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Giorgio Chiellini’s return has changed Juventus’ season

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The Juventus captain’s return from injury has been paramount to the club’s recent success.

Juventus v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

In the last seven games, Juventus have surrendered a single goal.

In the last seven games, the Old Lady got her swagger back.

In the last seven games, the club’s game-changing, perhaps season-altering, player has been a 36-year-old not named Cristiano Ronaldo.

Only time will tell whether the return of Giorgio Chiellini changes the end results of Juve’s season in terms of trophies; to be sure, the Serie A race is still an uphill battle and the Champions League remains loaded with heavyweights. One thing, however, is certain: the Bianconeri captain has changed the tenor of the season, changed the atmosphere, the feeling around these battles.

And he’s made the defense a heck of a lot better overnight.

Turns out, you need players to play

Health truly is wealth for Juventus. For the vast, vast majority of the 2020-21 season, one or more of the Bianconeri center backs has been sidelined. Chiellini, Matthijs de Ligt, and Merih Demiral have variously missed long stretches of games. Each one offers a particular set of skills that the others do not, and having them all available for any given matchup is a luxury. It also makes me wonder if we’re going to see a rejuvenated Leonardo Bonucci moving forward. There was, rightfully in my opinion, a lot of criticism directed his way in the first few months of playing, but maybe all Leo needed was a couple more days with Carlo Pinsoglio hanging out on the bench.

In hindsight, perhaps many of the defensive issues we were seeing and feeling earlier in the campaign were simply due to lack of health. There were obviously other factors involved — a brand-new coach in Andrea Pirlo trying to install his version of calcio — but maybe we were making things more complicated than they needed to be.

Although Chiellini’s health hasn’t been nearly as consistently stalwart as his defending over the last few years, when he does finally reach the pitch he still often seems like the best player in black and white. Ronaldo receives plenty of deserved praise for the kind of form he displays as a man approaching his soccer twilight years, and Chiellini deserves the same at the other end of the pitch.

Juventus have simply been better — which is not to say “perfect” — on the defensive side of the ball since Chiellini’s return. The former Livorno man has played the full 90 minutes in four games of this stretch (Napoli, Bologna, Sampdoria, and Roma) along with two substitute appearances against Inter. He’s had a direct hand in the improved defending, but his indirect hand seems to have been just as helpful.

For the first time this season, every center back is getting a proper rotation on the field and then off. There were some rumors that Demiral was unhappy with his playing time a couple of months back; now the Turk is looking like a future pillar next to his Duch counterpart. Bonucci was playing way too many consecutive games; now he’s not required to play 90 minutes twice per week. Danilo was forced to adjust his position and did so admirably; now Pirlo can use the Brazilian a bit more naturally to his talents, while also harnessing this new-found defensive spirit from the former Manchester City man.

Winning in different ways

In his comments after the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinals against Inter, Pirlo made reference to one of his predecessors’ penchant for defensive stands:

“If I have to win what he won, you can also call me Allegriano. ... Every match is different and we prepare in a different way. Inter have almost no shots on goal and we had opportunities, we are very satisfied.”

He also spoke a little about the tactical flexibility displayed against Inter:

“Since the beginning of the season we have been defending with 4-4-2 but we play in a totally different way. Based on how our opponents come to press us, we decide on how to break out, it’s only the defense that remains in the 4-4-2.”

Indeed, although Juventus didn’t need Chiellini on the pitch, it seems his presence was felt all the same. Pirlo pointedly mentioned he has “four” good center backs — referring to Chiellini, Bonucci, Demiral, and de Ligt ... and not Danilo, whom he sees as a fullback — and on Tuesday night the two youngsters of the group held down the fort well, all things considered.

In the league fixture against Inter last month, Juve were burned on the left where Gianluca Frabotta could not thoroughly deal with Achraf Hakimi; Alex Sandro and Federico Bernardeschi tag-teamed the wingback in Tuesday’s second leg to do just enough to keep him from single-handedly dismantling Juve. But the other thing that happened in the first leg was that Inter’s superior midfield simply overran the good guys.

In the second leg, the move to a slightly truer 4-4-2 shored up the center of the pitch at least to the point of not feeling like it was overrun. With Demiral and de Ligt as the two actual center backs, and wide midfield support ahead of the fullbacks in the form of Bernadeschi and Juan Cuadrado (who play frequently as wingbacks), there was essentially always a second safety valve defensively on the flanks. For large portions of the game, therefore, Sandro and Danilo weren’t required to get chalk on their boots — instead, they tucked inside the field to create a barrier much tougher to pierce for the likes of Nicolo Barella and company. For the most part, it worked splendidly.

This kind of tactical flexibility is going to be immense moving forward. One of the hallmarks of any great team in any sport is the ability to win in different ways. Against some opponents you may need to hold the ball and pick them apart like a demonic surgeon. Against others you might need to make piece with 35 percent of the ball and strike on the counter. And yet against others you might just need to find one or two goals at the feet of CR7 and then leave it to GC3 to erect a fortress ahead of the Juventus goal.

But as always with Chiellini, he has changed much more the number of goals conceded or the rotation of the center backs. Like any good captain, he has brought an indefinable swagger back to this team, the kind of grinta we were hoping for in the first half of the season when it felt like the Old Lady was tepidly waltzing through draws against mid-table sides.

The fight is back. The full-throated bellows after blocked shots. The bully ball. The feeling that this is Juventus and against Juventus scoring is neither going to be easy nor unavenged.