With the recent struggles of his powerhouse Juventus side, first-year manager Maurizio Sarri has been under fire. The Bianconeri looked disjointed at best and lifeless at worst in a stretch of games that included a 2-1 loss to Hellas Verona, a 1-1 draw to AC Milan, and a 1-0 loss to Lyon in the Champions League.
Under such duress and with arguably the most pressure-intensive situation of the season in a game against Inter Milan, many managers would’ve doubled down on previous decisions, on experience, on the tested.
Sarri did not make that easy choice.
By starting Rodrigo Bentancur over Miralem Pjanic, the bespectacled man from Naples chose a 22-year-old over a 29-year-old for the most important role on the pitch in this system — and the decision paid boundless dividends, as the Uruguayan was an absolute terror on both sides of the ball, showing Juventus fans what we have more and more suspected over the recent months: It’s time to hand the regista keys to Rodrigo Bentancur.
Bentancur’s best role on the pitch is in front of the back four
Bentancur canceled an Inter Milan midfield that, all things considered, is probably better, deeper, and more complete than Juve’s midfield. I suspect that’s going to be met with some degree of skepticism here, but I find it thoroughly and objectively true.
In Marcelo Brozović the Nerazzurri have one of the most well-rounded midfielders in the league, certainly more so than Pjanic, Blaise Matuidi, or Aaron Ramsey. On Sunday, he was flanked by Nicolò Barella, one of Italy’s most promising box-to-box players but someone who has proven himself in any position in a three-man midfield; the youngster did take a knock in Sunday’s game, but he’s willing to do anything for his side, including flying into tackles. On the right was Matías Vecino, Bentancur’s compatriot and probably the weak link in Antonio Conte’s midfield against Juve, but a solid player overall. Christian Ericksen, one would assume, will be playing a full 90 soon enough.
In an empty stadium in Turin, none of that mattered. Playing in front of Juve’s back four, Bentancur absolutely canceled the hell out of Inter’s midfield in every way imaginable. He chopped up the lines between Inter’s midfield and their front three with devastating effect: the touted tandem of Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku tallied a combined 39 touches.
Bentancur is better sitting just in front of the back four than he is on either side of the pitch in a box-to-box role, which is of course not to say that he’s bad going forward or bad as a mezzala. But when I’ve seen the Uruguayan make really bad tackles, earning those yellow cards for which he seems so famous, it often seems to occur when he’s tracking back and attempting to stop a break. When he’s already just in front of the defenders, though, he doesn’t need to lunge into things — he can use his length, his speed, and his guardian dog-like senses to engage the opposition. He’s incredible at this, and he’s much better than Pjanic.
Here’s the other shocking, enlightening consequence of Bentancur playing in front of the defense, which we saw in perfect expression against Inter: Sarri felt bold enough with Bentancur in the center to start two midfielders with glaring deficiencies, and Bentancur covered for them both.
Matuidi, of course, runs and runs, disrupts attacks, makes intelligent runs, and generally provides the defensive stability needed behind Cristiano Ronaldo — but he’s not great technically; all of those positives were on display against Inter. Ramsey likewise is fantastic in attacking movements, but he’s also great with the ball at his feet, a pretty good passer, and has a nose for goal — though he’s not a physically imposing player or someone who inspires a ton of defensive confidence, even though he’s willing to do the work; the Welshman’s positives were also on display against Inter.
Neither player, though, looked one-dimensional against the bad guys over the weekend. Thank you, Bentancur. No. 30 held down the fort and was dynamic enough to let his midfield partners shine without exposing their weaknesses.
Sarri should not revert back to Pjanic with this win in his pocket
I have no idea what the hell is going to happen with this stupid pandemic that’s sweeping the world, destroying economies, and creating fantastic air travel deals. But I do know this: whenever Juventus play next (maybe it will be against Lyon next week in the Champions League, or maybe that’s going to be called off, too!), Bentancur needs to start in the center of the pitch ahead of Pjanic. Now is not the time suddenly go back to the Bosnian as regista when recent evidence almost totally points to Bentancur being the better answer in that spot.
But I also think this: Pjanic is a really good player, and I don’t think Sarri should banish him to Sami Khedira-land (although Khedira can stay there). I would love to see Sarri try Pjanic out in some other spots on the midfield. Do I have any idea if this could work? No idea! Maybe it will fail spectacularly.
But we all know that Ramsey is not going to play 90 minutes every single game — he’s too fragile. We all know that the left midfielder spot is an ever-rotating door with Matuidi and Adrien Rabiot, so why not give Pjanic a spin, too? And we all know that Juventus do not currently have the players to consistently field a 4-3-3, so I would love to see Sarri use Pjanic in the trequartista role. He’s not ridiculously old, he’s still talented, and maybe getting him out of the center will rekindle some of the Pjanic magic we’ve seen glimpses of the last few years.
There are positions that need reinforcing this summer, but go broke in the midfield
There are so many issues with Juventus right now I’m not sure if I or anyone else knows where the hell to start. The fullback situation needs tweaking, but there are also very few good fullbacks on the planet (what an odd thing).
Juve need a new striker at some point, whether that’s this summer or a year from now. I’m not quite sure Gonzalo Higuain has done enough to warrant an entire season again, and there have already been whispers of Juventus tracking new targets for the No. 9 role (Gabriel Jesus, Timo Werner, Mauro Icardi). So that’s a thing.
But I am here to tell you that, hell or high water, Juventus should go broke to add to the midfield. If management landed someone like Paul Pogba or Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to play to the left of Bentancur, plus landed Sandro Tonali, then the unit would suddenly be really, really scary. To do something like this would probably require selling Pjanic, getting rid of Khedira, and maybe selling Federico Bernardeschi as well, but we saw against Inter what can happen when the midfield is humming in both phases of the game.
There’s a flame in the midfield, and his name is Rodrigo Bentancur. Let’s bring a 55-gallon drum of oil and add it to the fire.