A month ago, I made some way-too-early predictions about how Massimiliano Allegri would line the team up in the coming season.
Things are a little clearer a few weeks on. Angel Di Maria and Paul Pogba are officially Juventus players, and Gleison Bremer was signed just before the squad left for their United States tour. That said, there are still unknowns — as there always will be until the transfer window closes. Amongst the biggest of those unknowns — a thing I spent a little time discussing in that last piece — is how the midfield will be fleshed out.
Under the ideal circumstances, the midfield has two absolute locks: Pogba and Manuel Locatelli. The unit will be built around them. Pogba will be asked to do how Pogba do, creating chances and goals out of his place in midfield. Locatelli is likely to be asked to play the regista role. That will likely shackle him a little, as he’s better when positioned a little more forward to use his passing range to create. That said, he’s capable of doing the job.
Assuming (as most people are) that Juventus will go with a 4-3-3 setup, that leaves one job open. The question that will be on everyone’s mind as preseason friendlies get underway: Who takes the spot?
Realistically, there are three options: Adrien Rabiot, Weston McKennie, and Denis Zakaria. There are other midfielders on the roster, but they’re unlikely to be serious competitors, at least in the short term. Aaron Ramsey and Arthur are not in anyone’s plans by this point. The team is hoping to terminate Ramsey’s contract (with extreme prejudice) and are equally hopeful that someone will want to take Arthur off their hands.
As for the young trio of Nicolo Rovella, Nicola Fagioli, and Fabio Miretti, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see them claim a starting spot at this point. All are highly talented, but Allegri’s pathological reluctance to let young players into the lineup in anything other than extraordinary circumstances will likely throw a roadblock into the path of whichever of them ends up staying at Juve as opposed to going out on loan. If one of them manages to carve out a high-minutes role, it will take time.
That leaves the main three candidates, all of whom have their strengths and weaknesses.
Rabiot is probably the most divisive of the three. Signed three seasons ago, he has yet to justify the wage that came along with his Bosman. If he were making €4 million or even €5 million, it probably wouldn’t be a big deal, but as one of the team’s highest earners, Rabiot hasn’t shown enough. He didn’t score a single goal last season, and added in just two assists. He was solid enough defensively, racking up two tackles a game over 39 appearances (34 starts) between Serie A and the Champions League. Again, that would be good enough for a lower wage, but not for what he’s making now.
That being said, availability is a quality in and of itself, and Rabiot played more minutes than all but three outfield players last season. Two of the three, Matthijs de Ligt and Alvaro Morata, are not currently on the roster. Deserved or not, Rabiot played a ton of minutes last year and clearly had the trust of Allegri. He’s also been playing with Pogba for the French national team, so there’s familiarity and chemistry there. It’s worth wondering whether Rabiot would end up playing in his best spot, as Pogba has often played in the left-sided role that Rabiot has held down since he arrived. But if Rabiot were serve as a defensive stopper with enough ball skill to be a danger going forward at the right moment, a combination like that could work.
Of course, if we’re talking defensive stoppers, Zakaria is about as good as you can get. He had two seasons at Borussia Mochengladbach where he averaged more than two tackles and 1.5 interceptions per match. The biggest reason he was a relative disappointment after he arrived at Juve on deadline day in January is that Allegri — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — didn’t play him in the position that best accentuated his strengths. Zakaria was immediately installed into the starting XI as a box-to-box midfielder, where his defensive abilities were largely wasted.
If Zakaria were the play, the best way to do it would be to install him in front of the defense, forsaking a traditional regista in favor of allowing the Swiss to simply destroy people and then get the ball forward to Pogba and Locatelli, who would operate as a pair of creative mezz’ale further up the field. This is unlikely to occur, as Allegri very much prefers having a traditional regista in his setup, but it’s the best way to utilize Zakaria’s talents.
Then we come to McKennie.
Of the three men most likely to fill this role, McKennie might be the best fit with Pogba and Locatelli in a 4-3-3. Of the three, his skill set is very much the best compliment for the two. In particular, his ability to run the channel could be a decisive aspect to this midfield. The US international has a good positional sense in the box, and there aren’t many midfielders in the league who can match him as an aerial threat. His movement in the box would be a much-needed boost to the attack. He would be a potent target for crosses, and his presence attacking the channel would be a boon to Dusan Vlahovic, who can certainly use an extra body in the box to keep defenders off him.
McKennie’s offensive output was down from last year, although his participation in buildup play actually did tick up ever so slightly, to the point where he was averaging a key pass per game in the league and a tad more in the Champions League. He had just begun to string together some good performances and start showing the player we saw in the first half of 2020-21 when a tackle from Pervis Estupinian broke two bones in his foot in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16.
Robbed of a potential strong finish to the season, McKennie is entering a make-or-break year for his future at Juve. If he breaks out, he could be a key piece of the team for a long time to come. If he continues to be inconsistent, he could well be dangled on the transfer market next yer in order to make room for one of the Rovella/Fagioli/Miretti triad or another signing altogether. He’s the best fit to compliment Pogba and Locatelli in the midfield, and here’s hoping he’s the one who gets the first shot at the job when games start on Friday.
Who should be Juve’s third midfielder this season?
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