It is far, far too early for this.
The transfer window has barely been open. None of the free agents Juventus have reported deals with have officially signed their contracts. We don’t know whether or not Federico Cherubini and Maurizio Arrivabene have anything up their sleeves in the next two months that could all radically change the thought exercise I’m about to undertake.
That being said, we’re gonna wind up and throw some spaghetti at the wall and see if it stays there by the time Juve kicks off the season on Ferragosto. How do we think Massimiliano Allegri is going to deploy his team in the 2022-23 season?
For the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to assume that the two free agent signings that are considered by most reporting to be formalities, Paul Pogba and Angel Di Maria, to be on the roster. We’re also not going to get much into goalkeepers, because we all know the pecking order there. The most recent news about Matthijs de Ligt makes this a little more difficult, but we’re gonna do it anyway, mainly because there just isn’t much else to do these days but guess until we get a bigger idea of what else Juventus has in store for us with the transfer market.
So, let’s see what we can come up with base on what we know right now.
If there’s one thing that there’s a general consensus about when it comes to how Juventus is going to play next year, it’s that they’ll probably be playing a formation that emphasizes the wing.
That tracks for two reasons. One, Dusan Vlahovic seems to be much better in a wing-based formation than any other shape. Two, the team’s other main offensive star is Federico Chiesa, who is as pure (and as good) a winger as they come, Allegri’s misguided attempts to change him into a striker early last season notwithstanding. Chiesa’s best stretch of the season last year came when Max finally consigned that notion to the “Stupid Ideas” bin and played back out wide.
So, if we’re looking at a winger-based formation, that leaves us with a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 to go on. It goes without saying that when healthy Vlahovic is going to be the No. 9 of any formation. The question becomes how to put things together around him.
If we’re looking at a 4-3-3, then we’re currently looking at three options to flank the Serb in attack. The thing is, in a stunning display of roster building that has unfortunately become all too common at Juve these days, all three of them happen to be at their best playing on the right side. The good news is that there is some flex here. Di Maria is naturally a right-sided player but can bounce around pretty much anywhere. Chiesa has adapted to the left as well and by the time he was injured he was very much a danger on that side as well. Juan Cuadrado is the only one of the three wingers that is pretty much wedded to the right side, save for small stretches of game.
Barring another addition to the winger corps like Filip Kostic, who was the subject of a flurry of Juve rumors in early June and looks likely to leave Eintracht Frankfurt this summer, that leaves some pretty simple choices. When the season starts, we’d likely see Di Maria on the left and Cuadrado on the right, while Chiesa eases his way back into the lineup. When he’s deemed healthy enough to go full-bore, my guess is Cuadrado will be the odd man out, stepping back to a super-sub role while Di Maria and Chiesa start. My guess is Di Maria would start on the left, although their ability to swap sides on a moment’s notice is a wrinkle that Allegri would probably take advantage of and is something I would fully expect to see at points during games.
In the midfield of this formation, Pogba and Manuel Locatelli are mortal locks to start. Allegri will likely ask Locatelli to play as the regista. That’s not his best position, but he can do it, and with Pogba beside him it becomes a more interesting prospect. That leaves the question of who plays the other mezz’ala position.
As of now, there are a multitude of options for that one spot.
Should Adrien Rabiot remain in Turin, he’s definitely a candidate, but he’s best on the left side of midfield, and that’s where Pogba generally spent his time in his first stint with Juve. Denis Zakaria could also slot in, but he’s best as a CDM, despite Allegri’s insistence to play him box-to-box upon his arrival, although Allegri could also see the light and place him in front of defense and allow Locatelli to move forward, which would put two excellent passers in position to cause some trouble.. Weston McKennie is the other option, and possibly the best of them. Unlike the Swiss, he is a pure box-to-box midfielder, and his ability to run the channels and act as an auxiliary target in the air are very similar to what Sami Khedira brought to the team in the years before his body broke down. If we’re looking at fit beside Pogba and Locatelli, McKennie is probably the best one.
We also have the kids to consider. Provided at least one of Fabio Miretti, Nicolo Fagioli, and Nicolo Rovella stay on, they’ll likely take on the role Pogba had when he first came to the team in 2012 as midfield depth. Given the number of games Juve will have to play, whichever of them stays could have a chance to break out the way Pogba did — if Allegri gives them the chance to.
