When Max Allegri’s Juventus lined up in Cardiff to play the 2017 Champions League final against Real Madrid, the Bianconeri faced one of the most complete, imposing, and dominant midfields of the last decade — the exact same midfield that helped defeat Liverpool one year later in 2018, and the exact same midfield that helped defeat Atletico Madrid in 2016.
For all the credit that Cristiano Ronaldo justifiably deserves for Real Madrid’s success in recent memory, the club’s composition and continuity in the midfield ought to go down in history as an element just as important as the Portuguese winger. The trio has everything: incisive passing, the ability to carry the ball forward, shooting firepower, physical presence, intelligence ... you name it.
This is the midfield Juventus have not had for many, many years.
Miralem Pjanic will go down as a great and historic player for Juventus, but the fact that the BWRAO staff hardly considered the Bosnian for the team of the decade speaks volumes about the midfielders Maurizio Sarri currently has at his disposal. (Paul Pogba was the next one on the list for us, and probably Pjanic after that.)
Pjanic may be world-class; I think he probably is. But there may also be no sure way of knowing because he’s been isolated to such a degree for years. In that Champions League final in Cardiff, Allegri elected to play just one other midfielder (Sami Khedira, who was a little bit less Casper-like at that point, but still not great) while Claudio Marchisio, Mario Lemina, and Kwadwo Asamoah rode the bench.
For years, including this very moment, Juventus’ midfield has been adequate at best when considered against the club’s aspirations (Serie A dominance, a Champions League crown). Even so, the Bianconeri have continued to see on-field success despite very little investment into their weakest collective unit, and for the last three years there’s been no one to thank more for that fact than Blaise Matuidi.
One of the unfortunate ways in which many people talk about football players of color is purely (or at least mostly) in terms of physical attributes. Here is a fantastic article from the last World Cup discussing the racist undertones of the way Senegal’s team were described time and time again, and in general many players of color.
Even a preliminary dive into descriptions of Matuidi’s game on the internet will yield a majority of physical descriptors: he runs well, he has a great work rate, he’s fierce, he’s a good and hard tackler, he’s physical, he’s strong, he’s tenacious, he’s energetic, and so on and so forth. Luckily that’s not all you’ll find, and there is a great deal of truth to many of those descriptors to be sure; the proof for us Juve fans is in the last 2 1⁄2 years in Turin, and it’s one of the reasons why he lines up well with Pjanic in the midfield.
But the single most impressive thing to me about Matuidi is his intelligence. His tactical awareness, position on the pitch, and knowledge of when to make a run, when to retreat, when to shed covering one player in favor of another, when to double back to cover for Alex Sandro and when to overlap again — right now he’s light years ahead of Adrien Rabiot, his most likely replacement.
Matuidi is second only to Pjanic this for the Juventus midfielders in terms of minutes (1,230 to 1,094), and he’s garnered 300 minutes more than the next-highest Juventus midfielder (Rodrigo Bentancur).
On the surface, it’s hard to imagine a player who has less of a place on a Sarri-coached squad than Matuidi. The Frenchman doesn’t have much of a right foot, and though he can hold onto the ball well and knows where to move it, he’s not a player whose ability to carry the ball forward by himself inspires a lot of confidence.
Yet week in and week out, Sarri elects to play Matuidi. Many of us, myself included, probably assumed that Rabiot would slowly take this position, but that hasn’t been the case. In fact, it hasn’t only not been the case, but the current whispers, even if they’re from third-rate publications, is that teams like Everton, Manchester United, and Arsenal are interested in Rabiot as soon as this month. Juventus have added Emre Can and Rabiot in back-to-back years, both seemingly threats to displace Matuidi, but that hasn’t happened.
Does Juventus still need to invest in the midfield? Of course they do. A player like Sergej Milinkovic-Savic or Christian Eriksen could instantly transform this side and vault them into the highest echelon of European football. But it turns out that grabbing a free transfer — even with the huge wages that Juve offer and agent fees — hasn’t been the answer. Bentancur may get to a very high level sooner rather than later, but right now it’s Matuidi who has kept the ship from sinking.
I love Blaise Matuidi. I know he’s not the best player on the pitch, that he’s deficient in various ways, and that he’s not ever going to be mentioned next to names like Casemiro, Modric, or Kroos. But the Frenchman has been hugely important for this club over two and a half years, and without his influence on the pitch things could’ve been much worse.
What’s more, he plays the game with an infectious joy that’s second to none. That makes me happy, and I hope he stays in Turin to keep bringing that joy, skill, and intelligence to the black and white.