New manager, new system, new players, old players with new injuries, new players at the end of their career, new players at the beginning of their career, players playing out of position, new domestic threats — new everything.
After years of continuity under Max Allegri, everything is changing for Juventus. Indeed, some of the frustration that has bubbled up around new boss Maurizio Sarri has been, probably more than anything, the frustration of the so-called “change” to palpably manifest in a given direction. We see the change; we don’t necessarily see it going anywhere.
But even without thinking about systematic tactical change, the roster itself, those 11 guys on the field, face serious questions. In fact, pretty much every unit on the field is riddled with questions.
Forwards: Who are the right ones to play beside Cristiano Ronaldo, and in what combination?
Midfielders: What is the deal with Miralem Pjanic? Is Blaise Matuidi or Adrien Rabiot the best on the left? Is Aaron Ramsey a dud or a solid addition — and is he a No. 10 or a mezzala? Where does Rodrigo Bentancur show his ability best?
Defense: Is Juan Cuadrado an actual right back? Is Danilo good enough there to play against high-level competitions? What combination of two center backs is the right one with Giorgio Chiellini returned to full health and, all things considered, Matthijs de Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci playing well over the season?
Juventus have questions all over the field, and we see and watch these questions unfold each week, but here are two questions Juventus do not have to answer: Alex Sandro and Wojciech Szczęsny.
The Brazilian blockade aka Gandalf in the “you shall not pass” scene
Left back is a very, very strange position in world football right now. Who is the best left back in the world? Marcelo still comes to mind, but he’s also 31 and not quite the player he has been in times past. Andy Robertson is pretty good. David Alaba was a mainstay for Bayern Munich, but now 19-year-old (!) Alphonso Davies is filling in quite splendidly.
I don’t know where Alex Sandro ranks on the list, but he ought to rank pretty high. He’s a player who, like Woj, never gets his song sung too often — though kudos to Sam for noting the Brazilian’s big performance against SPAL — despite the fact that he very rarely makes a mistake.
Alex Sandro has a heck of a job right now with Ronaldo somewhere on the left side of the pitch. He’s got to be a little more cautious with overlapping runs, because CR7 isn’t going to use up the gas tank to track back and cover in the vacated space. What’s more, when Matuidi is on the field Sandro must take a more active role in possession. Case in point: Against SPAL, Sandro logged 70 touches to Matuidi’s 41, and even though the Frenchman was substituted off around the 78-minute mark that’s still obviously a much higher per-minute involvement rate.
Here’s the thing, though: Even though Juve’s left back has been solid, I think some of us (unfairly, probably) might be just the tiniest bit disappointed because a few years ago we imagined that he would one day became the obvious best player at his position globally. No matter where he ranks on the current list, that’s not really an argument that can be made.
Still, it’s time to face the facts and enjoy the player. He gives Juventus a consistent, reliable, damn good player at a very important position on a team with Ronaldo.
The Polish pulverizer aka with many thanks to Arsenal
On Sunday, two goalkeeper things happened that made me love Szczęsny even more than I already love him, which is a lot. The first was this hilarious gaff by Manuel Neuer, a mistake that Bayern eventually overcame thanks to their decent No. 9. The second was the amazing butt-save that Szczęsny had on Saturday to keep the score level at 0-0 at the time. The Polish keeper may have not been needed to make 35 world-class saves to beat bottom-of-the-table SPAL, but the home side did log five on-target attempts (to Juve’s six!) and he kept every one of them out of the net, including the butt-save.
The same things generally that can be said about Alex Sandro can be said about Woj: He’s not the undisputed best in the world right now, but he should be up there; he’s not known for repeatedly making saves that drop your jaw to the floor, but he’s really damn good, really damn consistent, and I absolutely don’t have any worries about that position now or for the next several seasons.
Here’s the thing, though: if you Google “best goalies in the world right now,” Woj doesn’t even appear on most of them. I grant that Jan Oblak and Marc-André ter Stegen are a pretty clear cut above the rest, but behind that you’ve got names that feel big (David de Gea, Neuer, Thibaut Courtois) but that I don’t actually think I’d want on my team ahead of Szczęsny when all factors (i.e. salary, age, etc.) are taken into consideration.
Take this list from FourFourTwo for example from the beginning of the season. They’ve got Oblak and ter Stegan at the top two spots, deservedly so, but then a bunch of guys ahead of Woj who I for one would not take ahead of Woj: Samir Handanović (!), Kepa Arrizabalaga (!! — who was just benched at Chelsea), Hugo Lloris (!!).
I love Woj. Woj is perfect for Juve. He’s the perfect successor to Gianluigi Buffon because nobody is thinking that he’s the best in the world; he doesn’t have to live with that kind of pressure (though I have a feeling he would be OK if he did, because he doesn’t seem like the kind of dude who buckles under pressure).
Thank you, Arsenal, for being very stupid.
Look, in Alex Sandro and Wojciech Szczęsny this club has two players who we rarely praise but almost never question. It’s a luxury. It’s a luxury on any top squad, and it’s definitely a luxury on a team facing as much change as the Bianconeri are at the moment.