Andrea Pirlo’s second-ever starting lineup took a stroll through a land I like to call “the psychedelic galaxy fullback brain super definitely awesome going to work land,” slotting the right-footed right winger Juan Cuadrado at left wingback and the left-footed forward Dejan Kulusevski at right wingback.
Verdict: failure, as the esteemed Sergio pointed out already.
More than just the fullback situation, though, the team that faced the Giallorossi over the weekend looked discombobulated. The two things that struck me immediately through the first 45 minutes were, one, the need for a more dynamic playmaker and, two, the quickness with which the team currently loses shape; I understand the desire and aggression to win back the ball, but to do so while completely imploding is to leave the center backs vulnerable to counter attacks. The last 30 minutes addressed those concerns in a pretty satisfying way, when Rodrigo Bentancur, Arthur Melo, and, later Gianluca Frabotta joined the fray.
There’s a lot to digest right now, which, I think, is a good thing. But I want to dwell a minute on the fullback situation.
The transfer market is almost over, and there’s a good chance that the current roster is the roster Pirlo will have at his disposal for this campaign, possibly excepting a January move. There are still some hypothetical sales floating around the interwebs (Daniele Rugani, Douglas Costa, Mattia De Sciglio) and some hypothetical purchases, too (Federico Chiesa chief among them).
If this is the squad we’ve got — and I’m not sure this is an entirely popular opinion — I think there’s more than enough to succeed in Serie A and compete in the Champions League. But Pirlo needs to play fullbacks as fullbacks, even if that means a more talented player is on the bench.
Juventus need fullbacks, and the current setup isn’t terrible
Cuadrado as the presumptive right wingback and Alex Sandro as the presumptive left wingback sounds absolutely fine to me. World-class? No. Good? Yes!
Johnny Square didn’t turn out to be a great left wingback (shocking!), but I understand why Pirlo at least tried it out. But Cuadrado’s best games have arguably been as a right back when given the freedom to push up the pitch. We’ve actually seen him on more than one occasion be the primary influence for the Bianconeri, and it’s worked out well on those occasions. Put the Colombian back at the right wingback position and let him run it this year.
On the other side, the carping around the Brazilian consistently leaves me baffled. No, he’s not Marcelo, or Alphonso Davies, or Andy Robertson, or whoever else you’d rank as some of the top left backs in the game right now, but he remains solid as a rock defensively. And even if he’s not the most creative player in the world or the best link-up guy, he makes intelligent runs and does his job. Heck, most of the time he’s behind Cristiano Ronaldo, so it’s not like he needs to or is supposed to be a major offensive influence.
With Sandro on the left and Cuadrado on the right, you’d have some natural asymmetry to the attack that would make a lot of sense, Sandro staying more alert to his defensive duties behind Cristiano, Cuadrado afforded a bit more freedom to slice into the final third and link up with the attackers there.
If the roster holds, that means the fullback situation would look something like this — from starter to reserve:
Left: Sandro, Frabotta, De Sciglio
Right: Cuadrado, De Sciglio, Danilo
Which brings me to my second point.
Federico Bernardeschi is not a fullback, so don’t play him there
There will be clamoring for No. 33 as the left wingback, and Pirlo has already mentioned the possibility, but I think this would be a pretty significant overreach. As underwhelming as De Sciglio consistently is, I’d rather have him start as a left wingback 10/10 times over Bernardeschi. I don’t even really feel like I need to see Bernardeschi try that spot.
Any time Cristiano Ronaldo is on the field, you’re essentially down to defending with 10 players. Any time Paulo Dybala is on the field at the same time, you’re essentially down to nine. When you’ve got Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci on the field, you’ve got two great center backs at the “looking at my retirement accounts” stage of their career, both of whom are lacking a lot of pace. Add to that the fact that the midfielders have been tasked with aggressively pressing to win back possession, and you’re left in a situation in which the fullbacks could be the last line of defense to breaking up a counter and disrupting the opposition’s movement into the final third.
I take a few risks now and then, but risking Bernardeschi as a key cog defensively is not one of them. He is not a fullback; this team needs fullbacks.
A corollary point: Federico Chiesa is also not a fullback.
Which brings me to my third point.
If there’s any money left, spend it on the flanks — not in attack or the midfield
After several years of believing the midfield was lacking something serious, I’m ready to believe there’s enough juice there to compete with Europe’s best, assuming Pirlo runs with a double pivot rather than a three-man midfield. We saw against Sampdoria how lethal Aaron Ramsey can be when completely healthy and clicking, and we’ll see Kulusevksi in the hole sooner rather than later, too.
So I’m at the point where I don’t think we actually should spend the money on Houssem Aouar. Bentancur and Arthur will probably hold down the first and second spots in the double pivot, with Adrien Rabiot and Weston McKennie playing in certain tactical matchups or as reserves. The attacking midfield spot would be a revolving door of Kulusevski, Ramsey, Bernardeschi, and possibly Douglas Costa.
There remains a ton of depth in this Juventus side, enough to absorb some injuries and rotate players to come up with a viable solution, like we saw against Sampdoria. Pirlo was not given the opportunity to have a normal preseason and tinker with the squad as I’m sure he would’ve liked to, but the formational fluidity seems very promising, the attitude of the team thrilling and completely refreshing. While I understand wanting to get the best players on the pitch, sometimes you need to stick guys where they’re comfortable working. Let Sandro and Cuadrado own those spots, back them up with Frabotta and De Sciglio, and let’s work on making this team a cohesive unit.