At the end of last season’s chopped-up COVID-19 season in August, after the Arthur Melo-Miralem Pjanic swap had already been made official, I wrote of the midfield, “The revolution has begun.”
And indeed, it seemed that way.
Veteran, tenured players Pjanic, Sami Khedira, and Blaise Matuidi were headed off to Barcelona, wherever Khedira went, and Inter Miami, respectively, and the club had just acquired a pricey — even if it was a purposefully overinflated price — and young player in the Brazilian, and there was some certainty that more moves in the midfield would follow. That turned out to be somewhat true with the addition of the American Weston McKennie, but Andrea Pirlo’s roster only had five true central midfielders once the new season began, and the word “revolution” is probably several levels too strong for what transpired.
Sergio wrote two seasons ago that this unit was the “weakest link,” and even with question marks, injuries, and inconsistencies of several other units — I’m looking at you, defense — the midfield is, once again, the weakest link. Maybe some of the blame shouldn’t fall on the players themselves, as the manager carousel continues, this time with a dude who’d never coached a game in his life before Sampdoria on matchday No. 1.
Broken records be damned, Juventus needs to add one or two quality players to this unit for the club to level up in terms of play. Alas, that’s a topic for another conversation for the most part, so let’s spend our time reviewing the very strange 2020-21 campaign and, specifically, the midfielders. Might want to refill your grappa, folks.
Arthur Melo — 5
Season stats: 32 appearances, 1 goal, 0 assists, 3 yellow cards, 0 red cards
Arthur Melo’s arrival at this club was not because of anything in particular he offered, nor any particular need the club had that he specifically addressed. The move involving Pjanic seems to have been made primarily for the financial shenanigans involved; of course, I could be wrong, but that’s at least the way it seems.
If the Brazilian was chosen for a specific tactical reason, that specific tactical reason does not seem to have panned out. There were a handful of games in the first part of the second half of the season during which it started to look like things might be clicking for Arthur, but then injury and additional poor performances seemingly halted any progress.
What is Arthur’s role moving forward? I honestly don’t know. He doesn’t quite offer everything you’d want in a regista, at least not in this Pirlo rendition of things, he’s not a box-to-box player, and he hasn’t convinced anyone that he’s creative enough to be a force in the final third. He might be the kind of player who needs the right partner to really shine, and if that’s the case it doesn’t appear that ideal partner is at this club.
Given the exorbitant price the club paid a year ago, any offloading would involve a serious loss on the books, so I think he’ll have another go.
Rodrigo Bentancur — 5.5
Season stats: 45 appearances, 0 goals, 4 assists, 9 yellow cards, 1 red card
Rodrigo Bentancur did not have a good year, but I don’t want to see the Uruguayan leave this team. Maybe it’s wishful thinking at this point after two straight years of scattershot play, but the former Boca Juniors player still showed flashes now and then of what we all hoped he’d become.
Part of me wonders if the issue is simply the need to have a three-man midfield rather than a double pivot or a four-man block with the 4-4-2. He doesn’t seem suited to the regista role; it seems like he belongs in a box-to-box role more than anything, and he’s been able to assume that responsibility only sparingly this year under Pirlo.
The lad is still only on the cusp of his 24th birthday, though. There’s a hell of a lot that could happen that could bring him back to a more promising trajectory.
Weston McKennie — 6
Season stats: 48 appearances, 6 goals, 2 assists, 5 yellow cards, 0 red cards
I wonder what the feeling surrounding Weston McKennie would be like if his season had started how it ended and ended how it started, because the conversation and dialogue surrounding the new player definitely soured after his bright showings in the first half of the season.
No matter the direction of his play, I think if I had told you that McKennie was going to score a half dozen goals and contribute well to the build-up play fairly consistently, I think you would’ve been surprised, even taken aback. The former Schalke player surprised us all, I think, even those of us who had some idea he might be useful. Nobody is saying he’s a complete player, or that he doesn’t have a lot of growing to do, but there are players who’ve fared a lot worse in their first season in these stripes than McKennie — players who went on to be useful players.
Is McKennie ever going to be a world-class midfielder? I don’t know. Probably not. But that doesn’t mean he can’t build off a solid year, stay for another campaign, and surprise us all again. I hope he does as much.
