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Flanking maneuver: Trying to make sense of Juve’s uncertainty out wide

The fullback/wingback picture is one of the most unfocused of all on a team in flux. Here’s a few possible scenarios as to how it could work out.

Juventus v Torino FC - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

We’ve gotten to the season where summer transfer talk starts taking on a more urgent air. After a season that likely signaled the end of Juventus’ unprecedented cycle of success, there’s a lot of uncertainty as the calendar heads toward silly season. There are few certainties as to who might be on the roster between now and the start of next season.

There’s uncertainty at just about every position group. One of the fuzziest pictures, though, is on the flanks. The direction in which the fullback/wingback position will go this summer is entirely unclear, and it’s worth parsing out a few of the many different directions it could go.

Part of the reason for the uncertainty surrounding this group is just how underserved it has been over the last few years. The midfield has been a mess too, but Fabio Paratici and the rest of the front office has at least tried to address it — things just haven’t gone very well. When it comes to the flanks, Paratici seems to be on some kind of weird mission to prove that football can be played without full-backs at all. Last year there were only three true fullbacks on the roster, with Juan Cuadrado in the process of being converted into a full-time right back. This caused predictable issues when players were hurt or suspended.

This year, Paratici did one better — only two players on this year’s team, Alex Sandro and Danilo, are natural fullbacks. This has been mitigated somewhat by Andrea Pirlo’s use of a hybrid formation that swings between a 3-5-2 in attack and 4-4-2 in defense. That’s allowed him to deploy Cuadrado, Federico Chiesa, Federico Bernardeschi, and Dejan Kulusevski as wingbacks. Danilo and Alex Sandro have found themselves in the back three much of the time, the former because of Pirlo’s successful conversion of him into a mainstay in the three-man line, the latter due to depth crunches that have forced him to kick inside.

This brings us to the first big question surrounding the position group: who’s going to be setting them up next season? If Pirlo keeps his job over the summer (I figure that I don’t have to spend words reminding people where I stand on that issue), then that system is likely to continue. If he’s sacked, the position group will have to be remade in the image of whoever is calling the shots. If that’s someone like Gian Piero Gasperini or Simone Inzaghi, wingbacks will continue to be a requirement. If it’s someone like Zinedine Zidane, who prefers a 4-3-3, traditional fullbacks are going to have to come back into the equation.

The second big question is the one that surrounds pretty much every position across the roster: no one really knows who’s going to be on it next year. Chiesa is one of the few stone-cold, lead-pipe locks to not be sold. Cuadrado is still one of the most influential players on the team. He might be the most indispensable player on the team when it comes to making things work, and he represents a large proportion of the team’s institutional knowledge these days — indeed, depending on who else might stay or go next year he could be anywhere from fourth to second in the captain’s hierarchy. But he’ll turn 33 at the end of May, and with the team looking to pivot toward youth the decision may be made to move him on. Danilo is almost certainly going to remain after the superlative performance he’s put in this year, but given the way he’s been deployed this season I’m close to putting him down as a kind of defensive hybrid as opposed to a straight fullback.

The rest of the fullback/wingback corps are closer to being out than being in. Sandro has been an excellent soldier for Juve over the years and, in his first few years, was an absolute beast (#SandroBeast was a thing at the club in New York for a while). But he’s plateaued as a player, and I’d wager he’ll be sold on. Bernardeschi’s conversion into a fullback, following in the footsteps of Cuadrado and, before him, Gianluca Zambrotta, may or may not bear the same fruit as those players, but he’s also been a candidate for greener pastures for years now after his Juventus journey never came close to the expectations that followed his transfer. Gianluca Frabotta could maybe be retained as depth, but it’s more likely that he’s shipped out as a new guard comes in given the lack of playing time he’s likely to receive.

That would leave the cupboard quite bare next season, regardless of who’s in the manager’s office.

So how could the unit end up looking — especially considering the money crunch that looks like it will loom over this transfer window? Well, assuming for the moment that the front office’s bluster isn’t a smokescreen and that Pirlo will get the chance to direct the rebuilding project, there are two real options. The first is to look for help from outside and use some of whatever is in the war chest (preferably not the part that could go toward Manuel Locatelli) in a run at Robin Gosens. The German has made a huge name for himself under Gasperini’s tutelage at Atalanta, and he’s attracted the attention of a lot of European mainstays. He was connected to Juve last summer as well. He’s relatively untested as a traditional fullback, but as a wingback in Pirlo’s system he would be very much in his element. He’s the kind of supply line out wide that the team currently has only when Cuadrado is on the field, and he’s also a prodigious header of the ball. Adding the diagonal runs he makes to meet crosses from the other side would make an already strong aerial game even more frightening.

The problem, though, would be the traffic jam that that signing the left wingback would cause on the right. Gosens wouldn’t leave Atalanta without knowing he’d be the clear starter at his next destination, so that would leave both Chiesa and Cuadrado fighting each other for time on the right. Given Chiesa’s status as the potential foundation of the club’s future, there would only ever be one outcome to that scenario. It’s probably the scenario that is most likely to see the Colombian leave Turin.

If Juve decide against that course of action, either because they don’t want to move Cuadrado or because they decide the money is better spent elsewhere, there are more inwardly-focused paths. Moving forward with Cuadrado and Chiesa on the wings isn’t the worst arrangement in the world. Danilo could provide depth on either flank, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Luca Pellegrini is still in play on the left side. Loaning him out last year when the fullback position was so shallow was always a mystifying move on the part of Paratici, and farming him out again in favor of Frabotta, who he’s better than, was equally head-scratching. Injuries and COVID-19 have cause him to miss a good deal of time this year during his loan with Genoa, but he was very good last year with Cagliari and when he has been on the field this season his play has been solid, including a cracking assist against his parent club in December. The club needs to see what they have in the 22-year-old first hand, if for no other reason than they sent Leonardo Spinazzola to Roma to get him, and he’s only been one of Serie A’s three best left-backs this year. Kulusevski could also provide depth at either flank in a wingback scenario if he’s not being used in another role further forward.

These scenarios, of course, are just a few of the ways Juventus could attempt to deal with their full-back situation. There are quite a few tines on this particular fork in the road. There are fewer obvious candidates for an instant upgrade on the flanks the way there is in, say, the midfield, and with resources spread thin, the team may have to prioritize other areas, or at the very least get really creative to get any big deals through. In an unpredictable summer, the future of this position might be the murkiest of the lot.

Or Paratici will just ignore it again. That’s always a possibility.