Ah, Juventus’ midfield. The bane or our existence the last few seasons, and a position group in which so much of Juventus’ frustration can still be directed toward.
Seasons have gone by in which Juve tried to solve their issues with a variety of different players arriving a variety of different ways. But the fact still remains that Juventus’ midfield has left a lot to be desired no matter who has played — and it was only again magnified this season by the fact that the club scored their fewest amount of goals in over a decade.
Juventus made one of their biggest investments in years when they signed Manuel Locatelli last summer, the byproduct of countless meetings with Sassuolo that eventually led to a deal that the former Milan man wanted to see happen so bad. The boyhood Juventino was never going to be the answer, but he was a step in the right direction. Same goes for the January arrival of Denis Zakaria, even though that one didn’t work out as well as the Locatelli acquisition for a multitude of reasons.
But even then, there are still very real issues this Juventus midfield has.
And there are very real holes that need to be addressed during the summer transfer window.
This is a position group that, if reports are to be believed right now, will look vastly different next season than it did this season. Who could blame Juventus for needing to clear out the players who have struggled the last couple of years and try and find somebody not named Locatelli or Weston McKennie or Zakaria that can contribute regularly and get this midfield back to where it should be.
Even with the expected arrival of Paul Pogba in the coming weeks, this midfield will still need more to even come close to replicating how things used to be at Juventus during the early days of the title-winning run. And, as we know, so many good things can happen when Juventus’ midfield is really strong and can produce both offensively and defensively.
That’s something that didn’t happen this past season and the results speak for themselves.
Manuel Locatelli — 6
After two years as a target and months upon months of meetings upon meetings, Manuel Locatelli finally became a Juventus player on Aug. 18.
Brought along slowly — perhaps a little too slowly — after his participation in Italy’s victorious Euro 2020(1) campaign, Locatelli settled in as September turned into October, registering a goal and an assist in a 3-2 win over Sampdoria before continuing the grand tradition of Juventus destroying Torino’s dreams with a late goal in the Derby della Mole, snatching an 86th minute winner at the Stadio Grande Torino.
As the season progressed Locatelli became one of the team’s premier workhorses — he finished sixth on the team in league minutes and that’s after missing most of the last month of the season with a knee sprain — and clearly their best midfielder. He worked hard in defense, averaging 1.4 tackles per match in Serie A — a number that rose to 1.9 in Champions League play — and he was clearly the team’s best passer of the ball in midfield. He finished the year with three goals and four assists in all competitions, respectable numbers for a midfielder but perhaps not quite as much as people were expecting, especially that last number.
The problems for Locatelli were twofold: the players around him and how he was used. Massimiliano Allegri liked to deploy him deep as a regista, which he 100 percent can do, but the problem was that Locatelli’s orchestrating passes were often wasted closer to the box. When he did play closer to the goal in a more attacking role, his passing range started to produce some real fruit. It’s probably not a coincidence, for example, that Juve’s big comeback against Roma in January came after Allegri introduced Arthur to the side and pushed Locatelli closer to goal. Indeed, it was his headed goal that kicked off the comeback.
Unfortunately, Allegri barely ever played him in a formation or with midfield partners that took a significant edge off of his defensive responsibilities. It was thought that the arrival of Denis Zakaria would do just that, only for Allegri to decide to play the Swiss as a box-to-box midfielder as opposed to his natural CDM spot. There was also Allegri’s unfortunate insistence on defending and countering against almost any opponent regardless of quality level, which prevented Locatelli from fully unleashing his passing arsenal, instead being forced to simply try and trigger a quick counter.
Despite all this, Locatelli was clearly the team’s best midfielder this year. He’s perhaps not as capable of single-handedly lifting the midfield the way some people (raises hand) expected, but he is still very, very good and, if the attitude out of the dugout is even a little bit more proactive next year, he’ll prove that he’s an essential building block for the future.
— Sam Lopresti
Weston McKennie — 6
For the second straight season, it was an injury that proved to be the thing that suddenly turned what was a really good first half of the year into one that showed the American midfielder has a place on this team.
Last season it was a hip injured that zapped McKennie of the explosiveness that made him one of Juve’s best players in the first half of the 2020-21 campaign. This time around, it was an impact injury and resulting pair of broken bones in his foot that he suffered against Villarreal in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 in Spain that pretty much wiped out the final three months of the 2021-22 season for McKennie just as he was hitting a nice run of form.
And that’s unfortunately been one of the biggest themes of Big Mac’s first two years at Juventus — just when he’s really starting to play really well, there’s an injury to either slow him down or keep him out of the lineup completely.
We all remember when Max Allegri flashed the 10 fingers after McKennie scored during a preseason friendly, a clear sign of what the new-yet-old manager thought the American could do with his ability to contribute to attack. At the time of his injury, McKennie was showing that offensive potential just as he was when he was scoring scissor kicks against Barcelona the season before.
