The revolution has begun.
With news that Blaise Matuidi’s three-year stint in Turin is over as the Frenchman prepares to head to Miami, Juventus have initiated a long-awaited revamp of the midfield. That transition started with, in essence, swapping Miralem Pjanic and Arthur Melo, and it will undoubtedly continue. Sami Khedira has certainly played his last match for the Bianconeri, and perhaps Aaron Ramsey will jaunt back over to jolly ol’ England.
Transfers, though, are for another time.
This is the unit that we, or at least I, have been talking about for years. The year before Cristiano Ronaldo arrived, Juventus needed a midfield makeover. Then Ronaldo arrived. Years passed. And the midfield still needs a makeover. In its current and recent past expression, the unit has simply not been good enough: not good at enough in contributing goals, not good enough at creating chances, not good enough at moving the ball around the pitch.
While the revolution has indeed begun, there is yet time to reflect on this unit’s swan song, because the truth of the matter is that, even if Juve’s midfield over the last three years hasn’t been the best in Europe, or even in the top five or seven, they have been good enough to win more Scudetti and give the team at least a fighting chance.
A word about ratings: There is always, of course, some strange amount of subjectivity involved with ratings, as is the case with mine, but I also want to note that the way I think of these is not so much a universal rating against all midfielders but, rather, a particular way of understanding how that player performed given their expectations and skills. In other words, when I rate Matuidi I’m not comparing him to Paul Pogba. I hope that makes sense. If this approach upsets you, please speak with my manager.
Sami Khedira — 5
Stats: 18 appearances, 0 goals, 1 assist, 4 yellow cards, 0 red cards
For two years now the German has not been a consistent player in the Juventus midfield for various reasons — mostly because of health, but also because he’s not been very good for quite a while — and now this salary-sucking saga finally seems to be coming to a close.
I have made many Sami Khedira jokes in my time; I regret nothing. Still, when Sami was at his best for Juventus, he was pretty darn good. This is an inane thing to say a lot of the time, but I felt like when he was playing well, Khedira always knew where to be positionally. I’d contrast this with a player like Ramsey, whose incessant push forward opens the defense up in a seriously vulnerable way.
When in form, Khedira was a force moving forward. He had a fine enough touch and ability to carry the ball to make things
As we know, this just isn’t the player we’ve seen in the last couple of years. We’ve been more accustomed to Sami the Friendly Ghost than anything else. The whistle blows, I review the stats, and I’m shocked to find Khedira even played a single minute.
Nonetheless, despite the jokes and the injuries, Sami has been a good player for Juventus the last several years.
Blaise Matuidi — 7
Stats: 45 appearances, 1 goal, 2 assists, 6 yellow cards, 0 red cards
Matuidi was Miami-bound faster than I get my cup of coffee at 5 a.m. every morning, which is fast. Major League Soccer seems like a good fit for the World Cup winner and for a pillar of Juve’s midfield the last three years.
Here is how I feel about Matuidi: his faults are very evident (his touch isn’t wonderful, he doesn’t carry the ball wall, and the passes he makes are mostly simple), but his strengths are equally evident, and he is so reliably in form with his strengths that despite those evident weaknesses he was a great player for the Bianconeri. He pressures relentlessly, he wins the ball back, and he finds really intelligent spaces to run into. He’s rarely out of position.
And maybe most of all: he never mentally checks out. You never see him make a run and then throw his arms up in a child-like tantrum if he doesn’t get service. He puts one foot in front of the other and keeps going, probably to pressure the opponent again.
I am going to miss Blaise, a lot actually. This season we saw him gradually lose his job to a compatriot, and to be frank the Matuidi-Sarri fit was never anything near natural. All the same: happy trails, my friend.
Aaron Ramsey — 5.5
Stats: 35 appearances, 4 goals, 1 assist, 3 yellow cards, 0 red cards
The Welshman came to Turin with some degree of fanfare and the reputation of constant injury. The latter he certainly fulfilled; the former he delivered only in spurts.
Ramsey’s season was probably what many of us would’ve predicted. He struggled with small injuries here and there, which caused him to miss play and never quite plug into the squad all the way. When he did get onto the pitch, he often looked lost, too greedy or ambitious moving forward, and just a little bit like a deer in the headlights.
Still, despite the hiccups, he found himself near the goal more than most of Juve’s other midfielders, and he showed what he can do if actually healthy. I’m quite sure he doesn’t deserve the salary he’s making at Juve, and for that reason I would probably be OK with parting ways, but if he remained another year I wouldn’t be upset. I think as a fifth or sixth option he’d be a fine player to have; of course, that’s a very handsome salary for a fifth or sixth option.
