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De Ligt, Morata and an angry Dybala: Why Juventus is about to explode

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Andrea Pirlo’s start hasn’t been perfect, but his side might just be poised to break out of their slump.

Juventus v Lokomotiv Moskva: Group D - UEFA Champions League Photo by Valerio Pennicino - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

If you feel like making excuses for Juventus’ stop-and-go start to the 2020-21 campaign in Serie A, I’ve got great news for you: there are almost endless possibilities. Even if you decide to change your phrasing a bit — as I did in our latest round table, calling all the adversarial curveballs “mitigating circumstances” — what remains true is that every single club on the globe is facing something entirely new and different.

Andrea Pirlo’s squad has been ravaged by injury and a short training regiment before the season began, but which other club hasn’t? Whether it’s the pandemic or the lack of a true break period before the proceedings began or an absurd international break with additional travel and game time for already-beleaguered players or something else, the “extenuating” is intense for everybody. Juventus, of course, are dealing with all those issues and a new manager; to stretch this change of direction back a bit, the club is dealing with a third manager in three years with three very different styles.

But Juventus is Juventus. This is the Old Lady we’re talking about, and the Old Lady doesn’t like making excuses, no matter how legitimate they are. Maybe it’s because I’ve only become a Juventus fan over the last handful of years, during a golden era of domestic dominance, but I can’t help but feel there’s something inevitable when it comes to this side putting everything together.

Winners focus on winning; losers focus on winners. I know the start hasn’t been perfect, but after a few days without watching the Bianconeri, I feel, perhaps irrationally given everything going on, that something very good is about to happen. Here’s why.

1. Alvaro Morata cannot be stopped

Juve’s happy No. 9 is on a tear. Everybody knows this: social media, Morata’s wife, his hair gel, and the brass in Turin. His goal-scoring record through the first couple months of the season is impressive as hell, and he just looks like he’s having a good time. Not only is he making the right run with (almost) perfect timing again and again, he’s finishing. Not only is he finishing, he’s looking to get teammates involved. He’s doing a little bit of everything for Pirlo right now; that has to be a manager’s dream.

Morata’s form is fantastic, but besides the form, more importantly at the end of the day, the optimism that many of us felt about procuring Morata over another striker has proved to be true: Morata is a chameleon striker. He’s the perfect tactical fit, a player who can play as that true No. 9 in the center of the pitch, who can backtrack with connective hold-up play; he’s also a player who can play as a second striker or even push out wide occasionally to vacate the space and allow new attacking movements.

The Morata MO before his plane arrived was that he’d work hard and do whatever was asked of him, that he’d fit however was needed into this lineup. He’s done that and more thus far. Even when his goal-scoring streak ends, he’s going to do those helpful little things.

2. Paulo Dybala has something to prove

Something might be wrong with No. 10; it could be injury, it could be the new coach, or it could be the ever-present difficulty of finding the best spot to insert him tactically. I remain a Dybala fan and I will to the end of my days, and even when he plays poorly, makes questionable decisions, or pouts a little on the pitch, I cannot keep from thinking he’s on the cusp of turning things around and lighting up the opposition — such is the talent he possesses.

This turnaround has not happened yet this season. While he did finally see his name on the scoresheet in the Champions League, the circumstances were a little goofy and you could see his million-dollar smile betray that fact.

Here’s the thing: an angry, motivated Paulo Dybala is not a bad thing. Given Morata’s form and Cristiano Ronaldo being who he is, the Argentine must know he needs to figure out how exactly he’s going to fit into Pirlo’s approach — and to start scoring goals. The strange saga of Dybala has gone this way and that over the last several years, with moments where every paper on the globe seemed to point to a sale (imagining Dybala at Tottenham Hotspur makes me sad); through every single one of those instances, we’ve never seen Dybala make a fuss — on the pitch or off it. Instead, he laces up and goes on a tear.

I think he’s poised to remind everybody why the club keeps extending him.

3. Matthijs de Ligt is about to take over

Ronaldo probably has one or two years left in Turin; there’s no escaping that fact. I hope Dybala works out and stays in Turin forever, but there is definitely a world in which he’s sold in one of the next few windows, and even if he’s not there are lingering questions over his becoming the jewel around which the Juventus crown is built. De Ligt, though, is perfectly positioned to make the kind of impact that elevates Juventus substantially.

I mean that last sentence in part literally — perfectly “positioned.” Pirlo’s tactical approach has been an asymmetrical 3-5-2 (or so) in possession sliding back to a 4-4-2 in defense, and in both cases the center backs are the foundation.

In attack, Pirlo has given the central defenders a fair amount of freedom to push forward in aiding with build-up play (often that role has been carved out by Danilo); this certainly hasn’t been the Max Allegri approach of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci immediately dumping the ball off to Miralem Pjanic to facilitate things moving forward.

The idea of de Ligt being more involved by pushing a little higher up the pitch sounds like a very, very good thing. He’s no worse than the club’s third-best player, he’s arguably the club’s second-best player, and if you were to sit me down at a pub over a pint and tell me he’s the club’s best player right now, I’m not sure I couldn’t be convinced. The Dutchman might only be 21 years old, but if he feels like taking the wheel and making this his team, the opportunity is there.

Juventus needs four wins in four outings in Serie A, and I think it’s going to happen. Cagliari, Benevento, Torino, and Genoa are next up domestically — the 11th, 16th, 17th, and 18th teams respectively in the table right now. This Juventus side has already dropped points to worse bottom-feeders (hey, Crotone!), but with each misstep the desperation is pushing the team’s back a little more to the wall, and that’s dangerous for the losers.

It’s time to win.