McKennie finished with three goals in 21 appearances (15 starts) in Serie A. That’s down from the five-goal season he had under Andrea Pirlo, but that comes with the caveat that he appeared in 13 more matches than he did this past season. (For what it’s worth, McKennie’s goal per 90 minutes were down from 0.26 to 0.20 this season but he essentially attempted the same amount of shots per 90 — 1.53 under Pirlo, 1.51 under Allegri — so there’s also that to consider.)
The major difference besides the amount of games he appeared this season and last was his passing numbers taking a bit of a nosedive and not looking as good as they did under Pirlo. Overall, McKennie’s pass completion percentage fell from 85.1 percent to 76.8 percent. His completion percentage of short- and medium-range passes were basically that same interval of around 8 percent lower than the 2020-21 campaign. His pass total completion percentage was the lowest of his still-young career since the 2018-19 season when he was starting to break into the Schalke starting lineup.
The thing that I just can’t forget about McKennie’s season was just how well he was playing before that tackle against Villarreal happened. I give him credit for coming back before the season was over, but it’s also a case of what could have been because he was getting better as the season went on.
McKennie will always be a name that is linked with a move away from the club because he’s one of those who could leave that actually has value. But it’s hard to argue that the kid from Little Elm, Texas, hasn’t earned the right to stick around and fight for minutes no matter who arrives this summer. Out of all the failures in terms of midfield signings over the last couple of years, McKennie is definitely not one of them.
— Danny Penza
Denis Zakaria — 5.5
With only 13 appearances and 823 minutes played across all competitions, it wasn’t quite the fairytale start to Zakaria’s career as a Juventus player.
While his rating might seem harsh, it’s merely an indication of how difficult it is to a) settle into a new team that you joined halfway through the season (hello, Dusan Vlahovic) and b) do this while missing roughly a month of action due to injury.
I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to give a higher rating to Zakaria given that he barely got a consistent run of games — he only completed two full consecutive games on one occasion for the Bianconeri, playing 90 minutes against Sassuolo and Venezia in the league — and didn’t always play in his preferred position because Allegri was trying to figure out where he best fit in Juve’s midfield.
It also didn’t help that when he was fit, two of Juve’s most important midfielders, Manuel Locatelli and Weston McKennie, suffered from long-term injuries.
But in the few appearances that Big Zak (yes, I came up with that) had for Juventus, he showed glimpses that indicated that he could be a vital piece of the team’s midfield that is desperately trying to get back to the level it was at during the heyday of the MVPP era. He’s a tireless runner, strong tackler, and smart defensively. And like McKennie, he isn’t afraid to join the attack from time to time.
So while his rating is low, his future is most certainly bright. I’m confident that with a good pre-season, Zakaria will have a dominant 2022-23 season and justify the hype around his signing.
Adrien Rabiot — 6
Adrien Rabiot had 45 appearances for Juventus this past season. That’s far and away the most by any Juventus midfielder. Is that a symptom or a cause of Juventus authoring their worst season in 10 years?
It is your correspondent’s opinion that Rabiot is a bit unfairly maligned by the Juventus faithful. Is he the world-class midfielder that some of us hoped he could become when he was signed on a free transfer three seasons ago? No, but he is nowhere near as bad as some of the general opinion has made him out to look.
At his best, Rabiot is a legitimately good player with the skills, work rate and pace to be a significantly above average box-to-box midfielder. It’s unfortunate, however, that we have seen so little of him doing just that. He never fit in Maurizio Sarri’s scheme and Andrea Pirlo tried and failed to make him work in a double pivot - with Rodrigo Bentancur of all people - just enough to cost il Maestro his job at the end of last season.
It’s no surprise he authored his most consistent — and probably best — season as a Juventus player once Max Allegri played him mostly as the box-to-box midfielder he has the natural skillset to be.
(We shall not discuss the weird games he was played on the left wing, for everyone’s sake.)
Rabiot is not a perfect player, he made some major boneheaded moves especially defensively and his on the field demeanor is usually pretty, shall we say, nonchalant. But in a season in which a choice few players were dependable to be on the team sheet week-in and week-out, I believe Rabiot was a good player overall to have around.
If he earned €3 or €4 million less and was a rotational starter rather than the ironman he had to be, nobody would be in a rush to see him off the club.
— Sergio Romero
Arthur Melo — 4.5
One of the takes I’m most proud of this year is my bullishness on Juventus not getting any sort of punishment into their book cooking methods.
(That all happened this year, feels like it was ages ago.)
Because, who’s to say what’s a player worth? Look at the list of the highest transfers ever, and could you reasonably say that those are — without any argument — the best players alive? Jack Grealish is there! That means nothing!
Once you can convincingly prove that transfer fees are not directly correlated to the level of performance or talent a player has, how were you going to prove any sort of ill intent in court? If Manchester City decides they want to pay €110 million for freaking Jack Grealish, then that’s what he is worth, even if nothing about the player’s performance or talent warrants a payment that exceeds the annual GDP of Tuvalu.
