Injuries, pandemics, and international breaks, oh my!
Between the positive COVID-19 tests of Cristiano Ronaldo and Weston McKennie, the injury of Aaron Ramsey while on a jolly old jaunt with Wales, and the Under-23 squad super-spreader, any sense of normalcy that might’ve existed with the start of a new season has been dashed — somewhat predictably — and so has the expected lineup of Andrea Pirlo, at least from what we’ve seen in the first two games.
Ronaldo is Ronaldo, and he’s always going to start and play the full 90 when he’s fit and not resting against a lower-tier opponent. McKennie won’t be a sure-fire starter once Juve hit full stride, but still, the American has appeared on the team sheet twice in two games. And Ramsey showed fans, particularly against Sampdoria, just how dynamic he can be when healthy.
Now none of those players is available. That means there are golden opportunities for others to make an impression with Pirlo. Here’s who has the most at stake — and what, exactly, is at stake.
1. Dejan Kulusevski: playing closer to goal
The young Swede is the player whose future I am most excited about, with the caveat that Matthijs de Ligt is already one of the best in the world at his position, and with both Ramsey and Ronaldo being out of the picture, No. 44 will almost certainly play as a second striker or attacking midfielder if Pirlo trots out the same formation.
I have argued over and over again that Kulusevski belongs as close to the goal as possible. In my mind, even if he could theoretically handle the defensive responsibilities of a wingback, using him in that position is really a waste of talent. I remain pretty adamant that Pirlo should use fullbacks for fullbacks, but with the Federico Chiesa acquisition I’m not sure that’s in the cards. Even so, put this kid close to the net, because he’s a machine scoring goals and assisting them.
Of course, those three attacking spots have plenty of competition, and even a strong showing against Crotone and Dynamo Kyiv won’t guarantee anything moving forward. Maybe one of the underrated components of this transfer window was Fabio Paratici’s creation of a dogfight at every positional unit on the field; that’s a very good thing in my book.
2. Alvaro Morata: not getting lost in the shuffle
Speaking of “plenty of competition” — although Morata landed back in Turin after some time in Madrid with a pretty big final price tag, he’s another player who needs to prove his worth quickly to get and stay on the field.
Ronaldo is Ronaldo, and Dybala is Dybala. The Spaniard may be good buddies with No. 10, but that doesn’t change the fact that he needs to do something substantive to carve a role for himself in Pirlo’s attack. For a traditional No. 9, that’s goals — there’s no other way about it. For Morata, that’s probably going to look more like effective link-up play and intense pressing. Run like hell, kid.
His first appearance for Juve was more than forgettable, although his manager said he didn’t play as poorly as the media portrayed him, and I don’t think we should put any weight into it at all (or McKennie’s second appearance, for that matter).
But Morata is a vastly experienced player, a guy who has played with some of the best in the world for a number of years at the highest levels, and I doubt he’s going to be happy riding the bench and waiting for Ronaldo’s time in Turin to close. Seeing that ball in the back of the net sooner rather than later is going to be the best palate cleanser for the Old Lady’s new striker.
3. Arthur: being the star the midfield hasn’t seen in years
The midfield revamp we’d been waiting for years finally came — sort of.
There was no Houssem Aouar, no Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, no Paul Pogba return. There was, instead, the swapping of Miralem Pjanic for Arthur and the addition of some depth with McKennie.
The sample size is minuscule, but in his first action with the Bianconeri the Brazilian looked dazzling. He was composed in possession; he effortlessly turned and carried the ball, the kind of silky-smooth ace that Pjanic was at his brightest moments. But in a double pivot, with three center backs behind him and a trio of attackers in front of him, and especially with the rangy Rodrigo Bentancur at his side, Arthur might be in the most promising position possible to unleash his skill set.
The time is now for Arthur to make the statement to Pirlo that this can be his unit. There’s no shortage of competition, just as in attack. Adrien Rabiot had a bit of a bender against Roma but otherwise has continued his promising play starting at the end of last season, and McKennie, while inconsistent through two games, offers a ball-hawking hunger that is sure to win him minutes one way or another. But right now there are two open spots, and they’re open for the taking.
The truth is that everybody has a lot at stake over the next two (or more) games with Ronaldo sidelined. Pirlo doesn’t want Serie A to slip away with a sloppy performance against a bottom-of-the-table side, and surely doesn’t want to start the Champions League by dropping points. Dybala wants to return from injury and get back to the star he is. Paratici wants his signings to work out. Chiesa has hardly even been mentioned, but you can bet this little Tasmanian devil is chomping at the bit no matter where he slots in.
These little battles for minutes and for starting roles are going to be fascinating. It really feels like it’s been some time since there were so many simultaneous intra-squad contests. One would hope that a Juve locker room chock-full of experience and leadership would mean that nothing turns sour as these play out, and that the old adage “iron sharpens iron” would remain true. In a healthy club, competition is a very good thing. Good for the football, and good for the fans.
Battle away, gentlemen.