The midfield has been a problem for this club for a long time. The unit has basically been on the decline ever since the twin departures of Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo broke up the MVPP midfield in 2015.
The unit was never properly shored up after that. Sami Khedira was quite effective for a few years before his body betrayed him. Miralem Pjanic gamely played a regista position that wasn’t natural to him but wore down towards the end of his Juve career. Rodrigo Bentancur never delivered on his promise, Emre Can was always an awkward fit, Aaron Ramsey was Aaron Ramsey, the list goes on and on and on.
But this year brought a glimmer of something unfamiliar to the Juventus midfield: hope. Some young pieces coming through the youth sector established themselves at the Serie A level. Veterans made strides forward. The mix of players suddenly started to look better.
There’s still a ways to go before this unit can reach the rarified air that the MVPP occupied. That group was one of the two or three best midfields in the sport. But to have even a competent midfield would bring this team a long way, and this season showed that the building blocks for that and even a little more are indeed present.
Some guidelines: Only players with five or more appearances for Juventus will get their own review. Players that hit that mark and then departed in the winter are included. Players are listed in alphabetical order.
Enzo Barrenechea — 5
Enzo Barrenechea was with the NextGen squad and serving as the occasional senior team call-up when midfielders were required when Massimiliano Allegri faced a selection crisis in the engine room on the last day of February.
Hours before the Derby della Mole, it came out that Barrenechea — who up to that point had only seen a two-minute cameo in Juve’s final Champions League group game against Paris Saint-Germain — would be starting the game in the regista position.
The 22-year-old acquitted himself well that night, and earned two more starts in the league before the season was over. Neither was as good as his debut, but he showed enough potential to start wondering what he might do in a full top-flight season on loan. Defensively, he was quite impressive, averaging 2.7 tackles per game despite only one of his five appearances lasting longer than 45 minutes.
He definitely needs to work on his passing, which is why a loan would probably work for him in terms of development. If he does do that, he could prove himself a useful piece to the midfield puzzle in the near future. I wouldn’t necessarily lay down bets that he’ll go bananas and turn into a superstar, but teams need role players too, and that’s what Barrenecha looks like he can turn into.
Nicolo Fagioli — 7
It took a while for Nicolò Fagioli to get any sort of playing time. Indeed, there was a point in September and October where he sat as an unused substitute for more than a month. When he finally started seeing the field again, it was because so many other midfielders were injured that Allegri didn’t have a choice but to use him.
Fagioli took that opportunity and ran with it. On as a sub in the last game of October, he scored a gorgeous goal that evoked the spirit of Alessandro Del Piero to beat Lecce late. A few days later was given his first start in the Champions League group stage finale against PSG and shone, completing 96.7 percent of his passes and notching three key passes in a losing effort. He capped off a banner week by scoring his second goal in as many league games, scoring a late capper to seal a 2-0 win over Inter.
He was an almost automatic starter from then on. He had a rough patch here and there, but they never lasted for more than a few games, and his effect on the midfield even when he wasn’t on his best form remained. Having a second ball-player in the middle of the park helped Manuel Locatelli do better work at the regista position, and it improved the service that the forwards could get, although given the inadequacies of how Allegri coached the team that could only go so far.
Overall, Fagioli played in 37 games in all competitions, scoring three goals and making four assists. He wasn’t a volume passer, but the ones he made he made count. He excelled at sliding through balls in to the forwards and had a favorite spot just above the right channel where he could whip in some really good crosses. Of his three goals, two were absolute pearls, and at least one of them will probably make this year’s top 15 goals list when it comes out in the near future. The only true negative of his season was how it ended, when he broke his collarbone in the second leg of the Europa League semifinal against Sevilla.
Fagioli’s presence in the midfield, and the team, better. The more the season went on, the more he started inviting comparisons of Claudio Marchisio. His excellent play didn’t go unnoticed, either, as he was named Serie A’s Under-23 player of the year at the end of the season. If he continues to build on his first full season with the first team, he can be a foundational piece of the club for the next decade.
Manuel Locatelli — 6
After an up-and-down first season in black and white, Manuel Locatelli took a much-needed step this season. Nothing he did was particularly flashy, but there was still a major improvement in how he handled the regista position this year.
Make no mistake, he’s still not a natural regista, and in some of the later matches of the year when he was able to move closer to the goal he started showing why he was so coveted last summer. But Locatelli was able to take his own skill set and adapt it to the deep-lying role he was forced to play in a way that was pretty successful.