(A fun thing I enjoyed doing while playing FIFA career mode was to take a big-time European club and throw stupid amounts of cash at my beloved Puebla FC in Liga MX for like their backup keeper. They’d open the negotiations with a €100,000 valuation and I’d counter with €47.5 million. After a few of these transfers they’d suddenly have a star-studded team and continuously boss the Mexican league. The amount of free time I had in high school and college was preposterous.)
Anyway, here's your reminder that Juventus technically valued Arthur at €76 million, a player that has been mostly injured, useless or both during pretty much his entire stint as a Bianconero.
I have a hard time thinking of one single moment this season in which Arthur elicited any response from me other than indifference, and once he is — hopefully — transferred away from the club I will struggle even more to think of any one single great moment during his two year stint at the club. That’s a fun exercise for you all, really think about any one thing that Arthur did that you will remember.
Even perennial punching bags like Rabiot, Aaron Ramsey and even the dearly departed Rodrigo Bentancur at least had moments, at least had flashes here or there. Ramsey had that one really good game early in the Pirlo era! He has that GIF of him saying “Mama Mia!” and he badmouthed the club! He hilariously missed a PK that cost his team the Europa League final. You will remember the Aaron Ramsey era, even if it was mostly bad. You will not remember Arthur’s Juve career and that is probably the biggest indictment possible of his time in Turin.
— Sergio Romero
Fabio Miretti — 6
I usually have a five-appearance minimum for player ratings.
Fortunately, Fabio Miretti appeared in a total of six games, so I get to drool over him in this article!
Yes, two of those six were sub appearances that totaled four minutes of game time. But when the late-season injury crisis proved so severe that not even Max Allegri could justify playing people out of position to avoid playing a young player, the 18-year-old Miretti — one of the most-hyped players the youth system has produced since Claudio Marchisio — finally got his chance with a start against Venezia.
He rocked it. He completed 94.6 percent of his passes that day, registering two key passes, completing four of five crosses, and coming a whisker away from scoring a goal at the end of the first half. But beyond the numbers was the way he looked as he went about his business. Unlike some other players who play roughly the same role in midfield (coughArthurcough), Miretti received the ball and immediately looked to push it upfield. It’s the exact kind of impetus in the midfield that the team hasn’t often had the last few years, and it was incredibly refreshing to see, especially from someone so young.
Impressed in a way he rarely is with a youth product, Allegri proceeded to start him in the last three games of the year. He produced three key passes against Genoa and looked excellent against Lazio as well while teaming up with Locatelli in a double pivot. His final performance against Fiorentina fell flat, but so did everything in that game. The sample size was small, but it justified a lot of they hype that had been surrounding Miretti at the youth level. It also seemed to convince the notoriously hard-to-please Allegri, who is reportedly pushing to give Miretti a full promotion to the first team next year.
Given the turnover expected (hoped for?) in the midfield this year, Miretti could have a chance to truly shine next season. If he’s as good as he was in this four-game cameo at the end of the season, Juventus could have a real gem on its hands for years to come.
— Sam Lopresti
Rodrigo Bentancur — 5
Bentancur is a case of a change of scenery doing a whole bunch of good because the place he was playing at before his move to Tottenham in late January was not very enjoyable.
Seriously, you should hear how my Spurs friends talk about him now. It’s a lot like how many folks thought of him when he was starting to have a breakout season under Maurizio Sarri.
The problem was that ever since that season under Sarri, Bentancur’s progress just completely stalled out. The progress he made turned into a quick and surprising regression. And for Bentancur, even though he was still being played regularly, the mistakes he made were more frequent and becoming a case of costing Juventus points.
Numbers-wise, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between what Bentancur did against Serie A opposition and what he did after moving to the Premier League. And when it comes to his final months with Juventus, we might get a little tease of him maybe turning things around before he ultimately went back to what his form had been since September of 2020. The only major difference is that when he moved to Spurs, he was more involved, he recorded more assists as a result and he clearly was playing with a ton more confidence than he had toward the end of his run at Juventus.
Having watched a few Spurs games in March and April, it’s good to see Bentancur start to play like the player I know he can be again. I always want the best for my now-former large adult son, and a lot like Dejan Kulusevski, the change of clubs in January was the proverbial rebirth that Bentancur needed to get his career back on track.
— Danny Penza
Aaron Ramsey — s/v
The dude played more minutes for the Wales national team than he did for Juventus this past season. Do you really think that we need to break down what kind of season he had? Of course not, mostly because he didn’t have much of a season for Juventus at all.
He has been a disaster of a signing and, as things look right now, appears to be heading toward having his contract terminated this summer. For all parties involved, that’s the best option available and something that Juventus needs to do to bring in a new, likely better and most certainly healthier option than Ramsey has been the last three years.
Let’s face it, for how tough it was to get him to go out on loan in January, it’s going to be even tougher for another club to actually pay something for Ramsey after the three seasons he’s had with Juventus. These days, he’s more of a name than somebody getting attention for how he has played. He’d actually have to play for something like that to actually happen.
— Danny Penza