On Cagliari’s second goal against Juventus on Wednesday, a stray header bounced its way through the field and landed at the feet of the Sardinian side’s midfield. Miralem Pjanic, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Simone Muratore were bunched up like the Three Stooges — all three players just a few yards apart, and a massive gap of space in between them and the back four.
A single sweetly punted pass split that space like a fire-warmed samurai sword through fresh French countryside butter.
Another loss to another mid-table side, another deflating performance, another midfield failure.
Fans of the Bianconeri ought to know by now that this club has many holes. The first goal scored by the hosts reminded us of the fullback situation. There’s a (more or less) vacant striker position available. And, of course, there is the midfield.
Among the few bright spots in Juve’s post-restart season — the first and most auspicious being the play of Matthijs de Ligt, the second-best probably the face-planting of the rest of Serie A’s top teams — has been the emergence of Adrien Rabiot. The 25-year-old has cemented himself as a preferred starter and gives Juventus, no matter who has the coaching reigns next year, a midfielder to hold onto.
All aboard the French express
I don’t remember what game it was, I don’t remember what year it was, and I don’t remember what side of the freaking pandemic it was, but I remember the moment when I realized maybe, just maybe, Rabiot could be an important player. It was a simple play, a matter of seconds. The Frenchman received the ball and some opponent collided into him trying to stop play or dispossess him.
I thought: he goes down, whistle blows, move on.
But that’s not what happened. Instead of conceding the foul like 90 percent of players would’ve done in that instant, Rabiot locked his hips and squared himself like a power forward boxing out for a rebound; he maintained possession, kept the ball with the black and white.
At his best, Rabiot is a rampaging train through the midfield. Not the sort of sleek bullet train you see in Japan, but the badass old steam engines in the Wild West of old America: big, tough, unstoppable. Rabiot isn’t going to be the sort of player who’s going to thread a ball through three lines that you only thought was possible on FIFA (or from Kevin De Bruyne), but he’s the sort of imposing physical presence who holds onto possession and can find the correct pass.
The area in which he’s most developed has been his forward runs. He’s almost, in a sense, Blaise Matuidi-esque in that regard. Matuidi has a knack for finding intelligent pockets of space moving forward. The difference, of course, is that Matuidi doesn’t have a fantastic first touch, and he’s not a player who’s going to dribble through space the way Rabiot is.
Far from perfect
Needless to say, Rabiot isn’t the perfect midfielder at this juncture in time. As I said above, his MO isn’t the clever ball, the insane switch of play, the delicate over-the-top pass to a streaking attacker. He’s got a better touch than Matuidi, but he’s no Maradona. And while he often makes the smart play, he’s vulnerable to strange decisions. We saw evidence of this recently where a couple of his promising-looking runs ended either in a botched dribble or poorly chosen pass.
At his worst, Rabio simply vanishes from the game. If he’s not getting attention on those marauding runs, if he doesn’t have a pulse on the game, he’s liable to get lulled to sleep and not offer his best assets. In my mind, the best way for Rabiot to improve is simply to maintain constant energy. He needs to use his physicality to win back the ball to help on defense and to drive forward with runs and possession on offense. I don’t think he needs stellar distribution to become an even more important component of this team.
At 25 years of age, Rabiot is a valuable asset for a team in need of valuable assets in the midfield. There’s been a fair amount of boasting about Juve’s “free” transfers — which, obviously, doesn’t actually mean “free” with the agent fees and hefty salaries — but there have been quite a few failures in that department recently. Emre Can’s brief and uneventful stint comes to mind, and I don’t think Aaron Ramsey has really done anything at all.
Rabiot could change this recent patter. But there are as ever some worries: earlier in the spring there were transfer rumors about Rabiot because he wasn’t offering a lot of value, and already there have been new transfer rumors probably because he is offering a lot of value and might give a nice profit to the club.
But Fabio, I beg you: don’t sell Rabiot. The midfield is the one area on this side where we absolutely shouldn’t go cheap. I have no idea what Rabiot’s ceiling is, but even if he stops developing now he’s exactly the kind of player you need in a three-man midfield rotation.
Bentancur, Arthur, and Rabiot seems like a pretty decent start to next year’s midfield.
Look at me looking on the bright side of things!