As Juventus slogged through the winter months of the 2019-20 season, there were very few positives to take out of the way Maurizio Sarri’s squad was playing. They were winning most of the time, but their form far from anything you would consider impressive or even close to good. They were grinding out results as we all hoped that the infamous Sarriball approach to arrive as the season entered the latter stages.
(Director’s note: It never arrives.)
One of the good things to come out of the first four or five months of Sarri’s tenure as Juve manager — and there weren’t a lot of things in general — was the fact that Rodrigo Bentancur, at the age of 22, was starting to become Juventus’ best midfielder. He was being used as a jack of all trades by Sarri, who was using him all over the place — and Bentancur was proving to be up to the task. It didn’t matter if it was as a makeshift trequartista, as a deep-lying midfielder or as prototypical No. 6 that was out to be a bulldog all around the field, you name it and Bentancur was getting it done.
As his adopted father, I was very proud of my Large Adult Son.
A year later, I really have no idea what has happened. The good vibes around Bentancur are gone, and the form we saw a season ago is nowhere to be found as Juve’s 2020-21 campaign starts to enter crunch time.
This was well before his game-changing mistake all of a minute into Wednesday night’s loss to Porto in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 tie. This was before the turn of the calendar to 2021. Bentancur’s 2020-21 season has been about the opposite of what his 2019-20 campaign was — and that’s not exactly what you want to see when you’re worse off 12 months later. Bentancur’s form, or lack of anything consistently positive, has been a season-long issue that dates back to the first weeks of the Andrea Pirlo era.
(This is the part of the post where I decided to check Bentancur’s WhoScored rating, saw he was Juventus’ sixth-highest rated player and subsequently proceeded to scratch my head rather than continue typing for a couple of minutes. Like, really ... sixth-highest? I am confused.)
The numbers say that Bentancur is having a relatively solid season. He’s completing nearly 91 percent of his passes, one of the best figures on the team. He’s averaging a couple tackles a game. He’s got a couple of assists to his name. He’s got fewer yellow cards through 19 Serie A appearances than you think he does. While they may not be numbers that make you go ‘Wow!’ they’re something that look to be relatively solid.
Hell, Bentancur’s basically got the same WhoScored rating this season as another midfielder under the age of 25 years old who people — both around here and around the calcio world — are heaping a whole bunch of praise on right now.
But we know that Bentancur hasn’t been as good as that rating or anywhere close to being the difference maker of Nicolo Barella, that midfielder who happens to have a WhoScored rating that’s all of .02 points higher. The numbers say one thing, but the eyes say another. And that’s the issue with all of this. Sometimes you see small pockets of him resembling the player that he was for much of last season — or, at the very least, starting to get there — when things were looking relatively solid as he started alongside Arthur and Weston McKennie just a few weeks ago. But, other times, I feel exactly the same way my buddy Sergio felt like when he penned his post-Porto loss Grab Bag:
I don’t really know what happened to Bentancur.
Yeah, we don’t. We have hunches, we have ideas, but we don’t know for sure.
We can connect the dots between Paulo Dybala and his struggles this season. We can see that McKennie needs a break because he’s not playing with the same kind of gung-ho grinta that has made him suddenly a favorite amongst the Juve faithful. We know that it was being sick in the couple of days before the trip to Portugal that was why Alvaro Morata didn’t start and then nearly fainted after the game Wednesday night. (It took until a post-game press conference for that, but we got an answer in quick fashion.)
When it comes to Bentancur’s step back this season, it’s hard to pinpoint it. Is it the fact that Sarri played him so many minutes post-restart last summer? Is it a thing where he just can’t fully get into sync with the role that Andrea Pirlo wants from him now? (And with Arthur out for the time being, it’s a role that continues to change, mind you.) Or is it just a case of a still-young player struggling with confidence and he just can’t get out of this rut?
At this point, it’s hard to say.
That’s not a refusal to address the problem. It’s just an acknowledgement that we don’t know why we’ve gotten to this point. Trying to connect these dots isn’t all that simple.
What I do know is this, though: Juventus needed Bentancur to take a step forward after a very productive 2019-20 season. They needed him to be the midfielder that was looking like he was about to become something really good for much of last season. They needed him to take that next step from pretty good to really good or even great. That hasn’t happened, and it’s just the latest issue for a midfield that continues to be the glaring weakness on a team that has so many high-priced players on it.
For much of last season I thought that Bentancur should get the No. 6 jersey — the same one he wears on international duty with Uruguay — the minute Sami Khedira left the building. Khedira may be gone now, but this season has forced a lot of folks to rethink if Bentancur is a long-term solution to this ever-growing midfield problem.
Yes, even his adopted father on this here blog.