His biggest impact was defensive. He averaged nearly two tackles a game between the league and Europe. In the early rounds of the Europa League knockouts in particular he was an absolute beast, dealing out multiple inch-perfect slide tackles per match against the likes of Freiburg and Sporting.
He was less exciting with the ball, often being left behind when Juve tried to break out on the counter. He doled out a pair of assists on the year, but as mentioned previously the last few games of the year saw him able to push forward a little, and he showed that he can still be quite dangerous indeed when he’s closer to the opponent’s box.
How Locatelli will look next year will depend a lot on how the midfield is set up. If he is still playing at the base of midfield, we’ll likely see more of what we saw this year. If, say, Nicolo Rovella were to stay with the team and be given that position, we could see the 25-year-old unlock a lot of potential further up the field. It all depends on who stays, who goes, and how Allegri decides to use everyone.
Weston McKennie — 4.5
One of the players who perhaps suffered the most from Allegri’s constant tinkering, Weston McKennie took another step back in Juventus colors this year. It also didn’t help that he was often teamed up with Adrien Rabiot when he did start, because the two are too similar to each other, often forcing one or the other—and Locatelli behind them—to take on tasks that weren’t well-suited to their abilities.
He scored three goals in all competitions over the first half of the season, one in Serie A and two in the Champions League, both in losing efforts to PSG and Benfica. He also added a single assist, but simply wasn’t performing at the level he was in the early parts of the 2020-21 season under Andrea Pirlo, when he looked like a real under-the-radar find. Fagioli’s breakout — made possible in part due to an injury to McKennie in late October — plus the expected return of Paul Pogba from injury (lol) made him expendable, and he was sent to Leeds United on loan with an option to buy that would’ve made Juve a tidy profit off his relatively low transfer fee from Schalke.
Alas, Leeds ended up in complete upheaval after his arrival and were relegated on the last day of the Premier League season, so Big Mac will return to Turin this summer. He will almost certainly be transfer-listed again this summer, and it remains to be seen if Juve can get him off the books in more productive ways than some other recent midfielders that were surplus to requirements.
Fabio Miretti — 5
A lot of people — myself included — were expecting a true breakout from Fabio Miretti this year after he shone in the last few matches of the 2021-22 season.
Unfortunately, that cameo didn’t translate into a full season as well as it could have. Miretti showed flashes, but ultimately never seized a position with both hands the way Fagioli eventually did.
When he did look good, it was quite good. Miretti shields the ball well and does well dribbling through traffic. He can put the ball on a plate when he hits it right, as evidenced by his frequently taking corner kicks while on the field. He averaged over a key pass per 90 minutes this year. The next step is to consistently take that passing ability and make it more than just an occasional thing and to be a constant threat to set up multiple goals a game. His finishing also needs a lot of work. He’s still looking for his first goal in the senior team — although he did have one called back for a toenail offside call and had a few more close calls denied by some sensational saves. Still, more often than not he’s the kind of guy you can currently lay off of as a defender and dare him to shoot from range.
The pieces are all there for Miretti to be an excellent midfielder. They just need to come together with more time and experience. I’m normally a proponent of letting a young player do that in-house, but in Miretti’s case I think a loan in the vein of Fagioli’s last year — albeit in Serie A rather than Serie B — could be just the thing to help him pull all of his talent into a cohesive unit. If he does that, Juve’s midfield will have a high-quality home-grown midfield core that can serve them for years.
Leandro Paredes — 3
Behold: the lowest rating I have ever given to a player in the end-of-season rankings.
The best way to encapsulate Leandro Paredes’ season is this starting statistic: Adrien Rabiot led the team in yellow cards this year, picking up nine in 2751 minutes of play. Paredes was next on the list, picking up seven in only 969 minutes.
Simply put, Paredes was a mistake. His signing is precisely the kind of habit that Juve—and calcio as a whole—needs to kick. Picked up as a nod to the God of Experience, he was acquired on a loan with an option to buy from PSG, along with a hefty €7 million net salary.
The idea, I assume, was to let him play as the team’s deep-lying playmaker, either moving Locatelli forward or to the bench while he learned the position. But the Argentine never took hold of the job. He scored only one goal all season — a free kick against Lecce in early May — and didn’t register a single assist.
