I’m not sure Denis Zakaria could have dreamed up a better debut in his Juventus shirt. A goal, a man of the match performance (by some), walking off healthy (knock on wood) and three points in the bag. That’s a pretty good way to spend your first Saturday night in Italy.
This is not somebody who was brought in to score goals, although sometimes you never know with Max Allegri, but he made it happen and it was deserved for the work he did on the right side of the midfield throughout the match. And while Zakaria feels like a perfect fit for a true defensive midfielder, it’s not clear Allegri wants that. After just one match, you might be justified to say Allegri actually doesn’t want that at all.
Zakaria was playing in a very clear right midfielder role in what mostly resembled a 4-3-1-2. He did not get forward all that much, but did some good work with the attack and obviously got the all-important second goal.
So now the question is whether or not that will be his full-time role with the midfield at full strength. There’s no doubt Manuel Locatelli and Weston McKennie have proven themselves to be the top choices in the midfield, but neither was available to start with Zakaria in his debut over the weekend. Why Weston played at all after the stretch he just had with his national team is another thing, but I won’t get into that right now.
The fact remains that if McKennie and Locatelli are available, it still makes sense for Zakaria to be the third choice in that group. It may be as simple as three-position depth chart with easy replacements at each spot.
Let’s take a look at how Zakaria mixed with Arthur and Adrien Rabiot.
Rabiot was back on his weirdness, and admittedly didn’t look terrible, playing as a left winger at times even in a 4-3-1-2. He did good work in other areas at times, but for the most part it was clear where Allegri wants him to play. Arthur played as the No. 6 with Zakaria doing most of his work on the right side.
It would be simple to look at those heat maps and think each spot has a replacement player on the bench. Federico Bernardeschi has proven he can play on the left side, and do it much better than Rabiot. Locatelli is the obvious choice to drop back and play on the ball, while McKennie has proven to be the aggressor going forward while linking up with Juan Cuadrado or Federico Chiesa on the right side.
But I’m not convinced these are the midfield roles we are going to see throughout the rest of the season. There are a number of different factors that could change each role.
Although it won’t be until the start of next season, where does Chiesa fit into this formation when he returns and how does that affect the formation? How defensive does the midfield have to be when Cuadrado starts at right back rather than Danilo? Is there any chance at all that we can get Locatelli moving forward with the ball?
That last one seems to be one of the biggest concerns for many fans and one of the reasons people were excited to see the addition of Zakaria. The former Borussia Mönchengladbach man may not be a true No. 6, but he worked as one of the top holding midfielders in Germany for multiple seasons.
If Allegri chooses to use him centrally, in front of the defense, it could allow Locatelli to collect the ball in more threatening positions. Zakaria’s defensive skills should sometimes feel like a third center back, which means more overlapping and forward runs from Cuadrado and
Alex Sandro Luca Pellegrini.
Defining those kind of roles for Locatelli and Zakaria would allow McKennie to do what McKennie does — just be everywhere. Locatelli could be there for the passes into the box rather than McKennie’s unpredictable, full-powered passes that sometimes are cool but don’t work out very often. Instead, McKennie could focus on using his work rate to make the runs into the box and getting back to help defensively.
That kind of three-man midfield would likely mean a lot more central play though and that was not the case Saturday. Allegri seems set at using the entire width of the pitch in the midfield despite having a pretty big selection of players who have always been central midfielders.
McKennie has been moved into that left midfield spot on multiple occasions since the New Year. But whether it was because of Allegri’s instructions or just his natural work rate, he didn’t stay put on that left side the same way Rabiot or Bernardeschi do when they were put into that spot.
Here are his heat maps from three matches when he was the “wide midfielder” playing when two of Locatelli, Arthur and Rodrigo Bentancur took up the spots in the middle.
If this is what Allegri actually wants from his left-side midfielder, then it makes Rabiot’s performances in that role look even worse. But three consecutive starts for McKennie in that role last month makes it seem like it could still be in Allegri’s future plans.
Zakaria and Locatelli could take up the spots in the middle of a 4-4-2 with McKennie moving to the left side and either Cuadrado or Bernardeschi (or a healthy Chiesa) on the right.
Another possibility is a formation we have seen a couple of times already this season, but it could push McKennie out of the first XI entirely. In a 4-2-3-1, Zakaria and Locatelli would be the more natural holding midfielders. Paulo Dybala and Dusan Vlahovic would be the must-start players up front and the other spots could be a rotation of guys like Alvaro Morata, Bernardeschi, Cuadrado and then McKennie, depending on how aggressive Allegri is looking to be with that formation.
Zakaria is a massive addition to this midfield and I think he’s going to be really good in any one of these roles. However, there are definitely a lot of ways to use this midfield and him joining doesn’t exactly make things more clear on that front. Allegri made that clear Sunday when he used his brand new midfield in new roles we had not seen yet this season. Where he goes from here will be fun to watch and how players respond to their roles and minutes possibly changing could be something to keep an eye on.