In two games, Juventus have shown an astonishingly wide spectrum of capabilities: against Udinese, a half so sizzling to start the season you wanted to skip out of your seat and dance; against Bologna, a half so deeply deplorable you desired nothing besides a dark and gloomy dungeon.
Reason to party, reason to panic. The latter, I’m afraid, has a familiar source.
The goal the Old Lady conceded in her second Serie A bout was emblematic of troubles that have lingered for years. Although in this instance the buck undisputedly stopped with Alex Sandro, whose hapless defending on the Lewis Ferguson strike was as comical as it was costly, the move started thanks to a passive midfield of bystanders.
A new season, an old truth: the Juventus midfield is not good enough. To state the fact is dismaying enough; to ruminate on the lack of viable solutions is downright depressing.
What path forward?
Apparently, Adrien Rabiot is the only consistently decent midfielder on this team. Even on something of an off day — that’s almost as descriptive as I can be; Rabiot just seemed a bit off, a bit distracted — he was miles better than his counterparts Manuel Locatelli and Nicolo Fagioli.
Before the season, despite the lack of a meaningful addition to the beleaguered unit, the hope was that the youngsters would evolve, Pogba would return in some capacity, Locatelli’s familiarity with the system and formation would mean significant improvement, and Rabiot would deliver the same contribution as last year. One feels that two, and probably three, of these things need to happen for a serious Scudetto push. With only one true at a time — and it’s just that: I imagine that the number true will fluctuate week to week — the Champions League goal won’t be easy, either.
Reading too much into two games is not wise, but the midfield performance against Bologna was not a one-game blip on the radar: it’s something we’ve seen now for years. There is yet time to hope that the unit can be salvageable enough for a top-four finish — after all, they achieved as much last year without the points deduction — but it’s certainly disheartening at this early juncture to see a display like that after a week to prepare.
Paul Pogba is not going to be a savior
The optimists here, and the optimist in me, have pointed to the return of Paul Pogba as a possible “solution,” of sorts, to this midfield, but after the minutes he logged against Bologna I am more convinced than ever that the best we can hope for from him is the occasional moment of brilliance — which is exactly what we got — rather than the consistently stellar player he was during his first stint in Turin.
When Pogba hockey-assisted the tying goal from Dušan Vlahović, there were five Bologna players within 10 yards of the Frenchman; he somehow maintained possession in the fray before spitting out the perfectly weighted and located ball to Samuel Iling-Junior darting up the left flank. The Englishman lobbed an exquisite cross to the Serbian, and suddenly the game was tied. That’s the kind of impact Juventus really need.
The rest of the time, however, was not so glamorous. As Danny pointed out, the fancy tricks were neither apropos nor working. The bigger issue to me, as I saw it, was that Pogba seemed at least two steps slower than his prime; that’s an issue. He’s not only 30 years old, he’s a 30-year-old whose legs, knees, and ankles have a medical record lengthier than a Dickens novel.
I hope Pogba proves me wrong; I like him, and he’s terribly talented. But to hope that he can completely recapture the form and fitness to be what this midfield lacks feels far-fetched.
Despite the titillating first half to open the season against a severely depleted Udinese side, this is a midfield that is apparently still overrun by mid-table domestic sides. It’s certainly too early for the panic button — Fagioli is returning from injury, Pogba is still working his way back — but if the midfield is as bad as their display against Bologna, indeed if the midfield has not improved from a season ago, then a top-four finish will be immensely difficult to achieve.