Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Juventus is facing a major depth crisis at a particular position group that has been decimated by injuries.
It’s a refrain we’ve been hearing a little too often over the last few years. In this particular case it’s the center backs, who are missing both Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci to muscle injuries. With Matthijs de Ligt only just scheduled to return from the shoulder surgery he had to undergo in August, Juve will be going into Saturday’s game against Cagliari with Merih Demiral as the only true center back that can be considered 100 percent fit. Danilo can be thrown into the mix as well, having been a fixture of Andrea Pirlo’s back three since the beginning of the year, but it’s still a serious issue. With the fixture list crammed full in order to get the season in on time after the late start forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, unless someone gets healthy quick the only way Pirlo will be able to give his center-backs any rest for the next few weeks will be to change formations.
What makes this such a facepalm-inducing situation is the fact that it could have been avoided had the front office displayed a little bit of common sense. Unfortunately, Fabio Paratici and his crew have had a distressing habit of letting certain position groups get dangerously thin, despite clear indications that those groups need more depth.
Now, I know that that’s easy for me to say sitting behind my keyboard. This is real life, not a FIFA save, and it’s not like you can make every spot in the starting XI three-deep with players who are at least capable the way I do in my Franchise Mode. But in each of the last three years Paratici has let the team go into the season paper-thin at one position or another, and done so when he had players that could have provided that depth already under his control.
Here’s a quick review of these scenarios:
Yes, I am well aware that Paratici was still Giuseppe Marotta’s No. 2 until a few months into this season. In hindsight, though, it’s clear that Marotta’s influence was waning going into that summer, and Paratici had always been heavily involved in the team’s transfer dealings, so I feel he has to bear at least some of the blame for the fact that Juventus went into this season short in the middle of the park.
By the end of the previous season it was clear that Massimiliano Allegri had landed on a 4-3-3 as his preferred shape, and the acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo all but confirmed he’d set up that way. Indeed, with the one exception of the second half of the ‘17-18 season when the 4-2-3-1 “Five Star” lineup was beating the tar out of everyone in sight, Allegri has always employed a three-man midfield.
So, the fact that Juventus went into that season with only five midfielders on the roster was a dangerous move. That danger proved all too real when it turned out that this was the season when Sami Khedira’s body started to betray him. The German only played 17 times that year, heaping a huge workload onto Miralem Pjanic, Emre Can, Blaise Matuidi, and Rodrigo Bentancur. Pjanic, in particular, was whipped into the ground, playing 3,212 minutes in all competitions. By the end of the year they were clearly gassed, and they turned into the team’s big weakness, unable to hold the line against the midfields of teams like Ajax. If Paratici had gotten another body into the unit — even doing so much as retaining Claudio Marchisio, who was unceremoniously released in the middle of August — Allegri might’ve had the options to keep guys fresh.
I have absolutely no idea what gave Paratici the ridiculous notion that he could go into the ‘19-20 season with only three fullbacks on the roster. Even if Maurizio Sarri had always intended to use Juan Cuadrado as a right back — and I’m not so sure that’s the case — that was an absurdly thin group. When you add in the fact that one of the three was Mattia De Sciglio, whose injury history was long and documented at that point — and who ended up on the shelf for months with a muscle injury just two weeks into the year — and you end up in a situation where rest is nearly impossible and, if the right combination of injuries and/or suspensions happen, you end up needing to resort to desperation moves like playing Matuidi at left back, which happened twice over the course of the season.
This, again, was a completely avoidable situation, as Juve could have either kept Leonardo Spinazzola, who had showed well the previous season before being sent to Roma, or Luca Pellegrini, the guy Spinazzola was swapped for after a good showing on loan from the Giallorossi at Cagliari. Instead, Paratici moved so many pieces around the board that he seemingly forgot that he didn’t have enough guys to effectively man the flanks. For that matter, they didn’t really make things better this season, although Pirlo’s use of wingbacks rather than traditional full-backs somewhat mitigates that, as it diversifies the options for cover at those spots.
This year it’s the middle of the defense that’s been neglected. Going into a season with only four center backs on the roster is a risk even if you’re using a four-man back line, but with a three-man line it’s really pushing it, even with Danilo moving into the back and Pirlo’s formation morphing depending on the situation. When you factor in that one of those guys, Chiellini, has a novel-length injury history and is coming off a year where he could only play four times after blowing out his knee, it becomes borderline negligent.
Once again, Paratici didn’t need to jump through hoops in order to provide depth enough to cover. Both Daniele Rugani and Cristian Romero were on the team’s books as the season began, and both were shipped out, to Rennes and Atalanta, respectively, leaving the team’s depth contingent in large part on Chiellini’s ability to stay healthy, which, for all his legend, is diminishing by the day.
All of these situations could have been avoided quite easily had the front office simply held on to players they already controlled. Instead, they made the risky choice to go into those seasons without enough bodies in those positions. In the last two seasons those decisions came back to haunt the team. Limited ability to rotate had an eventual knock-on effect, leaving the team drained and tired by the end of the season when games meant that much more. That becomes doubly important given the fact that Juve will be playing twice a week between now and Christmas, but as the team is currently constructed Demiral, de Ligt, and Danilo are going to have to play every game in the back for at least half of that time until Bonucci comes back. Going thin at certain positions in the first team could be a risk worth taking if you can fill it out a prospect or two from the youth level, but Juve’s youth sector has been almost completely devoid of serious contributions to the first team since the turn of the century, and coaches rarely draw from it except to fill out the homegrown seats on the Champions League bench.
What effect the current lack of center back depth will have on the team down the line in terms of fatigue and the injuries that that could create are anyone’s guess, but whenever I think about it I come back to the fact that it didn’t have to be like this. All Paratici had to do was utilize players he already controlled to make sure that there were enough bodies for the defense. Now, with the games coming thick and fast, we’re left to hope we don’t have to find out what Pirlo would come up with if he were to lose one of the only guys he has left in his back three.