is surprising. As if to prove his point, Cuadrado’s 40-minute performance against Lecce this past weekend produced three key passes and a lot of promise on the right flank.
What this changes for the team as a whole
The implications for Juventus are substantial. Cuadrado emerging as a top right back in all facets of the game means that selling Cancelo has paid off both financially and tactically without sacrificing any depth at the position (De Sciglio and Danilo are pretty darn good second options), and, most importantly, means that Juventus have paved roads to attack on either side of the pitch.
Those avenues can be closed or opened to varying degrees, as I noted after the last Champions League game. If Blaise Matuidi is playing at the left midfield spot, then I think it’s even more important to have Cuadrado as the right back. Either way, though, Juve’s arsenal of ball-playing players on the back line is starting to look like one of the best in the world, especially when Pjanic drops between the center backs to distribute.
Sandro, de Ligt, Pjanic, Bonucci, and Cuadrado facilitating the build-up for Juventus is deadly. There’s still substantial work in my opinion for Juve to be considered among the top two to three favorites in the Champions League, and it mostly has to do with, as ever it feels like, connecting those lines from the defense to the attack. But Cuadrado’s emergence is starting to address those exact questions, as his dribbling and distribution are now available anywhere on the right side of the pitch.
The Johnny Square Experience at right back may not vault Juventus immediately into the top echelon of world football, but it moves the needle and answers a vital question. Now Sarri can move onto other issues the squad faces.