There is one side in Italy about which all three things are simultaneously true: they remain in the Champions League, they are legitimate Serie A title contenders, and they have battled their way into the Coppa Italia semifinals.
That team, of course, is Juventus.
In a vacuum, everything looks like it’s going pretty well for the Old Lady. Cristiano Ronaldo graces the roster, there’s a pleasant mixture of young talent and experience on the squad, and the forecast for hardware at the end of the season looks very auspicious — and all of this is happening with a first-year manager, to boot.
Bianconeri fans know better, though. The defense is leakier than in years past, and despite bringing Maurizio Sarri to the bench the goals haven’t been as frequent as one would’ve liked. Atalanta is pacing more than 15 goals ahead, Lazio are ahead by seven, and even Antonio Conte’s Inter are hovering around Juve in goals scored.
One of the central problems for Juventus has been identifying a regular starting lineup and working on cohesiveness with that group. Sarriball in its purest incarnation at Napoli was executed with a 4-3-3 in which every man on the pitch played a very, very specific role. I’m not the first to point out that we aren’t going to see that exact version of the style probably ever again, and certainly not with Juve’s current roster.
For several reasons, a 4-3-3 that resembles (in any way) Napoli’s 4-3-3 with Sarri isn’t possible. CR7 isn’t a true left winger anymore, preferring to drift more centrally — but he’s also not a true striker. And you need Ronaldo on the field. While Juve do have a few right wingers at their disposal (Federico Bernardeschi, Douglas Costa, Juan Cuadrado), as soon as you decide to play a right winger you essentially lose a place in the squad for Paulo Dybala (who isn’t a right winger!) and isn’t really a No. 10, and hasn’t played a No. 9 role since his Palermo days. He works best sitting just behind or next to Ronaldo.
Therefore, Juventus need to play someone at the No. 10 spot. We’ve spent months now seeing Sarri try out different players here: the Ronaldo-Gonzalo Higuain-Dybala trident, Aaron Ramsey, Douglas Costa, or Bernardeschi.
So what should Sarri do?
The great trequartista rankings
Here are my (and the objectively correct) rankings for who currently fits best for Juve at the No. 10 spot:
- Douglas Costa
- Aaron Ramsey
- The Trident
- Getting hit by a bus
- Federico Bernardeschi
Surely I will get attacked for slotting the Welshman ahead of the Trident, but that’s how I feel and here’s why: Ramsey, while not a veritable Paulo Maldini or anything, acts as a much better spearhead to pressure than Dybala does. He’s not been terribly effective as a goal-scorer or chance creator, but the midfield has looked a lot more stable in possession and a hell of a lot better defensively when Ramsey is playing instead of the Trident.
In my mind, though, Douglas Costa is currently the team’s best option. Even though the Brazilian wasn’t at his best against Fiorentina, you can see the full package he offers that none of the other guys do: the ability to drift out wide and create space if he wants to, the agility lacking in Ramsey, the top-end speed lacking in Dybala, the technical ability and requisite vision to spray a quick cross to the other side of the field, and a defensive harassment that falls somewhere in between Dybala and Ramsey.
When Juventus announced their lineup on Twitter against Fiorentina, the graphic displayed it as a 4-3-3, but once the game got going DC was really all over the place. Sometimes he was indeed on the right flank, but at other times he was on the opposite side of the field, and quite often he was drifting centrally. You don’t get that type of freedom of movement and flexibility with Ramsey, and you only get some of it with Dybala.
For right now, Flash is the best option. There is, though, always an asterisk with DC: rarely can he (or do you want him to) play the full 90 minutes. But with Costa on the field, that means you have Ramsey and one of Higuain or Dybala on the bench (or Bernardeschi) to adjust later in the game.
(An aside: Remember when Bernardeschi was instrumental in leading the comeback against Atletico Madrid? Man, that seems like it was two decades ago. The Italian can’t really find a consistent role or spot on Sarri’s side, and it’s hard to imagine him carving out a role from here on out. He’s one player who could very well be gone over the summer.)
A possible wrinkle: let’s try it!
Those ranked above are the players we’ve seen Sarri use most frequently, and at the end of the day it’s probably what we’re going to see for the rest of the season depending on the matchup. But here’s a little wrinkle we ran once or twice earlier in the season that I wouldn’t mind revisiting: Bentancur or Adrien Rabiot playing in the advanced position.
The game against Fiorentina — although a rather insipid performance overall from my point of view — showed why Bentancur and Rabiot need to be on the field as much as possible. They do all three of these things: make gorgeous runs, introduce some sort of physicality (the Frenchman has his strength, the Uruguayan his range), and are technically sound. Matuidi offers two of those things, but not all three. Sami Khedira does maybe one of those things, if we’re being generous.
However, both Rabiot and Bentancur do have the ability to play in a more advanced position. The latter has done it at times for the Uruguay national team and Rabiot dabbled in the spot at PSG. I think they could create even more headaches for the opponent trying to play out of the back, as well as the connective tissue moving forward. It would be, as ever, a matchup-dependent thing to try, but having the ability to play a more physically imposing midfielder in the trequartista spot would be, in my estimation, a good tool for Sarri to have in the toolbox.
Is this Juve’s best lineup?
At this exact moment in time, I think this is Juve’s best lineup:
Tek; Cuadrado, de Ligt, Bonucci, Alex Sandro; Bentancur, Pjanic, Rabiot; DC; Dybala, Ronaldo
There’s juice left on the bench in every position; there’s a little bit more defensive solidity with Douglas Costa in the lineup over Higuain. Where you miss Pipita the most would be in his hold-up play, where he’s still world-class, but at this moment in time and with Sarri as manager, I would prefer the creativity and agility of Douglas Costa to stellar hold-up play.
Hunter’s qualifying statement (i.e. hoping & dreaming)
The one major caveat I have for the entire trequartista debate is this: I hope this isn’t the situation next year.
I.e., all of this conjecture and ranking and lineup-rattling applies really only to the here and now, because Juventus better address the midfield (and the players who don’t make sense on a Sarri side) over the summer. I’m not sure exactly sure what or who the solution is, but I know that the leftovers of Max Allegri’s Juventus are not the exact right ingredients that Sarri would choose from scratch.
Many of us have thought from the beginning of this new regime that Sarri would need time. I think, all things considered, he’s done an admirable job with the players he inherited, and I hope his influence and preferences dictate our course of action this summer in the roster-tinkering. That starts with the midfield, and then with the decision to stay put with a 4-3-1-2 or move to a 4-3-3.