Upon his maiden arrival in Turin, Massimiliano Allegri had the luxury of utilising the superstar-laden midfield triumvirate of Paul Pogba, Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo with Arturo Vidal in support.
Such virtuosity in the middle of the park thrust the Bianconeri to the 2015 Champions League final, where they succumbed to Barcelona’s ‘MSN’.
Two years later, Juventus once again reached the epilogue of Europe’s showpiece club competition. But, on this occasion, they were buoyed by the more functional trio of Miralem Pjanic, Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi. Less glamorous than the 2015 iteration, but impressively balanced and it was an engine room Allegri adored.
While a combination of masterful and, later on, functional midfield play proved crucial in Juventus’ calcio domination and close conquering of the continent, there’s no denying this area of the pitch has been a major problem for the Bianconeri since Allegri departed in 2019.
Sarri & Pirlo struggle
Allegri’s successor, Maurizio Sarri, attempted to instil his venerated ideals onto the Bianconeri in a 4-3-3 possession-based system. However, he was forced to manage a declining Pjanic, an injury-prone Khedira and a Matuidi who had eyes for the US dollar. Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot proved uninfluential free agent signings. Although, Rodrigo Bentancur was a bright spark after Sarri moved him to the base of midfield.
The following summer, with Sarri now out the door having been replaced by Andrea Pirlo, the club sought to solve their midfield woes. They drafted in the vibrant Weston McKennie from Schalke and exchanged Pjanic for Barcelona metronome Arthur Melo.
However, their midfield incompetence perpetuated under Il Maestro, whose decision to persistently use Bentancur as a regista proved detrimental. McKennie was a shining light but he was often deployed from a hybrid function between the lines, while Arthur offered glimpses but lacked consistency.
Pirlo’s sub-par midfield played a crucial role in Juve’s disappointing fourth-place Serie A finish that cost him his job.
Allegri returns to clear up the mess
In an embarrassing admittance of erroneous decision-making, Juventus returned Allegri to the helm to clean up the mess.
The midfield hadn’t changed from Pirlo’s shoddy group. So, in pre-season, the tinkering pragmatist got experimental. A 4-3-3 was adopted, Ramsey was used as a regista and Federico Bernardeschi occasionally functioned as a mezzala.
The 4-3-3 was expected to be Juve’s default system to start the 2021/22 season. But, by the time Manuel Locatelli has eventually joined the club following a summer-long transfer saga ahead of Juve’s Serie A opener in Udine, Allegri had shifted to a 4-4-2.
Barring the shock Empoli defeat that saw Allegri try and fail to match the opposition’s diamond midfield, the 4-4-2 has been the favoured configuration. While the structure shifts in possession, it’s distinct out of possession.
Following Locatelli’s first Serie A start for the club against Napoli on Matchday 3, the Italian has often partnered Bentancur in the pivot. The duo has started together in four of the six games since that defeat.
It’s a small sample size, but the early signs suggest that this is not only Juventus’ best midfield partnership, but it’s a pretty good pairing overall. Balance has been the key. Locatelli, while a complete midfielder, is adept at sitting deeper in a metronomic role; orchestrating Juve’s build-up and covering space from a deeper position. Bentancur, on the other hand, lacks the technical security to be a member of the build-up and is more suited to occupying a more advanced position where he can create positional superiorities between the lines.
This midfield dynamic somewhat resembles Chelsea’s under Antonio Conte during their 2016/17 title-winning campaign. Locatelli’s playing the holding Nemanja Matic role that allows Bentancur, the N’Golo Kante in this instance, to roam and destroy; hassling and pressing opponents higher upfield, in essence.
This dynamic is depicted by the statistics (all provided by FBRef). Bentancur ranks fourth-highest in the Juventus squad with18.8 pressures per 90 minutes this season, while his combined 5.12 tackles and interceptions per 90 rank the highest. The Uruguayan’s an absolute pest out of possession.
Locatelli, too, has shown his mettle defensively, but he’s in the side to circulate and control. His 198 completed passes this season is the highest among Juve’s midfielders and his 23 passes into the final third rank only behind Danilo’s 24. The Italian will be looking to improve upon his fairly average 82.8% pass completion, a figure that matches Bentancur. Although, Locatelli has attempted 88 more passes than his midfield counterpart.
What issues remain?
Locatelli and Bentancur have certainly established a competent relationship, but it’s far from perfect. Juve’s build-up, for example, hasn’t been transformed by the technical security Locatelli provides and remains a problem.
I think this is a coaching issue, too, though. Under Allegri, Juve’s build-up structure is fairly basic and there’s little scope for fluidity. Last season, Juve’s work when playing out from the back was often aided by Danilo inverting to create an additional central presence. This season, the Bianconeri stick to a rigid 3/4-1 configuration with Locatelli the sole presence in central areas. They struggle to create overloads in the first phase, and the former Sassuolo star can be easy to mark. In the recent victories over Torino and Chelsea, Ivan Juric and Thomas Tuchel both successfully nullified Locatelli from influencing Juve’s build-up by deploying a man-marker.
Allegri, it seems, is happy for Leonardo Bonucci to hit precise, direct balls in the front men as the primary route of ball progression. Such an approach, though, is unsustainable due to its difficulty to execute consistently.
So, while Juventus’ midfield remains a work in progress under the returning Allegri, the Manuel Locatelli/Rodrigo Bentancur pivot has proved a stabilising combination.
The Bianconeri’s alleged pursuit of Monaco starlet Aurélien Tchouaméni suggests the club believe there’s still another level to climb, while Arthur Melo’s return could alter the dynamics should he impress the manager.