If we see a 4-2-3-1, the number of permutations up front start to grow and the lineup questions become a little more interesting. Di Maria can and has lined up as a trequartista in his career, but I doubt Allegri will deploy a line of Cuadrado-Di Maria-Chiesa. That would leave him short on ways to change the game up front late, and Allegri likes to have some flex in that regard. Again, the possibility of another wing signing exists, but right now we don’t know who that might be or if one is coming at all.
A more interesting wrinkle would be to place Pogba in the hole, taking full advantage of his passing prowess and long-range shooting ability. A line of Di Maria/Cuadrado-Pogba-Chiesa supporting Vlahovic would be an absolute menace up front. It could also have some major positive effects defensively. Pogba isn’t a slouch there, but a reduction in his defensive responsibilities would probably help his overall game, and freeing up a spot in the double pivot for one of McKennie or Zakaria, either of whom would be a defensive force next to Locatelli and keep him clean as he orchestrates things. If Allegri wanted to get really freaky, he could show a ton of faith in one of the young mids like Fagioli or Miretti. Fagioli just had a fantastic season in Serie B as an attacking midfielder, and Miretti just played as a trequartista at the U19 Euros, emulating his footballing idol, Kevin De Bruyne. This is far from likely, as Allegri often bends over backwards to avoid playing young players he considers inexperienced (see last year’s absurd formation involving Juan Cuadrado in central midfield last May), but it would be a bold gamble with potentially huge rewards.
This formation tends to bring out the best in Locatelli, who grew into the coveted player he was last year in Roberto De Zerbi’s version of it. Playing Pogba in the hole may allow him to unlock his World Cup 2018, first-Juve-stint self. Of course, projecting this formation is also far more dependent on who might come in the rest of the transfer window, as the arrival of a Giacomo Raspadori or a Nicolo Zaniolo type would significantly alter the calculus.
Chaos at the back
Unfortunately, the prospects of de Ligt playing the first game of the year in a Juventus shirt are looking bleaker by the day. Losing him will be a severe blow to a team that was already going to be in transition at the center back position.
If de Ligt does indeed leave, that leaves only three center backs on the roster: Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele Rugani, and Federico Gatti. Bonucci is the old hand of the group, but has been inconsistent ever since his year in the wilderness at AC Milan. If you want to be a pessimist, you wonder how effective Bonucci can be without Giorgio Chiellini by his side. If you want to be an optimist, you remind yourself that the last time he was forced to step up in his old partner’s absence, after Chiellini tore his ACL in 2019, he did so quite admirably and had easily his best season since his return.
Rugani is what he is at this point. He played well when forced into the lineup due to injuries last year, but he’s no more than a reliable backup at this point. Gatti is a complete wild card. He was excellent in Serie B with Frosinone and then held a relatively full-strength England attack well at bay in the UEFA Nations League in his international debut, but how will he respond to the rigors of a full top-flight season? No one will know until he takes the field.
How de Ligt is (potentially) replaced will obviously have huge bearing on how this part of the lineup looks come opening day. Of the major names among the rumors, the biggest ones are Kalidou Koulibaly, Nikola Milenkovic, and Gleison Bremer. Bremer is likely headed to Inter Milan at this point to replace Milan Skriniar, and I find it unlikely that Koulibaly will move to Juventus after being so thoroughly connected with Napoli for so long — not after he saw what happened between the Napoli fans and Gonzalo Higuain. Milenkovic is a strong possibility given his contract situation, but will Fiorentina sell us yet another high-level player after back-to-back years being forced into doing so by Chiesa and Vlahovic?
The only certainty in the center of defense right now is Bonucci.
As for the flanks, one side is simple and the other complicated. Under ideal conditions, Danilo is the unquestioned starter at right back after yet another impressive campaign. As for his opposite number, that gets a little murkier. Alex Sandro is still on the roster, and as of right now all indications say he may well be staying to see out the last year of his contract. Luca Pellegrini, despite some good performances this year, is apparently on the chopping block. Young, exciting fullbacks like Owen Wijndal have also been linked to the club, and the closest the team has come to making a non-Bosman signing this year has been Genoa wing-back Andrea Cambiaso, who could challenge the Brazilian for time, but so far the necessary upgrade at that position seems rather far off.
Based on how things are right now, the best guess we can make about the starting defense is Danilo and Sandro at the fullback spots, while Bonucci will almost certainly be replaced by whatever center back the team manages to sign to replace de Ligt.