All that said, McKennie, 22, does feel like a player who could turn a short-term profit. As happy as I was with how he played this year — I grew up in Dallas, Texas, for goodness’ sake — he doesn’t seem anywhere near “untouchable.”
Aaron Ramsey — 4
Season stats: 31 appearances, 2 goals, 4 assists, 3 yellow cards, 0 red cards
There was one game toward the beginning of the season in which Aaron Ramsey looked really good. I don’t remember which game, I don’t remember what he did, and there’s a more than slight chance that my brain, hoping to say something nice about a player who seems like a genuinely decent chap who loves his family and made a bold move coming to the club in the first place, is searching for something positive to say about the Welshman, but I’m pretty sure that it happened. I remember thinking: maybe Pirlo unlocked him!
Well, the rest of the season did not look like that.
Juve’s only true attacking midfielder got on the end of a couple goals and contributed a few assists, but for the overwhelming majority of the time he spent on the pitch he looked as confused as I did when I visited Venice some years ago without a smartphone to help me navigate the streets, waterways, and bridges.
One has the feeling the Ramsey experiment has run its course in Turin. McKennie played the attacking role better and more consistently than Ramsey, and he offered other traits that Ramsey does not that are useful in the final third. But finding a new home (in this economy, as Danny would say) for Ramsey is easier said than done.
Adrien Rabiot — 6.5
Season stats: 47 appearances, Y goals, Z assists, A yellow cards, B red cards
There is no enigma quite like Adrien Rabiot, but another year in Turin, the Frenchman was perhaps slightly more consistent overall, and he saved some of his best football for the very end of the campaign. Probably nothing is more emblematic of that fact than Pirlo choosing Rabiot as the only actual midfielder in the final game of the season against Bologna. He bagged a goal, was solid in possession and distribution, and did those cool, strong runs down the left hand side of the pitch that put so much pressure on the opposition.
When Rabiot is on, he’s the club’s best midfielder by a fair margin. He’s good technically, he scores somewhat regularly, and he’s incredibly strong on the ball. The catch, of course, is that he just ... switches off his brain, and he does that a lot more often than you’d like. There are some players who quite literally never switch off. There aren’t many, but there are some. Giorgio Chiellini comes to mind, Federico Chiesa (though in a very different way). If there’s some way to capture some of that grinta, or whatever you want to call it, and give it to Rabiot, that would be ideal. I would say maybe he just needs more time and experience, but he’s no longer new to the club and he’s not exactly a teenager. I don’t know; I guess I’d keep him, but if Everton want to pay €40 million maybe he’d like Merseyside.
Achieving consistency in this sport is immensely difficult to do, but as I write and think about all these various midfielders on this team, I can’t help but think that that trait is the one thing missing from each and every player. Sometimes, of course, things happen out of your control — a new manager, a new system, a new injury — and all those elements played at least a small part this year. But damn, Juventus need a consistent midfielder.
This summer will be yet another telling summer in the midfield saga, and Juve doesn’t have too many easy answers; Paratici’s replacement will also be working on what I’m sure is a pretty tight budget. One imagines that there’s a fair chance Ramsey has played his final minutes in a Juventus shirt, although offloading the Welshman might prove difficult.
If that’s the only departure, a fairly likely scenario, that leaves four players and room for one or two additions. Manuel Locatelli’s name has been a mainstay in the rumor mill for some time as a regista option, and a few different attacking midfielders have been linked with the Bianconeri. One way or another, the Old Lady needs better players — distributor defensive types and creatives alike — and she needs them now. This is true regardless of Cristiano Ronaldo’s status.
As a very brief ending note, this will be my last piece for the site. My two stints here, which started 4 1⁄2 years ago, have been fantastic. A writer could not ask for a better managing editor than Danny, and all the other writers on board are admirable guys and fantastic at what they do. And although I sort of feel like Bilbo when it comes to the message boards, I’ve met some awesome, hilarious, and endearing folks on there, and I wish you all the best. I’ll be sticking around the comment threads trying to avoid flags, stoke fights, and persuade people of the greatness of Stefano Sturaro.
Fino alla fine, comrades.