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The head-scratching case of Miralem Pjanic and the Juventus midfield

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Juventus have a number of serious questions right now. Where does Miralem Pjanic rank on that list?

AC Milan v Juventus - Coppa Italia: Semi Final Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

Perhaps no single play this season has been more emblematic of the troubles facing the Juventus midfield than Hellas Verona’s game-tying goal on Feb. 8.

Down 1-0, the home side sliced easily through the right flank of the Bianconeri defense and sent a poor pass to a cutting attacker. That didn’t matter, though, because Rodrigo Bentancur decided the best thing to do was attempt a back-heel flick to escape the final third. Needless to say, the maneuver did not work out, and instead it sent the ball to no man’s land in between Miralem Pjanic and Fabio Borini. In a feeble attempt to play the ball back to Matthijs de Ligt, Pjanic lunged at the ball only to toe-poke the orb to the equally outstretched toe of the opposition, who put perfect weight onto the ball into the box, opened himself up, and finished past Wojciech Szczęsny with his right foot.

The play, actually, was Sarriball in its purest incarnation: four players, four touches, and one ball in the back of the net. But I don’t think it’s the sort of thing Maurizio Sarri was planning when he was packing his bags for Turin. It was Sarriball from hell.

The Juventus midfield is broken. We have known this for some time. We didn’t need a loss to Hellas Verona to have this revelation, and we didn’t need a follow-up performance equally as poor against AC Milan in the Coppa Italia. With new shiny acquisitions the last two years in attack (Cristiano Ronaldo) and defense (de Ligt), a heck of a lot has been asked of Pjanic, a player who was already the lynchpin of the midfield before the arrival of Sarri, a manager whose method — dare I say madness? — depends on a sharp, decisive playmaker just in front of the center backs.

Pjanic has not delivered.

I guess maybe context is important

I think it’s easy to look at Pjanic and say, “Geez, guy, you’ve not been very good recently,” and not as easy to say (and much less fun, to be honest), “Well, guy, I see a lot has been asked of you in this particular system with a new manager and reinforcements in attack and defense when you’ve been given all of Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey to make your unit better.”

Here’s what Pjanic has to contend with: Sarri wants a high press, which is all bubbles and unicorns if you have forwards who can wreak havoc on the opposition’s build-up. Ronaldo is very good at a lot of things, of course (don’t come at me, CR7 dudes), but one thing he is objectively terrible at is pressuring the opposition build-up. It’s not something that’s been asked of him, and that makes sense; let the lad keep his energy for scoring goals. But when you combine Ronaldo with Paulo Dybala into a starting lineup, you suddenly have a coach asking for a high press and forwards who, at best, go through the motions of a high press. This puts a hell of a lot of pressure on the midfield, stretching the unit from the final third to just in front of the center backs. That is not easy to deal with.

Here’s another thing Pjanic has to contend with: Juan Cuadrado is not a fullback, and he’s Juve’s first choice at right back. De Ligt is great, but still brand-new. Leonardo Bonucci has had the world on his shoulders since Giorgio Chiellini (the vocal leader of the team, the grinta man, the expert organizer) went down over five months ago with a torn ACL. In other words, Pjanic not only has an offense in front of him that isn’t pressuring well, but he’s also got a defense behind him that’s full of new faces and out-of-position players.

In his own unit, any time Pjanic plays with Blaise Matuidi — I love Matuidi! — he’s at an immediate disadvantage because of the Frenchman’s touch. (Of course Matuidi logs a beautiful back-heel assist against Brescia, though.) To this entire complicated mixture, add in the fact that Juventus are playing a 4-3-1-2 in nearly every game, something that has not been part of the club’s repertoire over the entire span of Pjanic’s stay in Turin.

This is all I’m saying: context matters! Of all Juve’s problems, I’m not sure the Pjanic problem is foremost among them.

Even so, where is that early-season Pjanic?

Back in September, in the very early days of Sarri’s regime, there was a string of games in which Pjanic — and thus the entire team — looked like he was turning a corner. Juventus fans bemoaned Max Allegri’s pragmatic approach in a million ways last year, certainly one of those ways being the transformation of Pjanic into a pretty static presence on the field compared to his days at Roma. Sarri, many thought (myself included), would unlock the more tactically skilled players on this team in a way that Allegri couldn’t.

In that early stretch of promising games, Pjanic looked like he could maybe, just maybe, be the engine Sarri was looking for. He moved the ball quickly and decisively. His distribution had so much more verticality to it than we were used to seeing the year before, all back passes and side-to-side movement. He was threading needles, switching play, dictating pace. He was doing all the things you want your star central midfielder to do. And Juventus were looking all the more dangerous.

But darn it if that auspicious start doesn’t seem light-years away.

The manager, though, has remained positive about Pjanic, either pointing to midseason fatigue or, strangely, heaping effusive praise on the player even when everybody else is wondering what he was doing. Sarri had this to say after the loss to Hellas Verona:

“No, for me [Pjanic’s] best position is the one he currently plays in. He has good quality as a trequartista, but he isn’t playing in that position right now.

“He started the season in good form, now he is suffering from fatigue, but he will return to his level, it’s normal that this can happen during the season.”

Hindsight is 20-20, but if Sarri was worried about Pjanic’s fatigue, maybe he shouldn’t have used him as a substitute against Brescia. Here’s to hoping the injury isn’t serious.

The future is wide open

The conclusion I have reached in my own brain about Pjanic is that Juve’s future very much could include him or it very much could not include him — how’s that?

The games in which Bentancur has featured in the holding slot in front of the center backs have, in my estimation, been more fluid than those with Pjanic. One of the reasons, I think, is that Bentancur covers so much more ground defensively, and although he’s seven years younger than the Bosnian he doesn’t play with the same hesitancy we’ve seen recently in Pjanic.

To be sure, a performance against Brescia is not the best barometer to use when gauging what should do at this position. The bottom-dwellers were reduced to 10 men in the first half and were without the services of their young talisman Sandro Tonali. But still, Juventus were threading the ball from the back through the midfield to the final third with more ease than we’ve seen in ages, all with Pjanic sidelined.

Whether Pjanic’s injury is serious or not, this could already be Bentancur’s midfield. The only thing I’ve convinced myself of as I’ve worked on and written this piece about Pjanic is that the most precise thing I can say regarding the midfield is the most precise thing I can say about Juventus as a whole: it’s broken, but I don’t know how to fix it. There’s water pooling on the deck of the ship, but I’m not sure which leak is letting the most through the hull.