One of the more memorable elements of the Juventus-Lazio draw before the international break was Andrea Pirlo’s continuous bellowing from the sidelines: “FABRO! FABRO! FABRO!” Like the chorus of some demented Sophocles tragedy, the manager’s constant chiding and directing of the young Italian fullback was ever-present, somewhat ominous.
Gianluca Fabrotta, though, is not the Old Lady’s first choice for the left wingback position, and neither is Federico Chiesa. Lest fans forget, trusty old Alex Sandro is set to return from injury after the break, reportedly to be available against Cagliari, and although the Brazilian’s return has slipped somewhat under the radar when compared to, say, the return of Matthijs de Ligt, Sandro’s presence on the left side of pitch might be as important.
Width from the flanks but not as much penetration
If we’ve learned anything from Pirlo’s tactical approach so far, it’s that the formation any given game is not symmetrical. So the role for the right wingback is not going to be the same for the left wingback, and that’s a very good thing for Sandro.
When Juan Cuadrado is playing on the right, part of what he’s asked to do is make inroads up and down the entire right side of the field — including the opposition’s penalty box. Those little forays are often helpful in building attacks, and he earned a nice assist against Lazio for his efforts.
On the left, where Cristiano Ronaldo is often at the top of the attack, the wingback does not need to make as much of an incisive impact. That’s not to say the left wingback should never galavant that high up the pitch — Fabrotta got in a dangerous position once or twice — but “incessant attack” is not really the job description. I think we’ve seen how thin Juve can become between the lines on several occasions, especially with Chiesa who’s always going to have a mind for goal.
This is Sandro’s ideal world: providing width on the left but not necessarily required (or even encouraged) to make attacking goal No. 1. Instead, Sandro will be a superior defensive force and a better point of connectivity with the midfield and with, at the back, Danilo, his Brazilian countryman with whom he should form a nice partnership. One wrinkle we’ve seen a bit lately is Danilo pushing forward into space with the ball at his feet — that seems a lot more feasible and a lot less vulnerable to counter-attack if Sandro, rather than Fabrotta or Chiesa, is helping shore up that vacated space at the back.
Speaking of the midfield
Ah, the midfield. The ever-beleaguered unit for the Bianconeri, at least for several years running. While Chiesa and Fabrotta have performed fine in their cameos on the left, moving forward in attack and shifting to the left midfield spot in the defensive, out-of-possession 4-4-2, where we’ve seen some difficulties has been, as I mentioned earlier, space between the lines.
What happens is that Juve, in attack, move to the 3-4-1-2 — or whatever variation it looks like — and really begin to push attackers forward. The right wingback is all the way up into the penalty box; the left wingback may be a bit behind but is still in the final third. The two forwards and the trequartista are all hanging around the area like sharks waiting for blood. Even the two midfielders are trying to get in on the action.
What this means, of course, is that in a quick loss of possession, there are acres of space that the two central midfielders need to begin covering immediately. To do this well, they need to retreat in a positionally smart way, and they also need the aid of the two wingbacks to make sure the back three aren’t totally overwhelmed.
This is where my concerns about Fabrotta and Chiesa exponentially increase: I have very little faith that they possess the defensive awareness to not only hustle back but to hustle back to the right position.
All of that is to say I think Sandro is going to help the midfield immensely — marginally in possession, more so in the build-up, and substantially in loss of possession.
I wrote more than a month ago that Pirlo ought to let fullbacks be fullbacks, rather than trying to wedge square pegs into round holes like Dejan Kulusevski at right wingback. When Sandro finally returns, whether that’s against Cagliari or in the Champions League, I think we’ll see the virtues of having a true fullback occupy that role for Pirlo.
I don’t want to get too cute and say that Sandro’s return is more important than de Ligt’s — it’s not, especially factoring in Giorgio Chiellini’s injury — but it won’t go unnoticed.