By the end of February he was so out of favor that he was benched in favor of a debuting Barrenechea in the Turin Derby, then made headlines for an argument with Allegri on the training ground. While he eventually returned to the squad, his contribution remained minimal. Thankfully, Juve’s early elimination from the Champions League meant that their option to buy Paredes did not convert into an obligation, so he’ll head back to PSG this summer, presumably to look for another place to go suck.
Paul Pogba — 3
Look at that, a double record low.
Of course, Pogba’s low rating has nothing to do with on-field play. There was simply too little of that to judge him by.
No, this rating is as low as it is because of how stupid he was at the beginning of the year. When his knee injury first surfaced in the days following Juve’s first preseason game against Chivas, he was universally advised to have surgery on the joint. For most observers, the only question was what procedure he would have and how long he would be out, and whether or not his status for France’s title defense at the World Cup would be at risk.
But Pogba was somehow convinced by someone to instead follow a rehab program, flying in the face of both medical advice and the physiological fact that one cannot rehabilitate cartilage. After wasting six weeks on this idiocy only to discover that the injury had gotten worse, he finally had the surgery in September.
Setbacks pushed Pogba’s official re-debut all the way to the last day of February. He played two games and promptly hurt himself again taking a free kick in training, missing another five weeks. After he returned again he slowly started regaining his footing, showing a sign or two of the player we thought we were getting when Juventus brought him back this summer. His last-gasp assist for Federico Gatti in the first leg of the Europa League semifinal against Sevilla was huge and kept Juve in the tie — but Allegri inexplicably made the decision to give him his first start of the year four days later against Cremonese and he only lasted 24 minutes before a thigh injury ended his season.
Pogba’s season was a complete wash, a waste of €8 million. It’s entirely possible that his body is so broken down that it would’ve found some other way to do something like this, but as it stands, he has no one to blame for anything that happened this season but himself.
Adrien Rabiot — 8
I don’t think anyone saw this one coming.
After three years in which he didn’t come close to living up to his €7 million net salary—and a summer in which he was one outrageous demand from his momgent from moving to Manchester United — Adrien Rabiot was not only the teams inarguable best midfielder, but very likely its best player overall. It’s arguable that it’s one of the top seasons by a Juventus midfielder since the Streak began in 2011-12
Rabiot was the team’s second-leading scorer, potting 11 goals in all competitions. Eight game in Serie A, two in the Champions League, and one in the Europa League. He was the first Juve midfielder to score in double digits since Paul Pogba scored 10 in back-to-back years in ‘14-15 and ‘15-16. The only Juventus midfielder who has scored more since the ‘11-12 season was Arturo Vidal, who scored 15 and 18 in ‘12-13 and ‘13-14.
Once you add in five assists, an excellent 2.3 tackles per match, you start getting just how much of an all-around performer Rabiot was this year. A good number of his goal contributions came in some important spots, too. Without him, Juve would’ve been nowhere close to where they ended up being by the end of the year.
The unfortunate part is he’s now a free agent, and it’s hard to see him remaining in Turin for the rest of his prime to stay, especially without the Champions League. Add in the fact that it’s deeply questionable just how much money Juventus have to pay him, and it looks like things definitely lean toward him departing for greener pastures. There’s also the question of whether or not a contract-year fueled performance like this year’s is the harbinger of things to come or whether he will regress to the mean a little (or a lot) without that motivation.
Still, Rabiot would leave a big whole to fill on a team that’s already got some issues to address. And for our purposes today, there simply wasn’t anyone better this time around.
A handful of midfielders had a cameo in black and white this year before being sent elsewhere on loan at the end of the summer transfer window.
The most consequential of these loans — and I’ll get to my true feelings about this move later in this piece — was Nicolo Rovella, who played three games as a substitute before being farmed out to Monza. He had an excellent season with the Serie A newcomers, helping them secure an 11th-place finish.
Denis Zakaria also played a handful of games before being sent on loan. He ended up at Chelsea with an option to buy that would’ve made Juve a rather hefty profit, but instability in the manager’s office, coupled with owner Todd Boehly’s astonishing winter spending spree that resulted in a bloated squad, meant that he never had a chance to work himself into regular playing time. He only played eight times all year for the Blues, and is set to come back this summer, when he’ll undoubtedly be available for a transfer again.
Arthur’s season was a complete wash. Sent to Liverpool, also with an option to buy, he spent all but a few weeks of the season injured and made only one substitute appearance for Jurgen Klopp. He too will be coming back to Continassa this summer, but given how his career has nosedived the club may have to suck it up and terminate his contract in order to be rid of him.