Adrien Rabiot — 6
Stats: 37 appearances, 1 goal, 1 assist, 5 yellow cards, 1 red card
Ah, Rabiot. You curly-haired ragamuffin. Perhaps a 6 is too harsh, but I wanted to keep the entire season in mind rather than riding the wave of optimism I feel about his future at the club and the performance he has in the latter part of the season.
What, in fact, was Rabiot’s issue early on in the year? He’s obviously a really talented player. He’s big and strong, he has a good motor if he’s engaged, and he can be a force on both sides of the ball.
In the beginning, I think, he was just a bit too hesitant, almost “shy.” I want an angry Rabiot. I want a Rabiot who is going to assert himself against the opposition and also within the Bianconeri lineup. I want a Rabiot who’s going to win a ball back with a midfield collision, burst forward with a few dribbles, and spray a pass through to an attacker.
That’s the guy we saw at the end, the guy who won the starting job on the left side of the field. Arthur is coming, Bentancur is back, but I think I might just feel the best about Rabiot moving into next year.
Rodrigo Bentancur — 6.5
Stats: 43 appearances, 1 goal, 7 assists, 12 yellow cards, 0 red cards
My suspicion is that the club will not splash for a big name in the midfield over the next three weeks. No Pogba, no SMS, no whoever else you were hoping for. Maybe we move for a Locatelli or something, but I don’t think the big signing many of us were hoping for is going to happen.
What does that mean? That means the club is betting big on Bentancur.
The Uruguay international grew steadily this season but didn’t quite have a consistently stellar campaign. I think Sarri was probably a good influence on him overall, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing how Pirlo can mentor Bentancur to the next level. We of course have no idea what kind of formation Juve will use, but whether it’s a double pivot or a three-man midfield or a diamond, Bentancur is probably going to be on the field as much as he can be.
The best moment of Bentancur’s season has to be against Inter right before the pandemic postponement. Sarri elected to put Pjanic on the bench and allow Rodrigo to take the keys, and it absolutely paid off. Against a pretty tough Antonio Conte side, Bentancur absolutely bossed the center of the pitch and helped the lead the Bianconeri to a win.
His form wasn’t quite as flawless after play resumed, but there were still those moments that stopped you and made you think, “Oh damn.”
We need another leap from Bentancur. A bigger leap. And we need another thing that has sort of become a refrain here: consistency.
Miralem Pjanic — 6.5
Stats: 43 appearances, 3 goals, 6 assists, 11 yellow cards, 0 red cards
I want to remember Pjanic at his best.
In a single moment, Pjanic at his best is that play from August 2017 against Cagliari. Juan Cuadrado has the ball on the right flank and sends a pass to Miralem in the middle of the park. A few yards before the halfway line, Pjanic approaches the ball and takes a single right-footed sweep — the ball flies through the across about 40 percent of the pitch to perfectly find a streaking Paulo Dybala, who chests it down and scores the goal.
One of the best single touches I’ve ever seen. I still don’t know how Pjanic knew Dybala was making that run.
Pjanic was a great player for Juventus and sort of landed in an unenviable position. He was asked to run the unit after a seriously loaded group of Bianconeri stars including Pogba, Marchisio, and Vidal, while the club made significant investments in other areas of the pitch.
Pjanic maybe wasn’t perfect in his years here, but he was damn good. No matter what happens for him in Spain, transferring to Barcelona has to be another dream come true for the former Roma player. The amount of respect that seemed to exist between Pjanic and the club, as well as Pjanic and every player he played beside, is enormous. Another departure, another player I’m going to miss dearly.
I understand that these rankings aren’t sexy; I understand that there’s not an incredibly high-scoring player on my list or an incredibly low-scoring player on my list. Those rankings, though, are the best that I’ve got, and they seem to ring true with what I’ve believed about this midfield for some time: fine much of the time, good some of the time, great rarely.
Alas, perhaps the future of the midfield is brighter. With all the unknowns surrounding Andrea Pirlo as the club’s manager, one thing is certain: he was a pretty damn good midfielder himself, and he’ll probably be able to teach a thing or two to the players lined up to occupy that unit for the 2021-22 campaign.
For now, though, we say our goodbyes: to Khedira, to Matuidi, to Pjanic, and maybe even to Ramsey. I have enjoyed each of these players in this shirt, and though I’m glad change is afoot, there is still a certain sadness to see these guys move on.