In March 2019 in the Champions League Round of 16, Juventus found themselves in serious trouble in Turin. Down 2-0 on aggregate to Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid, Max Allegri and Cristiano Ronaldo needed to deliver a forceful comeback.
Of course, they did just that: A CR7 hat trick ending with a penalty in the final 10 minutes of play sent the Spanish side back home, and Juventus on to the quarterfinals to face an up-and-coming Ajax team; let’s just pretend the Champions League story ended there.
But as good as Ronaldo was on that day, as stout as Juventus were defensive, the player who arguably made the biggest difference was No. 33: Federico Bernardeschi was all over the field. The Italian was both involved (59 touches, five shots) and productive (three dribbles, five fouls drawn).
There were many impressive performances that night in support of Ronaldo, but it was Bernardeschi who directly created two of the three goals, the first on a chipped cross floating to the opposite corner, where No. 7 smashed it past Jan Oblak in net, and the second a driving run through nearly half the field and earning a penalty kick after his heels were clipped in the box.
What a difference seven months and one new coach can make.
Bernardeschi has struggled mightily in the trequartista role under Maurizio Sarri, who has admitted that the 4-3-3 is virtually impossible without a true No. 9, of which Juventus has just one since the club has decided to shun Mario Mandzukic.
Sarri has therefore preferred a 4-3-1-2, which solves one problem but has created another. The problem Sarri chose to solve, probably wisely at the end of the day, was the Paulo Dybala problem — a problem Allegri more or less chose to ignore by trying to force Dybala into the right wing, where he never clicked in any capacity, his numbers dropping off significantly. The Argentine has played much better in recent memory for the Bianconeri, forming a solid partnership with Ronaldo where many thought it wasn’t possible, and most recently rescuing Juventus in the Champions League against Lokomotiv Moscow with a brace. Dybala was never going to work out as a winger, and with both Sarri and Allegri not believing in Dybala as a false No. 9, that is probably evidence enough to believe that ship has permanently sailed; Juve’s No. 10 can either play as a No. 10 or as a second striker.
In fixing the Dybala problem, Sarri created the trequartista problem.
Bernardeschi has been the mainstay in the position, but newcomer Aaron Ramsey and also, somewhat shockingly, Rodrigo Bentancur, have played there. Douglas Costa saw a few minutes as a substitute in the spot, and at the rate that the new manager is trying out trequartisti one could imagine a few other players getting a go.
At this point, there is no answer to the problem. It’s one thing to say that as a writer, as a fan of the club, and as someone who writes about the sport, but it’s a matter of fact since Sarri himself has given us the evidence: the ever-experimenting at trequartista.
When Bernardeschi plays in that position, he falls completely out of the game; he doesn’t make the right run at the right time; he isn’t on the same page as Ronaldo and Dybala. Costa’s speed and technical ability beg to be used as a winger. Ramsey is the most sensible choice in many ways, but every time he goes onto the pitch without being completely bubble-wrapped you kind of fear for his safety.
I don’t know how to approach this, and neither, it seems, does Sarri. It’s his full-time job to figure out a workable answer, and I have faith that he will. Juventus are good and talented enough to win many games without a perfect answer for the time being, but if Sarri wants to unlock everything that really is on this roster, it probably has to do with figuring out what to do with this position.
Disappointing as Bernardeschi has been as trequartista, I still believe, perhaps stubbornly, that he deserves a spot on this team. He may not be quite as skilled as Dybala, but he’s more well-rounded as a player and, when he’s clicking, he influences the game in a number of ways. If Juventus stay in a 4-3-1-2, however, I just don’t see where that position is for Bernardeschi.
It’s easy to diagnosis the tactical problems Juventus are facing, but it’s another to solve them. Let’s hope our cigarette-smoking bossman has the mind to do it.