For years now, when you looked at Juventus’ roster, one unit in particular stuck out as a glaring weakness.
No, I’m not talking about the midfield. For as much as the engine room has never been fully restocked since the breakup of the MVPP days, a bigger black hole has been on the flanks.
Fullbacks — and, when the formation has called for it, wingbacks — have been a concern on this team for a long time now. Once was a time when Stephan Lichtsteiner and Alex Sandro were top-of-the-line players on their respective sides, but for the last few years the flank positions have become lean to the point of absurdity.
Many times it hasn’t even been a question of quality but quantity. Former sporting chief Fabio Paratici was particularly guilty of this, seemingly of the belief that one needn’t have any fullbacks at all. Indeed, the man went into the 2019-20 season with only three natural fullbacks on the team, bolstered only by an on-the-fly conversion of Juan Cuadrado into a right-back. Year after year purchases were made in other areas of the team while the flanks became more and more of a problem.
Whether playing as straight fullbacks in a four-man back line or wing-backs with a back three, the flank defenders have been underpowered and undermanned for years. But there are signs that that might finally be starting to change.
There are some interesting options for the wing-back spots of Massimiliano Allegri’s 3-5-2. Both sides offer interesting options that Allegri can deploy situationally to subtly change the way the team plays if they need to switch up tactics.
On the right, Allergi has suddenly seen the depth chart bolstered by the biggest surprise of the year. Weston McKennie — who is only on the team because Leeds United got relegated last year, voiding the buy clause in his loan — has suddenly gone from surplus to requirements to the starter at a position we didn’t think he played. After backing up Timothy Weah the first two games, he started against Empoli and was meh. He got another start after the international break and floored everyone with a fantastic performance.
McKennie has since taken over the starting spot, relying on effort and guile to put himself in the right opportunities to succeed. That’s relegated Weah, the expected starter in preseason, to the bench, but he brings a threat of his own, mainly in his absurd speed. Weah has, frankly, been underutilized the last few matches, but his ability to blow by an opponent is something that the team has sorely lacked the last 18 months or so as Cuadrado began to age, and it leaves the team with options they didn’t know they had in the position. How Mattia De Sciglio factors in after he’s done rehabbing his knee is anyone’s guess, but the revelation of McKennie has suddenly made a paper-thin position into a relative strength.
The left side has even more possibilities. With Filip Kostic, Andrea Cambiaso, and Samuel Iling-Junior all vying for playing time, there hasn’t generally been enough to go around.
All three of the left-sided players have slightly different games. Kostic is all about running and crossing. Cambiaso is a more well-rounded offensive player, often interchanging with those around him and cutting a little further inside. Iling is perhaps the most creative player on the team not named Federico Chiesa, and lends both his pace and his technique to a work rate that has also seen him play come key moments in defense.
The thing about this side is how different they all are — specifically Kostic to the other two. When reports came late in the transfer window about Kostic being a potential financial casualty, it wasn’t particularly bothersome because of the other two. Kostic is basically the Zoolander of modern football: he has one move, and that’s a cross. That’s made him easier to neutralize at times. Cambiaso and Iling are fare less predictable going forward, which by corollary made the team’s attack as a whole less so. Kostic is still a useful player, but the other don’t suffer from being one-trick ponies, and simply make the team more dangerous.
Collectively, those five players have combined for three assists and 18 key passes over the team’s first seven games. They’ve also played big roles in the team defense effort that’s joint fourth-best in the league. And they can only get better: only Kostic is older than 25. Iling, who could have the highest ceiling of all of them, only recently turned 20.
Juventus has been ignoring their flank defense for far too long. But all of a sudden, we’ve seen a group of players in those positions start to look quite good. They’ve sort of snuck up on us — all of them were acquired for relatively low transfer fees or came through the youth system — but it’s a welcome development. If they continue to develop and hit their ceilings, that part of the roster could become a strength for the first time in a long time.