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Defense & insanity: 3 players whose improvement has been critical for Juventus

Mad Max is somehow making things work, and these three players are a big reason why.

Juventus v Hellas Verona FC - Serie A TIM Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

“Insanity,” Albert Einstein said, “is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

With all due respect to Dr. Einstein, he never met Massimiliano Allegri.

Mad Max is now officially in stride, and while the beginning of the 2023-24 season offered a couple fixtures that hinted of a tactical change — not really a revolution, per se, but at least some substantive developments from a year ago — the Old Lady has more or less settled back into her heavily defensive, ultra-pragmatic approach, a similar style to a year ago in what was largely regarded as a disappointing season.

This time, however, Max is upending Einstein’s definition of insanity. With 11 out of 38 fixtures complete, Juventus are sitting second in the table. Juve are tied with Inter for fewest goals conceded (six), and while the goals scored number (17) isn’t going to thrill many folks, it’s not exactly an utterly inept number; the much-vaunted Atalanta attack, still led by Gian Piero Gasperini despite all the roster turnover to which they are accustomed, has only managed 19 goals; Milan have scored 18, and Maurizio Sarri’s Lazio have tallied — wait for it — a whopping 13.

What has changed?

Besides finally having some solidity in the managerial position after several consecutive seasons of turnover, three players have stood out to me in their improvement: Gleison Bremer, Federico Gatti, and Weston McKennie. Without the improvement of these three players, Juventus would not be where they are.

Bremer: Juve’s early MVP

First things first: I love what Sergio wrote about the Brazilian, and I agree with every word wholeheartedly. Matthijs de Ligt was fantastic for Juve; Bremer, this year, has been better than the Dutchman ever was. Last year, Bremer was good but showed growing pains; this year, he’s been almost completely lights out. If Juventus continue this ridiculous streak defensively throughout much of the campaign and finish in the top four, Bremer should not only recapture his defensive player of the year award (which he won in 2021-22 with Torino), but he should also be seriously considered for MVP of the league.

Bremer is Juventus’ best player right now. That’s the truth of the matter, and he’s only 26 years old in his second season with the club. I hope this man plays another decade in Turin.

Gatti: consistent eccentricity

The former bricklayer, like his current coach, is crazy. Gatti loves the physical game, he loves wayward forward runs, and he loves defending. I know every commentator during every Juventus game notes how incredible his journey has been, but when you consider the fact that he’s basically a regular starter now for Juventus, with the absence of Alex Sandro, it’s even more mind-boggling.

Does Gatti still have the occasional brain hiccup? Yes. I’m shocked we’ve not seen red flashed his way; that seems like something waiting to happen. But even as Allegri helps moderate the craziness out of the center back, he’s been performing consistently in a starting role on a near-weekly basis; he’s also just 25 years old, youthful for his position. Having Gatti, Bremer, and a resurgent Daniele Rugani gives Juve fans a lot of peace in thinking about a sustainable BBC replacement.

McKennie: chip on the shoulder

I can think of no more improbable story than the American midfielder transforming himself into a crucial player for this team. In the absence of Paul Pogba and Nicolo Fagioli, and with Tim Weah dealing with some minor injuries in addition to not convincing anyone he should be the outright starter on the right flank, McKennie has gone from a flop at Juventus to a flop at Leeds to a defensive bastion back at Juventus. As Sam noted in his Fiorentina recap, McKennie did not — and does not, much of the time — offer a lot moving forward, but his defensive presence and his hustle have been critical in several fixtures already. His ability to play wingback on the right or as a midfielder is extremely valuable with Allegri and the current roster.

Juventus v Hellas Verona FC - Serie A TIM Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

McKennie’s aerial presence is helpful on both sides of the ball, and we’ve seen glimpses in the past (as well as on the U.S. men’s national team) of some creative playmaking abilities, but right now this team needs him to be a force defensively, and that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s contributing defensively without a lot of flash; this is exactly the type of player you want on your team, the glue guy who’s going to show grinta and get after his duties. If the American keeps playing like this throughout the year, there may well be a place for him on the squad in the seasons to come.

I am more than aware that we’re not even 30 percent through the season. Juventus have a difficult stretch of games before the year ends with Inter, Napoli, and Roma all on tap, so, as we are all too aware, the tune of this song could be markedly different in six weeks — the table, too.

For now, though, we must acknowledge what has been a remarkable start to the season. We must not only give credit to Max Allegri for the work, but to the players as well. The results have been different, the table looks different, but the other thing that looks different is the attitude of this team. A season ago the frustration was palpable, but even in difficult games this year there has been a determined tenor to this squad. Inevitably things are going to get tough with losses on the horizon; when they do come, I hope the team can play through to the other side with the same fino alla fine spirit we’ve seen.