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Giorgio Chiellini’s return gives Maurizio Sarri a center back conundrum

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When push comes to shove, which central defenders will the manager choose?

Leonardo Bonucci (L) of Juventus FC is replaced by Giorgio... Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

On a chilly evening in February in northern Italy, a former banker and a man with a master’s degree and a book have a short discussion on a big open field.

“Mister,” said the man with the master’s degree, “how long?”

The old man chewed his cigarette butt vigorously, shrugged.

A few minutes later, the man with the master’s degree jogged onto the pitch.

This splendid scene occurred on Feb. 16 of this year — a day, truth be told, that feels a lifetime ago — when Giorgio Chiellini substituted himself back onto the pitch after five months rehabilitating a torn ACL in a 2-0 win over Brescia. The big center back and the club’s beloved captain probably gave us all at least a little bit of a scare, given the fact that his recovery was so short and his return to the field so, well, exuberant. But what else were we to expect from Chiellini?

In those five months when capitano was off the pitch, however, something happened: Matthijs de Ligt grew up. In February, the baby-faced Dutchman was no longer the handball-magnet he was earlier in the season, no longer the kid whose first touch looked a little shaky, whose passes were timidly sent. The starlet had formed a solid partnership with Leonardo Bonucci and was becoming the defender all of us knew he would become.

So now, obviously, with games on the horizon, Maurizio Sarri is left with a little conundrum: instead of having two obvious choices for a go-to starting XI, he now has three. (What’s more, Merih Demiral is ramping up his training, so soon the Bianconeri may be back to a full five central defenders, with Daniele Rugani bringing in the rear.)

Some of that conundrum is solved by a pretty obvious point: once the match days get started again, they occur in quick succession. I mean, that’s a pretty brutal slate. Juve play June 22, 26, and 30, then July 4, 7, 11, 15, 20, and 23. That’s nine games in about a month, and there’s also a Coppa Italia semifinal and hopefully/probably a final in there as well even before Serie A starts up. The implication is, of course, that this will very quickly become an all-hands-on-deck kind of season at every position group. I imagine this might help Juventus to some degree, given that the Bianconeri boast a depth that’s not even closely matched by any other side in the league, Lazio and Inter included.

For the center backs, though, there are only two spots, and even with the potentially five rotating bodies Sarri will eventually need to confront this question: in a must-win game, which two center backs get the start?

There are theoretically three monumental, possibly season-deciding games left on the slate, assuming Juve take care of business against mid- and bottom-table sides (which I’m certainly not counting on ... who can tell what kind of effect this layoff is actually going to have?). The Bianconeri play Milan and Atalanta on back-to-back matchdays (July 7 and 11) and then the doozy, a date with Lazio on July 20. Needless to say, Sarri’s men have been clobbered by the second-place side twice this year.

So on that day, who do you choose for your center backs? Chiellini-Bonucci is the most tried and true formula, but Chiellini will have gone from recovery to a lot of action in a relatively short amount of time; we all know as well that Bonucci is particularly prone to a bad mistake here and there. Bonucci-de Ligt has seen the most action this campaign, and they’ve certainly carved out individual roles for themselves when playing together. Chiellini-de Ligt is, I’m guessing, the pair that all of us hoped we’d be seeing more of before the injury shenanigans, a romantic combination of experience and youth, grinta and physicality, the old generation with the new. Although that might be the most raw talent on the field at a given time, there are risks.

We know which pair Mad Max Allegri would take, bless his heart. But for the life of me I don’t know what Sarri would do if that game against Lazio were this evening. To some degree he’ll probably be working off the best form of the defenders, and I say “to some degree” because I imagine that Chiellini could make a mistake or two (which of course he never would!) and still get inserted into that lineup fine, but maybe it’ll come down to the recent string of performances given by Bonucci and de Ligt. Perhaps there’s even room for Demiral to enter the picture if he furiously enters the fray like he did before his own injury and makes a few statements; one presumes he’ll have the chance.

There are questions Sarri will be forced to answer everywhere on the pitch, whether that’s what to do with regista, where the heck to play Paulo Dybala, or which three attackers see the field and in what formation. For me, though, the center backs might be the most compelling of all.